When it comes to ‘detox’, I find that there is an incredible amount of conflicting and incorrect information floating around. So, if you’re completely confused at this point it’s not your fault. I’m here to help with the real, evidence-based facts on detoxification.
First of all, many people wonder if this is even something they need to think about. Unfortunately, the answer is YES – we live in an incredibly toxic world, and we can experience negative effects from it. These toxins come from a variety of sources – pesticides, mold, heavy metals, body products, fragrance, cosmetics, cleaning products, cigarette smoke, household chemicals, furniture, medications, and water to name a few. In fact, adults carry 600—800 foreign chemicals in their body on average. Infants are born with around 200 foreign chemicals already in their body (1).
What real harm does this do? Scientists found that around 20% of the population suffers from loss of chemical tolerance (has clinical symptoms) due to toxic burden (2). This effect has been coined “Toxin-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) or Sensitivity-Related Illness (SRI) (3). Toxins have been shown to play a role in many diseases and conditions:
- Chronic fatigue
- Insulin sensitivity/diabetes
- Digestive problems
- Intestinal permeability
- Autoimmune disease
If you suffer from any of these, toxins should definitely be on your radar. However, I would argue that people with full-blown disease aren’t the only ones who need to think about toxins. We all are effected to some degree, although it may be sub-clinical. Remember: 20% of the population suffers from TILT or SRI.
For example, many conventional labs may be altered when toxic burden is high. These include decreased blood cell counts (WBC, RBC), increased liver enzymes (AST, ALT, GGT), increased inflammation (CRP), increased LDL and triglyceride blood lipids, increased insulin and fasting and 2-hour post-prandial blood glucose, and increased metabolic markers of DNA damage (8-OHdG). (4)
Yikes, what can I do?
Food is only one piece of the equation, but it is a great place to start. There are basically two things you’re trying to accomplish with a well-designed detox diet. The first is to DECREASE toxic burden. The second is to SUPPORT your body’s natural detoxification pathways (providing the compounds needed for these pathways to function optimally).
Eating organic, non-GMO produce (and lots of it) helps accomplish both of these goals. Don’t be tempted to juice it – fiber is an important part of your body’s detoxification mechanism. I do understand that organic produce isn’t free. A few steps you can take to make this affordable are:
- Look at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’ lists - they’ll tell you what produce has the most and least pesticides – focus on at least getting organic versions of the dirty dozen.
- Look for deals at a local farmer’s market
- See if you can get a subscription to an organic produce box (or community supported agriculture) in your area
- Consider growing your own. Even just an herb plant on your windowsill is a start.
Top 10 Cleansing Foods
Aside from increasing your consumption of organic produce in general, you can increase your intake of the foods that most support detox. I’ve compiled a list of 10 foods shown by scientific literature to strongly support your detox pathways (5):
- Tea – (black, green, oolong)
- Cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, greens, spouts, kale, cabbage)
- Spices (turmeric, curry, rosemary – eat a variety)
- Garlic and onion
- Citrus fruits
- Leafy greens & microgreens
- Sesame (oil, seeds, sesame butter, tahini)
Another dietary step you can take to support detox is intermittent fasting. I don’t believe that intermittent fasting is appropriate for everyone, especially for long periods of time. However, there is evidence that intermittent fasting can support detox in some cases. I don’t recommend using this instead of eating detox-friendly foods but, rather, as an additional technique.
What Not To Do
DON’T get sucked into a scam detox. There are many, and they range from ineffective to potentially harmful. Here are some signs that you’re seeing a scam:
- Crazy weight loss claims – of course you can lose a lot of weight drinking only juice for a week. Unfortunately, it’s mostly stool, water, and muscle loss – not fat.
- Includes lengthy fasts – some foods help detox as described above. Eating these foods with maybe some intermittent fasting is more appropriate than eating nothing for long periods.
- Expensive direct-marketing supplements – beware the pyramid scheme. Does the person trying to sell you these products have any training or education in nutrition?
- Claims that their products ‘pull’ toxins from your body – this just isn’t how the body works. You should be aiming to support your body’s natural detox systems while reducing toxic burden.
- Recommends juicing – fiber is an important part your body’s detox system
- Laxative effects – watch out for the word "cleanse". Just because it cleans out your GI tract doesn’t mean it’s actually eliminating toxins from your body.
- Proprietary formulas – if they won’t tell you what’s in it, don’t trust it.
Going Beyond Diet
Aside from diet, there are a variety of lifestyle factors that can reduce toxic exposure. These include:
- Avoid using plastic, especially for your food and water – there are now a good variety of glass containers available.
- Avoid BPA by checking container labels and trying not to touch receipts/tickets. Wash your hands if you do. Look for BPA-free cans.
- Scrutinize your personal care products using the EWG’s Skin Deep database – replace toxic ones with more natural options – this includes makeup, fragrance, hair, and body products.
- Consider mold exposure – especially where you live and work. Consider getting an ERMI test if you suspect mold.
- Analyze your occupational and hobby exposures – are you protecting yourself from toxic substances and chemicals that you may use or be exposed to?
- Household cleaners – there are many good recipes online, and many stores now carry more natural options.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night.
- Avoid grilling or charring meat – if you do grill for a special occasion, make sure to marinate the meat first.
- Decrease sources of stress as much as possible, and practice a stress management practice (meditation, yoga, journaling, gentle exercise, adult coloring books, etc.)
- Sweat more – by exercise and/or sauna (infrared may provide additional benefit)
When you May Need More...
Another thing to consider is genetic susceptibility. Some individuals have variations of genes that make their detox pathways less effective. Here I’m mostly referring to the two phases of detoxification that happen primarily in the liver. In phase 1, enzymes from a family called ‘cytochrome P450’ change the structure of the toxin, usually by adding an oxygen-containing group to it. This creates a reactive site on the molecule. During phase II, the molecule is ‘conjugated’ by enzymes that add water-soluble groups to the reactive site. Now that the compound is water soluble, it can be eliminated, usually in urine or bile. (4)
There are specific genetic polymorphisms that can decrease the function of these detox steps. Some examples of these are the MTHFR and COMT genes. Thus, some individuals are more sensitive to toxic burden than others (5). Genetic testing and targeted supplementation can aid detox in this case.
Finally, if you suspect that toxic burden is effecting your health, a professional can help. As a functional nutritionist I am able to create a custom-tailored detox plan. This includes a diet plan and recommendations of supplements to support the body’s natural detox pathways. Please contact me if you would like a free screening for toxin exposure.
This is a pretty big topic that could obviously take up many articles. What area of detox would you like to know more about? I would love to hear your suggestions in the comments below, by Facebook, or by email.
Thank you very much for reading, and please feel free to share using the links below. Wishing you all the best!