What is Body’s Detoxification System and How Does it Work?

In a previous post, we learned about toxins and how they are affecting our lives adversely.

We learned that toxins are everywhere. In the water we eat, in the air we breathe, in the foods we eat, and even in the clothing and makeup we wear.

The sheer amount of toxins we’re exposed to, day in and day out, may seem intimidating at the first glance.

Tip: It’s highly recommend to check out our in-depth post on toxins, before reading this post, to get a true picture of what toxins really are and how are they affecting us…

But, the good news is that we’re not left high and dry…

Our body is equipped with its own detoxification system which protects itself against harmful toxins by keeping them off and eliminating the intruded ones.

There are 2 types of toxins which the body needs to deal with:

  1. Exotoxins: these are toxins which enter the body through an external agent such as toxic food, drink, or cosmetics.
  2. Endotoxins: these are toxins which are produced in the body by the body itself during the metabolic process or through the body’s chemical reactions. Hormonal and metabolic toxins, as well as the bacteria, fungus, and yeast inside our intestines, just to name a few.

Summary: Our body is equipped with it’s own detoxification system which is capable of eliminating both exotoxins (toxins which come into body from an outside source) and endotoxins (toxins which are produced in body during the metabolic processes).

To get rid of the harmful effects of these toxins the body needs to either eliminate them through bodily excretions, or neutralize them through detox enzymes and compounds.

Nearly all cells of the body produce detox enzymes to protect body tissues and organs against harmful toxins. The widespread implementation of these protective measures in our bodies implies that all of the organs and parts of our body are susceptible to toxins and need to be protected against them.

In order to remove “endo” and “exo” toxins effectively, nearly all of the organs in the body need to work hand in hand and produce and use a conglomeration of detox enzymes and compounds.

Although all of the organs need to work hardly in order to get rid of the harmful toxins, which the body gets exposed to each and everyday, but there are a few organs which do the drudgery of detoxification. We refer to these organs as detox organs.

Also Read: 4 Reasons Why You Should and Should Not Do a Detox

The main detox organs which deal with the detoxification process are:

  1. Liver
  2. Kidneys
  3. Intestines
  4. Skin
  5. Respiratory System
  6. Immune System
  7. Lymphatic System

Below, I’ve laid out the workings of each organ to help you grasp the importance and the ins and outs of your body’s detoxification system.

Summary: Nearly all organs and parts of the body are involved in detoxification process, but there are a few organs which do the majority of the work. These organs are called detox organs. Detox organs are: liver, kidneys, intestines, skin, respiratory system, immune system, and lymphatic system.

Body's Detoxification System

1. Liver

With a weight of around 1.4 kilograms, liver is considered as the heaviest organ of the body. This vital organ works around the clock to keep us alive. If liver fails to work or function properly, our bodies would simply stop working.

Liver performs more than 500 identified functions in the body. Some of the most primary functions of the liver are:

  • Production of bile – bile breaks down fat in intestines and carries the waste materials away from the liver into the intestine
  • Filter toxic substances and drugs from the blood
  • Conversion of ammonia to urea – our body creates ammonia while metabolizing protein. The ammonia is then converted to urea by liver and is excreted through kidneys.
  • Whisking certain types of bacteria out of the bloodstream

Being the heaviest organ of the body or performing more than 500 functions in the body are not the only reasons behind why so many health experts and nutritionists are talking about this organ. But it’s mostly due to it’s significant role in detoxifying the body out of the toxins.

Despite the public belief, intestine is not the primary detoxification organ of the body. Liver, as the principle filter of the body, is the primary and the most important organ of our body’s detoxification system.

In fact, the role of the liver in the process of the detoxification is so prominent that the roles of other detox organs such as kidneys, intestines, etc. are often considered as secondary when compared to liver’s role.

Put simply, the main job of liver is to filter blood from all toxic substances and excrete all impurities by the help of kidneys and intestine.

