By the time January comes around, most of us know too well the feeling of having overindulged over the Christmas and New Year period. We tend to eat too much, drink too much, toss the exercise routine aside, and that’s all before the inevitable 3 boxes of chocolates or Danish biscuits we receive from well-meaning family & friends!
Google the word ‘detox’ and unfortunately you’ll come up with some weird and wonderful information. You’ll be offered a myriad of miraculous ‘detox kits’, and inevitably you’ll find some information about how detoxing is just a myth, a buzzword or an unnecessary fad.
From a naturopathic point of view, ensuring effective clearance of toxins and supporting the natural pathways just makes good sense. A detox can be an invaluable strategy to help you kick-start your health and get some real changes happening.
Let’s look at the facts:
No matter what your own opinion is on the need to detox, no-one can deny that we are being exposed to an unprecedented level of toxins - more than we ever have at any stage in human history. Contaminants are present in every aspect of our lives – air, water, soil and food. Naturally, these do not belong in our body, and as such, they have the potential to cause harm. Always remember that our 21st Century lives are exposing us to far more toxins than nature had intended. Yes, our bodies do have natural detoxification mechanisms, however it has been shown that people detoxify at varying rates – some people have good detoxification capacity, and others find it more difficult.
With that in mind, what affects a person’s 'toxic load'?
‘Toxic load’ refers to the amount of toxins coming into the body, balanced against your ability to remove toxins. Your intake of toxins depends on your diet (your intake of pesticide residues, for instance), your individual exposure (eg where you live or work, household cleaners and personal care products), your genetic makeup, and your gut health/function. Your capacity to remove toxins from your body depend on your diet (your intake of protective nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamins & minerals), exercise, your liver function and again, your gut health. When you have a small toxin intake and everything is functioning well, the system is balanced and your body can eliminate toxins effectively.
Which organs are involved in removing toxins from the body?
Most people immediately think of the liver as being the primary detoxification organ, however the gut, kidneys and skin are also involved. Your gut is the first layer of defense against toxins, and it contains a phenomenal number of bacteria – ideally these should be ‘good’ bacteria that help to keep the gut lining intact and healthy. However, if you have an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut, these can contribute to poor gut health as well as contributing to toxic load as they can actually cause you to reabsorb some of the toxins your body had scheduled for removal. Ewww!
The liver contributes to detoxification by neutralizing toxins and preparing them for elimination, which it does through a series of systems. There are 2 phases to liver detoxification – Phase I (taking a substance and adding oxygen in order to make it reactive) and Phase II (adding water to the reactive molecule so that it can be safely removed from the body).
The kidneys remove some of the water-based neutralised toxins that the liver produces (this is sometimes called Phase III). The kidneys work best at eliminating these when the urine is alkaline.
The skin also eliminate some toxins (which is why naturopaths often call the skin ‘the third kidney’, and supporting detoxification pathways are a crucial part of addressing skin complaints).
Which nutrients are required for effective detoxification?
Our bodies require adequate amounts of vitamins (B-vitamins and folate), minerals (zinc, selenium, copper, manganese) and amino acids (from proteins) for the liver detoxification pathways and enzymes to work properly. Many people don’t get enough of some (or all) of these, which can then impair the detoxification system, or create an imbalance between Phase I & Phase II. Nutrients such as phytonutrients (beneficial compounds in plants), including flavonoids, thiols (found in garlic, onions and members of the cabbage family) and silymarin (from the herb St Mary’s Thistle) have been shown to help support healthy detoxification pathways.
The problem with juice detoxes, over-the-counter detox kits, and the like:
The problem with DIY detoxes is that they only address part of the problem. A juice detox (where you only drink fruit and/or vegetable juices for several days or weeks) will supply a good quantity of vitamins and certain minerals, however doing a detox this way means your body is missing out on vital amino acids (the ‘building blocks’ of protein). As mentioned above, amino acids are vital to the detoxification process. This doesn’t mean that the detoxification process won’t go ahead. Indeed, your body can find an effective way around this – it will obtain the amino acids necessary by breaking down your muscle (muscle is made of protein). This is not ideal as when you finish your detox you will have less muscle mass to burn calories and provide strength and energy for your day. The same thing will happen if you were to follow the ‘lemon detox’ or the ‘maple syrup & pepper’ detox. If you are planning on doing a juice detox, I recommend only doing this for 2-3 days maximum, before switching to a wholefood clean eating plan that provides plenty of protein.
Over-the-counter detox kits may look great, however from what I have seen they often don’t contain what I would class as a ‘therapeutic dose’ of herbs. They also focus on the gut (which, as mentioned above, is important) but the focus can be on laxatives to help ‘speed things up’ without doing anything to address underlying issues. So you will go to the toilet a lot, and probably think 'hey, I'm detoxing!', but it really won't be doing much at all in the scheme of things. Another drawback of using an over-the-counter product is that you are getting a one-size-fits-all approach – and I mentioned earlier, we are all unique with different environmental toxin exposures, different guts and different detoxification capacity.
What steps can I take to reduce my toxic load?
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do in your day-to-day life to reduce your exposure to toxins and to help support your body’s natural elimination systems. Think about your household cleaning products – can you switch to naturally-based cleaners and washing detergents? What about your personal care products – for instance, switching to natural makeups, aluminium-free herbal deodorant, natural toothpaste etc. If you can afford to buy organic food (even if it is just a few things) you are going to be reducing your pesticide intake. Consider growing your own herbs and salad vegetables, which is easily done in a pot or a small part of the garden.
Also look at making sure you are getting enough of the nutrients that aid detoxification. Eating a diet that is high in plant-based foods (fresh fruits and vegetables to provide vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) as well as quality protein help to support your body’s natural detoxification systems.
What options are available, and how often should you detox?
Working with a practitioner for a detox is the safest way to ensure that you are actually getting a program that is based on scientific research, and that can work with your body. If you are taking medication, or suffer from chronic and/or multiple health issues, this is even more important. When I work with patients in the clinic who are participating in my detox program, this is always taken into account and I adapt the program to suit.
As far as frequency goes, it can be a good idea to try a detoxification program once or twice a year, depending on your circumstances.
Please also keep in mind that if you are pregnant this is not the best time for you to be detoxing.