Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | December 1, 2021
Have you noticed the term “detox” is used a lot in marketing? There are detox diets, teas, skincare products, and even articles and books on how to “detox” from things like social media, cell phone use, etc. It is a smart marketing move because the word “detox” definitely grabs our attention. To "detox" or "detoxify" means to remove harmful or toxic substances from something. So when we hear that there is an option to remove these substances by using a certain product, it sounds like something we should do for our health and well-being. Who wouldn’t want to rid their body, skin, or mind from harmful things? Even if you have the healthiest lifestyle, when you hear that you can do a “cleanse” or you can “flush out” toxins, don’t you feel like it’s something you should do?
Luckily for us, our body is already detoxing every day. Thanks to our liver, gut, lungs, and kidneys, this is not something we are solely responsible for — they’re already doing it. I’ll go into more detail about that and how we can support this natural process in just a bit, but first let’s take a better look at some common questions around detoxing and the diet claims that surround it.
Where are these toxins coming from? Do we need to get rid of them?
Short answer: literally everywhere and yes. We’re exposed to toxins all the time. There are external ones we may breathe in, like air pollutants and cigarette smoke, or absorb through our skin or diet, like pesticides, chemicals, and other elements. There are also internal ones our body produces (like lactic acid, for example) from the metabolism of cells, food, alcohol, drugs/medications. We can reduce our exposure to toxins by doing things like not smoking cigarettes, limiting alcohol intake, and being mindful of the products we use most often like skin care and cleaning products to name a few. But ultimately, it’s inevitable we’ll be exposed to toxins. This is why the body has a process of taking these toxins and turning them into substances we are able to get rid of through sweat, bile, urine, and stool.
What are detox diets/cleanses? Do they work?
Typical detox diets involve fasting, liquid diets (like juice cleanses), herbal supplementation, enemas, or a combination of the preceding. You may be instructed to follow the diet for a day or two, or up to a couple of weeks to achieve results such as cleansing the colon, detoxifying the body, removing toxins, and losing weight. Many detox diets will claim that by first ridding the body of toxins, you’ll then be able to lose weight, specifically those “stubborn” pounds that have been hard to lose in the past. Sounds promising, right? There are just several things wrong with this picture...
First, these methods don’t actually help to get rid of said “toxins.” They may likely result in brief weight loss from restricting calories for a period of time, but it is water-weight, not toxin-weight that is lost. And while you may experience a laxative effect with some of these methods, you’re not necessarily “cleansing” your colon. The gut's balance of good and bad bacteria can actually be thrown out of whack by forcing a clean out of our intestines via laxatives or enemas. Having a healthy balance of bacteria is one of things that helps our gut (which makes up a large part of our immune system) fight off foreign substances and truly get rid of toxins. So forcing a flushing out of our intestines can technically have the opposite effect of helping us detox.
There is also no scientific evidence that we must detox, cleanse, flush, etc. in order to lose weight long-term. Again, you’ll likely see weight loss at first (as would anyone who has replaced eating meals/snacks with sipping on juice) but it won’t be sustainable. Not only will you want to chew something at some point, but you’ll need sufficient nourishment. These diets generally do not meet nutritional requirements, especially for protein, and eliminate certain food groups like grains or dairy. This insufficient nourishment can lead to irritability, fatigue, and eventually muscle loss. And once regular eating is resumed, weight is quickly restored and the stage for yo-yo dieting is set.
What is also not usually mentioned is these diets may not be safe for anyone. Dehydration, weakness, and low blood sugar levels are more likely the longer restrictive diets or fasting are followed. Enemas and other forms of colon cleanses can also be dangerous.
We should just stay away from these techniques and let our body detox naturally.
How does our body detox?
There are a few organs we can thank for getting rid of unwanted substances:
Lungs: help filter out particles that should not be in our lungs to then be coughed up or swallowed and excreted.
Intestines: the small intestine absorbs the nutrients we need and passes along the waste products and toxins we don’t to the large intestine, which then gets rid of them through our stool. The intestines are also home to billions of bacteria, known as our gut microbiome, which play important roles in digestion and immune system functioning.
Liver: the liver is the VIP of detoxification. Everything we breathe, digest, and absorb through the skin will eventually enter the bloodstream and be processed by the liver. One of the liver’s main jobs is to neutralize any potentially harmful substances and then turn them into a form we can get rid of through excretion.
Kidneys: small but mighty, these guys filter our blood as well and remove any unwanted substances by producing urine that flushes them out.
Skin: not necessarily the mental image you want to have, but the outermost layer of our bodies are covered in bacteria, yeast, and fungi. This is our skin microbiome and it serves as a protective barrier against harmful substances that can cause infection or inflammation.
How incredible is the human body?!
Is there anything we can do to help our body detox?
Yes! Naturopaths and integrative and functional medicine professionals tend to support and promote diet and lifestyle habits that boost detoxification naturally. Things like phytonutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids, and certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids – all substances we get naturally from foods – enhance the body’s detoxification process. Phytonutrients are biologically active and naturally occurring chemical components responsible for giving plant-based foods their pretty colors. They also help increase the excretion of harmful toxins out of the body and have other health-boosting effects. Here are some other foods that have been shown to aid the body’s detoxification process:
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, arugula, watercress)
Apiaceous vegetables (carrots, parsnips, parsley, celery)
Allium vegetables (onions, garlic, chives, leeks, scallions, shallots)
Beets, purple sweet potatoes
Pomegranate, berries, grapefruit and other citrus fruits
Turmeric, rosemary, ginger
Coffee, teas (green, chamomile, black, dandelion, peppermint, rooibos)
Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids - can also be found in ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts)
Resveratrol (found in red wine, pistachios, blueberries, grapes, cranberries, and dark chocolate)
Lycopene (found in tomatoes, tomato products, and watermelon)
There is a noticeable trend with this list: it is mainly vegetables. Vegetables also provide additional health benefits, like fiber, which can help to keep our bowel movements regular and gut bacteria balanced and happy — two things needed for successful detoxification.
This is also just a short list. It goes on with other nutrients that are involved with detoxification, all of which are attainable from a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Lean proteins for example, help provide amino acids needed to make sufficient glutathione, a substance that is a key player in detoxification.
Other things that are good for our guts: fermented foods. These help to boost our intake of probiotics, the “good” bacteria for our guts. Fibrous foods can provide prebiotics, which are the food for these probiotics to flourish. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, and prebiotics include: oats, asparagus, leeks, bananas, onions, apples, dandelion greens, and ground flaxseeds.
Another thing worth noting: drinking plenty of water is necessary for healthy kidneys and can help with the regularity of bowel movements. If you’re increasing your fiber intake, you want to be sure to increase your water intake, too! This helps fiber do its job with producing regular bowel movements.
Summing it all up
Our body does need to detox and is able to do so on its own, without the help of fad detox diets. Certain nutrients help with the body's natural process and are easily attainable through a diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. So instead of purchasing a detox diet kit or juice cleanse, consider this simpler, more sustainable way.
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