The blood comes into liver from two different sources:

  1. Heart – this blood is delivered to liver through hepatic artery.
  2. Intestines – all of the blood that leaves the digestive system including stomach and intestine should passes through liver for filtration. This blood is delivered to liver through hepatic portal vein.

The blood delivered to liver is full of oxygen and also nutrients obtained from air and food. The primary job of the liver is to process this blood to create nutrients ().

But the blood which is delivered into the liver, most often, contains harmful toxins and by-products which body cannot use. In this case, the liver must neutralize or whisk away the toxins so that they can be excreted through kidneys and intestines.

Nearly all of the toxins and chemicals that enter the body are fat-soluble. It means that it can only be dissolved in fatty or oily solutions, but not in the water. This predominant characteristic of toxins makes their elimination through the aqueous fluids of the body nearly impossible. So, before trying to excrete those toxins, the body needs to convert them into water-soluble substances, so that they can be eliminated through watery fluids of the body such as bile and urine. That’s a task which is done by liver through a two-phased process called toxin bio-transformation.

During the toxin bio-transformation process the fat-soluble (lipophilic) toxins transform into water-soluble (hydrophilic) toxins, so that they can be excreted through urine and bile.

To help you get a more accurate picture of how our liver detox the blood from all impurities, I’ve provided you a brief and simplified description of the 2-phased liver’s detoxification process (toxin bio-transformation) below.

Summary: Liver is the primary detoxifying organ of the body. It’s main job is to filter blood from all toxic substances and impurities. To do this, liver needs to transform all fat-soluble (lipophilic) toxins into water-soluble (hydrophilic) toxins through a two-phased process called bio-transformation.

Phase 1 (Catalysis)

This phase-1 of liver’s detoxification process is called catalysis because in this phase the detoxification process is catalyzed by enzymes referred to as the cytochrome P450 enzyme group or Mixed Function Oxidase (MFO) enzymes.

In this phase, the liver would transform harmful toxic chemicals into less harmful substances through different chemical reactions like oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis. During this process some highly reactive and unstable molecules, which are called free radicals, are produced.

Free radicals are highly toxic and harmful molecules that can trigger disease. In most cases, they may even be much more toxic and harmful than the original toxins. An increased production of free radicals can damage liver cells or may even wreak havoc on other organs, cells, and tissues and accelerate the aging process ().

To neutralize these highly toxic and harmful molecules (free radicals), liver needs a batch of antioxidant nutrients and enzymes.

So, adding antioxidant-rich foods, such as berries, beets, and green tea, to your diet and consuming them on a regular basis would greatly help to improve the detoxification process and keep, the potentially dangerous, free radicals in check ().

During the phase-1 of liver’s detoxification, if the free radicals are left unchecked due to the lack of antioxidants or high exposure of toxins, high levels of damaging, such as acute illness or premature death, may be induced by free radicals.

Regular use of antioxidants and avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals is even more crucial for individuals with a sluggish or problematic liver. High exposure to toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and heavy metals, can disrupt the P-450 enzyme system and cause over-activity of the system. A serious condition referred to as liver enzyme induction. This will result in more free radicals production and damage to proteins, RNA, and DNA within the cell.

The activity of the phase-1 of liver’s detoxification system decreases with aging. Lack of the physical activity and poor nutrition can also exacerbate the condition and further impair the detoxification system of the elderly people.

So, to avoid the health ramifications of an impaired detoxification system, one, especially the aging people and those with a problematic liver, need to add lots of natural antioxidant-rich foods to their diet, exercise on a regular basis, and follow a healthy and well-balanced diet.

There are also a few foods which can inhibit or decrease the activity of the phase-1 of liver’s detoxification process.

Grapefruits contain flavonoid naringenin, a compound which can decrease the activity of cytochrome P450 by 30%.

Curcumin is a compound which is responsible for the yellow color of turmeric. New studies have shown that curcumin can inhibit the phase-1 of detoxification, but boosts the phase-2 of detoxification. An interesting characteristic of curcumin which has turned turmeric into a potent food for preventing certain types of cancer.

