When you hear the word "detoxification", what springs to mind? Juice fasting and colon cleanses? Coffee enemas and starvation? Health spas and slimming teas? For years, this is what I thought when I heard that oh-so-sexy-sounding word, and practised, much to my body's distress.
For the vast majority of people, these things are totally unnecessary - and they can actually set a person up for disordered eating and eating disorders.
When it comes to optimising your body’s detoxification processes, just doing a 3-day juice fast or a colonic – then going back to your normal diet – won’t cut it. It’s time to understand how our bodies really work, and what you can do to gently detoxify every day.
Doing a quick ‘detox’ seems to be a fairly common thing nowadays but are they as helpful as they are cracked up to be? There are juice fasts, lasting anywhere between one day and three months, and then there’s colon cleanse powders, enemas and colonic irrigation that promise to rid the body of waste.
Detoxification is a topic that has a great deal of myth and incorrect information surrounding it and I want to set the record straight. We’re going to look at how detoxification works, the different organs that are involved, why most ‘cleanses’ aren’t actually helping with detoxification, and what you can do on a daily basis to help with detoxification.
Environmental toxinsMy interest in detoxification began when I was a veterinary medicine student and later a vet. While living and working on dairy and other farms, I noticed that many of the farmers had chronic health issues: creaky joints, rare blood diseases, vicious skin rashes, or memory impairment as early as their 30s and 40s.
At first I was confused. These people consumed plenty of vegetables and were very active. They were tough people and not the type who complain, yet their health issues forced them to visit doctors regularly. It soon became obvious that they had racked up years of daily exposure to pesticides and insecticides they used on their own crops and animals, plus they consumed their own produce – a double whammy of environmental toxin exposure!
Later while researching the impact of marine debris ingestion on sea turtles I learnt more about the level of pollutants found in our waters. Dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals such as mercury in fish are a reality that anyone who eats ocean-derived foods must be aware of.
Detoxification is clearly important, since we all live in a world where thousands of new chemicals are produced every year.
But what happens when our knowledge and efforts to detoxify are influenced by mass marketing of puritanical health and weight loss that are characteristic of our culture?
When detox goes awry
As a young adult I was introduced to the yoga scene. I had worked as a yoga teacher all through university, and following a trip to India, I became captivated by the extreme cleansing practices of the ancient yogis.
Being an impressionable 20-something I soon found myself going beyond simply minimising exposure to common environmental toxins. I started seeking out the most extreme cleansing philosophies and attempted to juice fast, food combine and enema my way to salvation!
The ‘energy rush’ I would get from these practices was addictive, particularly because it was so fleeting. One minute I’d be high on day three of my juice fast, the next I would be dizzy and spinning and wondering why – despite its being 4pm and I had not yet eaten. Hmm.
At that point I was revelling in a holier-than-thou attitude gleaned from identifying with my disciplined ‘cleansing practices’. I genuinely believed I was doing something that was good for me, and wondered why everyone else didn’t do the same. In actuality I had a condition called orthorexia nervosa, a potential ‘health food eating disorder’ characterised by excess concern with eating and living healthfully. Now, as a dietitian working in the area of eating disorders, I recognise orthorexia in an overwhelming majority of my female, health-conscious clientele.
In the hands of the worried well, detoxification can become just another thing to worry about and we can miss the mark completely.
Why did I feel the need to detox so badly? I was already healthy, very active, and didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. But I fell in love with the ‘increased energy’ (i.e. stress hormone release) and modest but definite weight loss I saw when ‘detoxing’ through juice fasts (i.e., under-eating) and colonics. I interpreted weight loss and adrenaline dominance as improved health. In my youth and insecurity I loved the idea of purging all the toxins – physical and otherwise – out of my body. I thought I’d found the fountain of eternal youth, invincibility, and weight loss.
For many people weight loss is often an underlying motive for doing a detox, as is the feeling that one is doing something ‘good’ for themselves, but it’s important that you understand what detoxification really is, so you don’t make the same mistakes as I did, and waste an inordinate amount of time and energy.
Let’s now look at the physiological basis behind detoxification and why you might want to gently facilitate this in your body – albeit without the enemas and starvation-induced vertigo.
Detoxification is something we need to support our bodies with every single day, not just a couple of times each year. The reasons for this are many. Not only are our bodies exposed to an unprecedented number of environmental (exogenous) toxins on a daily basis – our bodies also have to detoxify endogenous (or self-made) substances like our own hormones.
Health issues that are associated with environmental chemical and hormonal detoxification problems include (but aren’t limited to):
- Chronic fatigue
- Autoimmune conditions
- Brain fog
- Uterine fibroids
- Cyclical breast pain
- Severe PMS
- Early puberty
- Thyroid problems
- Blood sugar problems
- Sore joints
- Weight problems
This isn’t to say that these conditions are purely rooted in issues with detoxification, but it can be a big part.
What is a toxin?
