Supporting Our Athletic Goals with Nutrition for Optimal Detoxification
by Rebecca Fallihee MS, CNS
All too often, we have wonderful athletic aspirations, and then life—or lifestyle—gets in the way. We aspire to train for a distance, run a course that calls to us, or set a new PR or place. We sign up, put the date in the calendar and start training strategically to reach the goal. As we get deeper into the training cycle and the mileage and workouts begin to add up, the body starts to tell us it’s a little (or a lot) achy, the muscles and joints aren’t recovering as well from day to day, and we’re very fatigued and probably more than a little short-tempered with those that know us best. We don’t quite have niggles or injuries, or maybe we do, and we shrug the aches and pains off as ‘goes with the training.’
One of the many ways we can support our training is through improved metabolic detoxification. Anyone that’s ever rolled their eyes at the idea of a juice cleanse knows that our body naturally processes and makes exotoxins—from chemicals, compounds, hormones and the like—and endotoxins—from junky, damaged cellular debris and bacteria—less harmful, and then eliminates them. Through a series of multiple steps, the harmful waste products are metabolized in the liver and then transferred to the intestines, kidneys, lymphatic system and sweat glands to be excreted.
However, even when we spend a big chunk of our mileage in the forest or a natural landscape, we now live in a society where our systems are bombarded with a vast amount of pervasive toxins, so much so that our metabolic pathways are often unable to break them down effectively and carry them out of our system. Instead, they can begin to recirculate and build up, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, generalized aches or soreness, irritability, headaches, and perhaps decreased athletic performance, among others. There are many ways we can combat these symptoms to improve workout recovery and run with less aches and a better attitude.
The process of metabolic detoxification is highly individual in that we each have different toxin exposures due to the environment we live in, everyday living products used, stress, and training load. Next there are individual genetics, which can make this natural process less efficient than ideal, and finally, there’s proper nutrition, consuming and absorbing the nutrients that make detoxification occur more proficiently. This third area is where I’ll focus.
The liver is where the bulk of detoxification occurs. There are three main phases and the best way to support them nutritionally is in reverse order, i.e. we start with making sure phase three is occurring before we focus on phase two, followed by phase one.
The Detoxification Pathways in a Healthy Liver
Baseline: Toxins are fat soluble and are transported from the intestine to the liver. These include both the endotoxins from normal cellular turnover, as well as those that turn over more rapidly from those high mileage or hard training weeks, as well as exotoxins.
Phase One: In the liver, most toxins are neutralized from fat-soluble to less harmful substances using several nutrients and through a few complex metabolic reactions. This process produces free radicals which are quenched by antioxidants—in an ideal scenario anyway!
Phase Two: The remainder of the un-neutralized toxins move into phase 2 detoxification, which transforms them into water-soluble compounds.
Phase Three: Waste products that are now water soluble are transported to various organs to be excreted in the urine, feces, or sweat.
Nutritional Support of the Detoxication Phases
Working backwards, here are ways we can support this natural process through food and beverages:
Phase Three: Optimize elimination.
- Make sure you’re drinking enough water. The daily ideal is half your weight in ounces plus what is lost in sweat.
- Sweat and eliminate regularly. Both are the main ways we release toxins. If you’re finding it difficult to have at least a daily bowel movement or urinate regularly, that means the body is going through those first phases of detoxication and then is recycling the waste products back into the system.
- Avoid unnecessary sugar as much as possible. Sugar is incredibly inflammatory and it slows down the transfer of all those wastes from the liver to the bile, sweat glands, etc., instead of supporting them.
Phase Two: Healthy proteins, B vitamins, magnesium, and sulfur-rich vegetables.
- Make sure we are getting enough and a variety of healthy protein-rich foods. Depending on one’s dietary preference, both plant-based proteins like beans, tofu, and tempeh, or meats, fish and eggs can be chosen, as well as whey protein from good quality dairy products, if tolerated. The key idea here is to eat a moderate amount of protein foods of good quality, meaning avoid the lowest quality processed meat or faux-meat products because while they have protein, they’re also going to make the body work harder in phase one.
- B vitamins are found throughout those healthy protein sources above, whole grains, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Eat a variety and rotate food choices daily or weekly.
- Nuts and seeds, soybeans, dark leafy greens, oats and brown rice, beans and lentils, and potatoes are rich in magnesium.
- Sulfur-rich vegetables are particularly helpful in both phase one and two. All brassicas such as kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, as well as all types of onions and garlic are rich sources. Load up on all of these!
Phase One: B vitamins again, colorful fruits and vegetables, antioxidants
- Colorful fruits and vegetables of all types are rich in numerous antioxidants (to combat those free radicals), B vitamins, and various phytochemicals to support the initial transition from fat-soluble to water soluble elimination. Put particular emphasis on the brassicas and onions again, as well as berries and leafy greens.
-Those nuts and seeds are also powerhouses for phase one, providing amble vitamins that serve as cofactors in metabolic reactions as well as antioxidants from vitamins A, C, and E, as well as selenium (found particularly in brazil nuts), copper, and zinc.
All together, the way we support metabolic waste removal nutritionally can directly influence improved health and athletic performance, and by eating meals that are made primarily from non- or minimally processed whole foods, including ample fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and good quality proteins (animal and/or plant-derived) is the best way to go about it.
One other note and/or caveat is that a growing area of nutritional research is in nutritional genomics centered around individualized interventions depending on one’s genetics. There is becoming much evidence that depending on one’s genetic variations, the body’s ability to use nutrients from foods and metabolize toxins can be compromised. The above outline is a general description that applies to most, but some individuals for either genetic or other reasons, may not be able to get the appropriate types or amounts of nutrients from food alone and will need to supplement and/or seek other professional assistance.