For the 10+ years I have been in the fitness industry, one topic has come up more than any other…detoxing.
…”Should I detox?”…”Are cleanses worth it?”…”Will a detox help me lose weight?”…
The same is true for my current practice at Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health, where I continue to get asked about this topic. In response, I will use this post to highlight key misconceptions about detoxing, considerations when assessing its value, and how to get the most out of it should you choose to do one.
Detoxes and cleanses are not the same
Detoxification refers to the removal of toxic substances from the body. This is accomplished primarily by the liver, but there are several organs that play a significant role in supporting this process. Cleanses, on the other hand, typically refer to the removal of waste from the intestines.
No miracle pill
When I ask patients why they are interested in doing a detox and/or cleanse in the first place, the majority say they hope it will help them lose weight. There is a decent chance that doing a detox/cleanse will cause a drop in weight, but it’s often due to the increase in urination and defecation (water weight) as well as a decrease in caloric intake during the program. In the absence of lasting dietary and lifestyle changes that support healthy weight management, these initial changes in weight are usually not sustained.
It’s safe because it’s all natural
Many off-the-shelf detox kits contain herbs and nutrients that can interact with medications or have undesired effects, depending on your genetic makeup and medical history. I highly recommend seeking guidance from a naturopathic doctor before starting a detox protocol to ensure you will be safe.
The importance of detoxing
Supplement companies do a fantastic job of convincing you that you must use detox kits to rid your body of toxins and stay healthy. However, as with any health matter, it depends…
We are exposed to a plethora of toxins in our day to day lives. Thankfully, our bodies are equipped to manage this, but if this toxin exposure is combined with genetic susceptibilities, poor dietary habits, and/or physical inactivity, an overwhelming burden can be placed on the body with very negative consequences. Here are some of the components I evaluate when exploring the degree of toxin burden a patient is under:
- Does this person have a known genetic defect that impacts their ability to clear toxic substances from the body (ex: glutathione enzyme (GSTM1) defects)?
- To what degree is this person exposed to toxins in their daily life (chemical solvents, waste management, roadside work, indoor work with poor ventilation, cleaning products, etc)?
- To what degree is this person exposed to substances that are known to alter detoxification pathways and/or place extra burden on the liver (alcohol, caffeine, medications, Tylenol, various herbs and chemicals)?
- What are their diet and lifestyle habits like (vegetable intake, water intake, exercise, stress, sleep, etc)?
Promoting healthy detoxification is part of every treatment plan when the goal is improving overall health. However, after evaluating these and various other factors, a decision can be made regarding how much emphasis should be placed on supporting healthy detoxification.
Detoxification (+ elimination)
Some quick and basic science to put things in context…
I mentioned earlier that detoxification refers to a process that occurs primarily in the liver. The two phases of liver detoxification function to transform toxic substances into forms that are more easily eliminated by the body. Vitamins and other compounds are crucial to the process running smoothly and antioxidants play a huge role in protecting the liver from the free radicals produced during this process. Each phase can be impacted by different substances and both phases need to be working in unison to keep us healthy (think about the questions I asked above…).
Ok, so it’s clear that detox support is important to overall health because it helps clear toxins. Thankfully, there are several ways to support the liver in healthy toxin clearance with herbs (curcumin, dandelion, milk thistle, globe artichoke, schizandra, etc), nutrients (N-acetyl cysteine, L-methionine, alpha-lipoic acid, caclium-d-glucarate, various B-vitamins, etc), and basic dietary and lifestyle interventions (water, certain fruits and vegetables, hydrotherapy, physical activity, etc).
What about the supporting cast?
However, if we focus on supporting the liver alone, we end up doing a major disservice to the body. It’s one thing to convert toxic substances into ones that can be more easily excreted, but what if the organs involved in this elimination process are functioning sub-optimally?
What if water intake is very low and you don’t urinate much through the day?
What if you’re only having one bowel movement a day or every second day?
What if you’re not physically active and sweating on a regular basis?
…in cases such as these, sadly, the liver’s detox potential is not realized and toxins can accumulate in the body.
Therefore, extra effort must be made to ensure all components of detoxification and elimination are working well. This could simply mean increasing water intake, or it could require a larger overhaul of diet and lifestyle habits. Regardless of the work required, it is well worth it to support the body in keeping you healthy for the long haul!
Putting it all together
Below is an image identifying the substances that support phase one and two detoxification pathways, antioxidants that protect the liver (from the harmful byproducts of phase one), and the importance of healthy elimination pathways (colon/feces, kidneys/urine, skin/sweat). There is a lot going on and I don’t want you to get lost in the minutia – the focal point is appreciating the amount and variety of nutrients involved in healthy liver function, and hence why we stress the importance of getting 8-10 servings of vegetables and fruits (mainly vegetables) per day, clean and well-sourced protein, and select supplements where needed. Also, this should help re-emphasize the importance of optimizing elimination (urine, feces, sweat) by supporting the organs of elimination with adequate water intake, fiber consumption, and physical activity.
As you can see, everyone can benefit from a detox protocol. However, the degree to which you benefit really depends on a lot of factors. I have a hard time believing that a week-long detox protocol will provide lasting changes in-and-of itself, but it can help kickstart healthy habits that, over time, can support overall wellness by optimizing detoxification and elimination pathways. Detoxing isn’t something to be done once or twice a year like an oil change. Its true value comes when we practice healthy detox habits on a day to day basis, supporting our body’s ability to navigate this toxin-rich world we live in and keep our health in check. I support using comprehensive detox kits to help get the job going and provide a direct therapeutic effect, but never on its own. Under the appropriate supervision and based on your medical history, goals, and current diet and lifestyle habits, the right approach will be implemented to enhance the effect of the detox protocol, ensure that these effects are lasting, and maintain safety.
If you would like to explore this topic further, please book an appointment and so we can work together to lay out an individualized protocol to help you optimize your (detox) health and happiness!
- Gaby, Alan. Nutritional Medicine. Concord, N.H: Fritz Perlberg, 2011. Print.
- Godfrey, Anthony, and Paul Richard Saunders. Principles & Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine. Toronto: Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, 2010. Print.
- Jones, David S. Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA.: Institute for Functional Medicine, 2010. Print.