When I told a patient recently that I thought she needed to detoxify, she looked at me with a confused expression, then said “but I don’t drink or do drugs.” It hit me then that not everyone understands the transformation that the term “detox” has undergone over the years.
A couple of decades ago, no one used “detox” to mean anything but breaking free from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Now, however, it’s a term often used by alternative health care providers to describe the process of removing all toxins from the body. And there are a LOT of toxins in our bodies!
Where do these toxins come from? How do they get in our bodies? Unfortunately, toxins are everywhere – in the air, our food and water supplies, and often in our homes. We breathe them in and ingest them as we eat or drink. We absorb them into our skin when we use shampoos, soaps, laundry detergents or beauty products loaded with chemicals. That’s why it’s so important to intentionally help our bodies get rid of toxins that can disrupt good health.
Natural body detoxification has been embraced by many ancient cultures. And some of these practices – like Native American sweat lodges, and Indian Ayurveda practice, still survive today. In conventional medicine today there tends to be a lot of skepticism around practices like body detox. The thinking is that your body is set up to purge toxins through its natural processes, and other methods are unnecessary.
That thought process may make sense if you’re approaching things with a narrow lens. Conventional medicine all too often disregards anything but disease. But if you think about prevention and staying well rather than getting well after you’ve reached a disease state, detox makes a lot of sense!
Supporting your body’s ability to effectively detox day not only helps maintain wellness but also helps prevent illness later in life. Let’s look at how your body purges toxins, what can go wrong in the process, and why dramatic detox programs can be dangerous. Then I’ll share my natural approach to supporting your body in detoxifying.
Your Body’s Natural Detox Ability
It’s true that our bodies are detoxifying all the time. As I said before, we spend our days absorbing, inhaling, and ingesting allergens, pathogens, chemicals and other toxins without even realizing it. Our metabolic processes create streams of waste to help rid your body of these toxins, and it’s a constant process.
Our bodies are amazing – all this detoxifying happens behind the scenes without any conscious help from us — until the process just can’t keep up. With the barrage of toxins that we’re dealing with daily, this happens more often than we realize. That’s why we need to give our bodies a little help.
Some of this help comes through intentional lifestyle and diet choices, which can influence our ability to detoxify. Additionally, our genetic makeup has a role to play, as does extended exposure to toxins. The more we can limit exposure, the less help our bodies will need. Unfortunately, in modern society, reducing exposure can be exceedingly difficult.
The organs most responsible for detox are your liver and your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These organs change the molecular structure of substances, making them useful or marking them as waste. If you lack nutrients required for this complicated process, your liver or intestines are dysfunctional, or you are exposed to more toxins than your body can handle, problems will occur. That’s why it’s so important to balance your gut and support your liver through good nutrition.
Signs That Your System Can’t Keep Up
When toxins build up inside the body a wide range of symptoms might result. Some include sinus congestion, indigestion, hives, bloating, irritability, fatigue, headaches, joint pain, weight gain, insomnia, fuzzy thinking, coughing, sneezing, constipation or even chest pain. That’s a lot of issues that we might be able to avoid with a little awareness and intentionality around helping our system out.
Research has found a correlation between an impaired ability to detoxify and many serious diseases, including fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. In my experience other conditions are also related to toxicity in the body – arthritis, eczema, allergies, cirrhosis, fibrocystic breasts, pancreatitis, multiple sclerosis, thyroid dysfunction and heart disease.
Many of my patients are shocked to learn that unwanted weight can also be a sign of excess toxins in the body. As we are increasingly exposed to more toxic substances all the time – both naturally occurring and manufactured – there’s a real need for health care practitioners to talk with their patients and teach them about supporting their bodies to detoxify effectively and efficiently.
Often, patients have the same initial reaction as the woman I had in my office. But once they understand that it has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, they’re ready to learn more!
Issues with Extreme Detox Practices
One of the challenges natural health care practitioners face when it comes to talking about detox is the overuse and misinterpretation of the word. Lately, you may see and hear “detox” everywhere, but it’s being used in a very misleading way. Headlines or TV commercials promise a “quick-fix” that will help restore your energy, help you lose weight and regain vitality. But it’s not that simple.
A lot of these practices and products are expensive and require extreme measures. I don’t recommend these detox regimens. Remember, the whole point is that your body is already struggling under its toxic load. Why add more stress and challenge your systems even more with an extreme detox plan?