Summary: During the phase-1 of liver’s detoxification process (catalysis), the liver would transform toxic chemicals to less toxic substances using cytochrome P450 enzyme. Free radicals, which are highly harmful and toxic molecules, are a by-product of phase-1. Using antioxidant-rich foods can greatly help liver to neutralize free radicals in this phase.

PHASE 2 (Conjugation)

In this phase, which is called conjugation, some other substances, such as cysteine, glycine or a sulphur molecule, are added to the toxins to make them even less harmful and also to render them into water-soluble compounds so that they can be eliminated through watery fluids of the body such as urine or bile.

The foods that contain sulphur and/or amino acids can accelerate phase-2 of detoxification.

A few examples of natural foods high in sulphur are: eggs, Allium vegetables (like garlic, leeks, chives, onions, etc.), and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower).

The best natural sources of amino acids are: meat, sea food, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

When the process of the conversion of fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble toxins is completed, the water-soluble compounds would be transferred into gallbladder and kidneys so that they can be excreted with watery fluids like bile or urine.

By keeping your body always well-hydrated, you can help the kidneys to always have access to required water for dealing with the processed toxins and excreting them through urinary system.

Warning: Please pay ample attention that you need to keep your body always well-hydrated but not overhydrated in order to achieve optimum health. Please check our article on overhydration to learn what overhydration is and why drinking too much water can be detrimental to your health.

The toxins which are transferred to gallbladder also would be dissolved and stored in bile. Then, the bile would carry the processed toxins into intestine so that they can be excreted through feces.

Keeping your body well-hydrated as well as providing your digestive system with enough dietary fiber can help to promote the functions of your digestive system and eliminate the waste material smoothly and effortlessly.

The best natural sources of dietary fiber are: berries, avocado, apples, bananas, beets, vegetables, legumes, dark chocolate, etc.

If the toxins transferred into the intestine cannot be eliminated properly due to any reason such as constipation, sluggish liver, or dehydration, the toxins would be reabsorbed into the blood and would pose the risk of toxic overload.

Toxic overload refers to a condition where the toxins gradually buildup in the body due to the body’s failure to process toxins in the phase-1 or phase-2 of detoxification or eliminate them through kidneys or intestine.

As it was mentioned earlier, most toxins are originally fat-soluble. It means that, if they do not convert into water-soluble compounds and eliminated through watery fluids, they most likely would get dissolved into fatty parts of the body such as brain and endocrine glands. The accumulation of these harmful toxins into the fatty parts of the body may lead to serious conditions like brain dysfunction and hormonal imbalances, such as infertility, breast pain, menstrual disturbances, adrenal gland exhaustion and early menopause ().

Summary: During the phase-2 of liver’s detoxification process (conjugation), the liver would transform fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble toxins by adding certain compounds to toxins. By using natural foods which contain sulphur and/or amino acids you can accelerate the phase-2 of detoxification.

Liver Detoxification Phases

2. Kidneys

As it was laid out in previous part, kidneys play a crucial role in the body’s detoxification system. Think of kidneys as a potent fluids filtration system. Their main job is to filter out and channel away all of the wastes and toxins present in the fluids of the body, including the water-soluble toxins delivered from liver.

The act of screening urine samples for drug and alcohol tests is a great testament to the versatility and efficiency of kidneys in filtering out toxins and waste substances.

Kidneys can also detoxify themselves if they’re provided with enough water.

By keeping your body well-hydrated all the time, you can help your kidneys to function optimally.

Warning: pay attention that drinking too much water may lead to water intoxication which is a dangerous condition when your body’s electrolytes are washed away due to water over-consumption.

Another preventive measure you can take to avoid kidneys’ failure or dysfunction is to limit your daily salt intake. Salt contains sodium, and although body needs sodium, but an increased sodium intake may raise blood pressure and increase the risk of kidneys failure or other acute conditions such as heart disease or stroke.

