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The Incredible Liver and its Role in Detoxification


The liver is one of the most under-appreciated organs in the body. We often talk about brain health, or gut health or heart health but we rarely talk about liver health.

The liver regulates most chemical levels in the blood and excretes a product called bile. This helps carry away waste products from the liver. All the blood leaving the stomach and intestines passes through the liver. The liver processes this blood and breaks down, balances, and creates the nutrients and also metabolises drugs into forms that are easier to use for the rest of the body or that are nontoxic. More than 500 vital functions have been identified with the liver.


Some of the more well-known functions include the following:

  • Production of bile, which helps carry away waste and break down fats in the small intestine during digestion

  • Production of certain proteins for blood plasma

  • Production of cholesterol and special proteins to help carry fats through the body

  • Conversion of excess glucose into glycogen for storage (glycogen can later be converted back to glucose for energy) and to balance and make glucose as needed

  • Regulation of blood levels of amino acids, which form the building blocks of proteins

  • Processing of haemoglobin for use of its iron content (the liver stores iron)

  • Conversion of poisonous ammonia to urea (urea is an end product of protein metabolism and is excreted in the urine)

  • Clearing the blood of drugs and other poisonous substances

  • Regulating blood clotting

  • Resisting infections by making immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream

  • Clearance of bilirubin, also from red blood cells. If there is an accumulation of bilirubin, the skin and eyes turn yellow

  • When the liver has broken down harmful substances, its by-products are excreted into the bile or blood

  • Bile by-products enter the intestine and leave the body in the form of faeces. Blood by-products are filtered out by the kidneys, and leave the body in the form of urine

HOW DOES THE BODY DETOX ?

Oftentimes people don't realize that the body has its own extraordinary internal detoxification system. Here's a brief look at the critical organs involved:


Toxins enter the body, pass through the liver and exit the body again.


How does the liver process toxins?

The two step protective role the liver plays is known as Phase 1 and Phase 2 Detoxification. Each Phase is utilised to convert toxins into a less toxic substance for excretion.

Phase 1 Detoxification

The Phase 1 Detoxification pathway converts a toxic chemical into a less harmful chemical and is achieved by various chemical reactions such as oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis. This biotransformation converts the lipophilic compounds into more water-soluble metabolites which can be efficiently eliminated from the body. During this process free radicals are produced which, if excessive, can damage the liver cells. Phase 1 is catalysed by the enzymes of the Cytochrome P450 group. These enzymes are found in the cells of the liver that are called Hepatocytes.

The Cytochrome P450 pathway is induced by the presence of various chemicals and the production of free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS) is kept in check by antioxidants. However, if these antioxidants (such as C, E and beta-carotenes) are lacking, then these free radicals are free to do damage to the body. Therefore, an adequate supply of various antioxidants is necessary to quench these free radicals to prevent tissue damage.

Furthermore, exposures to certain toxic chemicals such as pesticides can disrupt the P-450 enzyme system by causing over activity or what is called ‘induction’ of this pathway. This overactivity results in high levels of ROS which, if not further metabolised by Phase II conjugation, may cause damage to proteins, RNA, and DNA within the cell.

In addition to inducers of the Cytochrome P450 pathway, there are also those substances that are known to inhibit, such as naringenin found in grapefruit juice. This has the potential to be dangerous as some drugs can be left active in the bloodstream and therefore continuing to exert unwanted effects.

A polymorphism, or genetic variability in the Cytochrome P450 can affect how a toxin is metabolised. The area this can have the greatest effect is upon the metabolism of drugs. It can cause unexpected side effects dependent upon the drug and enzyme involved and also produce a therapeutic failure. Interactions with common drugs such as statins, warfarin, antidepressants and antiepileptic drugs are often associated with the P450 enzymes.

Phase 2 Detoxification

Phase 2 Detoxification is referred to as conjugation and this is the process of adding a molecule to the xenobiotic to make it hydrophilic and therefore theoretically able to be excreted through the bile or kidneys. The end products of conjugation have increased molecular weight and tend to be less active than the products of phase 1 reactions.

There are six phase 2 Detoxification pathways:

  1. Glutathione conjugation

  2. Amino acid conjugation

  3. Acetylation

  4. Methylation

  5. Sulphation

  6. Glucuronidation

These conjugation molecules join with specific enzymes to catalyse the reaction process. The liver is then able to turn drugs, hormones, and other various toxins into substances that are secreted from the body. Any lack of these enzymes or their cofactors will result in the xenobiotic remaining active and therefore potential to cause damage within the body.


In this day and age of an ever increasing toxic burden around us it is essential to support and maintain good detoxification and a balance through all of the pathways. In order to do this a good understanding of the detoxification processes is required.


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