Nrf2 Pathway: Increasing the body’s ability to get rid of toxins

The Nrf2 (Nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor) signaling pathway regulates the expression of antioxidants and phase II detoxification enzymes. This is a fundamental pathway that is important in how well your body combats oxidative stress and gets rid of toxins.

I like to think of Nrf2 as flipping the switch that calls up the phase II enzymes to take out the trash produced in the first phase of detoxification. It is also important in clearing out the free radicals produced in cells as part of their normal production of energy.

Your body’s antioxidant defense:

Nrf2 activates your body’s natural antioxidant defense system to reduce oxidative stress in the cell.

Specifically, the Nrf2 signaling pathway can increase the production of GSTs, NQO1, UGTs, and SULTs. These are the body’s natural antioxidant defense system, important in every cell, all the time — but especially important when your body is under stress from an increased toxic burden.

Chronic oxidative stress is part of the root cause of chronic diseases; thus, activating the Nrf2 pathway is thought to reduce disease risk for quite a few chronic conditions.

The Nrf2 pathway is important for protecting against:[ref]

  • autoimmune conditions
  • respiratory problems
  • digestive issues
  • cardiovascular disease
  • metabolic diseases
  • neurodegenerative diseases
  • cancer

How does Nrf2 work?

Normally, Nrf2 is located in the cytosol of the cell. It is hanging out, waiting to be needed.

When oxidative stress levels in a cell increase, Nrf2 moves into the cell nucleus, where the DNA is located. There it is able to bind to certain areas of the DNA to cause the cell to produce the innate antioxidants needed to decrease the oxidative stress in the cell.[ref]

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress in a cell is the imbalance between reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the cell’s antioxidant capability. Too much ROS puts the cell in a state of oxidative stress, which means that damage can occur due to the free radicals. This damage can take the form of damaged proteins, oxidized lipids, or mutations or breaks in the DNA. [ref]

Reactive oxygen species can form in cells due to normal cellular processes, and your cells then balance this out with antioxidants.

The problems come when cells are exposed to environmental toxicants.  Sources of oxidative stress include radiation, environmental pollutants, carcinogens, and cigarette smoke. We are all exposed to environmental toxicants daily from air pollution, food additives, microplastics, and personal care products.

Which genes does Nrf2 activate?

When oxidative stress is high in cells, Nrf2 moves to the nucleus to turn on certain genes.

Nrf2 can activate the GST (glutathione S-transferase) genes in order to eliminate toxic compounds. [ref]

Related article: See your GST genetic variants

NRF2 can also induce UGT1A1 and UGT1A6, which are important for making certain toxins, such as acetaminophen, more water-soluble for excretion.

Related article: See your UGT genetic variants


Genetic Variants:

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Variants in the NFE2L2 (Nrf2) gene are fairly common. Some variants increasing Nrf2 pathway signaling and some diminishing it. Research on these variants includes cancer prognosis, lung volume in smokers, and Parkinson’s disease.

A genetically increased Nrf2 pathway is associated with a decreased mortality risk in smokers, likely due to the body’s upregulated antioxidant defense protecting against the cellular damage from cigarettes.[ref]

Genetic variants that increase Nrf2 (generally a good thing!):

Check your genetic data for rs6726395 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: greater lung volume in smokers[ref], decreased risk of AMD (age-related macular degeneration)[ref]
  • A/G: somewhat greater lung volume in smokers
  • A/A: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs6726395 is .

Check your genetic data for rs13001694 (23andMe v5; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: reduced risk of all-cause mortality, especially in smokers[ref]
  • A/G: reduced risk of all-cause mortality, especially in smokers
  • A/A: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs13001694 is .

Check your genetic data for rs1806649 (23andMe v4):

  • C/C: typical
  • C/T: significantly reduced risk of death from COPD
  • T/T: significantly reduced risk of death from COPD (70% reduction)[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs1806649 is .

A genetic variant that reduces Nrf2 expression:

Check your genetic data for rs6721961 (23andMe v4):

  • G/G: typical
  • G/T: typical
  • T/T: significantly diminished Nrf2 expression, increased risk of lung cancer[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs6721961 is .


Increase Nrf2 through lifestyle changes:

Regular exercise upregulates the Nrf2 pathway.[ref] This is a free and easy lifehack – and one more reason to get outside and get active today.

Nrf2 Activators:

Normally, Nrf2 has a half-life of 7-20 minutes. When in the presence of an Nrf2 activator, such as the natural compounds listed below, that half-life increases to 30-100 minutes.[ref][ref]

Sulforaphane, a natural substance found in broccoli sprouts, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, activates the Nrf2 pathway.[ref][ref]

Broccoli sprouts are supposed to be one of the best sources of sulforaphane that you can eat. There are also sulforaphane supplements available. Be sure to get one that includes the myrosinase enzyme.

EGCG, a component of green tea, has shown in animal studies to upregulate the Nrf2 pathway.[ref] If you want to try EGCG, it is available as a supplement — or you could switch to drinking more green tea!

Curcumin, found in the spice turmeric, upregulates the Nrf2 pathway and may also protect against brain injury.[ref] You can get curcumin as a supplement or by adding (a lot) of turmeric to your food.

Black garlic extract has shown in animal studies to upregulate the Nrf2 pathway. You can get black garlic extract as a supplement, or you may be able to find it at your local grocery store and use it in cooking.

Related Articles and Topics:

Phase I and Phase II detoxification
Learn how the different genetic variants in phase I and phase II detoxification genes impact the way that you react to medications and break down different toxins.

Lithium Orotate + B12: The bee’s knees, for some people…
For some people, low-dose, supplemental lithium orotate is a game-changer when combined with vitamin B12. But other people may have little to no response. The difference may be in your genes.

How your genes influence BPA detoxification:
BPA, a chemical found in some plastics, has been linked to a variety of effects on people including obesity, insulin resistance, and epigenetic effects on the fetus. Genetics plays a role in how quickly you can eliminate BPA from your body.

Originally published: June, 2015

Author Information:   Debbie Moon
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. She holds a Master of Science in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and an undergraduate degree in engineering from Colorado School of Mines. Debbie is a science communicator who is passionate about explaining evidence-based health information. Her goal with Genetic Lifehacks is to bridge the gap between the research hidden in scientific journals and everyone's ability to use that information. To contact Debbie, visit the contact page.