The Diet Therapist
Should you do a
Do You Really Need to "Detox" to stay healthy?
What does "Detoxing" even mean anyway?!...
Posted by The Diet Therapist, 10th January 2017
A version of this article appeared on the Health & Wellness Portal "Good Zing" in January 2017. To read it on their digital portal please click here>
What is a detox program?
So-called “Detox” (detoxification) regimes have been a core part of the wellness industry for years. Yet many critics claim that in medical terms, detox plans (aside from clinically-overseen programs for life-threatening alcohol and substance abuse), are pseudo-scientific rubbish.
I often find there is huge misunderstanding and confusion amongst clients about what “detoxing” actually means, and part of the problem is that outside of medical circles, the term remains nebulous and open to range of interpretations without a strict definition. On top of this…ask the average person on the street what a toxin actually is and they probably won’t find it easy to answer…
Are there different kinds of detox programs?
Type “detox” into Dr Google and you’ll find hundreds of programs, products and techniques that promise to “protect,” “purify” and “cleanse” your body, flushing out those pesky “dangerous, poisonous, and harmful” toxins. Under the detox umbrella, you’ll see everything from metal chelation therapy, colonic irrigation, “kidney purification plans”, intravenous injections, “skin cleansing” and lots of elimination diets - otherwise known as “detox diets” including various fasting regimes and juice cleanses.
A profitable industry revolves around detox products, programs and accessories, from foot pads that supposedly “suck the toxins” out of your feet through your skin, to colonic cleansing tablets, “flushing” tinctures, laxative pills and diuretic teas. Whether there’s any merit or benefit to any of these is hotly debated, but there’s no doubt that misleading language is used a lot of the time to promote and sell products that at best are probably useless, and at worst may even be damaging.
Wait…what exactly is a “toxin” anyway?
Without any context, toxins nearly always sound “bad” and in most cases they are harmful, which is why we have evolved systems of removing them from the body. The medical definition of a toxin from the Merriam-Webster dictionary cites:
“a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism, and is usually very unstable, notably toxic, when introduced into the tissues and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”
At a really simple level, a toxin is something capable of damaging tissue when it enters the body.
Internal & External toxins
We naturally produce internal toxins and waste products all the time, just by our metabolic functioning and we have to break down, sometimes recycling – but mostly eliminating these. Then there are also external toxins which are ingested or absorbed from outside of our bodies from food, water and our environment. For example, from environmental pollutants in the air (exhaust fumes, smog), chemicals in household cleaning products and cosmetics, bisphenol A in plastics (BPA), UV radiation, mercury and dioxins in fish, or pesticide residues on unwashed vegetables.
However, it’s important to remember Paracelsus’s toxicology principle here: “the dose makes the poison.” Basically, any chemical can be toxic if it is consumed or absorbed in high enough quantities over a certain period of time. In fact, there are even things which are beneficial at low levels that can actually be toxic in high enough concentrations. This is true for many compounds in foods and for supplements. And, as the diagram below shows, it’s easy to be confused by Internet articles that talk about the toxic dangers of formaldehyde resin in nail polish (because we know it is harmful and it sounds like an ominous scary chemical), but most people don’t realise formaldehyde also naturally occurs in many foods in tiny amounts, (pears, apricots, bananas, beetroot, milk and cod amongst others).
Detoxification is what your body naturally does as part of a complex process to get rid of such toxins, other unwanted materials and waste which comprise metabolic end-products. This is a fundamental physiological function to stop toxic waste accumulating, with the bulk of the work undertaken by the liver (the body’s primary detoxification organ), as well as the kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system, skin and the intestinal tract. The idea behind “detox diets” and other products is to help prevent toxin build-up and increase excretion.
Personally, I don’t believe that a pad on your feet at night can “draw out toxins,” or that a juice cleanse encourages the body to get rid of toxic waste any faster or more effectively. It’s impossible to “cleanse the liver” with special pills or herbal solutions, as the liver doesn’t usually store toxins in the first place. Sometimes certain compounds that could potentially be toxic in high doses (Vitamin A, copper, iron), can build up in organs (including the liver) but this is normally as a result of disease and can’t be cured by a “liver cleanse.”
So… are there positive ways to support the body’s natural detoxification systems then?
Technically, the different “steps” of liver detoxification do require nutritional “helpers,” to transform fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble waste products so that these can be eliminated and excreted by the body. This happens in 2 phases:
Phase 1. makes use of certain enzymes in a chemical process that transforms the toxin into an intermediate, less harmful chemical form, and,
Phase 2. uses other enzymes to convert this intermediate toxin into a water-soluble form (by adding another substance, like glycine, cysteine, or sulphur) so that it can be eliminated via watery fluids like bile or urine
Although I don’t believe that certain foods “cleanse your liver,” I do think it is possible to support your in-build detox system by eating a nutrient-dense wholefoods-based diet that helps this system do it’s job.
Here are my Top 6 Tips for foods to include to naturally support the body’s detoxification system:
#1. Up your intake of (Cruciferous) Vegetables: This group of vegetables – otherwise known as “brassica” – includes cabbage, kale, cauliflower, collard greens, watercress, broccoli, bok choy, radish and turnips amongst others. These are rich in compounds that stimulate both Phase I and II detoxification pathways.
They are good sources of sulphur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, particularly important for Phase II and in addition, bitter greens also help stimulate bile production which carries waste toxins from the gallbladder and aids excretion. On top of this, they’re high in fibre and water, which helps to prevent constipation and promote the elimination of waste.
#2. Make sure to get quality Protein: Grass-fed meat, seafood, legumes and pulses are good sources of amino acids which are required during Phase II detoxification in a process called conjugation.
#3. Snack on Citrus Fruit! Bioflavonoids are antioxidant compounds found in many foods but in citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit and tangerines they are also present with high amounts of Vitamin C and support Phase 1 detoxification whilst also helping to neutralise damaging free radicals which are created during this process.
#4. Eat Eggs: These are useful sources of choline and sulfur which help support processes within the Phase II pathway, (“Methylation” and “Sulphation”).
#5. Include Quercetin-Rich foods: Apples, Blueberries, Onions, and Garlic are contain the antioxidant compound “quercetin” which is a helpful nutrient in Phase 1 of the detoxification process.