Detoxifying isn’t about going on a vegetable juice fast; it’s a constant process which your liver is beavering away at 24 hours a day, and it’s a Herculean task: our bodies’ natural processes produce a lot of toxic by-products that have to be excreted, on top of which, we’re continually bombarded with man made chemicals which may be deemed safe but don’t belong in the body.  If we can’t get rid of them efficiently they can contribute to all manner of common, niggling symptoms: headaches; coughing and wheezing; ear, nose and throat irritation; dizziness; chills and fever; nausea; hair loss; skin rashes; poor memory and concentration; infertility; weakness, fatigue and depression (1). It’s also thought that poor liver detoxification function is linked to symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity (2). So there’s a pretty good incentive to give your liver a helping hand, but there’s a good chance it’s taken a bit of a hammering over the last few weeks with all that over-indulgence of one sort or another.  So how to show it a bit of TLC?

The right nutrition can play an important role in supporting liver detoxification function and preventing the development of symptoms in response to toxins (3). Interestingly, going on a juice fast will actually reduce your detoxifcation capacity (we’ll see why later), so although drinking copious amounts of vegetable juice may make you feel very virtuous, and the vitamins are certainly useful, it’s not the best nutritional strategy to boost your natural detoxification processes. So what is?

The short answer

The best short answer is probably to include lots of cruciferous and leafy green veg in your meals – things like broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussels Sprouts, which contain substances that boost enzymes involved in detoxifiation;  plus enough protein as a source of the amino acids which are also essential to detoxification processes (which is why juice fasting won’t help much – no protein).  So include some protein with every meal. Lean meat, poultry and fish are good, but also include plant protein sources such as nuts, seeds and beans as these help with your fibre intake.  Fibre is important because the liver excretes detoxification products into the gut (via the gall bladder), and fibre will help keep you regular and sweep detoxified substances out of the body to stop them being resborbed.  You’ll find some ideas for what to do with nuts, seeds and beans at the end of this post.  You’ll also find some recipes for what to do with cruciferous veg as steamed broccoli gets a bit boring after a while.

The long answer

If you want to know why cruciferous veg are so helpful, then to answer that question, we need to get our heads round what is actually going on in the liver: Detoxification takes part in two stages: Phase 1 and Phase 2. Phase 1 uses lots of enzymes and oxygen to effectively ‘burn’ toxins: it oxidizes them to make them more soluble in water so they can be flushed out of the body by the kidneys or liver. This is obviously a crucial step, but the problem is it often makes substances even more toxic than they were before. This doesn’t really matter so long as they can pass immediately into Phase 2 where they’re joined to an amino acid that neutralizes them and then escorts them out of the body. But if Phase 2 is running slow, or Phase 1 is running fast in response to a high toxic load, then toxic Phase 1 products can accumulate and cause damage to the body’s tissues and cells, inhibiting other crucial bodily functions – which is why inefficient detoxification can result in all manner of symptoms.

So the crucial question is, what increases Phase 1 activity without increasing Phase 2 (potentially leading to a back-log of toxic Phase 1 products), and what speeds up Phase 2 without speeding up Phase 1 (to help clear the back-log)? Things which increase Phase 1 activity relative to Phase 2 include all sorts of toxins like cigarette smoke, excess alcohol, pesticide residues from not washing fruit and veg properly and barbecued meats (barbecuing causes the formation of toxic chemicals in the burned bits).  Ideally, we need to avoid these, along with other environmental toxins, but that’s not always possible, and sometimes we just don’t want to – as with alcohol intake for many of us during the festive season, or barbecues in the summer. So it’s important to include foods which boost Phase 1 and Phase 2 in equal measure (revving up overall detoxification capacity), especially cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and other cruciferous veg (4, 5, 6).

It’s also important to boost Phase 2 activity to prevent the accumulation of Phase 1 products. Important foods here include protein as a source of amino acids.  These join with Phase 1 products to carry them out of the body.  They get used up quite quickly when there’s a high toxic load, so need to be replenished, and the importance of amino acids for liver detoxification explains why a juice fast (which contains almost no amino acids) could inhibit rather than boost your detoxification processes.  So include some protein with every meal (a portion is about the size of a pack of cards).  Good sources include lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products but also include plant protein sources such as nuts, seeds and beans as these help with your fibre intake. Fibre is important because the liver excretes detoxification products into the gut (via the gall bladder), and fibre will help keep you regular and sweep detoxified substances out of the body to stop them being resborbed.

Where juice may help is by providing bioflavonoids (the substances which give fruit and vegetables their colour) which may help boost Phase 2 (8).  Other foods which help boost Phase 2 detoxification include: alliums such as onions, spring onions and garlic (10), citrus fruit (11), curcumin found in the spice turmeric (12)  and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts again, so try to include all of these, as well as plenty of other fruit and veg, over the course of a week.