This is a term that gets thrown around a lot nowadays. Basically a toxin is a poisonous substance that is either made in the body or is introduced into the body.
There are two kinds of toxins: exogenous and endogenous (1). Exogenous toxins come from outside the body, and include things we voluntarily ingest like alcohol, cigarette smoke, recreational drugs, prescription and OTC medications, food additives and preservatives. Then there’s environmental toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, biological inhalants (e.g. mould), and electromagnetic toxins (from phones, WiFi, and X-rays). There are also natural toxins found in food, such as phytates in grains that can bind to minerals and prevent digestion.
Many of the toxins our bodies are trying to detoxify are natural substances generated by normal processes in the body. These are the endogenous toxins, which include digestive toxins from improperly digested food, leading to overgrowth of certain bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.
Homocysteine and certain hormones can become toxic if levels get too high in the body. Then there are free radicals, which are a natural part of chemical reactions in the body. We want to minimise the damage they cause, but we can’t completely avoid this.
Keep in mind, there are other ‘toxins’ that our bodies find tolerable, or even helpful, up to a certain amount. These include certain vitamins, minerals, and hormones. These things become toxic only when levels climb too high.
What is detoxification?
Detoxification is a metabolic process by which toxins are changed into less toxic or more readily excretable substances. It involves the whole body – the liver plays a big role, but so do the lungs, skin, digestive, urinary and lymphatic systems.
Once a substance has become detoxified, two things can happen. The toxin is changed into a form that is fine to hang around in the body or becomes useful in the body and is used again. Or, the detoxified substance needs to exit the body via one of three routes: pooping, peeing or sweating.
Your liver is the first port of call for detoxification. It is one of hardest working organs, completing over 500 different reactions in the body! In four minutes every drop of your blood will go through your liver. It has lots of jobs outside of detoxification, but for today we’ll stick to this role.
There are three phases of detoxification, the first two of which occur in the liver (1). Phase I is the first stage of breaking down toxins and changing their form. After passing through stage I the broken down substances can be up to 60 times more toxic than the original substance! So phase I must immediately be followed by Phase II so that we don’t have a lot of toxic intermediary metabolites hanging around causing damage.
Some signs that you might be having issues with your phase I detoxification
- You’re someone with caffeine or alcohol intolerance – for whom drinking a cup of coffee keeps you awake for days, or a glass or two of wine leaves you hung over for longer than you would expect.
- You’re highly intolerant to strong smells like perfumes and incense, or you react badly to cleaning products.
For phase I detoxification to work properly your body needs to be getting some important nutrients. These include B vitamins (Vitamins B2, 3, 6, 12 and folic acid), vitamins A, C, D, and E, glutathione, amino acids (which protein breaks down to), antioxidants such as flavonoids, and minerals copper, zinc and magnesium.
Phase II is known as conjugation and it requires six different enzymes for its various conjugation pathways. It puts the toxic metabolites from phase I into a water-soluble form so it can be excreted from the body. Each of the six different conjugation pathways break down different kinds of substances, and they need certain nutrients to get these to work including B vitamins, glutathione, amino acids, flavonoids, molybdenum, iron, selenium and magnesium.
Usually in clinic I find that most people’s phase I is working fairly well, but their phase II isn’t keeping up, leaving lots of highly toxic substances lying around causing damage.
Symptoms to show that phase II isn’t keeping up the way it should be
- Asthma, urine with a strong odour, toxaemia during pregnancy, and jaundice (getting a yellow tint to the skin).
The problem with juice cleanses
Protein has a crucial role in detoxification. Although there are many, let’s pay attention to just two of the nutrients required for both phase I and phase II detoxification: glutathione and amino acids. Glutathione is found in various foods and is also made in the body in high amounts, a process requiring certain types of amino acids, which come from protein.
This is why protein is so important as part of detoxification. When doing a detox, most people think of vegetable juices and green smoothies, and the focus is on the vitamins and minerals coming from them. The problem with protocols like the ‘Master cleanse’ (consisting of fasting on lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for ten days) or juice fasts is that there’s no protein coming in.
Yes, these cleanses can take the burden off the digestive system, or limit new toxins from coming in if people are also cutting out coffee and alcohol. If you enjoy juicing, having veggie juices as part of a healthy diet is completely reasonable, but a juice fast alone does not really provide the body with everything it needs to deal with the toxins it currently has.
Without protein, detoxification comes to a grinding halt. If you’re not providing the body with ample protein as part of a detox, or as part of your diet in general, I’m very dubious as to how much detoxification is actually going on.
The other downside to juice cleansing is that it is technically dieting. It can worsen patterns of already disordered eating, or act as a doorway to developing serious eating disorders.
Besides the liver, the other major players in detoxification are the digestive system, urinary system, lymphatics, skin, and lungs. Excretion of waste is actually known as phase III of detoxification, where the now neutralised substances are passed out of the body via these systems.
