Detox Your Brain
Detoxification seems to be a buzz word these days. It is certainly a key phrase that gets people’s attention. But what is detoxification? What does it mean to detoxify? And how is our brain involved?
Physiologically, detoxification is an essential cellular function that without the means to do so would be incompatible with life, at least a healthy life. When the body detoxifies, it tasks itself to package debris, of both internal and external sources, such as foods and toxins, in such a way as it can be easily excreted from the body. We eliminate through various mechanisms such as our gastrointestinal tract, genitourinary tract, respiratory tract, and our sweat glands and it requires the recruitment of multiple organs such as the liver, lungs, gallbladder, skin, kidneys, and the brain. The pathway to efficient elimination requires a variety of nutrients as co-factors for the enzymes that are involved in the multi-step process of detoxifying. These steps include activation, oxidation, reduction, hydrolysis, conjugation, methylation, and recirculation. And these steps consume much of the body’s energy supply.
When our body is assaulted by the exposure to pro-inflammatory foods, alcohol, tobacco, medications, and foreign substances such as drugs, heavy metals, chemicals, persistent organic pollutants, and micro-organisms, our natural detoxification systems can be overwhelmed and unhealthy metabolites can accumulate and ultimately trigger mitochondrial dysfunction, metabolic deficiencies, immunotoxicity and resultant neuroinflammation. Energy produced by the mitochondria are diverted for excessive detoxification needs and, hence, the more metabolically active organs of our body, such as the brain, the heart, and the muscles, start to suffer. It is then we start to feel unwell and experience not only chronic fatigue and weakness slow processing, and cognitive difficulties, but we can also develop autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Indeed, studies have demonstrated the increase in morbidity from these diseases in those with heavy exposure burden. But even in those with less exposure, if we think about it in terms of chronic exposure, even at low levels, over decades of life, we can begin to see how a cumulative effect can be just as damaging, especially as we age and our overall physiological mechanisms are just a little less resilient.
The good news is we can easily detox with a commitment to lifestyle choices and one does not need an online program or to purchase a detox-in-a-box. The first thing to understand is that there are different phases of detoxification and the first step is heavily reliant on the micronutrients and macronutrients we consume. This first phase is based on the function of the cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver that need to be present and effectively active to start the process. After the first phase, these toxicant metabolites are even more reactive and can cause cellular damage and must undergo further phases of detoxification to convert them to less inflammatory compounds that are more easily excreted via the feces and urine. If not, these toxic metabolites will bind to parts of the cellular membranes and our DNA and result in progressive damage that affects our overall health and well-being and increase our risks of acute and chronic diseases.
Most importantly, a continuous supply of plant derivatives ensures the nutrients necessary for detoxification do not run out, as they can – and they do. It does not even take that long for depletion of vital nutrients. Think about how sluggish you feel after the holidays and increased consumption of alcohol, processed foods, and sugary treats and also with less sleep and less regular exercise. The cytochrome P450 enzymes can also be easily inhibited by chronic disease states but also by some commonly prescribed medications, pro-inflammatory foods such as trans fats and animal meats, and alcohol. Some individuals have mutations and polymorphisms which can render the enzymes less efficient. It is critical to adopt a healthy nutritional lifestyle as the best supplements in the world are no match for a poor and nutritionally bereft diet. The body prefers vitamins in its whole food state versus capsulized supplements. Of course, not every vitamin can be found any longer in its whole food form so appropriate and targeted use of supplements and herbs can be very beneficial.
Considering the myriad of nutrients necessary for detoxification, food as medicine should become a mantra of living. This means to consume a largely plant based diet for the wide array of bioflavonoids, carotenes, polyphenols, thiols, anthocyanins, and other vitamins and minerals necessary such as copper, ascorbic acid, and manganese important for their role in detoxification but they also confer anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-carcinogenic activity. Food as medicine living also requires avoidance of foods that can increase the burden of toxins. Foods that should generally be avoided include non-organic produce, animal meats, trans fats, sugar, and processed foods.
