Detoxification is a hot topic in nutrition and has been for a while (like millennia?). 

There are extremes in this debate: those that say “the body does detox all on its own, all detox diets are scams” and those trying to sell you everything under the sun as a detox diet that will heal you of all your ailments.

I hate to break it to you but they’re both right…and wrong. Detoxification is an insanely critical process that the body does without you even thinking about it, but your detoxification organs can be supported to perform at their best.

This is going to be a three-part series, starting with the basics of detoxification and moving into how to optimize the process:

  1. How does detoxification work in the body (we’re on this part)
  2. What toxins are we exposed to and how to reduce them (a huge part of detoxification!)
  3. How to improve the detoxification process

Before we get right into it, it’s important to know that we are being exposed to toxins pretty much constantly. The next newsletter will get into the details, but toxins could come from your food, medicine, alcohol, cleaning products, cosmetics, toiletries, polluted water or air, etc. 

We’re so lucky that the body knows what to do with all this…

How does detoxification work?

the liver a primary detoxification organ
One of our main detoxification organs – the liver

Most of the organs in your body are responsible for this on some level, and your two largest organs — the skin and liver — both play a huge role. 

The skin, lungs, liver, kidneys, and digestive system are all responsible for detoxification to some degree, but each play a unique role. The liver certainly is one of the most critical, so let’s start there.

Liver

The liver is pretty amazing and is responsible for more than 500 vital functions. Your liver is like a discerning bouncer, it recognizes the good and the bad and makes decisions accordingly. Toxins, you’re not invited to the party.

The liver receives blood in two ways:

  • Oxygenated blood flows in from the hepatic artery, via the heart 
  • Nutrient-rich blood flows in from the hepatic portal vein, via the intestines

The blood brings fats, carbs, nutrients, toxins, and useless by-products to the liver and each are treated differently:

  • Carbs are broken down into sugar and then sent back out into the bloodstream to be stored for energy use. This is a process of converting glucose into glycogen for storage.
  • Nutrients which can be used in the moment are sent back out, and some of the rest are then stored in the liver for later use.
  • Toxins (and medicine) are broken down into parts that the body can use, or it will send it to the kidneys and intestines to be excreted from the body.
  • The liver can turn the toxins into bile, which can then be used to remove toxins from the body, break down fats, destroy microbes, and neutralize stomach acid. 

Sources: Hopkins medical

Kidneys

The bean organ! Similar to the liver, the kidneys work to remove toxins from the bloodstream, but instead of actually transforming toxins into something new, the kidneys act as a filter and focus on water soluble toxins (which the liver does not).

The kidneys break down unneeded proteins into urea and send that to the bladder to be excreted. 

The kidneys will also detect if there is too much or too little water in your blood and help regulate that by either sending water to the bladder or sending some back into the bloodstream. Got yellow pee? That’s because the kidneys want to keep all your water. 

The kidney also controls the concentrations of sodium, potassium and bicarbonate in the blood and regulates the rate at which the bone marrow makes new blood cells using the hormone erythropoietin.

Of course, this is just a sampling of what they can do. 

Skin

The skin is used as the first line of defense against toxins, an alerting system when toxins pass through, and also plays an important role in expelling toxins from the body. Getting sweaty?

When the liver, kidneys, and lungs are overwhelmed with toxins, the skin may take over. Do you break out (pimples, rash, etc.) after a bad week of eating and drinking? That’s your skin taking over some of the detoxification process and trying to get those toxins out. 

“Your skin is meant to convert a variety of unwanted chemicals into a water-soluble form by using a special enzyme (cytochrome P450) . If this is done properly, then the chemicals – now converted into groups of toxins – are squeezed out of the body through the skin’s sebaceous glands and, in the form of sweat, through skin pores.”

Detox a view from the inside

Digestive system

The digestive system also has its own ways of detoxifying. Ever had food poisoning? I kind of hope you haven’t, but if you had you probably know where this is going.

The digestive system helps you out by forcing you to vomit or poop out toxins that should no longer be in your body. So next time you’re vomiting, give thanks.

Lungs

The lungs! Last in this list, but certainly not least.

The lungs have their own filtration system which is there to help you filter out toxins. The lungs will take what you need from the air (oxygen) and pass that to your cells, and it sends the carbon-dioxide back out.

“If the Liver, Kidneys and the intestinal tract (part of the Stomach and the digestive system) are not able to eliminate a toxin or break down a substance so that it can be fully digested and excreted, then, your Lungs are meant to step in and help out in the detoxification process.

The offending toxins or difficult substances are picked up by the bloodstream and moved upwards where they enter the alveolar sacs that make up the bottom of your Lungs. There, the Lungs are meant to pick up the difficult toxins and eventually get them coughed out as phlegm.”

Detox a view from the inside

Wrapping up

How did our cells and organs evolve to be so smart? One of the really interesting things, is that each part can pick up the slack of the others if they are overloaded — but they definitely don’t want to, so it’s best to keep them all in tip top shape.

Even though your body is clearly very capable of removing toxins from your body, it can only handle so much. If you overload your body with stuff it doesn’t like, it won’t be happy. 

Detox diets are there to help your body do what it’s already doing, by reducing toxin intake, and supporting your body with the right nutrients. That’s really it. 

Next week, we’ll look into the types of toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis, and some ways to reduce them. 

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