Cruciferous vegetables are probably the thing which most people find it difficult to incorporate into their meals because they don’t really know what to do with them, and while steamed broccoli or savoy cabbage with a bit of butter and a liberal sprinkling of black pepper do taste great, such simple preparation can get a bit boring. People also seem to struggle a bit with nuts, seeds and beans, so here are some links to easy recipes for cruciferous veg which I like the sound of, and some ideas for what to do with nuts, seeds and beans, which will hopefully inspire you to be a bit kinder to your liver:

Links for cruciferous veg recipes:

Ideas for what to do with nuts, seeds and beans:

  • Sprinkle pumpkin and sunflower seeds on porridge for breakfast
  • If you’ve got a bread-maker, chuck a few handfuls of seeds into the bread mix.
  • Have a handful of nuts and seeds with a few pieces of dried fruit for a healthy snack
  • Sprinkle seeds on a salad for extra crunch
  • Make baked stuffed apples for a healthy desert: dig out the core from whole cooking apples, chop up some walnuts or pecans and mix with some chopped dried fruit and a little butter to make a stuffing to fill the hole left by removing the core; bake at about gas mark 4 or 180 centrigrade for 30 minutes or so until soft. Serve with a good dollop of low fat Greek style yoghurt.
  • Use beans such as cannellini beans or chickpeas, or cashew nuts, in place of meat to make a vegetarian curry (which you can also put loads of turmeric in as a source of curcumin)
  • Make a great bean pate which you can use as a sandwich filling: use a stick blender or food processor to whizz up cooked kidney beans (tinned are fine but rinse off the salty gloup) with a couple of tablespoons of tomato puree, half a jar of pitted Kalamata olives and two or three roasted peppers (roast your own or buy them in a jar) and a couple of teaspoons of capers (thin the pate with a little water and/or olive oil if it’s too stiff). You can add some chopped chilli or a bit of chilli powder to add some spice if you like.
  • Make a stew with butter beans, tomato and chorizo sausage: fry some slices or cubes of chorizo (no need to add oil – plenty will come out of the sausage), add a chopped onion and cook until soft; add a can of chopped tomatoes and simmer gently until thickened a bit, then add cooked butter beans (again, tinned are fine).


1) Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, The New York University Medical Center Family Guide, How to Identify, Prevent or Minimize Environmental Risks to Your Health, Arthur C. Upton, MD and Eden Graber, 1993, Simon & Schuster p.275-358. 2) Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2010 Apr 27. [Epub ahead of print] “Biological definition of multiple chemical sensitivity from redox state and cytokine profiling and not from polymorphisms of xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes.” De Luca C, Scordo MG, Cesareo E, Pastore S, Mariani S, Maiani G, Stancato A, Loreti B, Valacchi G, Lubrano C, Raskovic D, De Padova L, Genovesi G, Korkina LG. 3) Furst A. in Int J Toxicol. 2002 Sep-Oct;21(5):419-24 4) Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1998 Aug;7(8):647-52. “Glutathione transferase null genotype, broccoli, and lower prevalence of colorectal adenomas.” Lin HJ, Probst-Hensch NM, Louie AD, Kau IH, Witte JS, Ingles SA, Frankl HD, Lee ER, Haile RW. 5) J Food Sci. 2010 Aug 1;75(6):H190-H199. “Induction of Detoxification Enzymes by Feeding Unblanched Brussels Sprouts Containing Active Myrosinase to Mice for 2 Wk.” Robbins MG, Hauder J, Somoza V, Eshelman BD, Barnes DM, Hanlon 6) Adv Exp Med Biol. 1999;472:159-68. “Brassica vegetables and cancer prevention. Epidemiology and mechanisms.” van Poppel G, Verhoeven DT, Verhagen H, Goldbohm RA. 7) Practical Gastroenterology, Vol. 5, No 4(July-Aug. 1981), pp. 26-30, “Environmental toxins and the liver”, P.S. Guzelian. Cited in Power Healing, Galland L. 8 Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2008 Nov;8(7):634-46. “Luteolin, a flavonoid with potential for cancer prevention and therapy.” Lin Y, Shi R, Wang X, Shen HM. 9) Mini Rev Med Chem. 2009 Jan;9(1):31-59. “Distribution and biological activities of the flavonoid luteolin.” López-Lázaro M. 10) Drug Metabol Drug Interact. 2000;17(1-4):3-22. “Chemoprotection by organosulfur inducers of phase 2 enzymes: dithiolethiones and dithiins.” Kensler TW, Curphey TJ, Maxiutenko Y, Roebuck BD. 11) Curr Med Chem. 2001 Feb;8(2):135-53. “Biological properties of citrus flavonoids pertaining to cancer and inflammation.” Manthey JA, Grohmann K, Guthrie N. 12) Carcinogenesis. 1999 May;20(5):911-4. “Relation of structure of curcumin analogs to their potencies as inducers of Phase 2 detoxification enzymes.” Dinkova-Kostova AT, Talalay P.

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