If You're Missing This Food, You'll Never Be Able To Properly Detox
We live in a world where we are exposed to hundreds of toxins each day, but there's a lot we can do to minimize those exposures and support the body's natural detoxification systems. Certain nutrients and phytonutrients from foods improve the body’s ability to process toxins and lower the total body burden. While a plant-heavy diet is important, there’s a macronutrient my patients are often missing that is critical to detox. High-quality, lean protein is a must. A protein-deficient diet impairs detox pathways in the liver (called phase II conjugation), and it's the reason a juice fast might actually leave you worse off.
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 system1 is dependent on adequate nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and protein. These pathways in the liver transform chemicals, hormones, and toxins into water-soluble metabolites that can then be excreted by the intestines, kidneys, and skin.
Phase I is the first line of defense against toxins in the liver. Phase I reactions occur primarily by cytochrome P450 enzymes, which help transform fat-soluble toxins into less harmful chemicals that can be metabolized by the phase II enzymes. This process produces free radicals, which are quenched by antioxidants (like vitamins C and E). However, if antioxidants can’t meet the demands of excessive toxin exposure, too many free radicals can actually cause damage to the cells in the liver. The danger is if these reactive intermediates build up because they are too numerous to be metabolized by the phase II pathways.
Phase II detoxification makes these intermediate metabolites water-soluble via a process called conjugation. This process involves specific pathways that conjugate (attach) molecules to toxins so they can be excreted by the body. There are six major pathways:
- Glutathione conjugation (more on this to come)
- Methylation (we’ll touch on this below, too)
Glutathione2, our master antioxidant, is the most integral part of detoxification. It prevents damage caused by free radicals and makes toxic chemicals more water-soluble, so we can excrete them. Glutathione is made up of three amino acids (cysteine, glutamine, and glycine), and our body needs to regenerate it all the time. Our body makes glutathione through a process called methylation3. This is an important biochemical process (involved in many functions) that depends on adequate levels of vitamins B6, B12, folate, and trimethylglycine. Taken together, methylation and the production and recycling of glutathione may be the most important biochemical processes our cells perform.
Finally, phase III detoxification transports the transformed, conjugated toxins into bile or urine for excretion by the intestines, kidneys, and skin. As a whole, a well-functioning digestive system—including the liver, gallbladder, and gut—is hugely important to healthy detoxification.
Protein is a cornerstone of detoxification.
Foods that are "bifunctional modulators" of detoxification address both phase I and phase II pathways in the liver. These are mostly derived from plant-based compounds3 found in cruciferous vegetables, alliums (garlic and onions), artichoke, citrus, berries, pomegranate, turmeric, and green tea.
But you can’t optimize detox on fruits and vegetables alone.
Many cleansing diets (like juice fasts) are deficient in protein, which inhibits the body’s ability to get rid of toxins via phase II conjugation. Amino acids4, the building blocks of protein, are essential to the six pathways of phase II detoxification mentioned above. You can’t effectively conjugate toxins without amino acids that bind the transformed toxins in the liver so they can be carried out of the body. And if phase II conjugation is impaired, imbalanced detoxification allows phase I free radicals to build up and cause damage. To put it more simply: Protein helps drag toxins out of the body, and without it these toxins build up.
All proteins are essential for detoxification, particularly those that contain high amounts of the essential amino acid called methionine. Methionine is an important part of the process called methylation, which was mentioned above. And methylation helps our body to make that critical compound called glutathione. Methionine is most abundant in beef, Brazil nuts, brown rice, chicken, chickpeas, lentils, turkey, pinto beans, sesame seeds, and soy.
So don’t demonize soy quite yet. While it is true that overly processed, genetically modified soy is an issue, soy contains compounds that are important for detoxification3. This includes methionine, as well as isoflavones, which influence phase I and phase II liver detoxification and healthy estrogen metabolism.
It’s also worth mentioning whey protein. While I’m not a fan of dairy and don’t use whey protein myself, there's good evidence that high-quality whey protein is one of the best food sources of glutathione. However, this comes with a lot of caveats, and the majority of whey protein you’ll find in stores is not suitable. Whey protein should be biologically active, non-denatured, cold-processed, and derived from organic, grass-fed, and hormone-free raw milk (and only used by people who tolerate dairy well).
Food quality is key.
It’s important to emphasize high-quality, organic proteins that have a low toxic burden. Avoidance of pesticides, hormones, and heavy metals is especially important when we are talking about detoxification.
Omnivores can rely on a variety of high-quality, organic, lean animal protein like pastured eggs, chicken, grass-fed beef, buffalo, and lamb. People who eat fish should choose wild-caught, low-mercury fish like anchovies, clams, flounder, mackerel, oysters, salmon, sardines, scallops, sole, and trout. Most vegetarians can safely rely on organic, non-GMO miso, natto, tofu, and tempeh. High-quality, pure hemp or pea protein powders are also an option.
Remember, our body’s ability to detoxify is a complex process that requires a lot of energy from nutrient-dense foods—including organic whole fruits, vegetables, and high-quality protein. Be sure that your body is getting the nutritional support it needs to facilitate the pathways involved in processing and removing toxins. Ideally, this includes some protein at each meal for ongoing support of liver detox. In the end, long-standing, improved elimination and detoxification can help improve fatigue, sleep, cognitive function, mood, and weight loss, to name a few.
But just how much protein should you be eating in a day? We got to the bottom of things.
Christine Maren, D.O., is the founder of a high-tech, functional medical practice in Colorado, Michigan, and Texas. She received her degree from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University and is board-certified by the American Board of Family Medicine, and is also an Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner. Her upbringing inspired an interest in holistic medicine at an early age, but it was her own personal health challenges with chronic digestive issues, hypothyroidism, gluten intolerance, and recurrent pregnancy loss that motivated her to study functional medicine. Using the functional medicine model, she works with patients to identify and treat the root causes of chronic disease. Her approach to patient care is individualized and personalized, with an emphasis on the ways our environment, food, and lifestyle choices interact with our genes.