Detox Learning Center

Phases of Liver Detox: What They Do & How to Support Them

Detox isn’t something you just do in a one-week “cleanse.” Your liver is busy detoxing 365 days a year. So you need to support it every day.

You likely encounter toxins such as pesticides and air pollutants daily in your food and the environment. Other toxins are generated internally by normal bodily processes and microbes.

If your liver detox isn’t working well, harmful compounds can pile up in your body. That could lead to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and nausea. And over the long run, toxins increase your risk of disease. (1, 2)

To help keep detox running smoothly, you need to support your liver. It’s the detox lifeline of your body.

Your liver isn’t the only site of detox in your body, but it’s the top one. In a two-step process, it converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble forms you can eliminate. (3)

Ahead, find out what types of toxins could harm your health and what happens in the two phases of liver detox. You’ll also learn how you can support these crucial detox processes and your liver health.

Why Is It Important to Detox the Liver?

Why is it important to detox the liver

Your liver handles a lot of toxins. You need to detox these harmful compounds. And you need to keep them moving out of your liver and the rest of your body regularly to minimize their negative effects. 

If toxins pile up, it could lead to liver damage, as well as disease in other parts of your body. For example, toxins may contribute to obesity, cancer, and dementia. And they could be a factor in complex chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia. (1, 2)

Keep in mind, there are two main ways your body gets rid of toxins. This is based on what type they are: (1, 4)

  • Water-soluble toxins can be sent directly to your kidneys and excreted in your urine.
  • Fat-soluble toxins are first metabolized in your liver to make them water-soluble. Then they can be excreted via your urine or bile.

One of your body’s safeguards against toxins is that the blood collected from your gut goes to your liver first. The blood from your gut may be especially high in toxins if your gut is leaky. (5)

So, your liver is like a bodyguard for other organs. By tackling toxins first, it can significantly reduce the number of toxins that reach other organs, such as your brain and heart. (5

But what exactly are these toxins, and where do they come from?

Some toxins in your body are man-made. Others are created by biological processes inside you and the microbes you’re exposed to. Here’s a closer look at these toxins.

Man-made toxins

Environmental health experts say we’re in the midst of a “colossal toxicological experiment.” Tens of thousands of chemicals have been used over the last few decades. But they haven’t been adequately tested for safety. (1)

Your liver bears the brunt of the burden of getting rid of these toxins since many of them are fat-soluble. Your body tends to hold onto fat-soluble toxins in your fat tissue and accumulate them over time. (6)

Some sources of man-made toxins include: 

  • Environmental pollutants: These include car exhaust, industrial pollutants, cigarette smoke, and pesticides like glyphosate. Besides chemicals, some pesticides and fertilizers contain toxic heavy metals. These can contaminate the air, water, and soil. (17, 8)
  • Your home: A few examples are bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in nonstick cookware. Other examples are flame retardants in sofas and formaldehyde in the glue of particleboard used in some furniture. (1, 9)
    • Personal care and cleaning products: The majority of these items contain artificial fragrances and other potentially toxic chemicals. These include phthalates, which can disrupt your hormones and block your uptake of iodide. (1, 10)
    • Healthcare products: This includes prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational drugs, which are chemical concoctions. It also includes dental materials. Some of these are still made with toxic heavy metals, including mercury. (1, 11)
    • Alcohol: No matter what form alcohol is in — beer, wine, or hard liquor — your liver has to detoxify it. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies alcohol as a carcinogen. It increases the risk of liver, colon, and breast cancers, among other types. (12, 13, 14)
    • Food: Some food toxins are added, such as preservatives and artificial colors. Others are created in the cooking process. You create toxins when you char meat on the grill. And mercury contamination is common in seafood. Pesticides taint many foods, too. (15, 16, 17)

    If man-made sources of toxins weren’t enough of a challenge, your liver also has to process biological toxins and other compounds. Here’s a look at some of those.

    Biological toxins

    Microbes create toxins, sometimes called biological toxins or biotoxins. You also produce toxins in the course of normal bodily functions or metabolism. These could harm your health if you’re unable to detoxify them or break them down. (18)

    Here are some examples of biological toxins and other compounds your liver processes: 

    • Ammonia: Some amino acids you consume are used to make body proteins. You break down the rest for other uses. Ammonia is a byproduct of this process and can be toxic in high amounts. Also, some bacteria and parasites create ammonia, adding to your toxin load. Your liver converts ammonia into urea so you can excrete it. (19, 20, 21, 22)
      • Hormones: Your hormones must be in proper balance. For example, excess estrogen is linked to problems like breast cancer and obesity. Your liver converts excess estrogen into a form you can excrete. Poor liver health can lead to excess estrogen. (23, 24)
      • Mycotoxins: Mold can produce harmful chemicals called mycotoxins. These contaminate water-damaged buildings, as well as some foods. Mold can also grow inside you and produce mycotoxins in your body. (25, 26, 27)
      • Bacterial toxins: Harmful bacteria in water-damaged buildings and in your gut produce toxins. That includes endotoxins called lipopolysaccharides. These are from the outer membrane of bacteria. They can trigger inflammation in your body. (28, 29, 30, 31)

      Without good liver health, these and many other toxins could significantly accumulate in your body. Do you suspect toxins are building up in your body due to inadequate liver detox?

