In her 1962 groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote: “For the first time in the history of the world every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”1 Of course humans have always been exposed to potentially harmful chemicals from plants and other sources, but Carson’s point is well taken. Modern living exposes all of us to an unprecedented number of chemicals on a daily basis. Consider that 5 trillion pounds of 70,000 different chemicals are manufactured per year. However, only 1,500 have been studied for toxicity. Likewise, only 10 percent of the 2.23 billion pounds of pesticides used every year have been tested for toxicity.2 This raises the question, what is the extent of our exposure to chemical toxins, and what are the effects of that exposure?
Toxic Exposure and its Effects
The fact is that about 3.36 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were disposed of or otherwise released into the environment annually.3 An example is 500 million pounds of lead and lead compounds, the release of which increased by 20 percent since 2005. Endogenous toxins produced by the body, may also contribute to total toxic load.4 Although virtually everyone is exposed to toxic chemicals, some people are more susceptible to toxic exposure, including some office workers who may experience sick building syndrome. Multiple chemical sensitivities may be experienced by some people in response to being exposed to certain types of chemicals. Symptoms are diverse, and may include headaches, fatigue, depression and an overall feeling of malaise and being sick.5
While it may be incredibly disheartening to hear about the numerous and seemingly unavoidable sources of exposure to toxins and the ways in which these substances can negatively affect your body, there is some good news. Fortunately, your body has certain mechanisms of detoxification that allow it to rid itself of both exogenous and endogenous toxins. Essentially, it eliminates these troublesome materials either by neutralizing them or by directing them into your urine or feces to be excreted from your body. (To a lesser degree, these substances may also be excreted through your mucous membranes, lungs and skin). Unfortunately, our bodies may not always be equipped to handle the sheer volume of modern, environmental pollutants and toxic substances.
How to Address Toxic Overload
The question of how to deal with toxic overload has a multipart answer which includes adapting to a healthier diet, reducing exposure to toxins, and a number of other factors including the use of dietary supplements. For a more comprehensive understanding of how to do this, see What’s in Your Blood and Why You Should Care (2019 Square One Publishers), a book about detoxification written by me and my coauthor.
Meanwhile, this article provides an overview of how the right nutraceuticals can have powerful, beneficial effects on your body’s methods of detoxification. The major organs of detoxification are skin, kidneys, liver and intestines, and there are specific nutraceuticals that can help support detoxification of these organs.
Supporting Skin Detoxification
Skin is the largest organ of the human body, as well as the boundary between your vital organs and the environment. As such, skin is not only subject to the internal aging process but must also deal with various external stressors. This combination leads to distinct structural changes to this organ, affecting not only its youthful appearance but also its various physiological functions. As skin ages, skin permeability decreases, normal lipid and sweat production slows, and immune function processes are delayed.6 The primary causes of skin aging are losses of collagen and elastin proteins (the fundamental components of connective tissue in your skin) and glycation of collagen and elastin.7-11 Glycation refers to the bonding of a sugar molecule, such as glucose or fructose, to a lipid molecule or a protein molecule. When glycation occurs in association with collagen or elastin, protein molecules, the results, understandably, are a loss of skin elasticity and the formation of wrinkles.12,13 Glycation can also have adverse effects on skin permeability and sweat production. Considering the fact that glycation of collagen and elastin may start in a person as young as 20 years old, and that collagen and elastin levels in skin decrease with age, it is advisable to address this issue with the correct supplements. In this case, the correct supplements include glucosamine hydrochloride, cherry blossom extract and lemon balm extract.
• Glucosamine hydrochloride—In animal research and laboratory research on human cells, glucosamine has also been shown to help decrease glycation.14,15 Furthermore, glucosamine has been clinically tested to promote the production of collagen and have a positive effect on epidermal and dermal markers associated with age.16 As a result of these functions, additional human clinical research demonstrated that glucosamine increased the moisture content of skin, improved dry skin, decreased the scaliness of skin, and improved the smoothness of skin.17 The clinically effective dose was 1,500 mg of daily.
