Detoxification for MTHFR, Revisited

MTHFR and detoxification are intimately linked. Having a methylation issue impairs detox of many substances including heavy metals and hormones to name a few, but also when those branches of detoxification are impaired it can generally affect the speed at which other substances are able to be eliminated.  So actively supporting those elimination pathways is a huge part of the MTHFR lifestyle. The problem is that anybody who has ever had a hangover, knows that being toxic comes with symptoms. Sadly, lots of people who have done cleanses also know that cleansing too quickly can come with symptoms.

I can certainly say first hand that doing an intense cleanse is fraught with difficulty. When I was a student, well before I knew anything about MTHFR or it’s consequences or that I have it, a good friend was bulk ordering cleanse kits at a discount.  This is the sort of weird geekery that we engaged in as students. Anyway, the cleanse involved a limited diet that tapered down to a total water fast over the course of six weeks along with heavy-duty liver pushers, clay as a binder, and a massive dose of fiber.  I won’t go into the gory details, but right around week four a good friend sat me down and said, very earnestly, “If you don’t stop this cleanse, I am personally locking you in your apartment to preserve everyone else’s sanity.”

I actually broke that fast with an entire large extra cheese and pepperoni pizza and an order of breadsticks by myself, which is even funnier if you had seen me in person because I’m 5’2 and 105 lbs soaking wet. Quite honestly, the pizza was blissful and the only part of that cleanse that was worth the price of admission.  The problem was, that for my body the cleanse was WAY too intense and it pushed my liver to liberate toxins that my system had no way of actually eliminating, and so they rattled around turning me into quite literally a toxic human.

Interestingly, when we refer to someone as “toxic” emotionally, they are usually a pretty good picture of what a person who is toxic physically looks like.  Angry, lashing out, generally spewing hatred and unpleasantness. Internally they might also have a headache, some mild (or severe) nausea, and be constipated. Their skin could be itchy, they might (eek!) produce some weird odors. It’s all pretty gross and, well, toxic. 

The symptoms of being toxic and needing a detox are much the same as the symptoms that occur if you’re trying to detox too quickly.  I know, for the small handful of you who are listening who have experimented with an overly-eager cleanse before, this was a lightbulb moment. The rest of you are probably saying, “so what?”

The reason this matters is that if you’re truly on a path towards balancing your methylation, then you’re going to get to the point where you start incorporating gentle detox into your routine more frequently, and invariably when people start doing gentle detox regularly and see how much better it makes them feel, they try to push the envelope with heavier-hitting detox. 

So let’s talk about steps toward mitigating those toxic symptoms.  We’ll go through a little flow chart.

  1. Are you having symptoms spontaneously (like you’re just toxic) or have you been actively detoxifying?
  2. If you’re just toxic, it’s time to implement some gentle detox strategies and give your body a cleaner diet for a couple of weeks or for good.
  3. If you’ve been detoxing, it sounds like you’re pushing your body a bit too hard. Here’s how to handle that.
    1.   First, Stop taking any supplements involved with the detox. Your body needs a break.
    2. The next big priority is to get your bowels moving because if you can’t physically eliminate things, then they’re hanging around inside of you and that is a genuinely horrible thought. This may mean a one-off dose of a laxative tea or even a glycerine suppository. Whatever you do, make sure you poop.
    3. Also, adding in some detox-type activities that don’t go through your liver or bowels can be a really helpful thing. This is using a sauna or sweating it out in any way you can, doing castor oil packs, taking Epsom salts baths, and that type of thing. 
    4. Keep a very simple, clean diet (fruits and veggies, rice, broth, fresh juices, lots and lots and lots of water. No alcohol, refined sugars, or processed foods, until the symptoms have passed, will help too.
    5. Sleep more – as much as you physically can, and generally give your body a break. 

MTHFR-safe detoxes.

