The final challenge to adopting a Paleo diet is impaired detox capacity. If you can’t detox properly, even the healthiest Paleo diet won’t be enough to resolve your symptoms.
The liver is the main organ of detoxification. It’s primary job is to convert toxins — most of which are fat-soluble — into water soluble compounds that can then be excreted. But there’s so much more to detoxification than the liver.
The list of symptoms caused by impaired detox capacity is nearly endless, but in my work with patients I’ve observed the following common patterns:
- Hormone imbalances (especially in women). Defects in detoxification cause hormones to become partially metabolized, blocking the action of active hormones and throwing off natural feedback mechanisms.
- Skin breakouts and rashes. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and the most likely to be affected by detox issues.
- Energy problems. One important aspect of detoxification, called methylation, plays a key role in cellular energy production.
- Depression and mood disorders. Methylation is also crucial for proper neurotransmitter synthesis.
- Brain fog and cognitive decline. Proper methylation is required for the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that profoundly affects mental clarity.
As you can see, there’s not much that goes on in the body that doesn’t depend on healthy detoxification. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that your liver is functioning as efficiently as possible.
Are You Boosting All 3 Phases of Detoxification?
Detoxification can be broken roughly into three stages:
- Phase I: conversion of fat-soluble toxins (hormones, bacteria, neurotransmitters, endotoxins, medications, chemicals, etc.) into water-soluble toxins.
- Phase II: neutralizes the free radicals generated in Phase I, and acts on some toxins that aren’t processed by Phase I enzymes.
- Phase III: excretion of toxins from Phase I and Phase II in feces and urine.
Detoxification is a complex process, involving hundreds of enzymes and multiple genes. But don’t worry — I’m going to make it easier to understand by using an analogy (borrowed from Charles Poliquin).
Phase I is like taking the garbage from the various cans in your house to your big trash can in the backyard or side yard. Phase II is like taking the large garbage can out to the curb. And Phase III is like the garbage truck coming and removing the contents of your garbage can. As you can imagine, if any one of these steps doesn’t happen, there’s going to be a build-up of garbage (toxins) in your house (body).
Let’s look at the three main causes of impaired detox capacity.
Increased toxic burden
The liver is naturally designed to rid the body of excess toxins. But the environment we (and thus our livers!) evolved in did not have even remotely the level of toxins we’re exposed to now, nor were we faced with the numerous aspects of the modern lifestyle that decrease detox capacity (i.e. stress, sleep deprivation, chronic disease, etc.). This means that in many cases our exposure to toxins has exceeded our body’s ability to safely process them.
Let’s face it: we live in a toxic world. Each year the toxic burden in our air, food and water – and thus our bodies – grows higher than ever before. Companies manufacture 6.5 trillion pounds of 9,000 different chemicals each year. That’s about 3.25 billion tons – enough to fill an ocean supertanker. And the same companies release over 7 billion pounds of 650+ different pollutants into the atmosphere and water.
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found the average person has over 91 toxic chemicals in their body. Some people had as many as 165, including 76 known to cause cancer, 94 known to be toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 79 known to cause birth defects and abnormal fetal development. (1)
As if that wasn’t enough, the Standard American Diet itself is highly toxic. Processed and refined foods, industrial seed oils, high fructose corn syrup, and even so-called healthy foods like whole grains and soy all have a toxic effect on the body.
Methylation plays a crucial role in detoxification, and it’s a vital metabolic process that happens in every cell and organ of the body. It’s so important that it takes place more than a billion times a second in the body, and human life would not exist without it. Methylation is involved in everything from tissue growth and repair, to cellular communication, to turning genes on and off, to cellular energy production to the production and regulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine.
Proper methylation is dependent upon adequate levels of B12 and folate, among other nutrients. B12 helps to convert the potentially toxic compound homocysteine into the much safer compound methionine, and also helps feed fuel into the Krebs cycle to produce ATP, the fundamental energy “currency” of the cell. B12 deficiency is common with vegetarian and vegan diets, as many of you know. (2) What you may not know is that low stomach acid and other digestive issues can impair the absorption of B12 and cause deficiency even in those that are eating meat and other B12 containing foods. What’s more, some people may have sufficient levels of the inactive form of B12 (cyanocobalamin), but due to impaired liver function they have sub-optimal levels of the active forms of B12 (methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin). Regardless of the cause, low levels of active B12 will lead to poor methylation. (See my article on B12 for more on identifying and treating B12 deficiency.)
Folate deficiency can also cause poor methylation. Inadequate dietary intake is rarely the cause. Instead, genetic defects in the enzyme (MTHFR) that convert less active forms of folate into more active forms of folate are more commonly to blame. Statistics suggest that roughly 40% of Americans are carriers of MTHFR mutations, while 10% have the condition. (Some clinicians, myself included, have observed that even carriers — who are supposedly not affected — have impaired methylation capacity.) Some ethnic groups may be affected more than others; for example, up to 12% of Caucasian Americans and 15% of Hispanic Americans have MTHFR deficiency, while only 2% of African Americans and 3% of Asian Americans have it.
