DeTox, Deconstructed

By Lorie Parch

Feeling headachy, maybe some fatigue? Suffering a bit of acid reflux, perhaps a little bloating, some muscle aches? Maybe it’s time to detox—whatever that means.

Detox seems to have a plethora of meanings. For some, it signifies eating only organic foods or eliminating sugar, caffeine and alcohol. For others, colon cleansing and liquid-only fasts are part of the regimen. Still others detox by adding regular meditation or yoga to their schedules. Whatever it means to you—and detoxification can mean all of these things and more—many experts think it’s a practice well worth considering in today’s toxin-rich world.

“The majority of people are dealing with a high ‘body burden’ of toxins,” says Chris Spooner, N.D., a research fellow at the Environmental Medicine Center of Excellence at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz. Spooner points to a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. EWG tested a group of nine healthy people for 167 toxic compounds and found the average number carried by each person was 91. Some of these toxins came from the individual’s own metabolism—from poor digestion of food, for example—and some were due to exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, solvents and other unhealthy environmental substances.

How can we rid ourselves of these noxious invaders? Supplements are a key way to show them the door, say several detox experts. Most supplements help the detoxification process by improving your body’s own defense mechanisms. Indeed, the human body has five built-in cleansers.

“When it comes to detoxification, the liver is the workhorse. Then there’s the gut, the kidneys, the skin and the breath,” says Mark Hyman, editor-in-chief of the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and co-author with Mark Liponis, M.D., of Ultra-Prevention: The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life (Atria Books/Scribner, 2003). Detox supplements, the authors say, basically help all these organs and systems work efficiently to eliminate toxins. Here’s what they recommend.

Glutathione and more
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant, protecting the body by defending it against unstable molecules called free radicals—troublemakers that may lead to cancer and are linked to the effects of aging.

However, because glutathione is manufactured inside cells, it is difficult to increase levels directly through glutathione supplements. Hyman and other experts suggest supplementing instead with cystine, glycine and glutamate—amino acids that are the precursors of this important antioxidant.

Consuming foods high in sulphur-containing amino acids can also help boost levels of glutathione. Broccoli, avocado, spinach and asparagus, as well as green tea, garlic, berries and other substances with polyphenols can all aid glutathione production in the body. Whey protein isolate is also an excellent supplemental food source of proteins rich in these significant amino acids. Heating or pasteuriz-ation destroys whey’s delicate protein bonds, so look for undenatured (non-heated) whey.

B Vitamins and Betaine
Hyman highlights four vitamins he calls “necessary, but sometimes overlooked as detoxification helpers”: Folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12, and betaine (also known as trimethylglycine). He suggests 800 mcg to 1 mg daily of folic acid, 5 to 10 mg of vitamin B6, up to 2 mg of vitamin B12, and 500 to 3,000 mg of betaine daily.

All of these vitamins are involved in methylation—which Hyman describes as a key step in helping our bodies produce protein, repair DNA and control which genes are turned on or off. When this process is impaired, through a deficit of these vitamins or by other means, Hyman argues that cancer and other health problems can ensue.

And don’t forget minerals. They’re critical tools in our bodies’ detox arsenal. “Magnesium is the biggest one of all of them,” Spooner says. “It’s involved in about 300 chemical reactions in the body.” Magnesium is needed for bone, protein and fatty acid formation, as well as necessary for forming new cells, activating B vitamins, relaxing muscles, clotting blood and ensuring proper insulin function. Spooner recommends 400 mg of magnesium citrate twice per day.

Since the gut is so crucial to giving toxins the old heave-ho, it stands to reason that probiotics (Lactobacillus acid-ophilus, L. rhamnosis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum among them) can be useful. These “friendly” bacteria bring balance to our digestive system, thereby allowing it to work its detox magic. What’s more, when you take them in combination with enough fiber in your diet, Hyman believes, they can produce anti-cancer compounds. Hyman recommends taking one capsule containing 5 billion to 10 billion organisms twice a day on an empty stomach.

Milk thistle
With the liver being the body’s detoxification workhorse, it stands to reason that milk thistle (Silybum marianum)–long known to support liver function–should be part of a detox plan. Backed by numerous scientific studies, the oft-recommended milk thistle supports liver function by acting as a powerful antioxidant. Hyman recommends 140 mg twice per day in capsule form, though you can use tinctures or tablets as well.

Spooner warns, however, that chemically sensitive people would do well to avoid the plant. Indications of milk thistle intolerance are flu-like symptoms including headaches, Spooner says. For everyone else, Spooner suggests taking milk thistle on an ongoing basis for four weeks on, two weeks off.

Eliminate to detoxify
“Ultimately, what you are trying to do with detoxification is stimulate the organs of elimination to process and remove toxins from the body,” Spooner explains. You can support the body in the detoxification process in many ways—through herbal and nutritional supplementation, saunas, sweat lodges, hot baths and through dietary means. Whatever support methods you choose, the goal of detoxification is to open up these routes of elimination.”