Understanding liver detoxification

January is a time when many people make decisions to take better care of their health, especially after the social Christmas season which can involve an excess of rich foods and alcohol. Perhaps you are thinking of 'doing a detox'.

Most people don't realise that detoxification is a normal biological function that happens in the body every minute of every day. As you read this article, your liver, kidneys and bowels are busy detoxifying.

A toxin is a substance which interferes with the healthy processes of the body. We can be exposed to toxins such as alcohol, air-borne fumes, agricultural and industrial chemicals, food additives, medical and recreational drugs, and heavy metals such as mercury, through our lifestyles and habits. Additionally, toxins can be created within the body as by-products from the breakdown of our own metabolites, such as hormones, and also from faulty digestion leading to the overgrowth of harmful intestinal bacteria.

Any health problem can be worsened with toxic overload, but common indications of excess toxicity can be headaches, muscle and joint pain and inflammation, hormonal problems, allergies, fatigue, chemical sensitivity, mood disorders, skin problems, weight gain, and poor concentration.

The natural detoxification which occurs in the body involves a series of processes mainly involving the digestive system, liver and kidneys. The body carries out processes known as Phase 1, 11, and 111 Detoxification. Toxins are generally soluble only in fats, so Phase 1 enzymes transform the toxins into more water-soluble forms which can be further broken down. This mostly occurs in the liver, but also in some other cells.

Phase 11 involves enzyme pathways which transform the partially converted 'reactive intermediates', which at this stage can be very harmful, into non-toxic compounds.

Phase 111 activities then transport the breakdown products so they can be effectively eliminated via the gut and the kidneys. Up to 25% of toxins are removed via the kidneys, after being processed via Phase 1 and 11 enzymes.

For a healthy response, these phases need to synchronise. Unfortunately there are many things which can go wrong. If the toxin exposure is high, including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, Phase 1 can be overactivated, and Phase 11 is unable to keep up, leaving harmful 'reactive intermediates' to cause cell damage. Phase 11 is also susceptible to weakness because the complex processes require adequate enzyme functions as well as nutrients such as amino acids from protein foods which may be deficient in the diet.

The classic symptom of overactive Phase 1 with deficient Phase 11 is extreme sensitivity to chemicals, foods and smells or fumes. Many people present with this symptom. Grapefruit can be eaten to slow down an overactive Phase 1, enabling Phase 11 to catch up. However this should not be used with certain medications because it can slow the excretion of these substances. It is helpful to include anti-oxidants in the diet and possibly also in a supplement form. Anti-oxidants help prevent the damage caused by reactive intermediates. Fruits and vegetables, especially berries, are high in anti-oxidants, and an Alpha Lipoic Acid supplement specifically supports this liver detoxification mechanism. There are herbal medicines which support healthy liver detoxification. St. Mary's Thistle and Tumeric are my favourites for balancing Phase 1 and 11 processes, along with broccoli in the diet.

In Phase 111 detoxification, excretion of toxins via the kidneys is compromised if the urine is too acidic. This frequently shows on a Urinary pH test. The urine must be at the ideal pH level otherwise the toxins are reabsorbed. The most effective support is an alkalinising diet, high in fruits and vegetables. A beneficial way to increase alkalinity is to add liquid chlorophyll to your drinking water.

For general detoxification support, the above tips can be used. Additionally, reducing environmental (including dietary) exposure to toxins, and drinking plenty of water, are advised. Traditionally with water or juice fasting, protein is withdrawn, and Phase 11 is unable to keep up with Phase 1, leaving a high toxic load unable to be processed, and people feel very unwell. This is no longer recommended. Science has taught us how to do safe and effective detoxification programmes with our current understanding. For a specific safe detoxification programme, I recommend consulting a qualified natural health practitioner.

Trish Clough has been a practising herbalist for more than 30 years. The information in the column is meant for general interest only and should not be considered as medical advice. You can follow her blog at

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