Detox Series Part III: Mechanisms of Detoxification – The Liver

From the moment we wake up in the morning to the minute we fall asleep at night, and even the hours in between, our bodies are constantly exposed to toxins, both inside and out. The human body is bombarded with toxins every minute of every day: they are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume, and produced within the body from various metabolic activities. It is an ongoing onslaught causing more health problems than we ever realized. Our exposure to chemical toxins begins in the womb and doesn’t leave us until the last days of our life . . . Starting to get the picture?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 85,000 synthetic chemicals are registered worldwide. Less than half of these chemicals have been tested for potential toxicity in humans.More than 4 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States. That equates to just over 10 pounds of pesticides for every man, woman, and child per year. The EPA estimates that nearly 90 percent of all U.S. foods contain pesticides. The average home contains an estimated 100 pounds of hazardous material. That’s 3 to 10 gallons of chemical waste. A Study by the American Journal of Public Health in 1989, found that 70 percent of 285 4-year-old children in Michigan carried DDT in their blood, while more than 50 percent had PCB’s. DDT is a well known pesticide that was banned in the United States in 1972 because of its cancer-causing properties. Yet even after decades, DDT is regularly found in the fatty tissue of animals, birds, fish, and children. In this particular study, the researchers found that nursing was the primary source of exposure. Think about that: a pesticide banned decades ago is still persistent not only in the environment, but in our bodies.

In the past, our mind-set has been that these products are hazardous to the environment, but in reality, they are even more haz­ardous to our vulnerable human physiology.

With each breath we take, oxygen is brought into the body and used by every cell in a process called respiration, which produces carbon dioxide as the by-product.  Every time we eat or take medication, the substances get broken down to their molecular components in order to enter the cells for processing, and either remain in the cell for its own use, get shipped to the appropriate target location, or converted to waste by-products that must be excreted from the body. When we put things into our body that don’t occur in nature, however, like the processed foods and refined sugars of today, the body either has to use more complex mechanisms to get rid of them, or simply doesn’t know what to do with them at all. In both cases, the likelihood of an error occurring somewhere between ingestion and excretion has increased dramatically, and the result is a body with a heavy toxic burden due to the inability to detoxify.

Over the span of time that humans have roamed the earth, the body has developed amazing de­toxification mechanisms to deal with toxic substances; however, the theory by some that the body is more than capable of handling these toxins is just not true. The body’s ability to detoxify is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of toxic intake. Our systems were simply not meant to handle the constant bombardment of toxins seen today, and when their levels become high enough to overwhelm physiological tolerance, problems arise.

When we established the definition of toxins in Part I, we also introduced the term Toxic Burden, which is used to describe how much toxicity is in the body at any given time. While we simply don’t know exactly how many chemicals (or how much) are present, the idea of Toxic Burden can be useful when talking about how to reduce one’s overall toxic accumulation. The following equation clearly demon­strates that the key to reducing overall body burden is to first reduce total exposure and then enhance the body’s natural abilities to detoxify.

Toxic Burden = Total amount of toxins consumed – Ability of the body to detoxify

So the question of the 21st century becomes not whether these toxins are getting inside or building up in our body, but rather how many of these toxins are inside our body and remaining there? In other words, how toxic are we?

The goal of detoxification then, is to reduce the body’s Toxic Burden. The human body has four main excretory pathways that remove environmental toxins (external or exogenous toxins), as well as toxic prod­ucts produced by the body (internal or endogenous toxins). These include the feces, urine, sweat, and breath. Although a few of these pathways can eliminate some types of toxins directly, many toxins need to first be transformed into water-soluble compounds, while still others must be further changed into complex molecules – sometimes more toxic even than their original forms. These transformations occur in the body’s most im­portant detoxification organ, the liver. Other organ systems involved in detoxification include the kidneys, gastrointestinal system, and the skin.

The liver’s primary goal when confronted with toxic chemicals is to neutralize them (making them water-soluble). However, most toxins are fat-soluble, which means they are more difficult to get rid of, just like that avocado stain on your shirt. This is when the problems begin. If toxin levels are elevated in response to poor detoxification, a majority of them will be stored in adipose tissue (fat – think cellulite!) and cell membranes throughout the body (which are composed of fats). Sometimes they can stay dormant in tissues for decades, while other times, due to various activities, they can be released. For example, during periods of weight loss, exercise, stress, and fasting, these chemicals are released into the blood stream, eventually leading to physiological problems.

The Liver: An Overview

Phase I And Phase II Detoxification

The human liver carries out more than 500 metabolic functions, includ­ing the detoxification of harmful substances in the body. Over 2 quarts of blood pass through this important organ every minute of every day, filter­ing and transforming chemicals to keep the body clean. The liver also pro­duces bile, into which fat-soluble toxins are attached and then discharged into the gastrointestinal tract.


Bile contains a majority of the body’s metabolic wastes, including deceased blood cells and toxic chemicals like pesticides. Once formed, along with its waste products and processed toxins, bile moves from the liver to the gallbladder and is then secreted into the upper section of the small intestine, the duodenum, where it helps with the emulsification and absorption of fats, as well as stool movement. The bile and its toxic load are picked up by dietary fiber and excreted in the feces. A lack of dietary fiber results in inadequate binding of the bile, allowing toxins to be reabsorbed through the intestinal wall. Therefore, one important, and extremely simple way to improve detoxification is to eat plenty of dietary fiber; 14 grams of fiber (in approximately equal insoluble: soluble ratios) for every 1000 calories consumed is the minimum recommended, which averages to at least 38 grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women.  Good sources of insoluble fiber are fruit and vegetable skins (organic of course!), wheat bran, rye and brown rice. Soluble fiber can be found in chia and flax seeds, oats, oat bran, barley, beans, lentils, psyllium and most fruits – especially berries.

Next Week: Join us as we follow in detail the life (and death) of a toxin on its journey through the liver! This article is MUST for those with moderate to severe Toxic Burden, and highly recommended for everyone else!