Melbourne Functional Medicine
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We are all familiar with the idea of doing a ‘detox,’ and yet while it is often poo-pooed, there is legitimacy to it. At its most basic, detoxification is the process of transforming, neutralising, and eliminating toxins and by-products that the body finds to be unhealthful or unnecessary, a constant, ongoing, natural process to clean up the rubbish. In order to understand what a ‘detox’ is and should look like, we need to dig-in to what is actually going on during the process of detoxification that is unavoidably happening inside all of us in every moment.
Detoxification is like ‘internal housekeeping.’ We all know that attending to our housekeeping is important, and if neglected, can leave us with a house full of clutter, rubbish, soiled goods, dust, and mould. Not a comfortable place to live. The housekeeping of the body is just the same; only we are not aware that it is going on, so we take it completely for granted and can be blind when it is not going well as we go around collecting health complaints. Meanwhile, our system is being bombarded relentlessly from all the trappings of the modern world, a situation akin to the housekeeping equivalent of a gaggle of sugar-high toddlers being permanently installed in your residence – special care required!
When it comes to our ‘internal housekeeping’, we are all familiar with the routes of elimination: breath, pee, poo, skin, and sweat. It is easy enough to understand that we wee things out that we are done with, but, of course, there is a good deal more going on behind the scenes. Let’s get into it!
When it comes to something that is water-soluble, it is reasonably straight-forward for us to eliminate through any of the normal channels. As it turns out, though, most toxins come into the body being fat-soluble, which requires the body to take a few extra steps; after all, you have never seen fatty pee, right?
This is where the process of detoxification becomes relevant; we take something that is harmful and either renders it safe – or at least relatively so – or solubilise it so we can easily eliminate it. Technically called ‘biotransformation,’ this process is liver intensive and happens in three phases, aptly named: phase 1, phase 2, and…. wait for it…. phase 3. Phase 1 is the preparatory phase, where undesirable molecules are subtly modified by enzymes so that they can have something else bonded to them and be rendered ‘safe’ after phase 2. Think of phase 1 as applying glue to a molecule so that later we can transform it by sticking something to it. Phase 2 is where we stick something to the molecule (conjugation), thereby rendering it safe or water-soluble, and hence easily eliminated. Phase 3 concerns the transport of the molecule to the organ of elimination.
It seems easy enough, but as with everything, there are a few complicating factors: After going through phase 1, the toxins are frequently actually more reactive (toxic) than before. This would be fine if phase 2 quickly followed up, but, whereas phase 1 relentlessly occurs at a fairly stable pace, phase 2 does not and can become outpaced by phase 1, leaving a glut of highly reactive molecules waiting to be completed. Further, phase 1 is not as nutrient intensive as the six pathways of phase 2 (Gluathionation, glucuronidation, sulfonation, acetylation, methylation, and amino acid conjugation), meaning that it keeps on spitting out reactive intermediaries regardless of whether we have the nutrient capacity to deal with them in phase 2. The outcome of this: feeling like you are a toxic waste dump, which you pretty much are.
If we continued indefinitely with less capacity to deal with toxins than the amount coming in, we would die – which is obviously less than ideal – so what the body actually does, is store the surplus toxins away. We need somewhere safe to store them, which means somewhere with relatively little blood supply, so they don’t remobilise and cause problems; being that they are fats, our best option is our own fat. Quite literally speaking, we dump our excess toxins into our fat cells until we can deal with them sometime later. When the fat cells become dangerously full, if possible, we create more, leaving us fat and feeling poorly.
If we don’t have, and can’t create, idle adipose (fat) tissue, then we find some other fatty place, like our brain (70% fat), which really messes with your head.
So, we have this toxin surplus, which over a long period of time is problematic, and we want to deal with it, which brings us back to the idea of ‘detoxing.’ We, very simply, can either: decrease the number of toxins coming in, or increase our capacity to remove them. Either way, we have created a surplus capacity to deal with toxins, and thus instead of storing an excess away, we can now clear our current load and start dealing with the backlog we dumped away prior.
All detoxes are variants of these two simple principles:
Clearly, most of the above doesn’t require a special ‘detox,’ and indeed, if many of them are just a part of your everyday life, then you’ll have no need of one. If, however, you feel like you do need a little internal spring-cleaning, then we recommend you do a fast, but we implore you to do it in a properly informed manner, which you can read about in our next article.