Colonics, coffee enemas, prolonged juice fasts, extreme chelation, hours-long saunas, colon cleanses and excessive doses of minerals or antioxidants are best avoided. Remember the phrase “too much of a good thing?” Even if some of these things (like mineral supplementation) may have benefits when used properly, excess of any kind is rarely a good idea.
Fasting is a well-known and age-old practice which is associated with both spiritual and religious traditions. Under controlled circumstances, fasting might be a good choice for you. Intermittent fasting, for instance, can be beneficial to your health, and even help with weight loss. But that’s about giving yourself a shorter window for when you eat – not eliminating eating altogether! Extreme fasting can release toxins too quickly – and the result may make you feel worse, not better.
My Approach to Natural Detox
I hope you understand a little better why believing all the detox hype is a bad idea. So, what are some good ways to support your body in its detoxification process naturally? I follow two basic principles that make up the backbone of my comprehensive approach to giving your body the support it requires.
Your body relies on good raw materials. Be sure to supply it with food, key nutrients, water, and other fluids on a regular basis.
The way you live your life matters. Making lifestyle choices that enhance your body’s natural ability to manage toxins is key.
The bottom line is that to create ideal detoxification conditions, every single aspect of your life matters. You can’t focus on one thing and ignore all others; it just won’t work. I advise my patients to examine everything they do — eating, drinking, work, play, stress levels, emotional state, and rest to be sure they are supporting their natural detoxification processes. Making smart choices that help you detoxify well will have a direct impact on both your short- and long-term health.
So, what are some specific things you can do? Here’s a few quick thoughts:
Eat a wide variety of fresh whole foods
Eating well is my first recommendation for good health, no matter what the issue you are dealing with. Even if you don’t have any symptoms, eating unprocessed foods without additives, preservatives and other chemicals is essential. For healthy detoxification, fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats are all important pieces of the puzzle. Your body needs the full range of vitamins and minerals for its processes to run smoothly.
Don’t forget to play
Stress is the number one burden on your body – finding ways to let go of stress and relax are essential. Play can mean many different things to people. Your idea of play may be much different than your friends and family, and that’s okay. Remember, play should feel easy! Find things that bring you joy and make time for them every day. It could be crafting, reading, canoeing or kayaking, dancing, hiking, yoga, spending time with friends, sitting quietly with a cup of tea…the possibilities are endless.
It’s all too easy to fall into the “I don’t have time to sleep” trap. Don’t! Nothing is so important that you should sacrifice your sleep. Sleep is when vital detoxification, cell repair and rejuvenation occur. Your body simply can’t function optimally when it hasn’t had enough rest. If you find it difficult to protect your sleep time, begin with setting a regular bedtime, and a regular time to wake up. Try to be sure you are allowing for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Mark these times in your calendar like other appointments to help you hold yourself accountable. You’ll notice quickly if you are scheduling something too close to bedtime!
Supplement as necessary
It’s so difficult to get the nutrients you need from food alone. Fruits and vegetables have far less nutrients than they did in the past, and it’s also hard for most women to eat enough healthy fats. At minimum, I suggest a high-quality multivitamin and Omega-3 support daily. If you are experiencing symptoms due to issues with detoxifying, other supplements can help your body get back to optimal functioning.
Support your GI system
Your gut is so important to the detox process, so making sure you maintain balance is essential. If the ratio of beneficial bacteria to harmful bacteria is off, your gut won’t function the way it should. A good probiotic can be critical to maintaining the necessary balance.
Prevention is always a good choice. While you can’t avoid all toxins (after all, you don’t have much control over what’s in the air in public places), you can take steps to reduce what you are exposed to. Buy organic produce whenever possible. If you can’t, be sure to thoroughly wash the produce you consume. Pay attention to what’s in your skin care and other beauty products. Choose natural cleaning products and detergents. Check your home for mold and address any issues. Avoid both smoking and alcohol as much as possible.
When you drink plenty of filtered water, you flush toxins out more easily. My standard recommendation is half of your body weight in ounces each day. If you find this difficult at first, start by adding just one extra glass of water when you first get up, and one shortly before bedtime. Increase slowly as you are able.
Try my quick cleanse
If you have a hard time getting started and need a little more guidance, try this easy method for two weeks. It’s not extreme in any way – in fact, it’s the way I suggest my clients eat regularly. It does give you a fairly extensive list of things to avoid, but there’s no rigid menu to follow, and it’s not forever!
Feeling great is within your control, and you don’t need to go to extremes to get there! If you live your life with the intention of supporting your body, then your body will support you in living the life you want!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD