Understanding How Detoxification Works and Simple Steps to Improve It

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Detoxification is a chain of events that relies on multiple systems and organs in the body. If any of the links in the chain are compromised or impaired, the elimination of toxins becomes inefficient, and toxins are retained by the body.

The main organs/systems of detoxification in the body include:

  • The Skin
  • The Respiratory System
  • The Lymphatic System
  • The Liver
  • The Kidneys
  • The Intestines

Let’s take a look at how each of these systems works in little bit more detail. 

The Skin

The skin is the largest organ in the body and acts as a barrier against harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, and chemical toxins. The skin is also a major organ of detoxification, and a vast array of toxicants are excreted via sweating or perspiration [1,2]. 

Research to date suggests that there is no difference in the rate of toxicant excretion that occurs from perspiration between infrared saunas, dry saunas, wet saunas, or exercise [1]. 

Therefore, you can safely and effectively engage in any of these modalities!

In addition to sweating, exercise may also improve detoxification via other pathways such as increased antioxidant capacity [3,4]. 

The Respiratory System 

The respiratory system consists of the nose, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, and lungs. Fine hairs inside the nose trap dust, pollen, spores, and other large particles that may be inhaled. Smaller particles which are unable to be filtered by the nose travel to the lungs where they are expelled from the airways in mucus.

Tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles called alveoli are where the lungs and the blood exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide during the process of breathing in and breathing out.

Healthy membranes of the alveoli normally do not let solid waste penetrate. However, due to infectious microbes and other irritants, the alveoli may become permeable to toxins that the liver, kidneys, and the intestinal tract failed to eliminate!

These substances and other waste resulting from insufficient digestion and excretion are transported by the blood stream towards the lungs and bronchi where they squeeze through the alveoli and are coughed out as phlegm.

The best ways to assist the lungs with detoxification is by avoiding inhaling toxic chemicals such as smoking or vaping. Improving indoor air quality by bringing in more plants or using an air filter may can also help [5]. 

Aerobic exercise can also be beneficial because it improves blood flow to the lungs, which allows the body to move more toxins to the liver and kidneys to filter them out of the blood and remove them from your body [6].

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is an important component of the circulatory system and the immune system. It is composed of a large network of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, and lymphatic organs such as the thymus and spleen. The vessels carry a clear fluid called lymph towards the heart.

Fluid from the blood leaks into the tissues via the capillaries, delivering nutrients to the cells, then collects waste products, bacteria, and damaged cells, before draining as lymph into the lymphatic capillaries and lymphatic vessels. Lymphatic vessels carry the lymph throughout the body, passing through numerous lymph nodes along the way which filter out unwanted materials such as bacteria and damaged cells. Lymph then passes into much larger lymph vessels known as lymph ducts, that empty lymph into the subclavian veins to return to the blood circulation. 

Lymph is circulated throughout the system by muscular contractions. Studies suggest that lymph propulsion by the working muscle is most efficient when the muscle is able to shorten close to its minimum length [7]. That is why exercise is very important for increasing lymph flow!

During steady-state exercise in humans, lymph flow has been shown to increase to levels approximately 2 to 3-fold higher than at rest [8]. Studies show that exercise, independent of weight loss, improves obesity‐related lymphatic dysfunction [9]. 

Lymphatic dysfunction has been identified in obesity which is believed to be a result of decreased lymphatic vessel density, decreased collecting lymphatic vessel pumping frequency, decreased lymphatic trafficking of immune cells, increased lymphatic vessel leakiness, and changes in the gene expression patterns of lymphatic endothelial cells [9,10].

In fact, studies show that obesity is linearly correlated with lymphatic dysfunction, and that weight loss via dietary modification also can effectively reverse these adverse effects [10]. Therefore, it appears that combination of exercise and diet would be optimal for improving lymphatic flow.

In addition, manual lymphatic drainage techniques may offer additional benefits in some populations such as in sports injury rehabilitation, and rehabilitation following surgery [11-13].   

