Dr Libby: What Is Detoxification, Really? Tips To Help You Love Your Liver

By Dr Libby Weaver
In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights. Photo / Babiche Martens

You read everywhere these days that for beautiful skin and great health, you need to do a “detox”. Well, your body is always detoxifying; you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.

However, the lifestyle choices you make impact how efficiently the liver and other organs involved in daily detoxification can

Virtually all cells in the body have detoxification actions but the liver is the main detoxification organ.

Liver loaders

Your liver takes any substance that would be harmful to you if it were to accumulate and converts them into less harmful versions of the original substance to be safely incorporated into your urine or faeces for elimination.

For example, alcohol is a poison to the human body that we can’t actually excrete. The liver must change alcohol into a substance called acetaldehyde so we can get rid of it.

There is only so much the liver is able to convert at once so if you wake up with a throbbing head after consuming too much alcohol, it’s typically a sign that you’re struggling to deal with a build-up of acetaldehyde. Yet, alcohol is hardly the only substance that the liver must cope with.

I affectionately call the substances that the liver has to deal with “liver loaders”. They include alcohol, of course, and also trans fats (found in processed cakes, biscuits, some packaged foods and deep-fried foods), refined sugars, caffeine, synthetic substances (such as pesticides, artificial food and drink additives and medications), as well as substances the body makes itself such as cholesterol and oestrogen.

There are also the problematic substances we absorb from what we put on our skin. Far too many people are exposed to or consuming more liver loaders than their liver can handle. To compound this problem, many are also not consuming enough of the nutrients that the liver needs to do its job efficiently.

The phases of detox

A useful way to imagine how the liver does its detoxification work is that there are three roads into the liver — referred to as phase 1 — and six roads out, known as phase 2. The biochemical reactions of these two phases are driven by specific nutrients.

Iron, in particular, is essential to phase 1, which begins the transformation process. Yet iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, with 20-30 per cent of women across their menstruation years being deficient.

We know we need iron for energy as it’s involved in oxygen transportation throughout the body, yet what’s less known is iron’s crucial role in detoxification. Amino acids and sulphur are critical for phase 2, which takes the partially changed substances (from phase 1) and shuttles them along one of the six phase 2 roads.

Yet, if we are deficient in some (or all) of the nutrients needed as catalysts to these reactions, they won’t work as efficiently as they will when we are getting all we need nutritionally. Eat nutrient-dense foods to give your biochemical pathways what they need to function at their best.

For the liver, this includes iron-rich foods such as red meats, eggs and mussels. Protein-based foods supply amino acids and sulphur is found in the Brassica genus of vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and cauliflower), eggs, onions, garlic and shallots.

Yet, even if you are consuming an abundance of liver-loving foods, it’s also wise to consider how many liver loaders are going in. Most liver loaders tend to slow down the phase 2 pathways. However, one liver loader, caffeine, speeds up phase 1 and while this might sound like a good thing, it can make things worse for some people.

The best way to picture it is this: if the phase 2 roads are clear and the traffic on them is flowing, the phase 1 road speeding up will simply result in efficient detoxification. However, for too many people, traffic on the phase 2 pathways is all banked up like traffic on a motorway. If this is the case, when you speed up phase 1, the slightly changed (partially detoxified) substance has no road in phase 2 to transition across to.

When the process hits a roadblock

To deal with this, imagine that the liver has a trapdoor and it releases the slightly changed form of the problematic substance back out into the blood supply. This is obviously not ideal since your body sent it to the liver to be detoxified as it wanted it gone from inside you, not back in the blood where it is going to flow through all your vital organs.

So the body has a clever alternative solution: the problematic substance is sent into storage, typically in body fat cells or bone. This can be a contributing factor to why some people might have trouble shifting body fat. Why would the body decide to draw these substances back into the bloodstream if the detoxification pathways are still overwhelmed?

To look and feel your best, you want detoxification to be a highly efficient process. For exceptional health, great skin and oodles of energy, be honest with yourself about the liver loaders in your life as well as your intake of whole real foods.

You may find it helpful to focus on taking good care of yourself and nourishing yourself, rather than on what you may need to consume less of, as that in itself can feel overwhelming or exhausting and just another thing to do.

The liver plays a significant role in our experience of energy as well as in the metabolism of countless substances that are linked to whether the body gets the message to burn body fat or store it, not to mention disease prevention. We only have one liver. Love it accordingly.

Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied
Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker. To learn more about how to support detoxification in your body, join the Detox by Dr Libby programme at Drlibby.com

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