Following a healthy and balanced diet can also help the kidneys to function optimally. Some of the kidney-friendly foods which you may consider to add to your diet are: berries, citrus fruits, apples, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.

Consuming foods laden with toxic substances, can also take a serious toll on kidneys and other organs of your body’s detoxification system.

So, to keep your kidneys healthy and functioning effectively it’s highly recommended to decrease your exposure to toxic substances.

Summary: The main job of the kidneys is to filter out and channel away all of the wastes and toxins present in the fluids of the body. Adequate water intake, limiting daily salt intake, and also following a healthy and balanced diet can help your kidneys to function optimally.

Urinary System's Anatomy

3. Intestine

After liver, kidneys and intestine are the second most important organs of our body’s detoxification system.

Intestine, as the major player of our digestive system, plays a crucial role not only in digesting foods but also in buttressing the immune system and delivering nutrients to bloodstream.

Peyer’s patches are lymph nodes in small intestine which play a crucial role in our immune system by screening out parasites, intestinal bacteria, and other foreign substances and preventing the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the intestines before the absorption of nutrients into bloodstream (, ).

Adding fibrous foods to your diet can help to boost the detoxification process of your digestive system significantly. Fiber cleanses your intestine by normalizing the bowel movements through increasing the size and weight of the stool in the colon.

Some of the natural foods which contain a good amount of fiber are: berries, avocado, apples, bananas, beets, vegetables, legumes, dark chocolate, etc.

Warning: Going on a juice cleanse detox can be detrimental to your health because juices usually are void of dietary fibers and the lack of fiber in your colon may inhibit the detoxification process and lead to toxin buildup and other serious health conditions.

Another type of foods you want to add to your daily diet to promote your digestive health are fermented foods. Fermented foods are loaded with probiotics, live microorganisms which help digestion and help maintain gut health. Consuming fermented foods on a regular basis helps your body to keep the balance of healthy gut bacteria and eliminate harmful bacteria.

Drinking a healthy amount of clean and filtrated water, not only helps you to keep your body well-hydrated, but it’ll also aids digestion through softening the stool and facilitating the excretion of bodily waste.

Warning: Drinking too much water can be detrimental to your health and may lead to a serious condition called water intoxication. Read this article for more info.

Summary: Digesting foods is not the only task which intestine is responsible for. Intestine supports the immune system and delivers nutrients to bloodstream as well. Adequate water intake, fiber-rich foods, and fermented foods can all contribute to the health and wellness of your intestines.

Digestive System's Anatomy

4. Skin

As it was laid out in another article about toxins, our skin is capable of absorbing toxins if it comes into close contact with toxic sources such as toxic cosmetics, polluted air, toxic clothing, toxic bath water, etc.

Skin is the largest organ of the body. Even though our skin may become vulnerable if it’s in close contact with toxic substances, but, the reality is that it plays a crucial role in protecting us against harmful substances.

Skin covers nearly all parts of our body and acts as a barrier against toxic and harmful substances such as chemical toxins, bacteria, viruses, etc.

Whether your skin is capable to excreting toxins or not is a point of controversy.

There are some scientific data which suggest that the amounts of toxins we can sweat out are minuscule (). As a result, many experts have started to question the effectiveness of detoxifying methods, such as infrared saunas, which work based on sweating out toxins ().

On the other hand, there are some scientific evidence which shows that sweating is a potent method for removing toxins out of the body (, , ).

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not really important whether sweating can really help you to eliminate toxins or not. Sweating is a natural function of our body which happens while doing a physical activity or exercising.

So, I would still continue to sweat over my arduous exercise routines. If sweating is helping my body to eliminate toxins, then it’s the icing on the cake. If not, I’m still benefiting the countless health benefits of exercising including facilitating the elimination of toxic substances through other detoxifying organs such as liver, kidneys, and intestine.