In general, I warn MTHFR folks away from detox kits unless they are a pro with detoxes and can read their body’s signs and symptoms effectively and know how to counter any adverse reactions. But just because we can’t do prepackaged kits very well, doesn’t mean we can’t detox.

Intermittent Fasting

 I love intermittent fasting. Love it with a passion. It’s easy, it’s safe, and it’s extremely well researched in all kinds of areas, but especially in promoting longevity. It’s just about the simplest and most effective health hack out there. Here’s how you do it.

  • 24-hour Fast: For a 24 hour fast, have dinner like usual, skip breakfast, lunch, and snacks the next day and drink plenty of water with a little bit of lemon in it (or plain if you’re not into lemon). Around the same time as you had dinner the night before, have a healthy, simple dinner. That’s it! It’s literally the easiest possible health-boost because there is less effort involved than you take on a normal day. 
  • 36-Hour Fast: For a 36 hour fast, have dinner the night before, skip all food the day of the fast and drink a ton of water or lemon water.  Get up the next morning (which is roughly 36 hours later) and eat a healthy breakfast. Done!

Clean Week

This is a great tool to use quarterly, and it can be as simple or as intense as you feel ready for that quarter. A simple clean week could be stripping your diet down to fresh fruits and veggies, rice, broth, and some gentle herbal detox teas. Take out some of the foods we tend to lean on that might not be the best – the grains, processed foods or packaged foods, refined sugars. During this week it’s important to rest more, be more mindful of toxin avoidance, and I like to take it as an opportunity to go inward – do a bit of journaling, clear out some clutter, that sort of thing. If you want to get more intense about it you can do a full juice cleanse, liquid diet, or alternate between juice only days and fasting days. This is a completely customizable tool.

Modified Month

This is exactly what it sounds like, and can be a really helpful format to use if you have a habit that you know is taking a toll. A modified month is like taking a reset on a bad habit – if you’ve watched your sugar cravings ramp up (like mine have) during covid, it could be a great idea to do a modified month over the summer in which everything else is mostly the same, but you cut out the sugar and sweets. Lots of people do modified months with events like Dry July or Sober October. Also, a modified month can be a great way to work on improving a good habit instead of eliminating a bad one. What about Active August or Hydrated… Shmydrated. I don’t have a rhyme for that one.

Detox can be as simple and small or as large and complex as you want to make it, and just because you did a big complex one last time doesn’t mean you need to do that again. Take your stress level and your life chaos into account when you’re planning this.

Share with friends:

Gentle Detox for MTHFR

The keyword here is GENTLE. Why? Anybody can overdo detox, but trouble is especially easy to find when you have a known genetic issue affecting detoxification. Pushing too hard is miserable, but detoxing in small steps is a great strategy to help you feel your best.

Gentle Detox for MTHFR for Life – The MTHFR Lifestyle.

Detoxification is a fact of life for everybody – we live in a world of chemicals, plastics, air pollution, water pollution and strange pretend food. All of those things need to be dealt with by your body. With MTHFR issues we have an added chink in our armor, but this is actually an ongoing issue for everyone living in the modern world. There are some things to help.

Here is Why I Don’t Generally Suggest “Detox Kits”

Lot of companies sell detox kits, plans and programs and among those some are great and some are less great but the biggest problem with detox kits is that they work. I know, that doesn’t sound like a big problem but it actually can be.

MTHFR folks run the risk of liberating more toxins into their bloodstream than their body can deal with at once and so doing more harm than good. This feels bad and more importantly, it can actually do damage.

Amy Neuzil, tohealthwiththat.com

Generally, detox kits include a supplement that pushes your liver to eliminate more toxins – some combination of milk thistle, globe artichoke, dandelion, or any number of herbs that stimulate liver function. These supplements usually have a pretty big impact on liver function. Also, there is often a fiber source somewhere in the detox – either within the suggested diet or in another supplement. This is to catch toxins as they’re being eliminated so you don’t reabsorb them, because that is a thing humans do. Also, typically some kind of modified diet that reduces the number of toxins you’re taking in and often reduces calories to free up some metabolic space for your body to focus on actually eliminating toxins, rather than dealing with food intake.

