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The Importance of Detoxification for Healthy Immune Function

September 17, 2021 / Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN

I recently came across a scientific review article that piqued my interest, titled “The under-reported role of toxic substance exposures in the COVID-19 pandemic.” The article’s authors hypothesize that COVID-19 is not merely a “virology problem” but a “toxicology problem.” They rightly state that we human beings are exposed to an unprecedented amount of environmental toxins each and every day and that these toxins are known to degrade immune function. As such, SARS-CoV-2 infection may be more akin to “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in terms of its effects on our immune system; it is but one more physiological stressor, on top of a pile of other toxic stressors, that compromises our health. (1) The opening sentences of the journal article describe this scenario eloquently:

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“Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and previous pandemics have been viewed almost exclusively as virology problems, with toxicology problems mostly being ignored. This perspective is not supported by the evolution of COVID-19, where the impact of real-life exposures to multiple toxic stressors degrading the immune system is followed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus exploiting the degraded immune system to trigger a chain of events ultimately leading to COVID-19. This immune system degradation from multiple toxic stressors (chemical, physical, biological, psychosocial stressors) means that attribution of serious consequences from COVID-19 should be made to the virus-toxic stressors nexus, not to any of the nexus constituents in isolation. The leading toxic stressors (identified in this study as contributing to COVID-19) are pervasive, contributing to myriad chronic diseases as well as immune system degradation. ”

— Kostoff RN et al. Food Chem Toxicol. 2020

While we clearly need more research on the relationship between environmental toxin exposures and infectious diseases, the ideas put forth by this article are thought-provoking and particularly resonated with me based on my experience not with COVID-19, but with another infectious disease – Lyme disease. In my personal journey with Lyme, toxin exposures (in moldy apartments and in a biochemistry lab in college, among other sources) seemed closely correlated to the onset of my Lyme disease symptoms. Furthermore, detoxifying my body led to massive improvements in my health. Could it be that in Lyme disease, as in COVID-19, that the synergy of multiple toxic stressors and subsequent degradation of the immune system has more of an impact on the course of illness than simply infection with Borrelia (the bacterium that causes Lyme) itself? It certainly seems possible!

Detoxification has been essential in my recovery from Lyme disease, and it’s something I emphasize in my work with nutrition clients. Read on to learn how toxins compromise immune function and why detoxifying your body using science-based strategies can support healthy immune function and help you in your Lyme recovery.

Environmental Toxins Compromise Immune Function

An abundance of research indicates that environmental toxins impair the functioning of our immune system. This is particularly concerning in light of the current global pandemic and a significant concern for those with chronic infections. In both scenarios, the immune system must be optimized to prevent illness and facilitate recovery; a high body burden of toxins may hinder healing.

You will find articles on the internet from mainstream health sources urging you not to fall for detox “hype” because “your liver and kidneys perform all the detox your body needs!” This viewpoint is dismissive, ignorant, and demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of the health consequences of environmental toxin exposures. Many of the toxins we face compromise the very organs we need to detox (the liver, kidneys, and gut)!

A few quick facts on environmental toxins:

  • According to our very own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 432 million lbs of chemicals were released off-site (i.e., away from the facilities where they were manufactured) in 2019. (2) Please note that this was just in the U.S.; the statistic doesn’t reflect chemical dumping worldwide.

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a type of persistent organic pollutant used in electrical equipment manufacturing, cause a buildup of fat in the liver that impairs liver function. (3)

  • Glyphosate, one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States, accumulates in the liver and kidneys, triggering inflammation and promoting organ damage. (4)

  • Environmental toxins from industrial pollution have been found in animal studies to weaken the body’s immune defenses across generations, not just in the first generation exposed. (5)

  • Air pollution dysregulates antiviral immune responses, impairing the body’s ability to target and eradicate harmful viruses. (6) Air pollution also modifies the innate immune response, your body’s first line of defense against pathogens, by dysregulating the activity of toll-like receptors (TLRs).

  • High levels of exposure to perfluorinated alkylate (PFAS), man-made chemicals found in synthetic food packaging containers, nonstick cookware, and stain-repellant fabrics are associated with a more severe course of COVID-19. (7)

  • BPA, found in plastic water bottles, children’s toys, and paper receipts, suppresses the immune system.  (8)

  • The inflammation induced in the body by toxin exposures may “distract” the immune system from dealing with real threats, such as bacterial and viral infections.

