Athletes are not typically a group of individuals that you might associate with detoxification programmes and liver support. Should we be leaving that to the overweight middle-agers who have indulged themselves at Christmas? After all, you are a clean-living, highly fit and healthy lot, aren’t you? Or are you?
Perhaps in the days of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams (Chariots of Fire) this was the case, but the challenges are a bit different nowadays. Firstly, you train much harder than in the ‘old days’; secondly, life stresses are at an all-time high; thirdly, we are exposed to exponentially more environmental toxicity than even 10 years ago; fourthly, dietary patterns have slipped to the extent that micronutrient intakes are a mere fraction of those seen in the past.
You might think that your system is pure because you don’t smoke, eat reasonably well and don’t drink … too often! Unfortunately, just about everything that the body is exposed to will go through our detox pathways. Table 1 presents some examples of exotoxins (toxins that come from outside our body) and endotoxins (those that come from within the body).
For day-to-day living, it is true that our body does a very nice detox job – the gut, liver, kidneys, skin and lungs are beautifully designed for this purpose. However, you can see from Table 1 how much detoxification work is constantly going on – not just when you drink too much on a Saturday night after a game! Add to these requirements, the observations below:
- We are now exposed to environmental toxins that were not around when we were born, not to mention tens of thousands of years ago when humans evolved. It is doubtful that the human genome can evolve fast enough to deal with these environmental insults.
- The human detoxification system needs a number of nutrients to function – in particular, a number of amino acids, B-vitamins and antioxidants. If your diet does not supply these nutrients in high enough amounts (nutrient density) or if other systems in your body compete for the same nutrients, you may be left in short supply. For example, the stress glands, the energy pathways and the immune system all deplete the body of these nutrients.
The best analogy for the detox system is that of a factory – if it has a moderate amount of work to do and is well resourced, all of the jobs will be processed in time. However, if it needs to process an increased number of ‘units’ per day and resources are in short supply, a backlog results. So this is what happens with the liver – if it can’t keep up with the workload, your body can become quite toxic.
*A recent UK newspaper report suggested that the average woman puts over 100 types of chemicals on her skin per day by using skin creams, perfume, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray and make-up.
SPECIFIC DEMANDS ON THE ATHLETE
Detoxification processes require a greater supply of ATP, the chemical form of energy, than any other biochemical process in the body.1 Just think what would happen if you could lower the amount of energy required for this processing – you might have more energy available for training and recovering! On the recovery note, most of our detoxification processes occur at night. If that system is strongly challenged, it may interfere with our optimal training recovery period, which is also during the night when the anabolic hormones, growth hormone and melatonin peak.2,3
Additionally, as you will see in the next section, detoxification produces a lot of oxidative stress (free radicals) as part of an intermediate step1,4 which relies on antioxidants to quench them and keep the body safe from cellular damage. Likewise, heavy exercise increases oxidative stress on the body5 and has been the subject of considerable discussions on ageing. Training will naturally put an increased pressure on the antioxidant resources available in the body – therefore, if you can minimise your body’s detoxification needs, heavy exercise will potentially take less of a toll on the overall health of your body. This may translate into being able to train harder and longer before reaching the limits of your body.
Additionally, as an athlete, you are producing more ENDOTOXINS within the body than a sedentary individual. By referring to Table 1, you can see that you will need to detoxify more metabolites from cellular respiration, ammonia from protein breakdown, stress hormones such as cortisol, sex hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and thyroid hormones.6 Additionally, the immune system comes under increased demands during intense training,7 so by default, the detoxification systems will be pressurised too.
THE PHASES OF DETOXIFICATION
As I mentioned, several organ systems are involved in the detoxification process, but the liver is recognised as the main site. These are the main detox phases:
- Filtering – the liver filters about 1 litre of blood per minute (i.e. the equivalent of a large petrol tank full of blood per hour)! It filters out bacteria, endotoxins and immune complexes.
- Bile – the liver produces bile, which has the job of removing toxins from the liver, via the gall bladder to the gut where it should be cleared in the faeces (if the gut function is good). Additionally, bile emulsifies fat and fat-soluble vitamins from the food that has emptied from the stomach.
- Phase I Enzymatic Conversion – directly neutralises some toxins (like caffeine); makes some toxins water soluble for removal by the kidneys; converts some toxins into a chemically more active form for the Phase II process. Cytochrome P450 is a group of enzymes that have a pivotal role in Phase I conversions. They are also found in other parts of the body including the brain and gut.
- Intermediate – Between Phase I and II is an intermediate phase where the products of Phase I are actually more chemically reactive than the original toxins were.
- Phase II Enzymatic Conversion is a process of conjugation, where a chemical group becomes bound to a toxin, which can then be removed from the body. The chemical groups are known as sulphate, glucuronide, glutathione, acetyl, amino acids and methyl. It is important to keep Phase II as active as Phase I or detox metabolites can become stuck in the toxic intermediate stage.
DETOX NUTRITION FOR ATHLETES
All of these aforementioned pathways are supported by the nutrients taken in from our diet. Phase I requires vitamin A, several B-vitamins, glutathione, branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), flavonoids (plant nutrition) and phospholipids (structural fats).
