Removal of toxins from the body has long been an integral part of Ayurvedic, yogic, and naturopathic medicine. In Functional Medicine, practitioners utilize the phytonutrient-dense Detox Food Plan, following an Elimination Diet, to support intestinal and liver function during the metabolic detoxification process.
“To me, the Detox Food Plan is one of the easiest food plans to follow,” says IFM educator Deanna Minich, PhD, CNS. “I don’t use caloric limits, but rather focus on the quality protein, healthy fats, and abundant greens/non-starchy vegetables to ensure that metabolic detoxification processes have a good nutritional foundation.”
Some bioactive food components, “phytonutrients,” in the diet may provide valuable therapeutic interventions by protecting against diseases that could develop as a consequence of exposure to toxic environmental agents.1 Among the vast array of phytonutrients currently being studied, sulforaphane, curcumin, quercetin, and resveratrol have been reported to stimulate the expression of endogenous detoxification enzymes and may neutralize harmful environmental agents.2 However, some research suggests that these same phytonutrients may also disrupt normal cell proliferation, dependent on their concentrations.2 A 2016 study by Jackson et al found that relatively low concentrations of either sulforaphane or curcumin significantly (P<.05) increase NQO1 protein expression and activity without triggering G2/M cell cycle arrest or mitotic catastrophe.2 The findings indicate that only particular phytonutrients are likely efficacious in upregulating NQO1 activity without also leading to hepatic cytotoxicity.2
Foods that support the biotransformation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may include cruciferous vegetables, berries, soy, garlic, and spices like turmeric.3 The unique effectiveness of cruciferous vegetables to protect against disease is attributed to the fact that they are the richest sources of glucosinolates in the human diet.4 Cruciferous vegetables such as kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli sprouts may contain chemical components, such as sulforaphane (SFN) and indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which may be regulators of microRNAs (miRNAs) and inhibitors of histone deacetylases (HDACs) and DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs).4
Another example in which detoxifying nutrients may improve health is in the interaction of industrial toxicants with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFL) or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).5 In one study, a portion of industrial workers exposed to petrochemicals such as benzene, xylene, ethylene, dimethylformamide, or vinyl chloride developed NASH, which resolved with removal from workplace exposure.6 Later studies suggest that nutritional intervention, such as antioxidant therapy, resulted in significant histologic improvement in NASH.7
While certain foods support the body’s natural detoxification pathways, other foods may contribute to poor health. For example, potential adverse health effects associated with exposure to PCBs may increase as a result of ingestion of certain dietary fats, whereas ingestion of fruits and vegetables, rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients or bioactive compounds, may provide protection.5
Research continues to make connections between what we eat and overall health. To be sure, our diet can either be healthful and protective or have detrimental effects on our well-being. And while navigating the emerging research and implementing the Detox Food Plan in practice may seem daunting to some practitioners, Dr. Minich offers some words of advice: “I would say two things: 1) Read through the Comprehensive Guide, as it really does explain the food plan well and gives tips on following it, and 2) Try the Detox Food Plan yourself for a good four weeks to be sure that you really know it!”
The Detox Food Plan can potentially benefit patients suffering from a high toxic load, chronic fatigue, and elevated liver function tests (including the gamma-glutamyl transferase test), she says. Dr. Minich recounts the case of a 35-year-old female who presented with hormonal imbalances, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, bloating, gas, dizziness, eczema, and allergies, including sinus complaints. The patient worked at a busy restaurant and was a seasonal kayak instructor. She was active in activities like hiking, biking, swimming, and yoga, but often experienced significant stress and had challenges eating healthily.
In this case, the IFM Elimination Diet was used to reduce inflammation, support a healthy microbiome, increase phytonutrients to heal the digestive system, reduce toxic burden, promote body awareness, and identify food triggers. Following the diet, the goal was to continue to avoid potential food triggers and to provide nutritional support to the digestive system, liver, and kidneys by encouraging the intake of nutrients needed for all phases of detoxification and for adequate elimination.
She participated in the Online Detox Program spearheaded by Dr. Minich, completing a three-week IFM Elimination Diet followed by a two-week reintroduction phase and a four-week IFM Detox Food Plan. Participants’ progress was discussed in weekly meetings and measured via the Medical Symptoms Questionnaire (MSQ), which measures symptom severity based on the subject’s scores in different areas such as head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, heart, lungs, digestive tract, joints/muscle, weight, energy/activity, mind, emotions, and other.
The patient’s improvements began with the IFM Elimination Diet, says Dr. Minich. By eliminating processed foods and known allergens from her diet, the patient was able to reduce her toxic load, decrease the burden on her immune system, and, likely, positively affect her microbiome. These benefits were reflected in the patient’s decreased MSQ scores from 54 at baseline to 6 at week nine, as well as in her reported improvements during consultations. She was so pleased with her experience and progress that she decided to continue on the Detox Food Plan for the remainder of the year (three additional months), eventually using it as a template for her long-term eating habits.
- Gupta C, Prakash D. Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents. J Complement Integr Med. 2014;11(3):151-169. doi:1515/jcim-2013-0021.
- Jackson SJ, Singletary KW, Murphy LL, Venema RC, Young AJ. Phytonutrients differentially stimulate NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase, inhibit proliferation, and trigger mitotic catastrophe in hepa1c1c7 cells. J Med Food. 2016;19(1):47-53. doi:1089/jmf.2015.0079.
- Hodges RE, Minich DM. Modulation of metabolic detoxification pathways using foods and food-derived components: a scientific review with clinical application. J Nutr Metab. 2015;2015:760689. doi:10.1155/2015/760689.
- Royston KJ, Tollefsbol TO. The epigenetic impact of cruciferous vegetables on cancer prevention. Curr Pharmacol Rep. 2015;1(1):46-51. doi:10.1007/s40495-014-0003-9.
- Hennig B, Ettinger AS, Jandacek RJ, et al. Using nutrition for intervention and prevention against environmental chemical toxicity and associated diseases. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(4):493-495. doi:1289/ehp.9549.
- Cotrim HP, Andrade ZA, Parana R, Portugal M, Lyra LG, Freitas LA. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: a toxic liver disease in industrial workers. Liver. 1999;19(4):299-304.
- Al-Busafi SA, Bhat M, Wong P, Ghali P, Deschenes M. Antioxidant therapy in nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Hepat Res Treat. 2012;2012:947575. doi:10.1155/2012/947575.