Detoxification Series: The Role of Food and Herbs

Take a simple approach to minimize the bad foods and maximize the good foods for your skin

Credits: Todd Quackenbush at
Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

Your Toxin Bank Account

In this series, we have discussed detoxification processes in the body - the effect of toxins on skin and methods for enhancing detoxification. This article focuses on the role of food and herbs in improving detoxification. The goal of improving detoxification pathways is to decrease the body’s total toxin load. Decreasing the total load follows a net effect principle of toxins in vs. toxins out. Similar to a bank account, the total is determined by two parts - input and output. However, unlike money, detoxification has the reverse goal of a savings account; we want the net total to decrease rather than increase. How do we achieve a net “loss” of toxins? By decreasing the input and increasing the output.

Toxins In – Decrease Input

Sources of toxins include pollutants, pesticides, plastics, heavy metals, cigarette smoke, and UV radiation. Below are specific steps for avoiding toxin exposure:

  • AVOID PESTICIDES. Pesticides disrupt hormone balance and create free radicals in the body. [1,2] Pesticides are found in foods, drinking water, and on treated grass or plants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a consumer guide to produce that lists produce highest vs. lowest in pesticides to help inform decision-making when shopping. Visit for more information.
  • DRINK FILTERED WATER. Tap water may contain a variety of chemicals such as fluoride, heavy metals, and pesticides.[3]

Boy with glasses drinking cold water from bottle with blurry ocean in background

Credit: sydneyra at 

  • AVOID HEAVY METALS in seafood. Seafood consumption is the main route of mercury exposure in humans; mercury can induce oxidative stress.[4,5] The EWG also has a consumer’s guide for mercury levels in seafood. See for more information.
  • AVOID PLASTICS and BPA. Plastics and BPA are known endocrine disruptors. BPA affects testosterone and progesterone receptors. BPA is also an example of a compound that becomes even more toxic as it is metabolized in the body.[6]
  • AVOID FRAGRANCES. “Fragrance” is found as an ingredient in many cosmetic products, as well as perfumes, colognes, candles, and plug-ins. Synthetic fragrances are composed of any variety of chemicals which exert toxic effects in the body, such as endocrine disruption, cancer promotion, impaired brain development, as well as direct allergy reactions, breathing difficulties, or chemical sensitivity symptoms.[7,8]
  • PROTECT from UV DAMAGE. Sun exposure is a source of oxidative stress from UV radiation.[9] Prevention includes limiting sun exposure and the use of appropriate SPF and sun protection.


Toxins Out – Increase Output

There are many nutrients and foods that protect the body from toxins, and this list is not exhaustive but provides a starting point for incorporating detox foods into the diet. The following foods and herbs support detoxification pathways: 

  • BRASSICA family vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, beets, mustard greens, garlic, and onions. Cruciferous vegetables have antioxidant effects and activate phase I and phase II detoxification enzymes.[10,11]
  • TURMERIC. Turmeric improves antioxidant function and phase II detoxification.[12] Turmeric is continually being studied for its anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and immune modulating effects. A systematic review of turmeric and skin conditions showed significant improvement in skin disease severity with turmeric supplementation.[13] It can be used as a supplement, applied topically, or consumed as a spice in food.

 Turmeric in a white open container on the table with some spilled on the table

Credit: summawhat at 

  • GINGER. Ginger prevents damage from oxidative stress and has a protective effect on the liver and kidneys.[14] Ginger can be consumed as a spice, as tea, juiced, or in supplement form.
  • Foods rich in polyphenols including GREEN TEA, BERRIES, COLORFUL VEGETABLES, and RED WINE. Polyphenols are compounds found in foods that have antioxidant effects and are hepatoprotective, or liver protective.[15] Green tea increases liver enzyme activity, specifically glucuronidation.[16] Green tea is also a potent antioxidant.
  • DANDELION. Dandelion leaves and flowers were studied in vitro and shown to have antioxidant effects and protect against UVB radiation.[17,18] Dandelion can be taken as a tea, supplement, or food.
  • BURDOCK. Burdock is an herb that has antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties and is protective effects against UVB radiation.[19,20]
  • MILK THISTLE. Milk thistle is probably the most well known “liver supportive” herb, as it is hepatoprotective. Studies demonstrate that silymarin protects against chemical toxicity by blocking phase I cytochrome pathways and modulating phase II liver enzyme pathways.[21,22]

Purple bloom of milk thistle plant with green in the background


Herbs can cause allergic reactions or unwanted side effects. Dietary supplements should be prescribed or monitored by a qualified healthcare practitioner.