Finally, a process referred to as enterohepatic circulation allows for recycling and conservation of important physiological compounds and this process relies also on intestinal bacterium. There is overwhelming research demonstrating an important connection between the microbiome of our gastrointestinal tract and the functioning of our brain and this is just one of the various mechanisms in which what is in our gut affects our brain.
So what can you do to start detoxing your brain from the effects of contaminants, toxins, and inflammation? Here are some suggestions.
- Start with an elimination diet. A comprehensive elimination diet, guided by your physician, can provide information on your personal food sensitivities and intolerances. Consuming foods you may be sensitive too can increase inflammation and make it difficult to detoxify as well as to lose weight.
- Eat the rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Colors represent different vitamins and nutrients. Include ginger, turmeric, garlic, beets, and broccoli seed sprouts each day. Consume dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables regularly. Other important food groups include nuts, seeds, legumes, fatty fruits such as avocados and bananas.
- Include complex forms of carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are an important energy source for the brain as the glucose molecule, broken down from whole grain and starch sources by the intricate mechanisms with our body’s catabolic pathways, is the preferred energy source by the brain and its cells.
- Incorporate interval eating patterns into your meal plans. Allowing the body to take a break from digestive duties will help divert energy from the gastrointestinal tract to the organs recruited for detoxification pathways.
- Try to minimize exposure to toxins and contaminants as much as possible. Eat organic when you can to minimize exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and farm chemical residues. Use eco-friendly cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning agents.
- Target your supplementation for additional detox capability with such examples as milk thistle for liver support, coleus forskhii for respiratory support, ubiquinol and NAD+ for mitochondrial support, L-glutamine for gastrointestinal support, and N-acetylcysteine for additional antioxidant support since detoxification results in reactive oxygen species which are damaging to our cells. For increased brain support, consider use of such plants as Lion’s mane, Boswellia, and macuna pruriens. For more information, speak to an integrative physician.
- Daily movement and exercise. Run, walk, hike, go to a yoga class, dance your Zumba, and spin that bike. Sweat each and every day.
- Deep breathing exercises with episodic rapid breathing. Breathing exhales waste by-products of metabolism and rapid breathing results in alkaline urine to better excrete other toxin metabolites.
- Maintain good hydration. It does not need to be alkaline water as your body will alkalinize appropriately for elimination. Proper fluid balance keeps blood and lymph moving through the kidneys for better elimination through micturition (urination).
- Aim for 20 minutes of exposure to nature each day. Research is clear that immersion in nature improves mental clarity, decreases stress and anxiety, and has beneficial physiological effects such as lowered heart rate and respiratory rate, and decreased blood pressure. These improved physiological parameters can only help the body during detoxification. So go for a hike, walk through the park, or sit in your backyard.
- Have an infrared sauna session each week. Infrared saunas create heat from within, as does a fever, so it aids in hastening detoxification via sweat glands.
- Consider stool testing for microbiome assessment. Microbiomes are detrimentally affected by antibiotics, other medications, and a poor diet. Improvements of the biota of the gut are not as easy as taking probiotics and often require dietary intervention, choice pre- and probiotics, and time. Be sure to work with a knowledgeable physician.
- Consider heavy metal testing and possible chelation if found to have increased body burden of metals that can significantly alter the function of cellular signaling.
- Sleep at least 7-8 hours per night. During restorative sleep, your brain is able to tend to the damage from exposure to toxins and other inflammatory compounds.
If you detox the brain you detox the body and vice versa. In clearing your brain and improving brain function, do not be surprised if your body feels stronger, more energetic, and more efficient. No organ is an island but rather connected to the rest of our body by ducts, biochemical reactions, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, nerves, and metabolites.
I do/have done all of the above for a healthy brain. I practice what I preach and admit some days are (much) harder than others. Consistency is key and will get the job done, even if not every day is perfect. So above all, be kind to yourself and take each day as it comes on your path to a healthier brain.