Detoxification Demystified

The term “detoxification” has been around forever, but it remains a terribly misunderstood and misused term. People use it to describe a staggeringly wide range of procedures, from total fasting, to spiritual retreats, to highly sophisticated nutritional regimens for the removal of specific toxins like mercury.

There are raw food detoxes, vegan detoxes, bone broth detoxes, medical food detoxes, and probably some I haven’t even thought of. (A quick Google search for “the detox diet” brought up so many listings that if I counted them all I’d still be at it, and this article would never have been written.)

So is there any commonality for all these different programs? Yes. It’s called the liver.

See, the liver is the ground zero clearing house for toxins in the body. Everything has to go through the liver, just like every international traveler has to go through customs. So all toxins from the air, from the water, from breathing the exhaust on the 405 freeway, from medicines, from pesticides, even toxins made in our own body as a byproduct of metabolism, nothing gets a pass as far as the liver is concerned. It’s sophisticated two-tiered system of detoxification enzymes—known as the Phase One and Phase Two Cytochrome P-450 enzymes—tries to rid our bodies of any molecular riff-raff.

But, as you can imagine, the liver can get overwhelmed with the workload.
It’s like it has an overflowing “in” box, or its message center says “this voice mailbox is full”. Obviously that’s not literally what happens in the liver, but the liver does get backed up and can’t always keep up. (Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, for example, has a strong link to insulin resistance, which, in turn, is frequently associated with an “overload” of carbohydrates. Imagine that.)

And while the liver isn’t the only organ that “detoxifies” us, it’s certainly the most important, the one that’s on duty 24/7. This is one reason conventional medicine often scoffs at the concept of a “detox” since they claim that the body is always detoxifying naturally.

And on that point, they’re technically right. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use a little help.

So what is a detox?

For our purposes, let’s just define a detox as a period of time during which we give our systems—our livers and our digestive systems– a much-needed rest. And that means a rest from any of the foods that are known to be problematic for lots of people. (Dr. Elson Haas, who’s been running detox programs at his San Marino clinic for thirty years, calls these foods the “sensitive seven”: sugar, wheat, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, and peanuts.)

So we can think of a detox as a kind of “time out” from the daily assault on our cells of environmental pathogens and toxic foods (or foods that are perfectly fine except not for you). That kind of “time out”—which can last anywhere from a day to a month– can be a deeply valuable asset in our quest for a long and healthy life.

Doing a detox is kind of like rebooting a sluggish computer (or more accurately, like emptying the trash that’s taking up a huge amount of memory). Often the desire to “detox” is really a desire to move towards the light- figuratively and literally. Lighter food, lighter way of being, “lightening up”, “lightening the load”- even our language reflects our desire to be “unburdened” of toxic influences, whatever their source- food, air, water or circumstances.

Renewed Vigor and Increased Energy

Along with your detox, it’s a good idea to do a few things that will enhance the results. For example, exercise. By stimulating circulation and sweat, exercise assists in escorting nasty toxins out of the body. Sweating is important as is skin brushing, saunas, massages, and even acupuncture. All of these are purported to increase the quality of your results and actually help to minimize any side effects—such as headaches or nausea– that you might feel during your detoxification. (Of course, if you experience any of these effects intensely or have any other serious symptoms, you should consult a health practitioner.)

While nearly all conventional medical doctors will scoff at the idea of a “detox”, there are plenty of doctors—especially naturopathic doctors and functional medicine MDs– who swear by the concept. If you’re seriously interested in the concept of detoxing and not just in following the latest fad, check out The New Detox Diet by Elson Haas, MD, as well as the book written by Gwyneth Paltrow’s guru, Alejandro Junger, MD. It’s called Clean and it’s one of the smartest and best books on detoxing around, endorsed by such luminaries as best-selling author Mark Hyman, MD. Who, incidentally, just released a pretty good detox book of his own.

Junger’s core concepts are easy to understand and hard to argue with. Number one, toxins and stress create obstacles for normal functioning. Number two, modern eating habits and lifestyles pollute our bodies. Number three, by removing the obstacles and providing what’s lacking, our bodies bounce back into health and energy is restored. Cant’ find fault with any of that.

Supplements may help

Remember the liver is ground zero for the detoxification process, so it makes sense to give your liver all the help it can get. Supplements can be useful here. The best of them will contain nutrients that assist the liver in the two-step process called Phase One and Phase Two detoxification. Many will contain milk thistle, one of the best herbs on the planet for the liver. Some detox kits will also contain a mild laxative– usually made from the natural ingredient senna– and perhaps some digestive aids like enzymes. While not technically necessary, these kits can make things a lot easier.

One final caution. If you’re thinking a “cleanse” or a “detox” is the perfect way to lose weight, think again. Weight loss isn’t the goal of a cleanse, though many people do them for just that reason. It’s a bad idea. Weight lost during a detox is almost always gained back, though a smart cleanse can certainly jump start a new approach to eating and health which of course is exactly what you need to keep weight off permanently.

The bottom line: Don’t expect miracles. A detox is not the way to lose weight and keep it off. But it may be one of the smartest ways to teach yourself something about how your body works. After all, digestive “issues” are just your body’s way of complaining that you’re feeding it something it doesn’t particularly like. Use this period to find out what that is, and then modify your “regular” diet accordingly.

And if you look at a detox as a kind of a jump-start– a way of getting a bit more energy, a bit more clarity, a feeling of lightness and a refreshed outlook on eating— it may be just what the doctor ordered!