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  2. Mnif W, Hassine AI, Bouaziz A, et al. Effect of endocrine disruptor pesticides: a review. Int J Environ Res Public Health.2011;8(6):2265-2303; PMID: 21776230 Link to research.
  3. Inoue-Choi M, Weyer PJ, Jones RR, et al. Atrazine in public water supplies and risk of ovarian cancer among postmenopausal women in the Iowa Women's Health Study. Occup Environ Med.2016;73(9):582-587; PMID: 27371663 Link to research.
  4. Huang SH, Weng KP, Ger LP, et al. Influence of seafood and vitamin supplementation on maternal and umbilical cord blood mercury concentration. J Chin Med Assoc.2017;80(5):307-312; PMID: 28262384 Link to research.
  5. Karimi R, Vacchi-Suzzi C, Meliker JR. Mercury exposure and a shift toward oxidative stress in avid seafood consumers. Environ Res.2016;146:100-107; PMID: 26745733 Link to research.
  6. Rehan M, Ahmad E, Sheikh IA, et al. Androgen and Progesterone Receptors Are Targets for Bisphenol A (BPA), 4-Methyl-2,4-bis-(P-Hydroxyphenyl)Pent-1-Ene--A Potent Metabolite of BPA, and 4-Tert-Octylphenol: A Computational Insight. PLoS One.2015;10(9):e0138438; PMID: 26379041 Link to research.
  7. Orecchio S, Indelicato R, Barreca S. Determination of Selected Phthalates by Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry in Personal Perfumes. J Toxicol Environ Health A.2015;78(15):1008-1018; PMID: 26262443 Link to research.
  8. Zhang Y, Huang L, Zhao Y, et al. Musk xylene induces malignant transformation of human liver cell line L02 via repressing the TGF-β signaling pathway. Chemosphere.2017;168:1506-1514; PMID: 27939665 Link to research.
  9. Trakatelli M, Barkitzi K, Apap C, et al. Skin cancer risk in outdoor workers: a European multicenter case-control study. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol.2016;30 Suppl 3:5-11; PMID: 26995016 Link to research.
  10. James D, Devaraj S, Bellur P, et al. Novel concepts of broccoli sulforaphanes and disease: induction of phase II antioxidant and detoxification enzymes by enhanced-glucoraphanin broccoli. Nutr Rev.2012;70(11):654-665; PMID: 23110644 Link to research.
  11. Robbins MG, Andersen G, Somoza V, et al. Heat treatment of Brussels sprouts retains their ability to induce detoxification enzyme expression in vitro and in vivo. J Food Sci.2011;76(3):C454-461; PMID: 21535814 Link to research.
  12. Iqbal M, Sharma SD, Okazaki Y, et al. Dietary supplementation of curcumin enhances antioxidant and phase II metabolizing enzymes in ddY male mice: possible role in protection against chemical carcinogenesis and toxicity. Pharmacol Toxicol.2003;92(1):33-38; PMID: 12710595 Link to research.
  13. Vaughn AR, Branum A, Sivamani RK. Effects of Turmeric (Curcuma longa) on Skin Health: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence. Phytother Res.2016;30(8):1243-1264; PMID: 27213821 Link to research.
  14. Joshi D, Srivastav SK, Belemkar S, et al. Zingiber officinale and 6-gingerol alleviate liver and kidney dysfunctions and oxidative stress induced by mercuric chloride in male rats: A protective approach. Biomed Pharmacother.2017;91:645-655; PMID: 28494418 Link to research.
  15. Korobkova EA. Effect of Natural Polyphenols on CYP Metabolism: Implications for Diseases. Chem Res Toxicol.2015;28(7):1359-1390; PMID: 26042469 Link to research.
  16. Chacko SM, Thambi PT, Kuttan R, et al. Beneficial effects of green tea: a literature review. Chin Med.2010;5:13; PMID: 20370896 Link to research.
  17. Jędrejek D, Kontek B, Lis B, et al. Evaluation of antioxidant activity of phenolic fractions from the leaves and petals of dandelion in human plasma treated with H2O2 and H2O2/Fe. Chem Biol Interact.2017;262:29-37; PMID: 27923645 Link to research.
  18. Yang Y, Li S. Dandelion Extracts Protect Human Skin Fibroblasts from UVB Damage and Cellular Senescence. Oxid Med Cell Longev.2015;2015:619560; PMID: 26576225 Link to research.
  19. Bae S, Lim KM, Cha HJ, et al. Arctiin blocks hydrogen peroxide-induced senescence and cell death though microRNA expression changes in human dermal papilla cells. Biol Res.2014;47:50; PMID: 25299961 Link to research.
  20. Lee GT, Cha HJ, Lee KS, et al. Arctiin induces an UVB protective effect in human dermal fibroblast cells through microRNA expression changes. Int J Mol Med.2014;33(3):640-648; PMID: 24398562 Link to research.
  21. Kiruthiga PV, Karthikeyan K, Archunan G, et al. Silymarin prevents benzo(a)pyrene-induced toxicity in Wistar rats by modulating xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes. Toxicol Ind Health.2015;31(6):523-541; PMID: 23406957 Link to research.
  22. Zaulet M, Kevorkian SEM, Dinescu S, et al. Protective effects of silymarin against bisphenol A-induced hepatotoxicity in mouse liver. Exp Ther Med.2017;13(3):821-828; PMID: 28450905 Link to research.