• Cherry blossom extract—An extract of cherry blossoms, known as Sakura flowers in Japan, has potent bioactive compounds with beneficial effects on the skin, including anti-glycation properties.18 In human clinical research,19 cherry blossom extract caused a reduction of skin glycation, suppressed loss of skin elasticity, reduced pigmentation and reddish areas, suppressed increase in pore area, reduced the dryness of skin, and improved skin smoothness. The clinically effective dose was 150 mg per day.
• Lemon balm—Glycation causes cross-linking of collagen proteins in the skin. This cross-linking makes it extremely difficult to replace damaged collagen in skin. Thankfully, lemon balm contains a natural compound called rosmarinic acid, which, in laboratory research, has demonstrated an ability to break the bonds between cross-linked proteins caused by glycation,20 reduce protein glycation and counter changes in collagen caused by glycation.21,22 Human research23 has demonstrated that lemon balm can improve skin elasticity, while other laboratory research24 has shown that lemon balm helps protect against skin damage caused by sun exposure. The clinically effective dose is 1,240 mg of lemon balm (standardized for 5 percent rosmarinic acid).
Supporting Kidney Detoxification
Generally, not much needs to be done to support kidney detoxification. The best approach is to drink a sufficient amount of water and other fluids daily. But how much is sufficient? According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, an adequate daily water consumption goal is approximately 125 fluid ounces (3.7 liters) for the average adult male and approximately 91 fluid ounces (2.7 liters) for the average adult female. Don’t panic, however, if these numbers seem daunting. Fluid intake requirements vary by individual and are dependent on numerous factors, including activity levels, geographic location and temperature. As well, keep in mind that these recommendations factor in water derived from the food you consume, which typically accounts for 20 percent of your daily fluid intake. In truth, most people can achieve adequate hydration by simply drinking when they are thirsty.
Supporting Liver Detoxification
The lion’s share of the body’s detoxification takes place in the liver in two phases. After phase I reactions prepare toxins for the second part of the detoxification process, phase II takes over, and these molecules are conjugated with, or attached to, compounds such as glucuronic acid, sulfate or glutathione, depending upon which of the six pathways of phase II is being utilized. Phase II renders these unwanted substances water soluble, allowing them to be excreted in urine or bile. The six pathways of phase II include sulfation, glucuronidation, glutathione conjugation, acetylation, amino acid conjugation and methylation.25-29
• Sulfation—The sulfation pathway detoxifies certain drugs, food additives, toxins from intestinal bacteria and the environment, normal body chemicals steroid and thyroid hormones. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) can effectively support liver detox mechanisms,30 forming conjugates of natural bile acids as part of the sulfation pathway.31 A good daily dose of NAC is 600 mg. Berberine stimulates bile acid synthesis32 and bile secretion,33 which helps shuttle toxins phase 2 processed toxins into the intestines via the bile duct.34,35 Animal research36 has shown that berberine was able to promote the excretion of bilirubin with bile via the bile duct, and has also shown that it does so via the sulfation pathway.37
• Glucuronidation—Glucuronic acid is attached to certain toxins (many commonly prescribed drugs, aspirin, menthol, synthetic vanilla, food additives such as benzoates) as well as hormones such as estrogen to facilitate their removal by excreting them via bile into the intestinal tract. The problem is that beta-glucuronidase, a bacterial enzyme found in the intestines, can break the bond that attaches the glucuronic acid to the toxin. Calcium D-glucarate is the calcium salt of D-glucaric acid typically used in dietary supplements. Calcium D-glucarate has been shown to inhibit beta-glucuronidase.38 The recommended daily dose of calcium-D-glucarate is generally in 1,500 mg, split into three doses.39
• Glutathione—Glutathione conjugation produces water-soluble mercaptates which are excreted via the kidneys, and effectively detoxifies acetaminophen and nicotine. The elimination of fat-soluble compounds, especially heavy metals like mercury and lead, is also dependent upon adequate levels of glutathione. Research shows that silimarin (the active compound in milk thistle) protects against glutathione depletion,40 and increases liver glutathione status.41 A good dose is 175 mg of milk thistle extract standardized to 80 percent silimarin, two to three times daily. Curcumin (a flavonoid in turmeric) helps to promote the flow of bile,42 while increasing the liver’s production of glutathione.43 A dose of 180-360 mg of curcumin daily is appropriate.
