Its that time of year where we are encouraged by numerous supplement and health companies to buy a wonder product and do a detox. ‘Spring clean your insides’, ‘Get ready for the silly season’, whatever the slogan, we are promised to feel energised, cleaner and maybe even loose some weight. But is detoxing really necessary and do you need to buy a wonder product to do it? In this post I will try to uncover what you need, what you don’t and explain what it all really means.
We all know the liver is the powerhouse of detoxification in the body. All of the toxins we ingest, inhale and absorb pass through the liver where they are broken down so the body can easily excrete them. This process relies on a number of different nutrients and can be inhibited by poor diet, stress, long term exposure to chemicals and pollutants and the long term use of medication. While the liver will continue to work to remove the toxins (unless severe damage has occurred) the process can become slow and inefficient resulting in an accumulation of toxins and oxidative stress, both of which cause further problems in the body.
To understand if doing a detox can be beneficial it is important to have an understanding of how the process of detoxification works.
The liver is responsible for processing toxins and substances that the body produces naturally like hormones, bacteria and nutrients. It also needs to process the hundreds of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily bases. Many are found in our cosmetics, shampoo and body products, household cleaning products, food, plastic packaging, carpet, car exhaust fumes, cigarettes, air fresheners, pharmaceutical drugs, the list can really go on. But the thing is, our body was never designed to deal with so many, so it can struggle to process everything efficiently.
Most toxic substances that enter the body are usually stored as fatty molecules. The job of the liver is to turn these molecules into water soluble molecules, otherwise the body cannot get rid of them and they accumulate in the body. This conversion happens over 2 main phases:
Phase 1 The fat soluble compounds are converted into intermediate compounds. These can be more reactive and vulnerable to oxidisation.
Phase 2 The reactive compounds bind with water soluble molecules making them less harmful and ready to be excreted, either through the bowel or the kidneys.
In a body that is functioning optimally these 2 phases should flow like a river, but this is often not the case. When either phase is running behind we expose ourselves to a build up of toxins that cannot be converted to harmless molecules and oxidative stress, (you can read more about that here.) Neither of which are healthy for the body over long periods. This slow down in processes can be due to a lack of specific nutrients, excessive stress, an unsupportive diet and a build up of toxins.
Once the liver has done its job in converting the toxins, it is up to the organs of elimination to get rid of it. Some will go through the urine and some will go through the faeces. If either of these systems is also not working efficiently you will have further problems. Chronic constipation for example can prevent the excretion of what really needs to get out of the body. If this waste sits in the bowel too long, more toxins are created and they can cross the intestinal wall, wrecking havoc before being recirculated back to the liver to be processed again. This is obviously very inefficient and can contribute to some toxins being stored in parts of the body such as the brain, nervous system and fat tissue.
So can doing a detox help? The answer depends on what you think ‘doing a detox’ actually means. An over the counter detox product, green juice by the bucket load and refraining from alcohol for 21 days will not automatically rid your body of toxins. But with a quality product, adequate nutrition and a reduction in toxic exposure, they can aid and support your body to ensure the detoxification system is working at its best. With this in mind the short answer is yes a detox can help. BUT there are a number of other things that need to be considered to make it truly worth while.
The first thing you must do before starting a detox is to make sure you are having at least one bowel movement every day. Once you start a detox, toxins will be released and they need a clear exit out. Any constipation MUST be addressed first. Eating a whole food diet with fresh fruit and veggies to provide fibre and being well hydrated are key. Herbal laxatives are available but should never be relied on long term as the bowel can become dependant one them. Restoring natural function is best for long term health.
Healing the intestinal wall to reduce permeability should be considered. The lining of the gut is made up of tight junctions. These junctions are big enough to let nutrients out into the blood stream, but small enough to keep larger particles like bacteria and toxins in. These junctions can become loose due to stress, poor diet and unhealthy gut bacteria and allows larger particles into the system. Known as ‘leaky gut’, it has been linked to the development of a number of diseases including autoimmune conditions, you can read about that here. If you are about to start releasing toxins, the gut lining must be healthy, so the toxins don’t end up back in the system. This healing takes some time and requires certain nutrients and the removal of some offending foods. Probiotics and regular consumption of bone broth can be beneficial.
The liver needs a whole range of specific nutrients to ensure detoxification is efficient. Some of these come in the form of amino acids from protein which then produce powerful antioxidants. Others come from the sulphur compounds found in foods like onion and cruciferous vegetables. Certain herbal extracts such as Milk Thistle, Globe Artichoke and Turmeric also support the health and function of the liver and can stimulate phases 1 and 2 of detoxification.
Other things that should be considered include using a product that binds to toxins, preventing them from being reabsorb, and increasing antioxidant intake during the detox. Many of the detox products found in pharmacies and health food shops only address constipation, liver function or a combination of the two. By failing to use a multifaceted approach you can end up feeling worse and really, just wasting your money. Every body needs a different combination of nutrients and support, and there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to detoxing.
By implementing a whole food diet, increasing hydration, starting a probiotic, healing the gut and having regular bowl movements, you should already feel significant improvements. Ultimately this should just be a way of life, and we cannot expect a 21 day detox to unravel a lifetime of indulgence or exposure to chemicals. If you do decide to do a detox talk to your Naturopath first. They will help formulate a plan specific to your needs that can have lasting results.
Using a detox as part of a plan to clean up your diet and lifestyle can be beneficial. But using it on its own as a quick fix wonder product is really just a waste of time and money, no matter how promising the slogan sounds.