      Signs Your Liver Detox Is Impaired

      At first, you may not notice symptoms of your liver function slipping or signs of toxin overload. But over time, you could develop physical and mental symptoms that point to an overwhelmed liver.

      Some possible symptoms of impaired liver function and detoxification include: (32, 33, 34)

      • Disturbed sleep
      • Itchy skin
      • Clammy hands 
      • Muscle pain or cramps
      • Extreme tiredness
      • Headaches
      • Irritability
      • Depression
      • Trouble breathing
      • Nausea 
      • Digestive symptoms
      • Sensitive to many things
      • Fluid retention (edema), such as in your abdomen
      • Difficulty tolerating exercise
      • Jaundice (eyes and skin may look yellow; an extreme sign)

      Genetic factors and your toxin burden play a role in your liver’s ability to detox. So does your age. Babies have less capability to detox compared to older children. At the other end of the age spectrum, older adults have less detoxification capacity, too. The ability to detox starts to decline after your mid-forties. (5, 35)

      On top of that, chronic inflammation and infections can also stand in the way of detox. They may lead to lower levels of the liver enzymes you need to detoxify harmful compounds. (36)

      For these reasons, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of how detox works. Your diet and lifestyle can play a big role in liver health and how well you detox — regardless of your genetics or age.

      So, what are the phases of detoxification? Get ready for a close-up look at the two phases of liver detox. These are called Phase 1 and Phase 2. Heres a graphical overview to keep in mind as you read:

      Phases of Liver Detox Infographic

      Phase 1 Liver Detoxification

      To do its job, your liver has a “most-wanted” list of toxins and other molecules that it needs to detoxify or metabolize. That way, they can’t create problems for the rest of your body. 

      Your liver is particularly watching out for fat-soluble toxins. These may come from your gut after digestion. Or they may be released into your blood from your fat stores. (4)

      Fat-soluble toxins are less easily eliminated than water-soluble ones. Once your liver picks up a fat-soluble toxin, it puts it through Phase 1 detoxification. Thats necessary before it can be made water-soluble in Phase 2. (4)

      Here’s a closer look at Phase 1 detox.

      What happens in phase 1 liver detox?

      The main purpose of Phase 1 liver detox is to modify toxins so they can work with enzymes in Phase 2 of detoxification. (5, 37, 38)

      A family of enzymes called cytochrome P450 drive the majority of Phase 1 detox reactions. For example, they handle about 75% of the drugs that people may take. (39)

      Your liver has the most cytochrome P450 enzymes. This vital organ is the main workhorse in detoxification. Still, your small intestine, brain, heart, lungs, skin, and other tissues also contain these enzymes and help with detox. (40)

      Phase 1 enzymes modify fat-soluble toxins via certain chemical reactions. Among these are oxidation, reduction, and hydrolysis. These reactions are what add or expose a place on the toxin for Phase 2 enzymes to interact with. (40, 41

      So, these reactions are good things. But there’s a caveat. Phase 1 reactions produce lots of free radicals. 

      The free radicals can disrupt cellular function and damage cells. If there’s too much damage, your liver cells could be triggered to self-destruct. (39, 40, 42, 43)

      On top of that, sometimes the intermediate molecules from Phase 1 liver detoxification are more dangerous or reactive than the original substances. 

      Some of these intermediates can bind to your DNA, possibly acting as carcinogens. And some may bind to proteins, potentially triggering an unwanted immune response. (4)

      You want to minimize liver damage during detox. So, you need to move the intermediate molecules to Phase 2 of liver detox efficiently. One way to do that is to minimize your exposure to toxins. That could help prevent driving Phase 1 too hard. (1, 4)

      Keep reading for more ways to support Phase 1 detox.