In regards to infrared saunas, I also believe that they’re not a very potent detoxifying method, but you may still use them for their other health benefits such as relaxation, better sleep, improved circulation, weight loss, joint pain relief, etc.

Summary: Skin acts as a cover for our body which protects us against the invasion of toxic chemicals, bacteria, and viruses. Whether your skin is able to sweat out toxins or not is a subject of debate and controversy.

Can You Sweat Out Toxins?

5. Respiratory System

Our body needs an adequate amount of oxygen to function optimally. But the air which delivers the oxygen needs to be purified and free of toxins and harmful substances.

Just before the air begin its journey inside your respiratory system and lungs through inhalation, the process of air filtration and detoxification starts just from your nose right off the gate. It’s done by the fine hairs inside your nose. Those hairs trap small particles, such as dust and dirt, and prevent them from intruding your lungs and system.

At the next level of filtration, before the air reaches your lung, the mucus available inside your respiratory system captures those smaller particles which have been able to escape from the filtration of your nose hairs.

Finally, when the filtered air hits your lung, the lung starts its own detoxification process. Your lung separates fresh oxygen from carbon dioxide and other waste gases that are not necessary for your body. Then, the lung brings the fresh oxygen into your body and lets you to breath out dioxide carbon and other waste gases from your mouth or nose through exhalation.

Like kidneys, the lungs are able to cleanse themselves provided they are no longer exposed to pollutants. So, the best way to keep your lungs always clean and functioning at their best is by preventing them from further exposure to pollutants and toxic substances.

According to American Lung Association, “the best way to ensure your lungs are healthy is by avoiding harmful toxins like cigarette smoke and air pollution, as well as getting regular exercise and eating well”.

Summary: The main job of our respiratory system is to filter the air we breathe, provide fresh oxygen for the body, and channel out dioxide carbon and other waste gases through exhalation. By avoiding air pollution and smoking as well as exercising and eating well you can help your respiratory system to function optimally.

Respiratory System's Anatomy

6. Immune System

The main job of your immune system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs, is to recognize and eliminate infectious organisms and other invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, from your body.

You can think of your immune system as a large army of troops and officers which work hand in hand to protect your body. They spread through all over your body within all blood cells, in lymph, and even in the small spaces between cells.

They monitor and inspect each and every cell of the body day in and day out. If they detect any invader (foreign substances or pathogens), they would trigger an appropriate response based on the type of the invader. In most cases, the appropriate response would be attacking and destroying the invader.

The immune system usually destroys the pathogens by producing special antibodies for each type of invaders.

Immunodeficiency refers to a condition in which the immune system loses its efficiency in detecting and destroying harmful bacteria, viruses and infections. As a result, toxic substances, harmful bacteria, and infectious viruses cannot be flushed away and the body would be exposed to different kinds of diseases and infections.

Aging, malnutrition, diabetes, chemotherapy, and radiation exposure are among the main risk factors of immunodeficiency.

The most common symptoms of immunodeficiency are cold like symptoms, diarrhea, yeast infections, and pneumonia.

Fortunately there are a few healthy foods and herbal remedies which can help to optimize the efficiency of the immune system and promote the elimination of wastes and toxic substances in an effective manner.

Drinking a glass of hot lemon water first thing in the morning can help you to improve your immune system and accelerate the detoxification process. Adding a pinch of cayenne or cinnamon to your lemon water can add antiviral properties to your drink and render it to a more beneficial beverage for maintaining and improving the health of your body and immune system.

Some types of herbal teas can also help your immune system to get stronger and function at its best. Nettle, chamomile, burdock, red clover, dandelion, milk thistle, and pau d’arco teas are some of the herbal teas which have been proved to aid your immune system.

Summary: The immune system’s main job is to monitor all parts of the body for any foreign invaders (pathogens) and trigger an appropriate response based on the type of the invader. You can buttress your immune system by drinking a glass of hot lemon water first thing in the morning or by drinking immune-system-friendly herbal teas such as nettle, chamomile, burdock, red clover, dandelion, milk thistle, and pau d’arco.

