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Detoxification 101

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Detoxification 101

Key learnings

  • There are numerous substances from pharmaceuticals to heavy metals that our body needs to detoxify
  • Our bodies process substances via phase I and II detoxification enzymes
  • Glutathione is needed for optimal functioning of both phase I and II detoxification


You’ve no doubt heard a lot about detoxification, some of it truth, some that science isn’t clear on yet, and some that is downright incorrect.  What is true is that our body has mechanisms in place to detoxify substances in our body, and these mechanisms can be altered via ingestion of certain foods, nutrients and phytochemicals.

In today’s post-industrial era, humans are subject to a wide variety of substances daily that our body works on detoxifying and removing. 

Let’s delve into one of those important molecules involved in detoxification:


To shortly summarise its functions, glutathione is the body’s master intracellular antioxidant, is involved in detoxifying the body, regulates cellular functions and protects the mitochondria of the cell (1).

Regarding detoxification, glutathione is needed for phase I and II pathways that happen in the liver, transforming and eliminating toxins.  Beyond that, as an antioxidant, glutathione neutralizes substances that may cause cellular damage, especially those that are yet to undergo phase II detoxification (1).

An increase in the amount of oxidized glutathione compared to reduced glutathione has been implicated in multiple chronic diseases involving: (1)

  • Liver
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Immune system
  • Respiratory system
  • Brain

Thus, restoring our intracellular glutathione levels is a protective strategy to take care of these organ systems.

Let’s now consider what the body is actually detoxifying and how...


Substances to detoxify and where they are found

Endogenous toxins are those that are produced via the body as a by-product of metabolic functions, also known as living.  This has stayed relatively the same throughout human evolution.  What has changed now is all the extra exogenous chemicals we’re exposed to. These include:


Heavy metals

Here are just some of many harmful heavy metals humans are exposed to regularly.

  • Aluminium, found in anti-perspirants and aluminium foil and cookware.
  • Cadmium, found in cigarettes and automobile exhaust.
  • Iron, though necessary, in excess can be damaging. We are exposed via foods and cast-iron cookware.
  • Lead, through lead pipes, cosmetics and automobile exhaust.
  • Mercury, through silver fillings and large fish.


Beyond heavy metals

  • Environmental and food sources of mould (mycotoxins and aflatoxins)
  • Bisphenol-A and phthalates found in plastics.
  • Lipopolysaccharide from certain pathogenic bacteria.
  • Herbicides and insecticides such as glyphosate.
  • While their use is certainly warranted in many situations, pharmaceutical medication does need to be detoxified and eliminated. 


What happens when there is a build-up of these substances

Excessive toxic exposure to various chemicals and metals has been linked to many diseases.  At their root, most of these substances will cause mitochondrial damage and dysfunction via oxidation.  The mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cell, producing ATP, the energy currency of the body.  Without ATP, our bodies would not be able to function.  With lower levels of ATP production we start to see disease states occurring, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and even neurodegenerative diseases (2, 3, 4).

Thus, it is imperative to have a well-functioning detoxification system, to ensure the neutralization and removal of these toxins to maintain an optimal level of health.

How does this occur?


Phase I and II detoxification

Thankfully, our body is equipped with a system to handle these endogenous and exogenous substances.  Though the liver is often thought of as where we detoxify, many other organs share some of the load.

First off is, the aptly named, phase I detoxification.  During this process, an oxygen group is added to the substance making it water-soluble, so it can be excreted.  Unfortunately, by making them water soluble, the toxin is also more damaging to the body until it undergoes phase II detoxification.

Phase I is performed by the Cytochrome P450 (CYP450) enzymes.  While there are many types of P450 enzymes, it is thought that there a handful which are responsible for much of our detoxification.  

After the phase I transformation, phase II detoxification occurs.  There are a range of phase II pathways responsible for detoxifying and they have varying roles depending on what is being detoxified.

The phase II pathways are designed to neutralise and package the now water-soluble toxins for excretion.  To do this they’ll conjugate, or add a compound, onto the water-soluble toxin, making it ready for excretion.

These pathways are:






The Sulfur-bearing amino acids methionine, cysteine, homocysteine and taurine


Acetaminophen (pain and fever reducing medication)

Food dyes

Aromatic Amines (potentially carcinogenic substances)


Glutathione and it’s precurosors glycine, glutamine and cysteine

Pesticides and herbicides





Cruciferous vegetables

Phytochemicals such as quercetin, rutin, silymarin and curcumin

Phthalates from plastic

Steroid hormones


Between 40-70% of all medications




Vitamin C

The pharmaceutical categories isoniazid, hydralazine and sulphonamides

Amino Acid Conjugation






Nicotinic acid


Bile acids







Vitamin D







After phase II detoxification occurs, toxins are excreted via sweat, urine or via the bile through bowel movements, sometimes referred to as phase III detoxification (5).



Though detoxification occurs without any conscious effort, certain factors need to be in place to allow it to occur.  The required nutrients that are needed for these processes to happen are as follows:

 Phase I Phase II
  • Glutathione
  • B vitamins
  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Carotenoids
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Protein
  • Glutathione
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Taurine
  • Cysteine
  • Selenium
  • CoQ10


 Beyond that, certain phytochemicals in food have been shown to up or down-regulate certain phase I and II enzymes. 


As can be seen, glutathione and its constituents (glycine, glutamine and cysteine) are required for phase I and part of the phase II reactions.  Without adequate levels in the body, detoxification will be not be occurring as effectively as possible, leading to a build-up of substances that can impair health and lead to chronic diseases.




  1. Pizzorno, J., 2014. Glutathione!. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal13(1), p.8.
  2. Booth, N.E., Myhill, S. and McLaren-Howard, J., 2012. Mitochondrial dysfunction and the pathophysiology of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). International journal of clinical and experimental medicine5(3), p.208.
  3. Cordero, M.D., de Miguel, M., Carmona-López, I., Bonal, P., Campa, F. and Moreno-Fernández, A.M., 2010. Oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction in fibromyalgia. Neuro Endocrinol Lett31(2).
  4. Lin, M.T. and Beal, M.F., 2006. Mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress in neurodegenerative diseases. Nature443(7113), p.787.
  5. Hodges, R.E. and Minich, D.M., 2015. Modulation of metabolic detoxification pathways using foods and food-derived components: a scientific review with clinical application. Journal of nutrition and metabolism2015.

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