Digestion is key to detoxification. If your digestive system is not working well, this can add a further burden to your liver and the rest of your detoxification system. Therefore it’s important to make sure your bowels are moving. Another problem with juice fasts is that, without fibre, you can get constipated and impair the body’s ability to get rid of toxins via your poo!
You have a valve going into your liver, and a valve coming out of your liver. Food is broken down in the small intestine into tiny particles, which are then absorbed through the intestinal wall and into your blood. Since these tiny particles are potentially toxic, every drop of that digestive fluid that is absorbed into your bloodstream is run through the portal vein, which goes directly into your liver to be carefully inspected and verified as safe.
If your liver can’t handle the amount or type of toxins coming in, it can partially or completely close off that valve, thus stopping those toxins from entering. This lets the liver get rid of what it’s already trying to deal with, but it can create a backlog as those fluids to start to create a dam. It. If this valve stays closed for too long it leaves the wall of the intestines exposed to potential toxins, for longer. This can weaken the intestinal walls and lead to gut permeability or leaky gut, which can lead to food sensitivities or allergies (refer to my allergies article from last month). It can also manifest as Crohn’s disease, colitis, IBS, ulcers, and many other inflammatory diseases.
If the liver is still unable to keep up, partially detoxified substances can be handed over to your gallbladder, the organ that stores bile for breaking down fat. Bile is an excretion method for getting rid of detoxified material as well as digesting fat. So if your liver isn’t keeping up, bile can become an irritant and irritate your gallbladder and bile ducts, as well as disrupt fat metabolism. This can cause gut spasms, heartburn, and stop someone from digesting fats well. The bile can become thick, leading to stone formation.
What about colon cleanses?
While enemas and other colon cleanses might help you eliminate faeces from the distal (end) portion of your large intestine, if there are underlying problems leading to constipation in the first place – such as lack of dietary fibre, dehydration, food intolerances, or gut dysbiosis – enemas and the like will only act as a bandaid solution. Ideally you want to be moving your bowels daily, without the use of aids like laxatives or colonics.
In addition to your liver and digestive system, the lymphatic system, urinary system, lungs, spleen and skin are all important to detoxification as well – it really is a whole–body event! In the sprit of springtime, which is characterised in TCM by the liver and gallbladder, we’ll leave it there for today.
What you can do to detox, everydayAs you can see, there is much more to efficient detoxification than doing a quick juice fast or a colon cleanse. Effective detoxification is a mass daily event that requires looking after every system in the body, but to keep things running smoothly it’s quite simple – basically, take out the bad stuff, and add in the good!
Usually, these steps make a massive difference in reducing your body’s toxic burden and helping you to overcome toxin-related conditions:
- Eat a balanced and healthy diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits
- Identify and eliminating exposure to toxins
- Utilise everyday herbs and sometimes nutritional supplements that facilitate your body’s own natural detoxification processes
Additionally, regular enjoyable exercise, deep breathing, and dry body brushing all help your body eliminate toxins through your skin, lymph and lungs.
Eating for detoxification
No crazy juice fasts are required here, just simple common sense.
Eat organic food as much as possible, without stressing about it if you can't 100% of the time. Drink clean, filtered water. Eat only low mercury fish. Eat a plant-based diet, rich in fibre (for healthy bowel movements), antioxidant-rich and liver-friendly foods like leafy green vegetables (kale, collards, broccoli), good quality protein, healthy oils (olive oil, coconut oil, organic butter), organic berries (fresh or frozen), nuts, seeds, and healthy carbohydrates from root vegetables, fruit, and whole ancient grains.
Herbs and supplements for detoxification
Traditionally used and generally safe herbs and supplements that support natural detoxification include:
- N-Acetyl cysteine and glutathione which help to transform toxic forms of chemicals being eliminated by the liver into less toxic, more excretable forms
- B-complex multivitamins, bioflavonoids and antioxidants such as those found in fresh berries, green vegetables, and fresh fruits and vegetables, organic green powders like spirulina, chlorella and barley grass (good protein sources), and resveratrol, which protects your cells against oxidative damage
- Herbs like green tea (Camellia sinensis) extract, grape seed (Vitis vinifera) extract, curcumin from turmeric (Curcuma longa), broccoli extracts (including products including indole-3-carbinol, DIM, and sulphoraphanes), St Mary’s or milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) extract (2).
Detoxification is a long, ongoing process. If you do a spring juice cleanse, feel awesome, but then go back to your normal diet, you just did a restrictive diet and got hopped up on your stress hormones! Eating well every day, minimising toxin exposure to your best ability, and using specific herbs and supplements when needed are the most reliable and sane ways to keep your natural systems of detoxification firing on all cylinders, all year round.
This article was originally published in Living Now magazine, for which I'm a regular feature writer.
(1) Murray, MT & Pizzorno, J (2012), The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed, Atria Paperback, New York.
(2) Bone, K (2007), The Ultimate Herbal Compendium, 1st ed, Phytotherapy Press, Warwick.