When you hear the word “detoxification,” thoughts of your liver might immediately come to mind. Indeed, the liver is ground zero for detox. This extremely important organ is in charge of processing all the toxins we come into contact with, including everything from environmental toxins to the chemicals found in drugs and medications, and even our own hormones. As a board-certified internist and Functional Medicine Certified practitioner, you’ll often find me talking about how important the liver is for detox, such as in this previous blog post, “Time to Reset: Cleanse Your Liver.”
The liver definitely has the spotlight when it comes to detox, but the truth is, it’s not the only organ involved in detoxification — not even close. In fact, the following organs also play a critical role in your body’s ability to process toxins and chemicals:
- The kidneys: The kidneys have the important job of filtering blood and excreting waste products in urine, which is essentially to the detoxification process. Factors like too much alcohol, certain medications, and the accumulation of toxins will stall the detoxification process of these two critical organs.
- The skin: Move over, liver. The skin is actually the body’s largest detoxification organ. When other organs get backed up with toxins, the skin has the ability to step in and eliminate toxins through sweating. In fact, if you’re exercising intensely you can eliminate as many as 10 liters of water through perspiration in a single day. And all of that sweat contains toxins like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
- The gut: Your skin forms a barrier between the outside world and your body, and your gut plays a similar role inside your body. Its surface area is a remarkable 200 times greater than that of your skin, making it your largest surface of interaction with the outside world.
By now I’ve hopefully convinced you that while the liver might score the game-winning goal when it comes to detox, it’s certainly not the only player on the field. In fact, the way the gut controls how we interact with the world makes it a critical but often overlooked detox organ. And that’s why we’ll be talking about it today.
How the Gut Helps With Detoxification
The gut is like the gatekeeper for your body, determining what makes it from your GI tract into your bloodstream and what does not. It not only comes in continuous contact with the nutrients you consume, it also comes into contact with toxins, food additives, microbes, and drugs that may pass through your digestive tract on a daily basis. As the gatekeeper, your gut has the huge task of serving as a porous filter that allows the building blocks of life in, while making sure the detrimental substance you may be exposed to stay out.
In addition to acting as a filter that determines what’s allowed into the body, the gut also acts as a detox organ in and of itself. The cells that line the gut are rich in detoxifying enzymes and the gut works directly with the liver to remove noxious substances derived from food, your environment, gut microbes, and even the operation of your own metabolism and hormones.
The gut also works to detox the body through bowel movements. After all, when the gut does its job as gatekeeper and refuses entry to noxious substances, they have to go somewhere. If the substances we eat are not absorbed into the body, the gut sends them through the rest of the digestive tract and they are efficiently removed from the body via the stool.
As a result, your stool is full of toxins, which is why it’s incredibly important to have at least one bowel movement daily. In fact, it’s perfectly normal to have up to three bowel movements daily, one after each meal. When you suffer from constant or even intermittent constipation, the gut is not properly detoxifying and those toxins are not being properly eliminated.
So how do you make sure that your gut is detoxing efficiently, and that you’re having healthy bowel movements? Make sure the hundred trillion microbes that live inside the gut are as healthy as possible, which brings us to…
Meet the Microbiome: Another Important Detox “Organ”
The gut is home to trillions of microbes, including at least a thousand different species of bacteria, dozens of different types of yeasts and fungi, an unknown number of viruses, and the occasional worm. Collectively these are called the “gut microbiome.”
As a gut health doctor, I write about the importance of the gut microbiome all the time. For example, did you know that the gut is often referred to as the “second brain”? It’s true; in fact, many neurotransmitters are actually synthesized by the gut, including your feel-good serotonin and melatonin, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm.
The gut microbiome also has a hand in critical processes required to have a healthy detox system, including breaking down potentially toxic food compounds, synthesizing certain vitamins and amino acids — like B vitamins and vitamin K — that are involved in detox, and producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which fuel colon cells and promote regular bowel movements.
The gut microbiome also aids the detoxification process directly by supporting phase I and phase II detoxification in the liver. These microbes, for instance, help metabolize certain medications and manage oxalate levels in the body. (High amounts of oxalates from plant foods can bind certain minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and contribute to problems like kidney stones.) Healthy microbes also helps increase the absorption of nutrients that help with detox, such as vitamin C and other antioxidants.
For these microbes to manage all of their important duties, they need to be strong in number and diversity. This means not only the right ratio of “good” to “bad” microbes, but the right numbers of specific bacteria that can carry out detoxification functions. When these microbes become imbalanced, a phenomenon known as “dysbiosis,” the gut’s detoxification abilities can be impaired.
