The detox pathways of our bodies are an unsung hero, especially in this time and age where nearly everything around us is toxic. The pathways are constantly engaged in improving our health and eliminating the toxins that have made their way into our systems. But what exactly does that mean? What is a ‘detox pathway’? Let’s take a look at what’s going on inside your body as it flushes toxic waste out of your system.
What Does Detoxing Mean?
Put simply, detoxing means removing toxins from your system. You live surrounded by toxins in the environment around you and even the products you use, and it's worsened by lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking. Even if you aren’t a smoker, if you live in cities with poor air quality or are frequently inhaling Second Hand Smoke, you are still at risk of lung disease thanks to inhaled toxins.
It’s shocking how the environment we live in seems to be designed to destroy us. But the good news is that your body has a powerhouse detox system, called the detox pathway. It’s comprised of the liver, lungs, kidneys, the GI tract, and the lymphatic system(1). When you ‘do a detox’, you consume foods that will empower your detox pathways to do their job better, despite the toxic load they bear. This article acts as a Detox-101 guide if you want to learn more about what exactly detoxing entails.
How exactly does the detox pathway work? Let’s look at the 3 main phases of the detoxification process.
Waste Makes Waste
The detox process occurs in 3 phases. These phases have different functions and need to be carried out properly for efficient detoxification. It is possible for something to go awry in some phases due to individual lifestyle factors (like micronutrient deficiencies or impaired organ function), which could possibly lead to chronic health issues like cancer and some autoimmune diseases as well(2). Irregular detox processes can cause great harm to the body.
If something goes wrong in any or all of the phases, the detox process ends up making more toxic by-products. Biochemical reactions inside your body produce wastes called intermediate metabolites. For example, phase 1 results in free radicals. Free radicals in the body can accumulate and cause oxidative stress, which is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases, especially heart disease(3, 4). If the detox is successfully carried out and there are enough antioxidants, the free radicals aren’t necessarily a problem as they will be eliminated.
This elimination of by-products depends on the availability of nutrients in your body. Having nutritional deficiencies will hamper your body’s ability to get rid of toxic agents properly. That’s why it’s important to eat the right kinds of food and supplement the nutrients you can’t access through diet alone, so you can support your detox pathways through each phase.
But what are the phases of the detox pathway?
Phase 1 Detox - Activation
The initial detox phase is when a group of enzymes prepares toxic agents to be handled in phase 2. This mainly occurs in the liver, and fat-soluble toxins are converted into partially water-soluble toxins for easier excretion. Phase 1 detox is activated by external toxins like alcohol, xenobiotics like pesticides, inhaling toxic fumes, smoking, caffeine consumption, and even certain medications. Stress hormones, too, are dealt with in this phase.
The group of hormones responsible for carrying out these processes is called CYP450, or Cytochrome P450. They are integral to the detoxification process. Phase 1 itself doesn’t detoxify the body – the enzymes involved convert toxic agents into smaller substances that are easier to detoxify and flush out. They make chemical changes in the substances, via processes like oxidation, hydrolysis, hydration, dehalogenation, and reduction. These chemical reactions create by-products like free radicals (intermediate metabolites), which are dangerous for health. If Phase 2 detox is slow, free radicals can accumulate and lead to oxidative stress. Conversely, if phase 1 is slower than phase 2, the toxic load on the liver increases and can lead to inflammation and other diseases.(5)
Proper phase 1 detox is dependent on certain nutrients like B Vitamins, Vitamin C, minerals like Iron, Zinc, and Magnesium, Glutathione, Inositol, Cysteine, Methionine, Choline, and more. There are certain foods that inhibit phase 1 enzymes as well, such as grapefruits.(2, 5, 6)
- Phase 1 detox occurs mainly in the liver.
- It is activated by external toxins, xenobiotics (chemicals not produced in organisms or the environment), and carcinogens.
- It’s carried out largely by the CYP450 (Cytochrome P450) group of enzymes
- It converts fat-soluble, large toxins into smaller toxins for further detox in the next phase.
- Chemical reactions occur which prepare or ‘activate’ toxins to be processed in Phase 2.
- Phase 1 chemical reactions create toxic by-products called free radicals. Antioxidants can help eliminate free radicals.
Once Phase 1 is complete, the end products move onto Phase 2 of the detox process.
Phase 2 Detox - Conjugation
This is where the body’s systems take the end products of phase 1 detox and add chemical groups or substances to them, making them water soluble. Water soluble toxins are easier for the body to excrete. Different kinds of substances like various amino acids are added to phase 1 end products via processes like glutathionation, methylation, glucuronidation, sulfation, and acetylation.(7, 8)
It is important to note that phase 2 detox is very heavily dependent on nutrient availability in the body. Dietary and supplementary intake of the right nutrients and amino acids is emphasized for proper phase 2 detox. As mentioned before, irregular phase 1 and 2 coordination can cause harm to the body.
- Phase 2 detox adds chemical groups to the end products of Phase 1, making the toxins water-soluble.
- The water-soluble toxins are now ready to be excreted via sweat, urine, feces, etc.
- Phase 2 processes add substances such as amino acids to the end products of Phase 1.
- Phase 2 should not be much faster or slower than Phase 1.
- Phase 2 is heavily supported by proper nutrition.
Once Phase 2 has successfully converted the fat-soluble toxins to water-soluble ones, the next phase of transportation can begin.
Phase 3 Detox - Transportation
Phase 3 detox carries the water-soluble toxins through the kidneys, GI tract, and skin for excretion from the body via urine, stool, or sweat. Phase 3 detox depends on the person having a healthy gut, healthy kidneys, and ideal hydration. If the gut environment is unhealthy or in dysbiosis, it can lead to the production of toxins at this stage. Healthy kidney function and hydration is also ideal. This can lead to inflammation and diseases(2,7). This article has some tips on maintaining a healthy gut microbiome – it affects almost every process in your body!
- Phase 3 detox transports toxins out of the body through urine (via kidneys and bladder), stool (via the GI tract), and sweat (via skin).
- A healthy gut, hydration, and proper kidney function are key to this phase of the detox process.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
When the 3 detox phases work in harmony, the body can successfully flush out the toxins that entered your system from the increasingly toxic environment that we live in. But if mishaps occur at any stage, or in between phases, the consequences could potentially be deadly. The body is a beautiful network of systems that intricately work together in a delicate balance and ensure nothing goes wrong – as long as we keep giving it the right nutrients to do it. You therefore don’t juice cleanses or detox superfoods, your body already has the best detox system in place. You just need to give it the fuel needed to flush out the waste.
Help out your body’s detox systems; live a life that supports the detox pathways instead of adding to the toxic load on your organs. Self care and good health begin on the inside!
- Signs Of Toxic Overload And How To Properly Detox
- Functional Medicine Detox Phases 1, 2, and 3 | Paris Healing Arts
- Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health - PMC
- Oxidative stress, chronic disease, and muscle wasting.
- Detoxification | DNAlysis.
- Phase 1 Detoxification: How Your Body Gets Rid Of Toxins - Xcode Life
- Understanding the 3 Phases of Detoxification
- Breaking Down Phase 2 Detoxification
- Navigating Toxins: the Invisible Hazards Around You – iThrive Essentials
- Gut Guru - Insights to Build Immunity and Gut Health