Over the millennia, several traditional systemic detoxification procedures have evolved: fasting, saunas, and hydrotherapy. Recent research has now not only documented their efficacy for many of the common toxins but also helped refine our understanding of how to better apply them.
Fasting is often used as a detoxification method as it is one of the quickest ways to increase elimination of wastes and enhance the healing processes of the body. Fasting is defined as “abstinence from all food and drink except water for a specific period of time, usually for a therapeutic or religious purpose” (see Ch. 47 for a full discussion of this useful therapy and specific instructions on its utilization).
Although therapeutic fasting is probably one of the oldest known therapies, it has been largely ignored by the medical community despite a substantial body of published research. Fasting has been studied in the treatment of:
• chemical poisoning
• rheumatoid arthritis
• leg ulcers
• the irritable bowel syndrome
• impaired or deranged appetite
• bronchial asthma
One of the most significant studies regarding fasting and detoxification involved patients who had ingested rice oil contaminated with polychlorinated-biphenyls (PCBs). All patients reported improvement in symptoms, and some observed “dramatic” relief, after undergoing 7–10 day fasts. This documented efficacy with fat-soluble toxins also indicates the need for care when fasting patients with high levels of these toxins and impaired detoxification mechanisms. For example, the pesticide DDT has been shown to be mobilized during a fast and may reach blood levels toxic to the nervous system.
Another challenge with fasting is the depletion of liver glutathione, which occurs after approximately 24 hours. This leads to impairment of free radical quenching from phase I and impaired glutathione conjugation. This has led to the development of “modified food fasts”.
Several products are now on the market to help aid the detoxification process. When used properly as part of a fast, these products initiate the same detoxification processes, albeit at a lower rate, while ensuring the availability of the critical nutrients needed to maintain energy and the liver’s detoxification processes. Especially important are glutathione, antioxidants, and botanicals like Silybum marianum.
Saunas are an age-old detoxification therapy. They are based on the concept that as the body sweats, toxins are released through the skin. Prolonged saunas (over an hour at a lower temperature) are thought to increase the excretion of fatty acids through the skin and thus fat-soluble toxins. There is some research that documents this method of detoxification. One group of researchers studied 14 firemen who had been exposed to highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in a transformer fire and
TABLE 50-18-- Effects of extended time, modest temperature saunas
• Increases excretion of heavy metals (cadmium, lead)
• Increases excretion of fat-soluble chemicals (PCBs, PBBs, and HCBs)
• Increases excretion of trace minerals
• Increases lipolysis, growth hormone
explosion and who subsequently developed neuropsychological problems 6 months after the fire. They underwent 2–3 weeks of experimental detoxification, which was a medically supervised diet, exercise, and sauna program. They were compared with firemen from the same department who did not participate in the detoxification program. Those who followed the detoxification program showed significant improvement in scores in three memory tests as compared with those who did not. Self-appraisal for depression, anger, and fatigue, however, did not improve. This was a very short period of time for eliminating such toxins, but the results do suggest potential benefit. Table 50.18 lists the detoxification benefits of extended time, modest temperature saunas. Note, however, that this procedure also increases the secretion of essential trace minerals.
As valuable as saunas are, they must be used with care as greatly elevating body temperature can cause problems in some situations. Specifically, they are contraindicated in pregnant women in their first trimester, young children, adults with heart disease or seizure disorders, immediately after intense exercise, and after drinking alcohol or ingesting cocaine.
Hydrotherapy, the application of hot and/or cold water to the various surfaces of the body, has been used for health promotion and detoxification throughout recorded history (see Ch. 42 for a full discussion). Some research is now documenting its efficacy in increasing the elimination of toxins, specifically lead.
A very interesting retrospective and experimental study evaluated the efficacy of the historic Bath General Hospital in treating lead poisoning. The hospital was established in 1741 to both treat patients suffering from lead poisoning (and other maladies) and objectively evaluate the efficacy of the therapies. Meticulous records were kept, and, considering the clear clinical picture of lead poisoning (colica pictonum), the diagnosis and evaluation, which were made by teams of doctors to limit bias, appear reliable. The researchers analyzed 120 years of documents which recorded the efficacy of the baths in 3,377 patients with lead poisoning. Their success was remarkable: 45.4% cured and 93% improved. As a control, they analyzed several other diseases for which the baths were used and found far lower success rates. The treatment protocol was composed of full-body (standing) immersion in 35°C water for at least 1.5 hours at least three times per week. In addition, the patients drank 1–1.5 pints of the Bath mineral waters a day. The average stay was 150 days.
The same researchers then conducted physiological experiments to determine if a rationale for this efficacy could be established. They found that full immersion increased cardiac output by 50% and increased urinary excretion of lead a remarkable 250%. The peak lead excretion was reached at 2.5 hours.
Detoxification of harmful substances is a continual process in the body. The ability to detoxify and eliminate toxins largely determines an individual’s health status. A number of toxins (heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, microbial toxins, etc.) are known to cause significant health problems and their concentration in the environment continues to increase. Optimal functioning of the detoxification systems combined with periodic systemic detoxification are important tools for the health promotion-oriented physician.
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