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How detoxification works, and how it is approached from a GAPS™ (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) perspective.
Recently my husband brought an article from the Guardian to my attention that was titled:
The article byline went on to say:
There's no such thing as 'detoxing'. In medical terms, it's a nonsense. Diet and exercise is the only way to get healthy. But which of the latest fad regimes can really make a difference? We look at the facts.
With a measure of skepticism, I read the article. What was the author's aim in claiming a basic biochemical process to be a myth? Was this another example of media sensationalism?
I had a hunch that it might be an example of how we moderns seek facts at the expense of truths.
We seek answers that work for everyone and throw out the mysteries of bio-individual nuances. Leaving no room for one man's meat to be another man's poison.
While the article did a good job of pointing out fallacies in the detox 'industry', I felt there were issues skirted around...that there were elements of truth mixed with elements of contradiction and sensationalism.
Sensationalism - the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement: media sensationalism.
Since purification and cleansing processes have been around for thousands of years and since gentle detoxification support is an important piece of the GAPS™ Protocol, of which I am a practitioner, it seemed a good project to take another look at the topic of detoxification as a whole.
This article will attempt to be a primer on detoxification (i.e. scratching the surface of this complex system) and it will also be an explanation of how detoxification is handled from a GAPS perspective.
- Detoxification - the Big Ideas
- How detoxification works - the basics
- How the 6 Foundations of nutritional therapy support detoxification
- How the GAPS™ Protocol supports detoxification
- The 3 main parts of GAPS detoxification
Toxins (basic dictionary definition): An antigenic poison or venom of plant or animal origin, especially one produced by or derived from microorganisms and causing disease when present at low concentration in the body.
Toxins (from a functional nutrition perspective): Essentially any substance that creates irritating and/or harmful effects in the body.
What am I referring to when I discuss toxins in this article?
- Metabolic poisons due to both nutritional deficiencies and normal biochemical processes/byproducts (endogenous)
- Environmental and industrial pollution, xenobiotics (exogenous)
Detoxification: (in relation to biochemical processes) the metabolic process by which toxins are changed into less toxic or more readily excretable substances.' [source]
From my perspective, the word 'detoxing' is used interchangeably with 'detoxification'. It is recognized and studied medically as a (complex and unique) biochemical process.
'Detox' has certainly been usurped by industry to sell products and programs, and that is what Mr. Mohammadi is correct in criticizing. However, to lump all detox in one category as useless? This is not equitable nor accurate.
With 80,000+ different chemicals/combined chemicals [source] not known to nature, radiation, heavy metal exposure, air & water pollution, stress chemicals, bacterial/parasitic/fungal overgrowth, poorly digested foods, and normal cellular/metabolic wastes, our bodies need support (to do what they naturally do) more than ever before.
A normally functioning body is able to handle toxins, however, our intake is in excess and our elimination is too often compromised.
Conventional medicine tends to think of bodies as either 'sick' or 'healthy' with no intermediate between. Functional medicine is the 'in-between', the medicine that focuses on an optimally functioning body and organs, rather than waiting for a disease state before one does something about one's health.
The human body wants to be healthy. With support, it will cleanse, reconstruct, and keep you safe.
Based on my work & experience with GAPS, I would say that anyone can support their system of detoxification at relatively little expense, using what tools and resources are available to them. Let us talk about the big ideas of detoxification.
Detoxification - the Big Ideas
1. Detoxification is a parasympathetic process.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic division and the parasympathetic division. These two divisions have antagonistic (opposing) effects on the internal organs they act on.
The sympathetic division is the emergency department. It prepares the body to put out energy and to protect it from effects of an injury. It shuts digestion down, speeds up the heart, increases blood pressure, dilates the pupils of the eyes, makes more glucose (blood sugar) available in the blood for energy, etc. Cannon described these reactions as preparation for fight or flight (running away). [source]
The parasympathetic division is the housekeeping department. It acts to replace and recover from the activities of living. Its action is (almost always) the opposite of the sympathetic division. It activates the gut for digestion, slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, etc. [source]
It is when the parasympathetic division is in charge that we are able to detoxify efficiently. In order for the body to manage its detoxification processes, it depends on rest and the body cannot do this if it is under a lot of stress in the sympathetic state.