Detox kits are made for people who don’t have any genetic blocks to their detoxification pathways, and that isn’t MTHFR folks. MTHFR folks run the risk of liberating more toxins into their bloodstream than their body can deal with at once and so doing more harm than good. This feels bad and more importantly, it can actually do damage.

This isn’t to say that you will never be able to do a detox, just that you should be deep within your MTHFR journey before you try it. Optimizing your methylation pathways first and making sure you understand your body’s signals that it gives you when you’re struggling with detox before you push it that hard. We’ll talk about that in a future post.

If Detox Kits Are Too Strong, Then What Do MTHFR Folks Use?

Great question. Let’s talk about it because we have a lot of incredible detox options that don’t have quite so much potential to get us into a mess.

Sweat It Out

We talked a bit about the conflicting research on sweating it out here, and I stand by my statement that clinically, I see people make major strides forward in their health journey by using this simple technique. Sweating is easy for anybody with any financial means to accomplish because it can be done so many ways and literally anything that helps you work up a sweat counts. This can be in a sauna, an IR sauna, a hot bath, with vigorous exercise, in a sweat lodge, or even sitting in a hot car in the summer. It doesn’t have to be fancy, although fancy can be wonderful.

In terms of using sweating therapeutically, it has to be regular. Sweating frequently is the key because it liberates only a tiny amount of toxins, especially heavy metals, each time. Here are some tips:

  • Sweat regularly – try 3 times a week for 10 minutes to start and increase if you can.
  • Ditch the antiperspirant – if you’re trying to sweat it out, it doesn’t make any sense to also block the sweating. Switch to a deodorant. Also, antiperspirants use aluminum (heavy metal and also toxic) to block the sweat ducts so in general, they’re a good thing to get rid of.
  • Shower after – I”m sure this goes without saying but shower off the sweat when you’re done (unless you sweat in a hot bath). Not just for hygiene and everyone else’s happiness, but also because we do absorb things from our skin so if you leave it there, you might end up reabsorbing the toxins you worked so hard to eliminate.
  • Hydrate – sweating uses water and also electrolytes, so make sure you’re replacing what you use.

Castor Oil

Castor oil is one of my very favorite tools because it’s supremely easy, inexpensive, and extremely effective for detox but also for pain relief. There is recorded use of castor oil for at least 3000 years and anything that survives that many years only does it because it works. The primary molecule in castor oil, ricinoleic acid, is a strong anti-inflammatory and is small enough to penetrate beyond the deep dermis of the skin and into the lymphatic channels.

Castor oil really will be your secret weapon.

Lymph is something we don’t talk about nearly enough, but it is another method your body has for delivering toxins to the liver to be eliminated and removing toxins from the tissues.

Castor oil is beneficial for a number of disease and conditions (see the link above), but I like it best for the everyday benefit of detoxification. There is a more formal method of using castor oil, called a castor oil pack, but I use a lazy method – Amy’s Lazy Castor Oil Treatment. Here’s what you do.

  1. Get your organic castor oil. Your local health food store should have this, but if they don’t you can always order online.
  2. Slather it on before bed. Make sure you cover the front and back of your abdomen, especially the right side over your liver (but honestly, I do the whole thing).
  3. Put on your rattiest pajamas. Because they’re never coming back from this. These are now your castor oil pajamas because it’s sticky and will never wash out without a trace. The pajamas are basically just protecting your bedding at this point.
  4. Go to bed for the night. And sleep and sleep and sleep. Lovely.
  5. Shower in the morning. There may be a slight trace of oil that hasn’t absorbed in the morning, but chances are it’s all soaked in and your skin is soft as a baby’s bum. That is just a side bonus – we’re going for the detox.

