The word detoxification can refer to many things : from natural metabolic processes that occur in our organism to the first phase in therapies for overcoming addictions.
In this article we will see several of the definitions of this term, types of detoxification, metabolic mechanisms involved, how it is performed in therapy and we will reflect on the meaning of the word “détox”.
What is detoxification?
Detoxification is understood as the metabolic, medical or pharmacological process that implies the elimination of toxic elements for the organism . Normally, in healthy people, detoxification is a metabolic process that takes place in the kidneys and liver, organs that are responsible for reducing the toxicity of substances produced by the body itself and eliminating them from the body.
This same word is also used to refer to the process by which an organism recovers its homeostasis, that is, becomes healthy again, after having consumed or been exposed to a toxic substance, voluntarily or involuntarily. This is the definition used in the field of medicine for people who have become intoxicated or suffer from some kind of addiction. Poisoning can also occur due to organic problems, which makes it necessary to use antidotes, dialysis or liver and kidney transplants .
Since the definition of detoxification is very broad, and is used in several fields of health sciences, it is necessary to briefly explain some types of detoxification.
1. Alcohol detoxification
Alcohol detoxification is the process by which alcohol is eliminated from the body of a person who consumes this substance in large quantities and frequently .
This is a dangerous type of detoxification, since withdrawal in alcoholics can cause serious health problems and even death. For this reason it must be monitored by professionals.
2. Detoxification to other drugs
The world of drugs is very wide, and for this reason there are substances that, despite their unpleasant withdrawal syndrome, stopping them suddenly does not imply a serious risk for the person’s health.
In any case, the treatment of these substances should be carried out by professionals, and normally resorts to the use of antidotes that counteract the effects of the substance consumed and accelerate its elimination.
3. Metabolic detoxification
Due to the metabolic reactions that occur in our bodies, certain products of these are toxic and need to be treated to avoid causing harm to the body. Through various physicochemical processes, such as reduction, oxidation, conjugation and excretion, the organism is able to reduce the toxicity of these substances and eliminate them .
The most important enzymes in this process are cytochrome P450 oxidases, UDP-glucoronosyltransferases and glutathione S-transferases.
The Liver: The “Détox” Organ
The liver, along with the kidneys, is the main organ involved in the detoxification of the body. Regardless of whether the person is detoxifying from drugs, alcohol or medication, the detoxification processes to achieve homeostasis and health are virtually similar.
Thanks to the action of the liver, the detoxification naturally present in our body occurs through two phases, simply called phase 1 and phase 2 of detoxification .
During phase 1 the liver works on fat-soluble toxins, activating the cytochrome P450 enzyme system. This system produces enzymes that attach to the fat-soluble toxins, reducing their toxicity and preparing them for the next phase. In phase 2 these toxins are excreted thanks to the action of the kidneys, and therefore expelled to the outside of the body.
In order to carry out the metabolic processes that allow the body to detoxify, a healthy liver and kidneys are necessary. Otherwise, the person who does not have good liver and kidney health may have symptoms such as nausea, headaches in the morning , eye spills, constipation, skin problems and pain in various parts of the body.
Detoxification is the first phase of the treatment of addictions , which they undergo immediately after being admitted to a rehabilitation centre or starting therapy on their own. People with addiction problems need detoxification treatments. They will undergo pharmacological and psychological therapy to help them get rid of the drug they have become addicted to.
Not only does it imply overcoming the physical dependence on one or several substances, but also motivating the person to move forward and understanding the difference between what is a psychological demand and what is an organic need.
As we were saying before, detoxification of substances or alcohol is understood as the elimination of the drug from the patient’s body and achieving physical stability, without the body missing the harmful substance. This process should always be carried out under the supervision of professionals, especially doctors and psychiatrists, although the work of psychologists and the patient’s own vision of his or her own problems should never be ignored.
The joint work of several health science professionals will help to control the symptoms of withdrawal, should it occur . Doctors will prescribe drugs that help to counteract the effects of the syndrome, in addition to helping the body achieve homeostasis. If there is food intolerance or the condition is very serious, serotherapy may be used.
The evolution in the detoxification phase can be very significant and can even involve radical changes. The first two days of the treatment are crucial and it is avoided by all means to avoid the occurrence of withdrawal. With the passage of time, the patient becomes calmer, has a more hopeful and positive vision of the future, sleeps better, recovers his appetite and his general well-being is increased.
Once detoxification has been overcome, treatment for drug addiction continues with detoxification , that is, the person does not need high doses of the drug to feel its pleasant effects, and then comes reintegration, which consists of encouraging the person not to relapse.
Alternative medicine and “détox” diets
Certain currents of alternative medicine and healthy-style movements assure that they are capable of eliminating “toxins” from the body by means of very varied treatments, which can range from the use of herbs from traditional medicine, drinking from juices of all kinds, to treatments in which electric or electromagnetic currents are applied.
It is common that in this type of treatment, characterized by being, on many occasions, pseudoscientific, the definition of what a toxin is is not clear, making the validity of its techniques more than questionable.
Since the liver and the kidneys automatically detoxify the body and take care of eliminating materials that may be harmful to the body, it does not make much sense to think that it becomes necessary to apply treatments that can hardly work and are not necessary.
Substances that facilitate detoxification
As we have seen, most diets that call themselves “détox” or that claim that eating only a certain vegetable for a period of time has not been proven to work. In fact, the scientific community considers that the vast majority of products and services promoted under the word “détox” are scams. However, this does not mean that following a healthy diet is not a protective factor for health and facilitates the detoxifying action of the liver and kidneys.
While not a panacea, nor does it guarantee that a person will miraculously recover from his or her liver ailments, there are certain plants that have long been used in indigenous communities , and which have been linked to improvements in health status. These include burdock root, Lewisia rediviva and purslane, which stimulate digestion and encourage the liver to work.
There are foods that help the liver to perform its function properly , such as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage help the action of the enzymes of cytochrome P450. So would vegetables containing sulphides, such as onions and garlic.
But just as there are foods that would help in the detoxification process, there are others that can increase toxicity, especially if you are sensitive to alcohol. Among these foods would be breads and fermented products. Foods rich in carbohydrates also increase the production of endogenous alcohol. Fermented foods transform alcohol into acetaldehyde, which damages the intestinal flora and can cause chronic candidiasis.
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- American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- World Health Organization (1992). International Classification of Diseases and Health Related Problems, Tenth Revision (ICD-10). Geneva.