How Gut Dysbiosis Hinders Detoxification
As you just learned, dysbiosis occurs when there’s an imbalance between favorable and unfavorable gut microbes. Allowing too many unfavorable microbes to grow can also increase the toxicity of certain compounds and release toxins that:
- Increase gut permeability
- Suppress the immune system
- Damage cells in the gut
- Impact how well the gut utilizes the nutrients from food
- Create inflammation within the gut3
An imbalance in the gut, and the subsequent release of inflammatory signals, can eventually lead to other gut conditions such as a leaky gut. This leakiness or “hyperpermeability” in your gut lining exposes your body to partially digested protein molecules from food and toxic substances, which can slip through the now leaky gut barrier, causing an increase in toxicity and wreak havoc on the body. How? Oftentimes, it’s because the molecules are toxic in and of themselves but sometimes, the immune system does not recognize these molecules so it attacks, which results in food sensitivities. You might not even be aware of these sensitivities, which can manifest as hives, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, and migraines and become the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.
All of these things – leaky gut, food sensitivities, inflammation – will impact how well the gut and other organs can effectively detoxify. Even if the other detox organs are performing smoothly, when the gut is struggling, the body will become more toxic.
Luckily, there are some easy and effective ways to safeguard the long-term health of the gut and its role in detoxification such as taking a probiotic supplement.
How Probiotics Promote Gut Balance and Detoxification
The word “probiotics” comes from the Latin word “pro” and the Greek word “biotic,” meaning “for life.” Probiotics are supplements that contain beneficial microbes, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (two of the most common types of probiotic bacteria) and beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces boulardii.
These favorable microbes help maintain balance in the gut, allowing it to do its job and prevent over-toxicity. For example, probiotic bacteria can bind toxins such as heavy metals, which are found in much of our food and water supply. One study showed that specific probiotic bacteria, including Lactobacillus, could bind cadmium and lead. When these and other heavy metals accumulate in the body, they can overwhelm the body’s ability to manage free radicals and lead to disease.5
Probiotics are clearly important for strengthening your body’s resilience to toxins, but they don’t act alone. Dietary fiber is an equally critical part of the detoxification puzzle.
Why Fiber Is So Important for Detoxification
One of the most underappreciated nutrients, fiber is good for so many other things. It can suppress your appetite, prevent constipation, balance blood sugar, and bind to toxins.
You might be wondering why fiber is so important for gut health, especially if you can take beneficial bacteria in the form of a probiotic supplement? Well, for one, certain types of fiber act as the food that probiotics eat; it’s what keeps them healthy and strong, and your detox systems thriving. These non-digestible fibers, called prebiotics, fall under several categories, including fructans (also called fructooligosaccharides, or FOS) and resistant starch. Each feed different types of gut flora that are important for detox.
As we already learned, fiber-rich plant foods (with the help of probiotics) also produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). It goes like this: The dietary fiber that you consume in plant foods passes through most of the gut undigested until it reaches the large intestine. When it arrives, microbes in the colon ferment fiber, creating three SCFAs called acetate, propionate, and butyrate.
On top of being the colon’s primary energy source, these SCFAs have anti-inflammatory benefits for the gut and immune system, which greatly benefit our ability to detox. 6 In fact, they provide a valuable energy source for the entire body to be more resilient to outside stressors and toxic substances.
Research has also shown that SCFAs might possibly prevent or treat various disorders including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. But the benefits of SCFAs go beyond the gut to prevent:
- Metabolic syndrome, a nasty cluster of conditions that include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity
- Certain types of cancer
- Weight gain and obesity
- Fatty liver7 disease
- Unhealthy immune cells
- Imbalanced blood glucose levels
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels8
Dietary fiber and beneficial bacteria are the magic combination; together, they increase the resilience of your body to outside stressors, toxins, and disease. And all of this magic happens in the gut.
3 Ways to Support Your Gut + Detox Health
No matter how imbalanced your gut is to begin with, with the right strategies, you can reestablish gut happiness and get this detoxification system back on track. A healthy gut will help cleanse your body, yes, but it will also have the added benefits of helping you lose weight, think more clearly, and regain stable energy levels. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?
The good news is that you don’t need a complicated cleanse or diet plan to restore microbiome balance and help the body detoxify. You can start this process today by following these three steps:
1. Take a probiotic supplement.
A probiotic supplement is the absolute best way to restore balance to the gut bacteria that help your body detoxify. That said, not all probiotic supplements are created equal. Numerous factors, including shelf life and their ability to withstand your harsh stomach environment, make many probiotic supplements ineffective because very few of the living organisms in the probiotic capsule actually make it to your gut. As a doctor, I struggled with this reality for years. When I realized that none of the supplements I found met all the criteria I was looking for, I created my own Happy Gut ® Restore Shelf-Stable, Broad-Spectrum Probiotics.
With probiotic supplements, quality is critical. Always look for a supplement that contains multiple strains of the following bacteria and each serving should contain billions – not millions – of organisms.
- Lactobacillus: These bacteria predominantly live in the small bowel (the portion of the gut that follows the stomach). Probiotics containing Lactobacillus help to repopulate the small intestine with friendly organisms that will help support digestion, the performance of the immune system, and proper detoxification and elimination. The most beneficial are L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, and L. paracasei.