That’s it – you’re done. Try to do this two to three times per week and more if you’re feeling especially toxic (if you don’t know what it feels like to feel especially toxic, read this.) Also, if you happen to have digestive pain, pelvic pain, or any other ongoing pain, you can use castor oil at night topically to that area for its antiinflammatory properties. A full list of uses can be found in this article.

Fiber and Other Gut Sponges – The Unsexiest Topic

Yeah, fiber lacks sex appeal in every sense. So does the phrase “gut sponge” if truth be told, but without it, there are even unsexier things that happen, like constipation, man boobs, and hemorrhoids. The RDA for fiber is 30 – 38 grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women. I think all of us should shoot for about 35 grams.

Benefits of fiber:

  • Prebiotic – soluble fibers help to nourish your microbiome, without which you would be dead inside of a minute. No joke.
  • Adds bulk – which in an of itself sounds gross, but soluble fibers hold bulk and add mass to your bowels so that they can move.
  • Causes movement – insoluble fiber irritates your digestive tract, which sounds like it would be a bad thing, but actually, it just reminds your intestines and colon to move things along and not let them hang out there – that’s actually a bonus.
  • Binds to toxins – this is, in my opinion, the best thing about fiber – fiber grabs lots of toxic things, including detoxified estrogen, heavy metals, and chemicals, and makes sure they actually get eliminated rather than reabsorbed. This is also the benefit of gut sponges.

What is a gut sponge?

A gut sponge is anything that will perform that same function as fiber and bind to toxins in the gut without giving them the opportunity to reabsorb, so that they become eliminated. They are also sometimes called “binders” or “adsorbers.” They act like a sponge moving through your digestion that soaks up all the bad stuff. Other gut sponges (other than fiber, I mean) include:

Quite honestly, for normal application fiber is both the easiest to take – it’s in your food, it’s easily found as a supplement, and it’s reasonably inexpensive. Some of the above binders have very specific binding properties and can be useful if you have a known toxin issue.

Share with friends:

Methylation, Detoxification, and the Glamorous MTHFR Lifestyle.

I’m picturing sequins and feathers and beautiful women in luscious red dresses and martini glasses with skewers of exotic fruit. Okay, so maybe it’s not that glamorous, but there IS an MTHFR lifestyle. We’ll get to that in a minute.

This is EXACTLY what the MTHFR lifestyle is like. In my dreams..
Amazing photo Photo by Boluwatife TheSalt from Pexels

First, The Detox Part…

Detoxification sounds like a thing we do after a raging party or a week-long trip to Vegas. In reality, it isn’t. It’s something we do CONSTANTLY. We detox after drinking water, breathing air, eating food, exercising, during sleep and just from the entirely normal body processes that happen every day. This isn’t reserved for when you’ve added something to your body that is known to be toxic, it’s as constant as death and taxes.

You can, of course, “do a detox,” which usually means taking a few days out of your life and really pushing your body to clean house, by either fasting or eating a very simple clean diet, supporting your liver with herbs or supplements, ramping up the fiber or other gut sponges like clay or charcoal, and doing detox activities like Epsom salts baths and saunas to sweat it out. “Detoxing” in this way is also dependent on methylation, but I’m talking about the far more simple every-day housekeeping that your body needs to do.

Why Do We Need Methylation To Detox?

Methylation is actually one of the main pathways your body uses to eliminate certain toxins. Detoxification of most substances happens in three phases, a few substances need all three, most need two and some need only the first phase.

  • Phase I – Modification. In this phase, the original toxins are modified to make them more reactive and polar. This is so that we can do more things to them – like making them water-soluble (if they’re fats) or getting them into the right state to attach something else to them so we can actually chuck them out. Note that phase I often makes these chemicals more active, and they’re usually still small enough to cross cell membranes so if they can’t move on to Phase II, they can hang around doing damage – sometimes even more damage than the original substance itself. This largely happens through the Cytochrome P450 pathway, which we don’t need to discuss here.
  • Phase II – Conjugation. This phase attaches a charged molecule (like a methyl group, for instance), in order to make the molecule less biologically active and also allow it to be actively transported out. There are six different phase II reactions, one of which is methylation.
  • Phase III – Further Modification and Excretion. Many toxins are excreted after Phase II, but a few need this additional step.

