We live in a world where we are exposed to hundreds of toxins each day – in the form of pesticides, environmental chemicals, flame retardants, heavy metals, processed foods, stress and medications – to name a few. Certain people are more vulnerable to toxins due to their unique genetic makeup and biochemistry. Pregnancy and nursing are especially important times to limit toxic exposures, and children are exceptionally vulnerable just based on their physiology alone. While exposure to toxins in our modern world is inevitable, there’s a lot we can do to minimize those exposures and use food to our benefit. Certain nutrients and phytonutrients impact the body’s ability to process toxins and lower the total body burden. My focus in this article is using whole foods and nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification systems.
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The basics of detoxification
Detoxification refers to your body’s ability to get rid of waste. If that is impaired, or if we are bombarded with too many toxins, we get sick.
The liver is central to metabolic detoxification. It works through a series of enzymes, via pathways referred to as Phase I and Phase II detoxification. This system is dependent on adequate nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and protein. The liver transforms chemicals, hormones and toxins into water-soluble metabolites that can then be excreted by the intestines, kidneys, and skin.
Healthy digestion is critical, since a healthy gut and regular bowel movements help excrete toxins. Leaky gut and constipation can make the problem worse. The kidneys also play a role, which is why good hydration with clean, filtered water is important. Sweating is another way we detoxify, and some people even utilize infrared saunas. Just be sure to support your body first with good nutrition and adequate hydration.
Limit exposures and maximize detox
Limiting toxic exposures is the first step. Buying organic foods free of pesticides and GMOs and limiting processed and packaged foods is important. You can read more in my article 10 Ways to Reduce Toxins in Your Life.
You can improve your body’s ability to detoxify using key foods that help balance the Phase I and II pathways in the liver, and provide good fiber. This may also help with weight loss, since resistant weight loss is often related to toxicity.
As a basic rule, aim for 8-10 servings a week of organic, colorful, non-starchy vegetables. Specifically, eat cruciferous vegetables and alliums, like onions and garlic, daily. The goal is not to eat kale everyday, but rather aim for variety. Try to eat a phytonutrient-dense diet with a diversity of foods and colors. By eating these 10 foods regularly, you will help support your body’s ability to detoxify.
10 Foods to Support Detoxification
- Broccoli + Other Cruciferous Vegetables – The crucifer family includes arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, radish and turnips. They are rich in glucosinolates, which hydrolyze to indole-3-carbinol and isothiocyanate. These phytochemicals help metabolize and balance hormones, like estrogens. Cruciferous vegetables are researched in cancer prevention, especially hormone-sensitive or estrogen related cancers. They are great for metabolic detoxification and liver support. As an added bonus, the green crucifers also contain chlorophyll, which boosts detox capacity even more. Try these recipes for Roasted Broccoli and Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Garlic Aioli, or start your morning with a berry and cabbage smoothie.
- Garlic + Other Alliums – Alliums, or Thiols, include chives, daikon, garlic, leeks, onions, scallions and shallots. The Allium family provides sulfur compounds, which are responsible for their strong smell and flavor, as well as their potential health benefits. They possess important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties thought to help prevent cardiovascular disease, and cancer of the stomach and colon. Specifically, alliums help catalyze phase II detoxification in the liver which helps promote the elimination of toxins, including potential carcinogens. Allyl sulfides increase the important antioxidant known as glutathione, and promote genes containing antioxidant response elements (ARE). Try this recipe for Lemon and Garlic Green Beans or roast a chicken over a bed of onions and garlic.
- Parsley + Other Leafy Greens – Leafy greens include beet greens, bok choy, chard, cilantro, collard greens, endive, escarole, kale, mustard greens, parsley and radicchio. Leafy greens get their color from chlorophyll. Chlorophyll and chlorophyllin are able to bind to certain carcinogens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in cigarette smoke, and heterocyclic amines from charred meats. This may decrease absorption in the gastrointestinal tract, decreasing the amount of carcinogen that reaches susceptible tissues. This is a great reason to have a big green salad with your grilled meat! Try this recipe for Fresh Herb Chimichurri with grilled steak and vegetables.
- Turmeric – Turmeric contains the phytochemical curcumin, which gives it a bright yellow color. Curcumin inhibits Phase I while stimulating Phase II detoxification in the liver, and increases glutathione. It is studied in the prevention and treatment of diseases including colorectal cancers and Alzheimer’s. Try adding fresh turmeric root to a smoothie or sprinkle ground turmeric on roasted cauliflower.
- Berries – Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries get their deep, dark color from anthocyanins. These are antioxidants that help fight free radical damage, and are thought to be anti-inflammatory and vasoprotective. Berries are high in ellagic acid, which is a phenolic compound that may slow the growth of cancer cells and help the liver neutralize carcinogens. Try this easy recipe for Berry Compote. My personal favorite is a bowl of fresh berries with a drizzle of high quality balsamic vinegar.
- Lemon – Limonene, a monoterpenoid found in the peel of citrus fruit, is a potent antioxidant that promotes Phase I and Phase II liver detoxification. d-Limonene plays a potential role as an anti-cancer nutrient, especially for breast cancer prevention and treatment. Vitamin C, an antioxidant in lemons, also helps convert toxins into their water-soluble form so they can be eliminated. Try drinking a tall glass of filtered water with lemon first thing in the morning, or add a slice of lemon with the peel on to your Vitamix, Ninja or NutriBullet.
- Green Tea – The polyphenols in green tea are multiple flavanoids, the most significant component being epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). They are strong antioxidants that help balance liver detoxification pathways. Green tea polyphenols may enhance the detoxification of carcinogens and have been associated with decreased risk of certain types of cancers in humans. Try your green tea with a slice of lemon, which potentiates it’s polyphenols.
- Beets – Beets contain a group of phytonutrients called betalains that support methylation and glutathione-dependent phase II detoxification. Beets provide the highest plant source of betaine, which is anti-inflammatory. The high amount of fiber in beets also improves digestion and elimination. Try this recipe for Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Golden Beets.
- Flax Seeds – Flax seeds are the richest dietary source of lignans. These fiber-like compounds help detoxify harmful forms of estrogen. Lignan-rich foods are being studied for their role in prevention of hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. Flaxseeds also provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and their high fiber content supports good digestion. Grind whole, fresh flax seeds and sprinkle on salads or in smoothies.
- Artichokes – Artichokes are rich in liver-protective agents, including cynarin, a compound that stimulates the liver and gallbladder. They also have a mild diuretic effect on the kidneys, ensuring proper removal of toxins once the liver breaks them down. The very high fiber content also helps with elimination. Try this recipe for Grilled Artichokes with Lemon Aioli.
Don’t forget protein!
While a plant heavy diet is important, high quality lean protein should not be neglected. Protein deficient diets impair detox pathways in the liver.
And one last word of caution… talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you’re on blood thinners, like Coumadin, or multiple prescription medications.