Modern lifestyle and chronic disease
One of the foundational principles of the ancestral health movement is that humans are not genetically and biologically adapted to our current lifestyle. This “mismatch” has numerous consequences, but in the context of our discussion on detoxification the most important one is glutathione depletion. Glutathione is the master antioxidant, a tripeptide composed of three amino acids (cysteine, glutamate and glycine) that’s found in all cells. It conjugates several different types of toxins in Phase I, and in Phase II it quenches free radicals produced in Phase I. Glutathione also protects us from oxidative damage. I like to think of it as a bullet-proof vest: if we have enough glutathione, we’re relatively well-protected against oxidation. If we don’t, we’re much more vulnerable to the harmful effects of oxidation. This is significant since most, if not all modern, chronic diseases involve oxidative damage.
The good news is that our bodies are capable of producing glutathione. The bad news is that glutathione is easily depleted by stress, environmental toxins, medications, trauma, aging, illness and micronutrient deficiencies. Studies have repeatedly found the highest glutathione levels in the young and fit, and the lowest in the elderly, infirm and inactive. (3) Moreover, according to Dr. Mark Hyman, approximately 1/3 of Americans are missing an important gene needed to create and recycle glutathione. (4) Taken together, this means that nearly everyone is subject to some degree of glutathione depletion, which in turn means that most people are not detoxing or protecting themselves from oxidative damage at full capacity.
How to supercharge your detox capacity
As I’ve explained above, impaired detox function can be caused by either an increase in the toxic burden, a decrease in detox capacity, or both. It follows, then, that to optimize your detox capacity you should address the issue from both sides.
Reduce your toxic burden
The most obvious first step is to remove all food toxins from your diet. This means ditching processed foods, industrial seed oils, and refined sugar, as well as improperly prepared grains, legumes and other foods with toxic effects on the body. Fortunately, the Paleo diet is inherently low in food toxins (which of course is one of the reasons it works so well), so if you’re already following a Paleo template you’ll be in good shape here.
The second step is to take steps to reduce your exposure to chemicals at home. This means choosing non-toxic household cleaning, bath, beauty and hygiene products. Mark Sisson wrote a great article about this a while back. Check it out here if you need some tips in this area.
Improve your detox capacity
The next step is to improve your detox capacity. This means ensuring that all three phases (I, II & III) are functioning optimally. One of the biggest problems with many commercial detox products is that they only contain nutrients that upregulate Phase I detox. This is dangerous, because for every toxin that is converted in Phase I a free radical is generated. (Free radicals damage cells and contribute to oxidative damage.) These free radicals are neutralized in Phase II, but if you boost Phase I detox without addressing defects in Phase II, you’ll increase the amount of free radicals produced without improving the body’s ability to deal with them. That’s making a bad situation worse.
For most people, focusing on improving methylation and boosting glutathione levels is the best approach to restoring optimal detoxification.
- Methylation: the key to improving methylation is ensuring adequate levels of active B12 and folate and methylation co-factors like B6 and betaine (a.k.a. trimethylglycine). For best results look for a blend that contains all of these nutrients in synergistic amounts.
- Glutathione: glutathione levels can be naturally increased by consuming raw dairy products, sulfur-rich foods (garlic, onions and cruciferous veggies); by exercising regularly; and by avoiding things that deplete glutathione when possible (mentioned above). There are several nutrients that are required for glutathione synthesis and/or can help boost gluathione levels, including N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), alpha lipoic acid, selenium, B12, folate, B6, and glycine. In addition to these nutrients, several botanicals have been shown to increase the intracellular recycling of glutathione, including milk thistle, cordyceps, gotu kola, and brocooli seed (which has a particularly beneficial effect on Phase II detox). I think it’s best to take a wide range of these nutrients and botanicals in moderate doses rather than very high doses of any one of them.
If you’ve been following this series, you’ll notice a theme developing:
- In my work with patients, I started to notice three main challenges to adopting and feeling great on a Paleo diet: digestive issues,, impaired fat burning, and impaired detox capacity.
- In many cases, dietary tweaks alone were not enough to resolve the issues these patients were experiencing (which is why they came to see me in the first place).
- When I looked for supplements that could address these issues, there weren’t any that were a perfect fit. There were a lot that came fairly close, but they all had at least one fatal flaw or they were missing some key ingredients.
- So I decided to create them myself, with the help of one of the smartest guys (with a background in microbiology) in the Paleo world: Robb Wolf.
- Thus the Paleologix line was born.
The detox formula is no exception. When I looked around at what was available, I wasn’t satisfied. Too many products didn’t address Phase II detox. Or they didn’t include substances that improve intracellular recycling of glutathione, which is just as (if not more) important than boosting glutathione levels. Or they contained folic acid instead of folate (read this article to find out why that’s bad), or inactive B12 (cyanocobalamin) instead of active B12 (methylcobalamin). Or they didn’t include anything for Phase III detox. (This is one reason we recommend taking all four Paleologix formulas together; it made more sense to put the cholagogues that improve Phase III in the digestive formula.) And being the perfectionist that I am, I couldn’t deal with those compromises. I wanted the perfect blend — so I made it.
Look out for the final article in this series on Tuesday, and the official launch of Paleologix by the end of next week.
Now I’d like to hear from you: do you suspect you might have detox issues? Are you experiencing skin breakouts, hormone imbalances, depression, anxiety or mood disorders, or any of the other problems I’ve mentioned in this article? What have you found to be helpful?
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