These days, it seems as though you can hardly leave your internet homepage without an ad or article popping up proclaiming the wonders of a detox or cleanse. From magazines to social media, different approaches to detoxing abound. It can be difficult to wade through the barrage of information and find a reliable medical source about detoxifying the body. If you think a detox may be right for you, here is what you need to know.
Our bodies are built to remove toxins from themselves. The liver, colon, kidneys, spleen, skin, and respiratory system are all part of an extraordinary internal detoxification system. While our body works wonders in ridding our system of some harmful toxins, sometimes it needs a bit of a boost.
In our modern and mechanized world, we are exposed to more harmful toxins than ever before. With more than 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals being released into the environment each year, the natural detoxifying systems in the body often cannot cope with the massive volume of toxins our bodies are exposed to. Accumulation of toxins, pollutants, and chemicals from our environment is linked to a wide variety of diseases. This includes cancer, asthma, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and improper development of the brain. Similarly, the Environmental Working Group reported that 70% of conventionally (non-organic) grown fruits and vegetables contain nearly 230 different pesticides or their by-products.  These pesticides, paired with the fact that the average American diet is lacking in the proper nutrients, add to the accumulation of toxins in the body. The buildup of these chemicals in the body can begin to take a toll on your health. A safe and scientifically-supported detox helps bolster the body’s natural mechanisms to rid itself of these dangerous toxins.
Not All Detoxes Are Created Equal
The majority of detox or cleanse regimens advocate full or partial fasts, emphasize eating raw foods, and involve drinking mostly water or fruit and vegetable juice. Some integrate herbs or spices like turmeric or cayenne, liquids like apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, or green tea, or other supplements. Often, they claim to boost your metabolism, provide energy, and lead to weight loss. The sheer number of different detoxes and cleanses on the market are enough to make anyone a bit skeptical.
There are a few things to note when considering a safe and effective detox. First, it’s important to work with a medical professional when determining if and when a detox is right for you. Any diet, whether short or long term, should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you have any medical conditions.
Second, short term detoxes are not effective ways to keep off excess weight and can lead to improper nutrient intake. While many people report feeling lighter or more energetic during the first few days of a detox, often this has to do with the removal of processed foods and sugars from their diet. Eliminating these high-calorie but low-nutrient foods usually helps people feel better. However, if a detox requires a steep decrease in calorie or protein intake it may result in fatigue or, during long term detoxes, certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Short term detoxes also usually fail to keep excess weight off. While they may lead to immediate weight loss, this is mostly water weight that will pile back on after a few weeks.
Functional Medicine and Detox
Within the field of functional medicine, the process and outcome of detoxification often looks different from fad detoxes and cleanses. Detoxification, in the context of functional medicine, is a method of lightening the body’s load by reducing the amount of toxic chemicals it is taking in. It is not merely a one and done cleanse. Instead, it requires a lifestyle and nutritional change that enhances the body’s natural mechanisms in ridding itself of toxins efficiently.
How does this look different from most fad detoxes? First, a good detox regimen will zero in on reducing the burden on the liver and the digestive system for a certain amount of time. This allows them to return to their optimum performance, and means following a particular, often reduced, diet. However, complete abstinence from food or only consuming sugar-laden fruit juices actually hinders the detoxification of the body. During detox, the body needs specific nutrients to eliminate toxins safely and effectively. It is important to provide your body with the necessary vitamins, minerals, micro and macronutrients, as well as phytonutrients so that the detoxification pathways are supported. Beyond nutritional supplements, detoxes may also include specific supplements to assist cellular detoxification, such as dandelion root, beet root, or milk thistle.
Second, an effective detox will support the immune system by reducing inflammation caused by certain foods. This usually means following an elimination diet to detect what foods are causing immune and gastrointestinal issues. An elimination diet involves removing food and beverages that contain common allergens or sensitivities such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, red meat, corn, soy, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, dairy, and wheat or gluten. Completely eliminating these foods from the body reduces its toxic load and gives the immune system time to recover from inflammation or reactivity caused by food proteins. It is also important to completely remove processed and conventional foods from your diet during the detoxification period. This means eating fresh, organic foods whenever possible. Staying well hydrated is also essential to proper detoxification. Together with supplements and organic, plant-based meals that insure your body is receiving the proper nutrients, an elimination diet is one of the most effective ways to detoxify the body. Our TCIM functional medicine experts and Dr Lundquist suggest detoxing in this way once or twice a year, especially during season changes from spring to summer or fall to winter.
Most importantly, an effective detoxification doesn’t stop when the elimination diet ends. To keep the body’s natural systems for detoxification at optimum performance and not bogged down by the harmful things in our diet and environment, it is important that the lifestyle changes adopted during detox are incorporated into your everyday life, even if not as rigorously. This means cutting back on processed, non-organic foods when at all possible, as well as making healthier food choices overall. Monitoring and decreasing the intake of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and the foods discovered to be allergenic or inflammatory to your body is essential to helping your body stay healthy in the long run.
Sleep, exercise and hydration also play an important role in the detoxification process. Research shows that sleep allows your brain to detoxify via the glymphatic system. Without sufficient, consistent, and quality sleep, this system does not function as well. This will lead to a buildup of toxins. Along with sleep, adding an approved exercise regimen also allows your system to flush out toxins by sweating and burning fat. Finding an exercise program that fits your schedule, preference, and needs will help you stick with it over time. Regular exercise is important to maintaining health throughout a lifetime. Likewise, hydration plays an essential role in flushing toxins out of the body by keeping cells at their ultimate performance level. To avoid additional toxins, make sure the water you drink and cook with is properly filtered.