The sympathetic mode is linked to kinesis, movement, and activity. If the body perceives this as a priority, then digestion, healing, detoxification, and repair come secondary.
Also, worth noting is that detoxification comes secondary to digestion. Even though they both occur in the parasympathetic mode, digestion is first in the body's priorities.
2. Detoxification frees up the vital activities of cells and organs to function productively and efficiently.
You can think of this like cleaning your desk of clutter and papers so that you can do your work efficiently and happily.
Cells need three basic things:
- food (nutrients)
- conversation (cell-to-cell communication)
- a clean house (proper elimination of wastes and toxins)
(Sounds like my basic needs!)
When cells don't have their needs met, they don't function well (neither do you and I, right?) which disrupts the organs comprised of these cells, in turn making us susceptible to damage, viruses, and bacteria.
3. In nutritional therapy, we never detoxify without addressing the foundations of health first - diet, digestion, blood sugar handling, fatty acid status, mineral status, and hydration.
I'll cover this more in depth in a little bit.
How detoxification works - the basics
Detoxification is the way the body heals and repairs itself, and always has. It's an internal cleansing process that takes place continuously and naturally.
The major systems involved in detoxification include:
- Cardiovascular - blood flow and transport of nutrients and toxins
- Lymphatic - lymph channels and lymph nodes
- Digestive - liver, gallbladder, colon, and the GI tract
- Urinary - kidneys, bladder, and urethra
- Skin & dermal - sweat, sebaceous glands, and tears
- Respiratory - lungs, bronchial tubes, throat, sinuses, and nose
Blood is our link to every organ and tissue, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell, and at the same time carrying away metabolic wastes.
Blood transports molecules around the body to cleanse detoxification sites such as the liver and skin and provides an express highway for the immune system.
Lymph (like blood) is another important fluid in detoxification.
A colorless fluid containing white blood cells, lymph bathes the tissues and drains through the lymphatic system into the bloodstream. It acts as a pre-filter to the liver and flows through the lymph nodes where bacteria, viruses, and organic material are filtered out. This helps to prevent liver overload.
After the lymph is filtered, it returns to the bloodstream through the thoracic duct in the chest.
It is important to note that there are no 'pumps' to drive lymphatic circulation like there are in the cardiovascular system. Lymph flows through its system at the rate of 3 liters/day. In comparison to blood flow (5 liters/minute), it is very slow. Lymph is propelled purely by the action of movement...skeletal muscles, movement of the lungs, and the contraction of smooth muscle fibers. Movement and exercise are critical for moving the lymph fluid!
One could say detoxification starts in the stomach. Detoxification is a heavily nutrient-dependent process, principally amino acid based, which must come from proteins in the diet that are properly broken down by stomach acid and pepsins.
The gallbladder plays its part as well. Its first main function is to emulsify our fats with bile, but another function of bile is to be the 'river' in which the liver dumps its toxins for excretion through the bowel.
The inner microbial population in our GI tract also plays a huge role in toxin management. Microbes do a portion of the detoxification work for us. As soon as the microbial balance is 'off', food is not digested well and becomes food for pathogens and a source of more toxins.
And of course, we can't talk about digestion and detoxification without talking about the liver, the headquarters for the detox system. One of its 500+ jobs is to filter toxins from the blood and neutralize the toxins in preparation for elimination. This happens in two phases.
Phase I Liver Detoxification
In this phase, the liver uses enzymes (such as cytochrome P-450) to break down toxins into intermediate metabolites, sometimes even more toxic than they started. Some are ready to be excreted right away via the colon, but most need to go through Phase II liver detoxification.
Phase II Liver Detoxification
This is the second cycle of detoxification through the liver, in which there are six channels that further break down the toxins from Phase I, binding them to protein molecules that "escort" them out of the body via the bile (out the digestive system), or the kidneys.
Fat-soluble substances become water-soluble so they can be removed from the body.
These six channels are:
- Glutathione conjugation
- Peptide conjugation
Toxins that are properly attached to their protein transports and ready for elimination can then leave via urine(through the kidneys) or the stool (through the GI tract). The kidney's main job is to act as another blood filter, removing cellular wastes.