What Happens in Methylation?

To be clear, this does not use the MTHFR enzyme directly, it uses the product of the MTHFR enzyme, which is SAM-e. In methylation reactions your body takes the mutant-mickey-mouse-head methyl group off of SAM-e and attaches it to the toxin so that the toxin can be eliminated. For MTHFR folks, SAM-e might not be as plentiful as it should be, because there is a bottleneck through the MTHFR enzyme.

The chemistry-intense process of toxin methylation, made ridiculously simple.

What Type of Toxins Need to Be Methylated?

There are many, but the ones of most concern are heavy metals. These include arsenic, mercury, selenium (which is toxic with too much exposure, but necessary in small amounts) and cadmium.

That Doesn’t Seem Like A Lot – What Is The Problem?

As with every other body system, chemical pathways and enzymatic reactions have the bad habit of interconnecting – meaning the products or function of one pathway ends up being necessary for the action of another. This is how MTHFR messes up your urea pathway (how we detox ammonia and make urine) and any pathway that needs glutathione (the master antioxidant. They don’t call it that for no reason.) We’ll have to get to glutathione another week because this is getting a bit heavy.

Okay, So… The Urea Pathway.

the MTHFR lifestyle matters because of the way these cycles all interconnect.

As you can see in this diagram, the urea pathway uses end products of the BH4 pathway, which needs methylation to work. If methylation is bottlenecked, BH4 is in short supply, and the toxic waste ammonia builds up because your body can’t convert it to urea, which is eliminated in your urine. Ammonia causes neurological inflammation. At very high levels (usually only seen in actual liver failure – not so much with MTHFR mutations) ammonia overload can lead to seizures, coma, and death.

What Is The MTHFR Lifestyle?

It sounds like it could be so good. And honestly, for people with MTHFR mutations it does make life much better, but it’s not so glamorous. We will talk about it at great length in other posts, but here are some of the basics.

We will talk about all of this in detail – I promise.

An Interesting Aside About Sweating It Out

There has been lots of debate over the usefulness of sweating during therapeutic detox, with naysayers, like this article in the New York Times, claiming that such a tiny amount of toxin elimination is effectively meaningless.

Dr. Schwarcz compared it to someone sitting in a bathtub worrying about drowning. Removing a dropper-full of water from the tub will theoretically reduce the risk — because the chance of drowning is lower in less water — but getting rid of so little water will be effectively meaningless.

Dr. Joe Schwartz, Chemistry professor, McGill University. Cited from above linked NYT article.

Interestingly, the article also acknowledges that heavy metals and BPA from plastics have been detected in sweat.

A systematic review, published in the Journal of Environmental Public Health, compiled research studies on arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury excretion in sweat. This shows a clear documentation within the research of the ability of your body to eliminate these substances through sweat.

Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury may be excreted in appreciable quantities through the skin, and rates of excretion were reported to match or even exceed urinary excretion in a 24-hour period. 

Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi:10.1155/2012/184745

Clinically, I have seen therapeutic sweating as part of a larger protocol to be highly beneficial for many clients, helping them to improve their energy levels, reduce brain fog, decrease sensitivity reactions and improve their overall health, but on the evidence pyramid, things we observe in clinical practice are always on the low end, because there are so many uncontrolled variables. Those people might have improved because of sweating AND other things we were working on, or solely because of the other things we were working on, or because of something entirely different. This is why, when I’m talking about things I’ve observed in clinical practice, I’m very careful to specify. Also, in terms of my categories of evidence, I’d give the whole sweating it out concept a C. This means there is a combination of some research and clinical evidence, but not definitive proof.

Share with friends: