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The Body's Detoxification Systems

This article discusses toxins we are exposed to every day, and what to do about them.

You may be thinking, “I don’t have to worry about that stuff. I don’t smoke, and I don’t live near a Superfund site.” While those are good things, they don’t protect us from daily exposures to a host of nasty substances which, if allowed to accumulate in our bodies, lead to alarming increases in our risk for cancer, heart disease and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A few stats:

  • There are now more than 80,000 chemicals in our environment, the vast majority of them introduced since 1945. Many of these chemicals that have been studied have been shown to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). In 2004, 4.6 billion pounds of chemicals were released in the United States alone.

  • Childhood cancers are up 21% in the last 20 years. The rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in children has risen 30% since 1950.

  • Testicular cancer in males age 20-39 has increased 68% in the same time frame.

  • Asthma incidence in children under 18 has risen by 100% in the last 10 years.

  • The #1 demographic for Parkinson’s disease is female professional golfers. (Golf courses are heavily treated with a variety of chemicals.)

  • A 2006 Johns Hopkins study of 300 samples of umbilical-cord blood revealed that 298 of them contained the chemical PFOA, found in Teflon. A 2004 study of 10 randomly chosen umbilical-cord blood samples showed an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants.

Ok, ok enough with the stats. The point is that we are constantly exposed to chemicals, heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury, and even hormones in our air, food and water. While our bodies do have ways of getting rid of these substances, the process is often slow and difficult, especially for people who consume a diet that is low in essential nutrients.


The term ‘detoxification’ conjures up unpleasant thoughts of fasting or taking foul-tasting potions to clean out our bodies after long periods of eating poorly. Our bodies are actually detoxing all the time, some of us much more efficiently than others.

There are several phases to detoxification, but let’s look at just two of them. Phase I is enzymatic. Your body contains many thousands of enzymes (digestive enzymes being just one of many types), which are catalysts that speed up reactions. There are other ways of speeding up chemical reactions, like adding heat, but it’s a bit impractical to have your liver perking along at 212 degrees while the rest of you is at 98.6. So our bodies have developed a host of enzymes to move things along. Phase I enzymes find these toxins floating through the liver and intestines and change them into substances that are (usually) less toxic. This prepares these substances for Phase II.

Phase II detoxification is conjugation. Conjugation means “connecting together”. Our bodies make a handful of substances that literally attach to toxins to make them water soluble, so they can be eliminated in the urine.

So why doesn’t the body simply have one phase and be done with it? The answer is that some toxins are easily eliminated because they’re water soluble, or can be made water-soluble with one quick chemical reaction. One example of this is caffeine, which is easily eliminated if your Phase I enzymes are working well (people with low caffeine-tolerance have sluggish Phase I enzymes). But other toxins like DDT and PCB’s are very difficult molecules to make water-soluble, so our bodies have evolved the Phase II systems.

Phase II works a little like laundry detergent. If you get a grease stain on a pair of jeans, you can run it all day in the washer with nothing but water, and that stain will remain. But if you add detergent, most or all of the stain will come out. This is because one end of a detergent molecule is fat soluble (to attach to the grease), and the other end is water-soluble. This allows the grease stain to be carried off in the wash water.

It takes a lot of raw materials and a lot of work by the body to make Phase II substances. So if we get a big chemical exposure or a long-term low-grade exposure, our Phase II systems can be quickly overwhelmed, forcing our bodies to store the offending substances in some pretty dicey places, like the brain, kidneys, and liver.

Most of us know people who have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). These are folks, many with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, who can’t walk through the perfume section at Macy’s without getting an instant headache, or landing in bed with flu-like symptoms after a trip down the weed-and-feed aisle. These people have dysfunctional Phase II systems.

Some of the same detox ”pathways” that the body uses to get rid of environmental toxins are used to break down hormones like estrogen. Estrogens are known to be carcinogenic, but if your Phase II detoxification is healthy, you will actually break them down into substances that are good for your body. If, however, those pathways are bogged down with detoxifying mercury, PCB’s and Roundup in your system, they will be unable to properly break down estrogens and other hormones, possibly leading to very serious disease.

There are a few foods that contain significant amounts of the raw materials that the body needs to make Phase II detox compounds. These include dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli and kale, as well as sulphur-containing foods like eggs, onions and garlic. Seaweeds and algae contain sodium alginate, a compound which attaches to many different toxic compounds (even radioactive ones) to carry them out of your body, bypassing the body’s detox mechanisms.

There are several nutritional supplements which can greatly improve Phase I/II function. While these substances are available over-the-counter, it’s important that a deficiency be determined before taking them. They include n-acetyl cysteine and absorbable forms of magnesium.

The increasing toxicity of the world we live in makes it ever more important to eat a nutrient-dense diet. Make sure the foods you eat are of the highest quality available. Don’t trust your food supply to the lowest bidder!

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