- Bifidobacteria: These bacteria, also known as Bifidus, predominantly live in the colon or large intestine. They produce butyrate, which is essential for the health of the cells that line the colon, supplying them with energy so they can function optimally. Studies have also shown that B. lactis helps support normal intestinal motility, which is critical to proper elimination of toxins, and also promotes healthy immune balance and relieves IBS-like symptoms.
At the end of the day, taking a probiotic is one of the best things you can do for your gut health, detoxification health, and overall wellness.
2. Eat a fiber-rich diet.
As we already know, sufficient fiber will help support healthy bowel movements, feed beneficial gut bacteria, produce SCFAs that support gut and overall health, and more. Experts recommend that women and men should get 25 grams 38 grams of fiber daily, respectively. Most of us are eating less than half of the recommended amounts of fiber, which can at least partly be blamed on certain trendy diets, such as the ketogenic diet, which contains even less fiber than the typical diet. 9
To make sure you’re getting enough fiber, focus on eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other plant foods, which are all high in detox-supporting fiber. Some of my favorite sources include:
- Avocado (10 grams of fiber in one cup)
- Raspberries (8 grams of fiber in one cup)
- Artichokes (10 grams of fiber in one artichoke)
- Brussels sprouts (4 grams of fiber in one cup)
- Walnuts (2 grams of fiber in one ounce) – I also voted walnuts as my favorite food to fight inflammation
But what about those special prebiotics we learned about earlier? The foods highest in prebiotic fiber include:
- Raw chicory root
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke
- Raw dandelion greens
- Raw garlic
- Raw leeks
- Raw onions (including scallions)
- Cooked onion
By eating plenty of fiber, and regularly throwing some prebiotic-rich foods onto your plate, you can make sure your microbiome is getting the right amount and the right type of fiber at all times.
3. Eat fermented foods.
If you want to support the gut’s detoxification actions, fermented foods are another important piece of the puzzle. Why? Fermented and cultured foods can support the growth and proliferation of your “good” bacteria, which are critical to our body’s ability to process and eliminate toxins, and block them in the first place by supporting the gut’s gatekeeper abilities. Fermented foods also help crowd out nasty pathogens like unfavorable bacteria, yeast, or parasites. To increase your intake, focus on these:
- Cultured foods: This includes foods like yogurts and kefir. Always look for no-sugar-added versions of these foods and choose non-dairy options such as coconut yogurt if you have any sensitivities to dairy.
- Fermented foods: This includes fermented vegetables, unpasteurized sauerkraut, and kimchi.
- Cultured beverages: This includes beverages containing favorable live bacteria, such as a low-sugar kombucha or Coconut Water Kefir.
COCONUT WATER KEFIR
A healthy prebiotic- and probiotic- rich carbonated beverage great for helping to balance your gut ecosystem.
MAKES 4 CUPS
3 tablespoons water kefir grains*
4 cups pasteurized coconut water
1 cup fresh strawberries or blueberries (optional)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (optional)
* Water kefir grains can be found in natural- food stores or online at Amazon. With proper care, the culture can be used indefinitely to create probiotic- rich kefir. Your grains will not grow as quickly in coconut water as they will in a nice bath of nutrient- rich sugar. Refresh and reactivate the kefir grains in sugar water (1/2 cup sugar in 4 cups water) for 24 to 48 hours between batches of Coconut Water Kefir. The sugar water will keep the grains healthy for the long term.
- Place the water kefir grains and the coconut water in a jar. Cover the jar loosely with a lid or cheesecloth and allow the kefir grains to culture the coconut water for ideally 24 to 36 (and no longer than 48) hours at room temperature.
- Once the culturing is complete (the mixture will have thickened), remove the kefir grains with a slotted spoon and store in a separate glass container filled with filtered water and a teaspoon of sugar to keep the kefir grains alive and active.
- You may drink the Coconut Water Kefir by itself, but for an added twist, puree the cultured coconut water with the berries and lemon juice in a blender to your desired consistency. The Coconut Water Kefir will last 1 to 3 weeks in the fridge; when blended with the berries and lemon juice, it will last for 2 to 3 days in the fridge. Serve cold.
Why the Gut Shouldn’t be the Forgotten Detox “Organ”
When the bacteria in the gut are in balance, everything is better for your body’s detox pathways. With a healthy balance of gut bacteria, you’re better able to absorb nutrients that help the liver detoxify, your digestive system can eliminate toxins more efficiently, and your gut is able to act as an effective gatekeeper to keep harmful substances from getting into your body in the first place. Not to mention, the gut microbiome is a detoxification organ in its own right, with the trillions of bacteria playing key roles in the detoxification process.
I often say that when it comes to your health, “it all starts in your gut.” And I mean it! Clearly, the liver is important for detoxification, but without a happy gut, the body won’t just won’t be able to properly detoxify. From here on out, the gut should get the attention it deserves when it comes to detox.