The Liver

The liver is not only essential for digestion, but it is also the primary organ of detoxification in the body. The liver: inactivates and removes toxic substances that have been ingested, such as food additives, harmful minerals, and toxic medications; extracts residues and waste material in the blood resulting from the cellular break down, and transforms them so that they can be excreted by the intestines or kidneys; eliminates waste products and toxic metabolites resulting from intestinal fermentation and putrefaction; destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and cancerous cells [14].

Reducing the toxic load on the liver and providing nutrients in the right amounts to support the phase I and phase II detoxification pathways is critical for enhancing the livers power of detoxification. We discuss nutrition for supporting liver detoxification in future blogs (stay tuned)!

The Kidneys

The kidneys filter the blood from harmful substances, such as toxic medications and other chemical substances and excrete them in the urine. They kidneys can become clogged by high concentrations of waste products in the blood, especially by chemical and synthetic substances. Hence avoiding exposure to chemical and synthetic substances as much as possible is the first step in improving kidney function. 

For optimal filtration by the kidneys, blood pressure should not be too low nor too high. In addition, the volume of the blood which passes through the kidneys should not be too low. Therefore, hydration is important for improving kidney function.

Furthermore, recent studies suggest that high dietary protein can cause intraglomerular hypertension, which may result in kidney hyperfiltration, glomerular injury, and proteinuria, occur even in individuals without impaired kidney function [15].  

The quality of dietary protein also appears to impact kidney function. Compared with plant based dietary protein sources, animal proteins, especially processed red meat, have been associated with a greater risk of kidney disease in several observational studies [15]. In addition, sugar-sweetened beverages may also worsen kidney function while plant-based foods, coffee, and dairy may be beneficial [16].  

The Intestines

The intestines, including the small intestine, large intestine (colon), and the rectum, not only play an important role in digestion, but also in the elimination of toxins from the body, and screening out parasites and other foreign substances before nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. 

Peyer’s patches are lymph nodes found throughout the ileum region of the small intestine, which form an important part of the immune system. They are responsible for monitoring intestinal bacteria populations and preventing the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria in the intestines.

Once nutrients such as amino acids, sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals are digested, they penetrate through the intestinal mucous membranes into the venous capillaries where they are transported to the liver and released into the bloodstream. 

Various chemicals, toxins, drugs, heavy metals, and excess sex hormones extracted by the liver, are dumped into bile, where they are transported into the small intestine and continue through the intestinal tract to exit the body via the stool. 

Bile acid deficiency may be present in a subgroup of individuals with dysbiosis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) [17,18]. Supplementation with bile acids has been shown to reduce intestinal inflammation in these individuals [17].

The final phase of elimination of toxins through the intestinal tract takes place in the large intestine or colon, where insufficiently digested, large molecules and toxic residues are excreted via the faeces. 

If the transit of food through the intestinal passage is delayed, the food that cannot be eliminated, ferments and putrefies. This can cause the healthy microorganisms of the intestinal microflora to mutate into aggressive microbes which excrete toxins of their own [14]. 

Constant irritation of the mucous membranes by toxic metabolites, additives, pesticides, antibiotics, and medications can damage the intestinal mucosa making it more permeable for toxins to enter the internal environment via bodily fluids. This can lead to the impairment of humoral immunity, where antibodies bind to antigens in the extracellular fluid, which can lead to the development of disease, especially chronic degenerative diseases, and cancer [14].

That is why optimizing gut health is so important improving detoxification and elimination in the body. Gut issues are so prevalent in our society today, which may be the underlying cause for so many chronic diseases!

For more information on optimizing detoxification, check out the newly launched PNC Level 3 Certification.  

