Juice cleanses, enema schedules, The Master Cleanse, the cabbage soup detox. I could go on and on with names of various trendy detoxes that have gone mainstream in popular media. They all claim to stimulate weight loss and improve health, sometimes in miraculous ways! But is this all hype? What about opposing claims that our body detoxes all on its own and we don’t need to worry about detoxing at all? Let’s get into the weeds a bit on this subject and learn the facts on detoxing.
Our Body’s Natural Detoxification Process
Yep, it’s true. We do indeed have a detoxification process. That part is not hippy dippy stuff. We really do have pathways inside our body that detoxify any chemicals, toxins and non-usable substances that happen to make their way inside of us. And this makes sense when we think about it outside of food. We’ve all read the headlines about the child who accidentally drank the cleaning supplies but ended up surviving. We all know people who have smoked for years without any health complications. These stories all happen because of the incredibly amazing human body! We have mechanisms in place to recognize a toxin, trap it and eliminate it before it can do too much damage! Cool huh? So how do these mechanisms work? Let’s break it down:
Enzymes and Antibodies
Enzymes are molecules that break down large substances into smaller, functional substances that the body can use for various purposes. For example, there are enzymes that break proteins into smaller amino acids that can be used to build up muscle tissue. When we intake a molecule that is not recognized by an enzyme (ie: a chemical), it gets absorbed in its whole form, which means the immune system now has to act and antibodies come to the rescue to figure out what the heck to do with this thing.
Fat Cell Storage
If the immune system is working at its best and there aren’t too many chemicals coming in that have to be dealt with, the antibodies and other nutrients package that chemical up with other unnecessary items to be eliminated. If the immune system is overworked or there are lots of chemicals coming in, however, the antibodies will shuttle those toxins into triglycerides (ie: fat cells) where they can be safely stored without damaging the body. The down side, of course, being that we keep amassing more fat cells the more this happens.
Phase 1 Detox
In order for the antibodies to package up chemicals for elimination or to release them from fat cells for elimination, certain nutrients must be present in large amounts. These include B vitamins, fat soluble vitamins A & D, antioxidant vitamins C & E, milk thistle, calcium and glutathione. Food sources of these nutrients include brightly colored fruits and veggies, wild fish, nuts and seeds. If there are not enough of these nutrients in circulation, we run the risk of damaging our body with these free-roaming toxins (damage such as cancer or organ tissue damage).
Phase 2 Detox
In the healthy body, there are enough of those amazing nutrients from phase 1 and we are able to package up the chemicals for elimination. Those packages now need to safely travel to their elimination destinations without creating damage on the way. For this, certain amino acids, such as glycine, taurine, glutamine, cysteine and sulfur compounds need to be present. We get these bad boys from nuts, seeds, wild fish and all those lovely veggies that usually give us gas (think broccoli, cauliflower and onions.) When we are low in phase 2 nutrients, those toxins just get sent right on back into the bloodstream. Dang it!
Assuming we had all the right nutrients and our immune system was working at top notch, all that’s left to do is eliminate the chemicals that are packaged up and ready to leave. Elimination happens via urine, feces, sweat and breath. Did you know that? So if we are consistently constipated, or have low functioning kidneys, or trouble breathing, or perhaps use antiperspirant every day to block sweat from leaving our pits, we may not be eliminating as much as we should be. And what happens to the toxins then? You guessed it! Right back into the bloodstream!
How Our Detox Process Can Be Compromised
As you can see, there are a lot of components involved in our body’s natural detox process. The human body is one amazing machine and it can handle and detox a whole heck of a lot on its own. The trouble comes in when this process is overwhelmed or under-fueled. Think of the analogy of a car. A well-made car can run for years, even after exposure to different climates and perhaps some minor dings. We have all seen cars that get parked outside at the beach or in the snow for months on end though right? The inclimate weather can do a number on the paint and eventually on the engine. What if you forget to fuel your car and then try to speed on the freeway? The excess work along with the lack of fuel will cause an overheating or a complete breakdown right? This can happen to us too. We are exposed to SO many more chemicals in our food supply and environments than we used to be. We also do not eat nearly as many nutritious plant foods as we should. Added to the toxic burden and lack of nutrition is other diagnoses as well. Someone with allergies or autoimmune disease or diabetes is going to have a harder time detoxing since their immune system is already on overdrive. Then we block our elimination pathways on top of all of this and it could put our naturally healthy detox pathways into some major trouble!
How We Can Support a Healthy Detox
Fortunately, you can do a lot to help your detox pathways out naturally! Look at every piece of the detox process that I outlined above and be proactive in supporting that piece:
- Limit your exposure to incoming chemicals. Follow the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list of foods to buy organic, avoid high levels of toxins in your cleaning and beauty products and buy less plastic when you can.
- Eat less processed foods and more real foods.
- Eat more plants and foods with nutrients specific to the detox pathways. See the graphic below for some of the most powerful detox foods!
- Stop using antiperspirant and use aluminum-free deodorant instead.
- Limit your exposure to pathogens by washing your hands and following food safety protocol in the kitchen.
- Exercise to a point of sweat a few days per week.
- If you are constipated, work toward improving that with more fiber, more water, and more movement.
- Drink water like it’s your job!
Final Verdict on Detox Programs
So do you need to do a detox program? Maybe. You certainly shouldn’t follow any trendy cleanse that eliminates all food, focuses on just one food or promises miraculous results. What you MIGHT need, however, is a program that helps you eat all real food and perhaps eliminate certain foods short term that commonly require more immune support to digest. A good detox program will have you eating real meals and snacks, should not leave you hungry and should likely be mostly plant-based for a 2-4 weeks span before re-introducing other real foods that have larger proteins. If you are someone who struggles with autoimmune conditions, chronic inflammatory conditions or allergic reactions from unknown sources, a a guided program like Prolon’s Fasting Mimicking Diet may be the restart you need (and our dietitians can walk you through that). Or you may just need to take out processed foods for a few weeks to give your immune system a break! Doing this kind of gentle detox on your own can be a safe and healthy way to support your health 1-3 times per year. If you decide to follow a program, just be sure to talk to your provider or wellness coach to be sure it is the right program for you and that you do it in a way to support your body’s optimal health!
To learn more about fasting mimicking, types of fasting and whether it might be a good idea for you, watch our recorded series:
Finding Your Own Healthy Eating Pattern