• Acetylation—Conjugation of toxins with acetyl-coenzyme A is the primary method by which the body eliminates certain drugs, such as sulfa drugs. The acetylation pathway includes a class of enzymes called N-acetyl transferases (NAT). Quercetin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, and cardioprotective effects.44-46 In one study, 500 mg quercetin daily increased NAT activity by 85 percent.47 N-acetylcysteine (NAC), discussed previously, is an amino acid with an acetyl group.48 As such, it also has the potential to support the acetylation pathway. Pantothenic acid is also a primary precursor of coenzyme A, so named for its role in acetylation reactions.49 A minimum daily dose of 5-10 mg is recommended.
• Amino acids—Amino acid conjugation includes glycine, taurine, glutamine, arginine and ornithine.50,51 Clinically, supplementation with these amino acids has shown great benefit for patients with toxic overload, especially when body cleansing was undertaken contemporaneously.52 For each of these amino acids, about 500-1,000 mg daily is recommended.
• Methylation—Methylation or methyltransferase reactions involve conjugating methyl groups to toxins in phase 2.53 Support for methylation consists of nutrient cofactors and methyl donors, such as methionine (1,000 mg/day), vitamin B12 (100-500 mcg/day), vitamin B6 (10-20 mg/day, betaine (500-1,500 mg/day), and folate (200-800 mcg/day).54
Supporting Intestinal Detoxification
The gut barrier is one of the most important components of the immune system. However, sometimes the gut barrier is compromised. When this happens, the permeability of the epithelial lining allows the passage of toxins, antigens, and bacteria in the lumen to enter the blood stream. The incidence of impaired and increased intestinal wall permeability, also known as leaky gut syndrome (LGS), is now closely studied because of its potential involvement in many health issues and diseases.
Probiotics—Several recent reports have shown that probiotics can help reverse the leaky gut by enhancing the production of tight junctions—different types of proteins in the gut barrier that controls the flow of molecules in the intercellular space between the epithelium cells.55 In human research,56 an oral spore-based probiotic supplement was shown to reduce dietary endotoxemia by 42 percent (a reflection of toxins that have been absorbed through the intestines and is a hallmark sign of intestinal permeability and “leaky gut” syndrome). The probiotics were 4 billion CFU of a commercial spore-based probiotic supplement providing Bacillus indicus (HU36), Bacillus subtilis (HU58), Bacillus coagulans, Bacillus licheniformis and Bacillus clausii.
Prebiotics—Prebiotics can help maintain a healthy population of friendly bacteria (aka, probiotics) in your gut, and to maintain a healthy gut barrier and avoid LGS, is to maintain. Prebiotics are generally some type of carbohydrate that serves as a food for friendly, probiotic bacteria, helping them to grow and keep healthy. Acacia gum is one particular prebiotic that has been shown to be successful in achieving this goal in several studies.
This article provides an introduction to detoxification, and the broad variety of nutraceuticals that can assist the body in its natural detoxification process. These nutraceuticals may be used on a daily basis, albeit at lower levels, to provide ongoing support against the constant barrage of toxins to which we are exposed. They can also be used therapeutically, at full clinical doses to help actively promote detoxification. There are other nutraceuticals that can be used specifically to promote the detoxification of heavy metals such as lead and mercury, but that is the subject for another article (or you can read about it in What’s in Your Blood and Why You Should Care (2019 Square One Publishers).
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Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, the dean of academics for Huntington College of Health Sciences, is a nutritionist, herbalist, writer and educator. For more than 30 years he has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines and peer-reviewed publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.