Detoxification is a term that is used in a variety of ways. The diverse use of the term can produce confusion or be misleading, especially when “detox” programs or products come with unsubstantiated claims. Let’s clarify some of the various definitions of detoxification. Medical detoxification usually refers to the treatment of drug or alcohol addiction and management of the withdrawal period when removing an addictive substance from the body. On the other hand, physiologic detoxification refers to the biochemical process of changing or altering a toxic substance in the body, a process also known as biotransformation. Once a toxin has been altered, it needs to be eliminated from the body. This occurs through our elimination organs, also known as emunctories. Sometimes the term detoxification is used broadly to describe the process of decreasing the body’s total toxin load; another term for this is depuration. Depuration, or therapeutic cleansing, increases both aspects of toxin removal: biotransformation of toxins and elimination of toxins. For the purpose of this series, the term detoxification will be used in the general sense to include any method of decreasing toxin load in the human body. However, it is important to remember that detoxification is a process already occurring in the body on a daily basis, not just something that happens during a “cleanse” or “detox” program.
What Are Toxins?
The word toxin evokes an image of a poison label on a product; however, like detoxification, toxin is another broadly defined term. The Textbook of Natural Medicine defines toxin as “any compound that has a detrimental effect on cell function or structure.” Toxins can be created in our body (endogenous) or they can come from external sources (exogenous). Sources of toxins include environmental chemicals (such as pollutants, plastics, pesticides), heavy metals, drugs, microbial toxins (produced by bacteria or fungi), and radiation (producing free radicals).
How Does the Body Detoxify?
Our body has five main detoxification organs, the skin being the largest. The organs of elimination include the skin, liver, kidneys, lungs and intestinal tract. These organs provide barriers to toxin exposure as well as mechanisms for elimination of toxins. As previously mentioned, prior to elimination, toxic substances may require biotransformation, the majority of which occurs in the liver. Future articles in this series will provide more detailed information on all the ways one can support the body’s normal detoxification systems.
How Is Detoxification Related to Skin Health?
Toxins can directly affect the skin, or they can have an indirect effect on the skin by damaging cells, altering hormones, triggering the immune system, or depleting nutrients throughout the body. The effect of toxins can vary, but some examples include damage to the protective barriers both on the skin and in the gut. Damage to the gastrointestinal lining, leading to “leaky gut,” may contribute to skin conditions such as eczema. Environmental toxins can also trigger inflammation in the skin. UV radiation and oxidative damage is well understood as a cause of premature skin aging. Reducing free radicals is one of the main ways detoxification can benefit skin health.
While there are numerous studies on environmental toxins and their negative effect on the endocrine system, immune system and neurological system, there is a shortage of research on detoxification and skin health, and studies on the potential benefits of short-term detoxification programs are lacking. More research is needed in this area.
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