A compromised immune system, in general, may predispose to Lyme disease, making the studies mentioned above relevant to people with Lyme. However, here are a few more studies on toxins and immune function that may be especially relevant to those with Lyme disease and coinfections:

  • Heavy metals deplete glutathione, your body’s premier antioxidant molecule. (9) Glutathione is essential for the immune defense against Borrelia burgdorferi, one form of Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease. (10)

  • Lyme disease subverts the immune system and may even cause your immune system to attack your body; this is an autoimmune process. (11) Many environmental toxins may affect autoimmunity (12), synergizing with the autoimmunity-provoking potential of Lyme infection.

The Seven Elements of Successful Detoxification

Our bodies are exposed to an unprecedented amount of toxins, and a growing body of research indicates that these toxins prevent our immune systems from working optimally. Strategic diet, lifestyle, and supplement strategies can provide our bodies with the detoxification support they desperately need, giving our immune system a fighting chance at clearing chronic infections, such as Lyme disease, and possibly even reducing the risk of severe infections down the road.

Reduce your exposure to toxins.

There are many steps you can take to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins in the first place. The first step you should take is to ensure your home isn’t a source of biotoxins, such as mycotoxins, which occur when toxic indoor molds grow due to water damage. Some mycotoxins are profoundly immunosuppressive, whereas others are immunostimulatory, upregulating inflammation in organs such as the gut and brain. (13, 14) In fact, my immune system wasn’t able to rally and address my chronic infections, including Lyme, Babesia, and Anaplasma, until I left a previous water-damaged apartment and moved into a clean, safe, new home. Once your home is in the clear, make sure your drinking water isn’t a source of toxins. Tap water is rife with toxins, including heavy metals, pesticide and herbicide residues, and pharmaceutical residues. Filter your drinking, cooking, and bathing water with a high-quality, comprehensive water filter such as the Berkey Filter. Once you’ve addressed your home and water supply, other steps you can take to minimize toxin exposure include:

  • Purchase organic produce or prioritize the types of produce you buy organic to avoid pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide residues. Use the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to make smart grocery shopping decisions.

  • Purchase a high-quality air filter. With burgeoning levels of air pollution in cities worldwide, not to mention wildfire smoke, having a high-quality air filter at home has never been more critical. I am partial to IQ Air filters.

Eat an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, whole food diet.

A wholesome, nutritious diet free of common inflammatory foods (gluten, conventional dairy products, added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils) is essential for detoxification. Importantly, juice cleansing is not a viable nutrition strategy for detox! I get the question about juice cleansing frequently enough that I figured it would be worth mentioning here! Juice cleansing is not supported by scientific evidence. If anything, the purported benefits individuals experience on a juice cleanse may be due to the low-calorie content of the “cleanse;” a low-calorie diet will upregulate autophagy, your body’s cellular “housekeeping system” that breaks down old, dysfunctional cellular components. However, intermittent fasting also boosts autophagy and doesn’t run the risk of creating protein, fiber, mineral, and vitamin deficiencies. (15) You can successfully wave intermittent fasting into a wholesome diet in many ways. I routinely help clients create intermittent fasting schedules that fit their unique needs.

Your body needs many foods and nutrients to successfully detoxify. We can break down the types of foods and nutrients required by the Phases of detox, which are the steps your body goes through to metabolize and eliminate toxins:

  • Phase 1: In Phase I, your body prepares toxins for conjugation, which occurs in Phase II. Your cells need B vitamins to carry out biochemical reactions in Phase I. Eating a wide variety of animal proteins, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds can help you meet your B vitamin needs. Beef or chicken liver is an excellent one-stop-shop for fulfilling your B complex vitamin needs.

  • Phase 2: In Phase 2, you need glutathione and several other compounds, including glucuronic acid, sulfate, and glycine to make toxins more water-soluble and ready for excretion. Collagen is an excellent source of glycine for supporting detox, while cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage) can help your body make glutathione.

  • Phase 3: Phase 3 involves the actions of cellular and liver transporters that remove toxins from the body. Bitter compounds, such as those found in bitter greens, activate these transporters. Examples of bitter greens include dandelion greens, arugula, and endive.