Phase II requires the chemical groups that the six pathways are named after: these can be summarised into amino acids, sulphur groups (e.g. from sulphurous amino acids, onions and garlic), methyl groups (B-vitamins, folic acid and betaine), glutathione (an antioxidant that requires separate mention) and acetyl Co-A. Additionally, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, fish oils and citrus peel can be extremely beneficial.
Antioxidants deserve a special mention. As noted, athletes are exposed to greater degrees of oxidative stress than the general population and therefore require increased antioxidant support. Additionally, as we have seen, it is very important to have your antioxidants well resourced to support the transitory phase between detox Phases I and II.
The body will naturally up-regulate its own production of antioxidant enzymes, the most important of which is glutathione. However, the raw material is needed from your diet to make these antioxidants. Glutathione is a tripeptide, i.e. it is made up of three amino acids: glutamine, glycine and sulphur-containing cysteine.8 Our old friend glutamine is found in every sports nutrition range. I mentioned in the Digestive Health edition of FSN that it supports the gut, immune and musculoskeletal systems. As you can see, since it is part of glutathione, it is also vital in the whole-body antioxidant system and liver detox health.
In general, a well-rounded dietary protein intake is important to provide a broad spectrum of all essential amino acids. In addition to the enzyme antioxidants systems, antioxidants that you should include in your diet include vitamins A, C and E, betacarotene from orange food, lycopene from tomatoes, catechins from green tea and salvesterols from red wine.
TWO-STEP PROCESS TO DETOXIFY
1) Reduce the workload
- Toxins are everywhere – in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and of course, from our cellular metabolism. Systems in the body, such as the immune, digestive and energetic systems also produce substantial toxins that the liver must deal with, especially when the body is under stress, such as during heavy exercise training.
- So, limit your exposure to environmental toxins when possible; clear out your cleaning cupboards and replace with eco-products; consider fewer toiletries; use free-range and organic food when you can afford and source it.
- Common dietary tips are to limit alcohol, caffeine, drugs (pharmaceutical* or recreational), sugar, refined starches (such as confectionary and baking), processed products, wheat and dairy (which people are increasingly becoming intolerant to).
2) Increase the resources
- Eat a diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, deep-water fish and free-range/organic dairy, poultry and meat.
- Exercise regularly but don’t make drastic dietary changes during a hard training phase.
- Drink plenty of filtered water and herbal teas.
- Sleep lots – your detox activities are highest at night. For this reason, don’t eat a big meal just before bed!
- A good multivitamin and mineral supplement plus perhaps some milk thistle or a comprehensive detox product can increase your liver support.
After giving you these guidelines for cleaning your body, I must stress three really important points:
- These are simply guidelines to lessen the toxic load on your body and increase your own resources. Hopefully by implementing them you can gain more output from your training. What I am representing here is a nutrient-dense diet that should provide an adequate number of calories for your activity – you should be eating as much as, if not more food than usual, but just cleaner fuel (Premium instead of Regular Unleaded). If you are used to consuming a large percentage of your carbs from wheat (bread, crackers, cereals, pasta), you will need to be careful and substitute with brown rice, quinoa, rye, oats and starchy vegetables to maintain your carbohydrate levels. Likewise, you may rely on dairy for protein intake – look to quality meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, beans and seeds to ensure adequate protein intake. If this is too difficult, bring back some of your wheat and dairy rather than under-consuming food for more than a few days.
- You may be aware of some heavy-duty detoxes such as water and juice fasts, the lemonade diet and other drastic strategies. Under supervision, it may be possible to follow a stringent detox approach in your OFF-SEASON, but never go without protein (which is needed for detoxification) and never try anything restrictive during periods of hard training.
- Finally, what I have presented to you is limited by the space of the article, so I have not supplied you with all of the tools to do a well-planned detox. I would recommend contacting a nutritional therapist for supervision if you are serious about undertaking a structured programme.
Good luck with any dietary changes that you might make – remember that at the end of the day, optimal food intake is always whole food that comes out of the ground and off trees – what I refer to as ‘real food’, compared to many of the processed uglies that frequent the modern diet.
*If you are taking a prescription medication, do not stop its use without consulting your medical practitioner.
- Muller A, Yeoh C. Compromised Detoxification, Chapter 3. Biochemical Imbalances in Disease. London: Singing Dragon, 2010.
- Berwaerts J, Moorkens G, Abs R. Secretion of growth hormone in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Growth Horm IGF Res. 1998;8(Suppl B):127- 129.
- Haimov I. Sleep disorders and melatonin rhythms in elderly people. BMJ. 1994;309:167.
- Murray M, Pizzorno J. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1998.
- Bejma J, Ji L. Aging and acute exercise enhance free radical generation in rat skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. 1999;87(1):465-470.
- Powers SK, Howley ET. Exercise Physiology. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1990.
- Gleeson M. Immune Function in Sport and Exercise (Advances in Sports and Exercise Science). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2005.
- Bralley A, Lord R. Laboratory Evaluations in Molecular Medicine. Nutrients, Toxicants and Cell Regulators. Norcross, GA: IAMM, 2000.