Organs of the Immune System

7. Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system comprises a large group of tissue and organs which work hand in hand to achieve one simple goal which is to help your body to detox and flush away toxic substances and other waste materials.

Lymphatic system achieves this goal through transporting lymph, a pale fluid which contains anti-infective white blood cells, throughout the body. Lymph is transferred throughout the body within channels called lymphatic vessels which cover nearly all parts of the body.

Lymph has infection-fighting properties and helps the body cleanse itself and get rid of toxins and waste materials. Some of the organs considered as active members of the lymphatic system are tonsils, appendix, spleen and thymus.

If the smooth circulation of lymph throughout the body is slowed down or blocked, toxic substances and waste materials could not be eliminated from the body properly and toxin accumulation and other ailments would emerge.

Common symptoms of a slowed-down lymphatic system are fatigue and sluggishness, brain fog, puffy skin, swollen and stiff joints, and chronic headaches and inflammation.

Chronic illness can take a heavy toll on lymphatic system and stagnate or slow down the smooth flow of the lymph circulation.

The other reasons for a slowed-down lymphatic system are living a sedentary lifestyle and/or dehydration due to falling short on water intake.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is not equipped with a powerhouse organ such as heart which pumps the blood through the circulatory system and keep the fluid flowing.

Instead, the lymphatic system gains momentum with external forces such as gravity, muscle movements (exercising), hot and cold showers (hydrotherapy), deep breathing, lymph drainage therapy, dry brushing, and massaging.

That’s why the lack of physical activity or falling short on water intake may lead to a congested or slowed-down lymphatic system.

Alternatively, you can help your lymphatic system to cleanse and function at its best by following the below guidelines:

  • Exercise on a regular basis
  • Rebound (do exercises such as rope jumping, trampoline jumping, or plyometrics)
  • Dry brush your body before shower
  • Drink enough water
  • Practice Yoga or deep breathing exercises
  • Alternate between hot and cold water when you shower
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Hang upside down
  • Message

Summary: The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs which work together to flush away toxic substances and waste materials through circulating lymph throughout the body. Chronic illness, lack of physical activity, and dehydration are the main factors which can slow down the flow of lymphatic system. On the other hand, exercising, rebounding, dry brushing, hot-cold showers, massage, and adequate water intake are all practices which can help your lymphatic system to function optimally.

Organs of the Lymphatic System

The Bottom Line

As it was laid out in this article, our body’s detoxification system is an exquisitely orchestrated network of organs, cells, and molecules which work hand in hand to achieve one simple goal which is keeping our bodies clean and healthy by neutralizing and eliminating toxic substances, waste materials, harmful bacteria, viruses, and infections.

Our body’s detoxification system is a robust cleansing machine which can handle nearly all types of the toxins, bacteria, or viruses which may enter our bodies. Nevertheless, frequent exposure to loads of toxic substances, which have been introduced to our modern lives, may take a serious toll on our body’s detoxification system and leave it high and dry.

So, I believe that the first and most important step we can take, against the influx of daily toxins and bacteria, is to take the time to gain a deeper understanding of what these toxins are, how are they threatening our health and life, and how to avoid them.

You may take this first step by checking out our in-depth post on toxins. In this post you’ll learn about the most common toxins which are affecting our life adversely. There are also a few handy tips on how you can avoid those toxins in an effective manner.

We can help our body’s detoxification system to function at its best through following some general guidelines such as: decreasing our exposure to toxic substances as far as possible; providing our detox system the nutrients, such as antioxidants, dietary fiber, and fermented foods, which are necessary for it to function properly; following a clean, healthy and well-balanced diet; exercising on a regular basis; adequate fluid intake; drinking warm lemon water after wake-up; and finally following other guidelines which help our lymphatic system to function optimally.

The clever use of a potent detox program can also give a malfunctioning detoxification system some room to recover and reset itself. That’s the topic of our next article in which you’ll discover what detox really is and how it works