There are many more nutritional factors that should be considered for detoxification, including protein intake (hint: you need plenty of protein to supply amino acids for detox!), mineral status (certain minerals protect against heavy metal toxicity and are frequently deficient in our diets), and hydration status.

Break a sweat.

Your skin is technically your body’s largest organ, and, surprisingly, it is a crucial organ of detoxification! Research indicates that heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury can be eliminated through our sweat. (16) Exercising intensely enough to break a steady sweat, hot yoga, and sauna use can all help get you sweating and eliminating immunity-compromising toxins.

Keep your lymphatic system moving.

Your lymphatic system is a crucial part of your immune system and functions to remove waste, including toxins and dead microorganisms, from your body. Your lymphatic system requires stimulation to properly pump fluid through lymphatic vessels and nodes, eventually dumping the filtered fluid back into your bloodstream and then through your kidneys, where the toxins can be urinated out. A sluggish lymphatic system will quickly hinder detoxification. Here are some strategies for supporting your lymphatic system:

  • Dry brushing: Dry brushing activates lymphatic flow. You can find dry skin brushes at health food stores and on Amazon. The key is to brush your skin with gentle strokes in the direction of your heart, starting at the ends of your limbs and moving upward. Dry brushing feels particularly fantastic after you’ve used a sauna, taken a shower, and toweled off!

  • Lymphatic massage: Lymphatic massage is very gentle but also quite powerful for supporting healthy lymph flow. I suggest that you seek a lymphatic massage therapist in your area and consider going once a week or biweekly for a massage.

  • Hot/cold contrast showers: Hot/cold contrast showers triggers alternating vasodilation and vasoconstriction of blood vessels, which, in turn, alternatingly contract and relax. Try doing four rounds (hot, cold, hot, cold) in the last five minutes of a shower to support your lymphatic system.

Once you’ve stemmed the tide of incoming toxins, have fine-tuned your diet to support detox, and are sweating and moving your body regularly, it’s time to bring in targeted supplements that help detox. The following elements are essential to mobilize toxins from storage sites, process them, and usher them out of your body via your stool and urine.

Promote detoxification at the cellular level with bitter herbs.

Bitter herbs such as gentian, dandelion, and Solidago (goldenrod) activate cellular transporters that move toxins out of cells, into the blood, and through the liver and kidneys. Bitter herbs also promote bile flow, which is a crucial route of elimination for numerous toxins.

Support your liver with herbs and nutraceuticals that activate Nrf2.

Nrf2 is a critical regulator of antioxidant status and is essential for detoxification. Examples of Nrf2 up-regulators include silymarin (from milk thistle), lipoic acid, curcumin, and DIM. (17, 18, 19, 20)

Mop Up Toxins with Binders

Once toxins have been mobilized, you need to bind them up in the gut so that they aren’t reabsorbed through the enterohepatic circulation, the circulation of bile acids, toxins, and other substances between the small intestine, liver, and bile. Binding agents such as activated charcoal and bentonite clay can intervene in this cycle of toxin recirculation, effectively “capturing” toxins so that they can be eliminated via the stool.

Individuals who have trouble tolerating detox protocols may need more cellular energy support from an NAD+ precursor such as NR or NMN (NAD+ is a crucial cellular energy source that tends to be depleted by chronic inflammation) and/or mast cell support. Mast cells are immune cells involved in allergic responses and our frontline defenses against harmful microbes, including bacterial pathogens. In some individuals with high toxin burdens or chronic infections, mast cells become hyperactive, aberrantly excreting pro-inflammatory substances such as histamine, causing symptoms such as GI distress, flushing, swelling, headaches, and mood changes. Individuals with aberrant mast cell activity may require support from mast cell stabilizers before they can tolerate detox.

There are numerous supplements on the market for detox support. However, the quality of many of these supplements is questionable. Furthermore, the ingredients in many detox supplements are poorly absorbed. The timing and dosing of supplements are also nuanced. For these reasons, I always recommend undergoing a detox protocol with the guidance of a highly qualified practitioner.

Do you have Lyme disease and suspect that you may be struggling with toxicity issues? Consider working with me! I am currently accepting new clients in my clinical nutrition practice. If you’re interested in diving deep into improving your nutrition and health by working one-on-one with me, reach out to me here to schedule your discovery call. The discovery call will allow us to meet and talk together to decide if my nutrition services are the right fit for your needs. I look forward to connecting with you!

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