      Supporting phase 1 liver detoxification

      A healthy diet and lifestyle can support Phase 1 liver detoxification. On the flip side, unhealthy habits can hinder it. So, you need to make savvy choices. (44)

      Consider these nutrients and other factors to aid Phase 1 liver detox:

      • Organic food: Opting for organic food reduces your exposure to pesticides like glyphosate. This weed killer impairs cytochrome P450 enzymes you need for detox. Glyphosate also disrupts the function of mitochondria. They make energy your cells need for detox. (1, 45, 46, 47)
      • Antioxidants: Phase 1 liver detox generates free radicals that could damage your cells. So be sure to include plenty of antioxidant-rich foods and herbs in your diet. Some examples are broccoli, berries, nuts, garlic, turmeric, and green tea. (48)
      • N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): This is made from the amino acid cysteine. NAC can act as an antioxidant by neutralizing free radicals directly. But it also helps your body make more glutathione, a potent free-radical quencher. That helps protect your liver. (49, 50)
      • B vitamins: Some Phase 1 enzymes need the help of B vitamins, including riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3). If you avoid dairy products — a top source of riboflavin — seek other sources. Riboflavin is in almonds, eggs, and quinoa. Niacin is found in meats, poultry, and sunflower seeds. (51, 52, 53, 54)
      • Zinc: You need this vital mineral for Phase 1 detox, as it’s required for cytochrome P450 activity. Some good sources of zinc are meat, chicken (mainly dark meat), pumpkin seeds, cashews, and oatmeal. (55, 56
      • Kidney and liver herbs: Several herbs could support kidney and liver detox. For example, milk thistle may promote antioxidant defense in your kidneys and liver. It may also help reduce liver inflammation. (57, 58)
      • Oxygen: A good supply of oxygen supports the chemical reactions in liver detox, including cytochrome P450 enzymes. A supplement of stabilized molecular oxygen may support your oxygen status. Get plenty of fresh air, too. And minimize indoor air pollutants, such as by using natural cleaning products. (59, 60)

      Now that you’re up-to-speed on Phase 1, it’s time to find out what Phase 2 of liver detox entails.

      Phase 2 Liver Detoxification

      Broccoli sprouts

      Phase 2 of liver detox gets its name from the fact that it works on the products of Phase 1. That said, in some cases, toxins may enter your liver ready for Phase 2. In that case, they skip Phase 1. But more commonly, Phase 1 is necessary first. (5, 37, 40)

      The chemical processes of Phase 2 are called conjugation reactions. By definition, “conjugation” means to join things together. 

      So, Phase 2 involves joining products from Phase 1 with other molecules. This makes the toxins less reactive. It also makes the toxins more water-soluble. That way they can be excreted more easily into your blood or bile for elimination. (37, 48, 61)

      These conjugation reactions can be simple. But oftentimes they’re more complicated and may require several steps to make end products that are ready for excretion. (5)

      Here’s a brief look at the main pathways in conjugation.

      What happens in phase 2 liver detox?

      You don’t need to memorize the Phase 2 liver detoxification pathways. But you may have heard of some of them before and didn’t know how they fit into your health. The following overview should make their role in detox clearer.

      The major Phase 2 detox pathways and some of the toxins they help with include:

      • Glucuronidation: This is one of the most common Phase 2 pathways. It helps clear about 1 in 10 of the top 200 prescribed drugs. It also detoxifies some chemicals, such as BPA used in many plastic containers. The end products of glucuronidation are commonly excreted via your bile. (37, 62, 63)
        • Sulfonation: This is considered another major Phase 2 pathway. Sometimes it’s also called sulfation, but sulfonation is more accurate. It detoxifies acetaminophen and some carcinogens. Toxins that go through the sulfonation pathway are commonly excreted in your urine. (37, 48, 64)
        • Glutathione conjugation: Glutathione isn’t “just” an antioxidant. In Phase 2 detox, it helps remove mold toxins, pesticides, and heavy metals such as mercury. You also use this pathway to detox a chemical in neoprene (synthetic rubber). That’s used in everything from laptop cases and lunch bags to wetsuits. (62, 65, 66, 67)
        • Methylation: You may know about methylation since some people have genetic variants related to this pathway. Methylation helps clear histamine. That’s produced in your body and is also high in some foods, such as fermented items. If histamine builds up, it can lead to headaches, nausea, rashes, and other issues. (62, 68, 69)
        • Acetylation: This pathway helps detoxify carcinogens, such as those in your diet, cigarette smoke, and car exhaust. It also helps clear histamine and caffeine. That’s why the effects of a morning cup of coffee “wear off.” (4, 62, 70)
          • Amino acid conjugation: Certain amino acids — the building blocks of protein — can attach to toxic molecules so you can excrete them. For example, the amino acid glycine can bind with benzoate, a common food preservative. (48, 71 

          As you’ll read next, many of these reactions involve nutrients from your diet. So a healthy diet could help Phase 2 liver detox run smoothly and promote liver health. (16, 48)

          Supporting phase 2 liver detoxification

          Making sure Phase 2 of liver detox is keeping up with Phase 1 is critical. If Phase 1 is working too fast, the harmful intermediate substances could overwhelm your liver cells and damage them. (4)

          Here are some nutrients and phytochemicals that support Phase 2 liver detoxification:

