The real deal on detox; debunking detox myths.
Fad diets, detoxes and juice cleanses have been making the rounds for a long time, in one way or another. In more recent years, influencers and celebrities have specifically come under fire for their promotion of “detox” teas that more often than not...make a lot of false claims.
The word “detox,” short for detoxification, is popularly advertised in the health and diet industry as a quick fix to flush toxins and sometimes, lose weight. These generally come in the form of a green tea gimmick. The real issue, and what makes people so wary of many health and wellness products, is misrepresentation of what detox really is.
Detox is a real thing, but it’s something our body does naturally to flush toxins from our system.
Detoxification is a process that occurs naturally in the body by removing toxic substances through various systems and excretory functions. A healthy body that is free from disease does not need anything external to promote detoxification, save for a little extra help you may need when you overindulge now and then. More on that later.
What are toxins, and where do they come from?
The wellness industry has made it abundantly clear that toxins are bad, but you may notice, they don’t always offer an explanation of what these toxins actually are. While the topic can be somewhat taboo, toxins are very real.
The word “toxins” isn’t mutually exclusive in the context of detoxes, but they typically include substances outside the body that may negatively impact health. This could be from pollutants, manmade chemicals, heavy metals, or processed foods.
Some examples of potential toxins include:
- Outdoor pollutants from exhaust, tobacco smoke, and particles from industrial emissions
- Indoor pollutants such as mold, chemicals released from cooking and cleaning, and construction materials
- Pesticides and heavy metals consumed through food, due to agricultural practices and environmental contamination
- Processed foods, food dyes, preservatives, drugs and alcohol
- Pollutants and chemicals found in various household, cleaning and skincare products
What internal systems are responsible for detoxification?
Detox products aren’t some miracle cure: our body is equipped with everything it needs to eliminate toxins! That’s not to say you can’t help support and stimulate detox by taking care of your internal systems (and cells!). Your liver, kidneys, skin, lungs, and digestive system all work together to rid the body of harmful things you don’t need.
The liver is the body’s main method of detoxification; it acts as a filter and eliminates toxins that your body produces naturally as a normal byproduct of metabolism. The liver breaks down these substances so they can then be filtered through the kidneys (next up). It also assists your body’s other crucial systems to eliminate viruses and bacteria, regulate cholesterol, hormones, and external toxins.
The kidneys detoxify the body through filtration much like the liver. Kidneys rid the body of medication byproducts and harmful chemicals through the urine. Your kidneys also keep regulating fluid and electrolyte balance, an important part of “flushing your system.” This is vital to maintaining pH balance, facilitating important cellular processes like metabolism, and controlling blood pressure.
You may know that the skin is the largest organ in the body, which means it has a very important role! Your skin rids the body of waste through perspiration. When you sweat, your body excretes ammonia, urea, sugar, and salt, helping to regulate those levels internally. That being said, the notion that sweat can remove other toxins (like heavy metals) is a controversial one that scientists haven’t yet quite agreed on.
While some experts insist that sweat doesn’t eliminate toxins from the body, one study has shown that people who exercised regularly did indeed have lower levels of heavy metals in their system. Similarly, heavy metals were found in the sweat in high concentrations, leading researchers to believe that sweating is a potential method for the elimination of heavy metals.
Other than simply keeping you alive by breathing, the lungs also serve an important detox role by removing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream and exchanging it for oxygen. Cellular respiration in the mitochondria releases energy in the form of ATP, as we’ve discussed before. This process releases carbon dioxide and water as waste products, which the lungs help regulate.This is a function that occurs naturally in the body and helps to maintain normal pH levels.
The digestive system
The digestive system is responsible for breaking down the food you eat into usable forms of energy, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients needed to support the proper functioning of the body. Undigested food and waste products are eliminated through bowel movements, acting as a pretty straightforward, but very effective detox system.
The tea on detoxes
Let’s just go over the basics of why those detox fads you see on Instagram don’t really work.
Many on-the-shelf detox products often work as a diuretic or laxative that yes, can stimulate your body’s natural detoxification system. Realistically it kicks them into overdrive, causing increased urination and diarrhea. When used in excess, these products can actually do more harm than good, and cause dehydration among other problems.
Lack of absorption or adsorption (the chemical process of elements binding to a surface) is the real issue with many of these products associated with detox – they’re really not trapping or absorbing toxins in any way. More often than not, they’re simply triggering a few extra bathroom breaks; without actually increasing the amount of toxins that are eliminated. Similar to how we’ve discussed that many common multivitamins simply get flushed away, the same can be said for many detox products.
To be fair, there are a few things that can meaningfully assist in your body’s natural detoxification (antioxidants, activated coconut charcoal, etc.) but the form factor and formula are very important. You want something that actually has the ability to bind to toxins, within your gastrointestinal tract for example. It’s recommended to do your research and find a high quality supplement if you want to really up your game and support your body’s natural detox systems.
As you eat, sleep, breathe and exercise, your body’s detoxing.
When it comes to daily life, many people often look to detox diets, generally involving heavy restriction of foods. Truthfully, these can cause nutritional deficiencies and even negatively affect your mental health. While some may experience weight loss initially with a detox, it’s generally just water weight (especially when doing a juice cleanse of any kind) and results are often not maintainable. An increased amount of antioxidants can be beneficial, however (more on that soon).
Long story short, there are absolutely ways you can improve and assist your body’s natural ability to rid it of toxins. What’s important is to know that simply “flushing” them out with a tea or tonic won’t cut it (and is often just a waste of your hard-earned coin).
Enhance your body’s natural detoxification systems
Drink plenty of water
Hydration has a significant effect on your body’s ability to detoxify itself. Water is important for many processes in the body including temperature regulation, joint lubrication, digestion, nutrient absorption, and naturally, the elimination of your body’s waste products.
Water removes toxins from the body, eliminating them through breathing, urination, and sweating. To support your body’s detox systems, stay adequately hydrated. This is especially important when drinking, which we’ll jump into next.
Avoid excess alcohol
You’ve gotta live a little sometimes, right? We’d never judge, but we all know excessive drinking is harmful to your body.
When alcohol is metabolized, it is converted to a substance called acetaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer. The liver converts acetaldehyde to a substance called acetate and excretes it from the body. When alcohol is consumed too frequently and in high amounts, it places significant stress on the liver, and it can’t keep up.
Excessive alcohol intake can cause fat buildup, inflammation, and tissue degradation, which can impair your liver function. When liver function is impaired, wastes and toxins collect in the body because they cannot be filtered efficiently.
You can support liver health by limiting or avoiding alcohol, but when you do indulge it’s important to up your game and drink more water, and possibly even adding some electrolytes. Drinking is a great example of a time when adding in a “detox” aid like an activated charcoal can actually be effective.
Eat a balanced, wholesome diet
It’s a good idea to limit the amount of processed foods and added sugars you consume where you can. The overconsumption of processed foods and added sugars can negatively impact health and increase the risk for disease; they’ve been linked to increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These health conditions can harm important organs that are involved in ridding the body of harmful toxins. Fatty liver disease is also often a result of poor diet, and impairs liver function.
Long story short – detox diets, teas, and juice cleanses are not necessary to remove toxins from the body. Time and time again, we learn that our body really is capable of some really amazing things. As you eat, sleep, breathe and exercise, your body’s detoxing.
Instead of trying a quick fix, we suggest you focus on living a healthy lifestyle, eating a diet rich in a variety of whole antioxidant rich foods, getting regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and alcohol. You may notice this is a common theme in many of our deep dives – take care of your body, and it’ll take care of you.