  • Performance Nutrition Coach Level 3

References

  1. Sears ME, Genuis SJ. Environmental determinants of chronic disease and medical approaches: recognition, avoidance, supportive therapy, and detoxification. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:356798. doi:10.1155/2012/356798
  2. Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi:10.1155/2012/184745
  3. Lew H, Quintanilha A. Effects of endurance training and exercise on tissue antioxidative capacity and acetaminophen detoxification. Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet. 1991 Jan-Mar;16(1):59-68. doi: 10.1007/BF03189876. PMID: 1936063.
  4. Dieter BP, Vella CA. A proposed mechanism for exercise attenuated methylglyoxal accumulation: activation of the ARE-Nrf pathway and increased glutathione biosynthesis. Med Hypotheses. 2013 Nov;81(5):813-5. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2013.08.034. Epub 2013 Sep 7. PMID: 24060484.
  5. Health, L., 2021. Can You Really Detox Your Lungs? – Lung Health Instititute. [online] Lung Health Instititute. Available at: <https://lunginstitute.com/blog/can-you-really-detox-your-lungs/#:~:text=Exercising%20regularly%20%E2%80%94%20Aerobic%20exercise%20can,remove%20them%20from%20your%20body.> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
  6. Dominelli PB, Archiza B, Ramsook AH, Mitchell RA, Peters CM, Molgat-Seon Y, Henderson WR, Koehle MS, Boushel R, Sheel AW. Effects of respiratory muscle work on respiratory and locomotor blood flow during exercise. Exp Physiol. 2017 Nov 1;102(11):1535-1547. doi: 10.1113/EP086566. Epub 2017 Sep 24. PMID: 28841267.
  7. Havas E, Parviainen T, Vuorela J, Toivanen J, Nikula T, Vihko V. Lymph flow dynamics in exercising human skeletal muscle as detected by scintography. J Physiol. 1997;504 ( Pt 1)(Pt 1):233-239. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7793.1997.233bf.x
  8. Lane K, Worsley D, McKenzie D. Exercise and the lymphatic system: implications for breast-cancer survivors. Sports Med. 2005;35(6):461-71. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200535060-00001. PMID: 15974632.
  9. Hespe GE, Kataru RP, Savetsky IL, et al. Exercise training improves obesity-related lymphatic dysfunction. J Physiol. 2016;594(15):4267-4282. doi:10.1113/JP271757
  10. Kataru RP, Park HJ, Baik JE, Li C, Shin J, Mehrara BJ. Regulation of Lymphatic Function in Obesity. Front Physiol. 2020;11:459. Published 2020 May 15. doi:10.3389/fphys.2020.00459
  11. Vairo GL, Miller SJ, McBrier NM, Buckley WE. Systematic review of efficacy for manual lymphatic drainage techniques in sports medicine and rehabilitation: an evidence-based practice approach. J Man Manip Ther. 2009;17(3):e80-e89. doi:10.1179/jmt.2009.17.3.80E
  12. Oliveira MMF, Gurgel MSC, Amorim BJ, et al. Long term effects of manual lymphatic drainage and active exercises on physical morbidities, lymphoscintigraphy parameters and lymphedema formation in patients operated due to breast cancer: A clinical trial. PLoS One. 2018;13(1):e0189176. Published 2018 Jan 5. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0189176
  13. Zhang L, Fan A, Yan J, He Y, Zhang H, Zhang H, Zhong Q, Liu F, Luo Q, Zhang L, Tang H, Xin M. Combining Manual Lymph Drainage with Physical Exercise after Modified Radical Mastectomy Effectively Prevents Upper Limb Lymphedema. Lymphat Res Biol. 2016 Jun;14(2):104-8. doi: 10.1089/lrb.2015.0036. Epub 2016 Jan 29. PMID: 26824722.
  14. Issels Integrative Immuno-Oncology. 2021. Information on detoxification and the organs that remove toxins. [online] Available at: <https://issels.com/publication-library/information-on-detoxification/> [Accessed 15 March 2021].
  15. Ko GJ, Rhee CM, Kalantar-Zadeh K, Joshi S. The Effects of High-Protein Diets on Kidney Health and Longevity. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2020 Aug;31(8):1667-1679. doi: 10.1681/ASN.2020010028. Epub 2020 Jul 15. PMID: 32669325; PMCID: PMC7460905.

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