          • Amino acids: In Phase 2, enzymes attach amino acids to some Phase 1 detox products to enable you to excrete them. Examples of such amino acids are glycine, taurine, cysteine, and methionine. Top sources of amino acids are protein foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and nuts. (48)
            • Magnesium: This mineral may increase your glutathione production. As you read above, glutathione provides antioxidant protection and Phase 2 detoxification. Magnesium also supports methylation enzymes. Top sources of magnesium include almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and amaranth. (48)
            • B vitamins: Several B vitamins — including folate, B6, and B12 — support methylation enzymes, as well as other aspects of liver detox. Folate is found in spinach, sunflower seeds, and avocados. Good sources of vitamin B6 are meat, nuts, and seeds. And vitamin B12 is found in meat, poultry, and eggs. If you avoid all animal products, you’ll need a supplemental source of B12. (48)
            • Broccoli sprouts: These are a top source of sulforaphane. This phytochemical increases your production of glutathione. And it promotes the action of Phase 2 liver detoxification enzymes. (72)
            • Flavonoids: One key flavonoid is ellagic acid, which is abundant in pomegranates. Ellagic acid promotes the activity of Phase 2 enzymes while decreasing Phase 1 activity. This encourages a better balance between the activity of these two phases. And that could help keep damaging intermediate products in check. Berries are a great source of flavonoids, too. (16, 4873)

                With Phase 2 of liver detox covered, there’s one more step you need to know about: shipping the toxins out of your liver.

                Transporting Toxins Out of Your Liver

                Transporting toxins out of the liver

                After Phase 1 and 2, the now water-soluble toxins are shipped out of your liver cells. Some people refer to this as Phase 3 liver detoxification. But this isn’t really one of the liver phases. That’s because it involves transporting molecules rather than altering their chemical structure. (4)

                Think of this last step as liver drainage. Here’s a closer look at this.

                What happens in liver drainage?

                Transport proteins help carry water-soluble toxins out of your liver. These transporters are like garbage trucks. They shuttle water-soluble toxins across membranes and out of your liver cells. (5)

                Just like a real garbage truck, these transporters need fuel. For energy, they use adenosine triphosphate (ATP). That’s made within your cells’ mitochondria. (74

                Once the water-soluble toxins are moved out of your liver cells, they’re released into your bile or blood. From there: (37)

                • Toxins moved into your blood are filtered through your kidneys and eliminated in your urine. 
                • Toxins moved into your bile are ultimately released into your digestive tract. And bile can become bound in your stools and excreted.

                As you might guess, the success of this process is only as good as your drainage system

                Supporting liver drainage

                Finishing detox is just as important — if not more important — as starting it. You can do several things to help your liver get rid of the end products of detoxification. 

                Here are some compounds and other strategies that could help support toxin elimination from your liver and the rest of your body:

                • TUDCA: This consists of water-soluble bile acids and is also known as tauroursodeoxycholic acid. Animal and lab studies suggest TUDCA promotes bile secretion, which is important to get rid of toxins. And when TUDCA is combined with NAC, carbon-based binders, and melatonin, it also helps support Phase 1 and Phase 2 detox. (75, 76)
                • Carbon-based binders: These specialized extracts of fulvic and humic acid can bind some of the toxin-laden bile in your gut. That way, the toxins will be excreted instead of recirculating. The majority of your bile is recycled. (15, 77, 78)
                  • Fiber: Some types of fiber you consume in foods may also help bind bile in your gut. So, fiber is another way to encourage toxin excretion in your stools. This includes soluble fiber, such as found in oatmeal, legumes, and prunes. (79)
                  • Intestinal-moving herbs: Herbs such as aloe vera and ginger gently stimulate your gut to help prevent constipation. Ideally, you should move your bowels two or three times a day during your detox journey. That supports toxin elimination. (80, 81)
                  • Good hydration: You need to consume enough water to support the elimination of toxins through your urine and stools. Good hydration helps your kidneys work better. Being well-hydrated also helps reduce your risk of constipation. (44, 82)
                  • Coffee enemas: A do-it-yourself coffee enema supports liver drainage. It could trigger your bile ducts to dilate, which supports the release of toxin-laden bile. That moves it out of your liver. (83)

                  Giving your body what it needs to eliminate toxins is vital to your liver health. The above list provides smart ways to support your liver.

                  Your Detox Lifeline

                  The process of liver detoxification is central to your overall health. It helps you get rid of the toxins you take in from the environment, as well as those produced in your body.

                  Your liver filters out fat-soluble toxins and converts them into a less reactive, water-soluble form in two phases. That helps you get rid of the toxins via your urine and bile — assuming your drainage is working well.

                  If your liver detox is lagging or your drainage is backed up, you may feel unwell. Plus, you’ll be at an increased risk of chronic illness. 

                  So, support liver detox with good nutrition and antioxidant-rich herbs. Plus, you can promote the removal of toxins with the help of TUDCA and carbon-based binders.

                  How are you going to support your liver detox today?

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