The sweat glands of the skin function like a second kidney, another of the body's avenues for elimination. With a surface area covering 11,000 square feet, therapies that induce sweating through the skin (like sauna) can be a very effective way to remove toxins from the body.
The lungs eliminate toxins as well, mainly the metabolic toxin carbon dioxide, but also other toxins.
Exercise increases blood circulation which allows the whole respiratory system to work better at eliminating wastes.
How the 6 Foundations of Nutritional Therapy support detoxification
In Nutritional therapy training we are taught six (physical) pillars of health. All six foundations have a connection to detoxification, which are:
- Diet - processed, lifeless food is seen by the body as a toxin and thus a burden. We need nutrients from healthy food for the processes of detoxification, and overeating shunts energy to digestion, away from detox.
- Digestion - as mentioned prior, the digestive system plays a large role in detoxification.
- Blood Sugar Regulation - the liver is a key worker in both detoxification, digestion, and blood sugar regulation (it has 500+ jobs after all). When there is blood sugar dysregulation, the liver has to work even harder to deal with hormonal imbalances like cortisol and glucagon causing general stress and overwork to the liver. Blood sugar spikes also deplete B vitamins like B6 which is needed for all liver enzyme functions and neurotransmitter synthesis. B2 is important in Phase I detox as well.
- Fats/Fatty Acid Status - Fat tissue stores difficult to remove toxic waste to 'save it for later' when it is safer to dispose of it. Bile is built from healthy fats and bile is our 'river' for toxins to be excreted in the bowel. Having a balance of fatty acids keeps our cell membranes properly permeable...allowing toxins out and nutrients in.
- Mineral Status - Certain minerals will act as antagonists to heavy metals, keeping them from accumulating in our tissues. Detoxification can also cause the pH of the blood to be too acidic and minerals help balance pH. Minerals (like molybdenum & manganese) activate the metabolic and detoxing enzymes.
- Hydration - Proper hydration keeps the bowels/urine flushing and allows for good fluidity in the blood, lymph, liver, perspiration, and respiration, all detox pathways.
How the GAPS™ Protocol supports detoxification
The GAPS Protocol does an excellent job of tying in the foundations...as well as being a safe detoxification protocol. There are no high-end products to buy, no rice powders or potions...only traditional methods that have been used for centuries.
The GAPS Protocol naturally removes damaging elements so they get out of the way of the body's own inherent mechanisms of renewal, repair, and healing.
Dr. Campbell-McBride likes to note that the detoxification system (and the body as a whole) is very complex and there is still much being learned about it. What we do know is that the detoxification system, in order to function well, needs a continual supply of certain nutrients: zinc, magnesium, selenium, molybdenum and other minerals and trace elements, hundreds of enzymes, many amino acids, and essential fats...all substances which GAPS children and adults are typically deficient in.
Due to these deficiencies the detoxification system cannot function at an optimum level in a GAPS person. At the same time, this system is overloaded with work, because GAPS people are very toxic people.
Imagine a worker, overworked and starved of food and drink, at the same time being given more and more work to do. How will he/she cope? They will put most of this work into a backlog, hoping for easier times when they will be able to attend to it.
This is exactly how the detoxification system operates in a GAPS person...it stores various toxic substances in different tissues in the body in order to deal with them later. So if these folks are tested for heavy metals, petrochemicals and other toxins they test positive.
Unfortunately, many of these chemicals have a liking for fats and, therefore, get stored in body fats. The human brain and the rest of the nervous system have a very high proportion of fats in their tissues and become an attractive storage site for toxins.
The GAPS Nutritional Protocol gently restores the detoxification system. Once this system starts functioning it starts removing toxic metals (such as mercury, lead and others) and other toxins. Dr. Campbell-McBride sees in her clinic how toxic metal levels reduce dramatically in the patient's tests while on the GAPS program, without applying any special measures to remove them. Toxins need to be removed safely and delicately, which is what the human body knows to do...it simply needs to be supported.
Implementing GAPS is enough for the majority of GAPS people to detoxify naturally. However, a small percentage of patients remain whose toxic load is too large and who need special measures. These measures can be applied later in the GAPS program. GAPS detoxification, in general, is gentle, consistent, natural, supportive and non-invasive. The body's nutrient stores are rebuilt first, so the body can use its intelligence to do what it needs to do.
The healthier a person is the more efficiently their body will detox. The sicker a person is the slower one will need to proceed and the more support given. Exercise caution to not lose weight too fast, as toxins stored in fat are then mobilized and can overwhelm the body in detox, causing compensatory physiology such as inflammation and blood pressure elevation. The more solid foods you eliminate the more the body will signal to detox.
The 3 main parts of GAPS™ detoxification
The GAPS Nutritional Protocol is full of building and nourishing foods such as animal fats and proteins. However, it also includes cleansing foods like juicing as an important component.
Juicing is implemented either right away in Full GAPS, or during Stage 4 of the Introduction Diet. Hundreds of scientific studies have been published on the health benefits of fresh raw fruit and vegetables. Juices provide all the nutrients of fruits and vegetables in a concentrated form and in large amounts, minus the fiber which can irritate the sensitive digestive system of a GAPS person.
There is almost no work involved in digesting fresh pressed juice, absorbing in 20 - 25 minutes, and providing the body with concentrated amounts of nutrients. (Kids love juices too!)
Drinking at least two cups of freshly extracted juice will provide you with lots of essential vitamins, magnesium, selenium, zinc and other minerals, amino acids and many more nutrients, which GAPS people are deficient in. The concentrated amounts help to remove nutritional deficiencies faster.
*See my articles on juicing and GAPS, along with the recipe for the GAPS 'milkshake'.
*Only organic fruit and vegetables should be used, as non-organic contain pesticides and other agricultural chemicals...by juicing non-organic produce you will get a glass containing concentrated amounts of those chemicals...the very substances you are trying to clear.
*Juices are best taken on an empty stomach 20-25 minutes before food and 2 - 2 1/2 hours after a meal.
2. Detox baths
Along with juicing, baths are very old and traditional for gently and effectively removing toxins. The skin takes in nutrients from the bath, and releases toxins into the water. The best bath additions are choosing 1/2 - 1 cup of (alternating):
- Epsom salts
- Baking soda
- Sea salt
- Seaweed powder
- Apple cider vinegar
Slowly work up to higher temperatures and longer bath times, as it increases the effect, with the optimal being 30 - 50 minutes at a nice hot temperature. Baths can bring a detox reaction so again, start slowly (5 - 10 minutes), with a quick rinse afterward, and an application of natural oil (olive, sesame, coconut, tallow, etc.) on the skin. Bedtime is the best time so that you can rest afterward!
3. Reduce general toxic load
The GAPS Protocol is amazing for sick kids and families. It's a serious program - you may not have conditions that merit employing all of the practices involved. However, you will ease your body's burden if you move in the direction of these steps of reducing the general toxic load.
- Avoid all man-made chemicals
- Replace & reduce all personal care products & use natural alternatives
- Brush teeth with olive oil & baking soda (or natural clay tooth powder/paste)
- Wash hair with shampoo that has recognizable ingredients, or even use raw egg yolks
- Move towards washing with simply water or castile soap
- Avoid redecorating & other exposure to chemicals during healing
- Keep a chemical free house
Other GAPS™ detox supports/tools
- Therapeutic amounts of sunshine & seawater (no sunscreens with harmful chemicals)
- Skin brushing
- Natural chelation with freshly pressed juices, probiotics, fermented foods, seaweed, humic acids, spirulina & algae, coriander & other herbs
I will leave you with this quote by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride:
The important thing for you is to never give up and trust your body: your body knows what it needs at any moment. You need to develop a real connection with your body, to learn to listen to it and have a deep love and respect for it. Because it is your body that is doing the healing, not the diet or supplements or anything else! Your recovery process is a partnership between you and your body. So, don't try to impose anything on your body without asking it first if it agrees with that. You body will let you know through feelings: something that is right for you will feel good. If it doesn't feel good deep inside you then don't do it despite the fact that it may seem like a good idea. Your mind is affected by many different things and can deceive you, while your body is always right. We have lost touch with our nature and it takes time to learn to listen to our bodies and our souls. But as you learn, you will become more and more successful, and not only at your physical recovery, but many other aspects of life.