There is a lot of buzz around the terms “cleanse” and “detox” from both camps. The pro side, claims that a detox can cure everything from headaches to cancer, and the con side claiming that the body doesn’t need any help with its detox functions and all detox programs are nonsense. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. To start with, there is a big difference between a system functioning, and functioning optimally. You can have terrible digestive symptoms, but still be absorbing some nutrients from your food; less than optimal vitamin or nutrient status that doesn’t kill you but should be improved; and “borderline” health parameters, such as thyroid hormones, cholesterol or blood pressure, that are not yet considered a disease state but moving in the wrong direction. The same goes for your body’s ability to detoxify. What I’m not a fan of, are what I call “flash and bang” detox programs—the ones that focus on fasting and laxatives to “expel toxins” (no, you don’t have seven years worth of poop lining your colon.)
I’m not going to focus on proving or debunking every type of detox program out there. But I will discuss the type of program I use with patients and why I use it.
Why detoxify in the first place?
We are exposed to an awful lot of toxins—probably more than you realize. These come from the air we breathe (sit in traffic to and from work?, live near a farm that sprays pesticides?), the food we eat (dyes, preservatives, pesticides), the chemicals in our furniture (especially pillow top mattresses and fire retardants), the ingredients in our body products (parabens and fragrance), the plastic that we eat and drink from (pthalates and bisphenols) and so much more. Many of these chemicals are stored by the body and affect the liver’s ability to detoxify optimally—which then affects how the body deals with its own hormones (estrogen, testosterone, cortisol and others). It’s a slow process that affects energy, weight, skin health, digestion, hormone health and allergies. Increasing detoxification support to specific organs, helps the body clear some of its stored toxic material.
To start—the organs of elimination:
Liver—the liver acts as a detoxification organ by converting chemicals to active and inactive metabolites. Inactive metabolites are then sent into the intestines to be eliminated. Medications; enivronmental, topical and inhaled chemicals; and alcohol are all converted in the liver. Know anyone that is super sensivite to the perfume aisle in the mall? For many of those people their liver enzymes (phase 2) aren’t inactivating the inhaled chemicals fast enough, causing them to continue in circulation for longer than they should be and leading to adverse effects like headaches and fatigue.
Kidneys—kidneys act as a fine filter for your blood, eliminating certain components (excess electrolytes and some medications).
Intestines—the intestines eliminate hormones, cholesterol and the bulk of the food that we eat. The bacteria in the intestines plays an important role in how those chemicals are eliminated, as does any inflammation that may be present. Constipation can lead to certain inactivated chemicals being reactivated in the gut.
Lungs—the lungs exchange oxygen (which is important for every cell in the body) for carbon dioxide.
Lymph—the lymphatic system moves your immune system around. However, unlike your arteries and veins, lymphatic tissue deosn’t have a mechanism to keep the fluid moving. For people who are inactive or sit at a desk for most of the day, it can become congested.
Skin—skin helps eliminate waste through its pores and by sweating.
I use a three part system for detoxification—diet, supplements and topical treatments.
Diet—I have patients follow a simple elimination diet during the detox period. This diet eliminates the more common food sensitivities, allowing the gut to heal from any inflammation that may be present and the immune system to stop producing antibodies that can cause various reactions in the body. The diet focuses on high antioxidant fruits, vegetables that support the detoxification pathways (think cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage and others in the Brassica family), whole grains, legumes and high quality animal proteins. Processed foods, caffeine and alcohol are eliminated as well.
Supplements—For most patients I use a shake formula that contains easy to digest proteins, vitamins and minerals in their most absorbable forms, and specific neutraceuticals that support the two phases of elimination in the liver. These include ingredients such as Broccoli Sprout Extract, which has been shown to enhance specific antioxidants in the liver, N-acetyl-cysteine, which supports phase two detoxification in the liver, and glutamine which helps repair the intestines.
External detox supports—castor oil packs, dry skin brushing, alternating hot and cold showers, saunas, exercise and deep breathing can all be used the reinforce the body’s detox pathways.
Patients report more energy, improved digestion, decreased allergy symptoms and better sleep during and after the progam. This year I have added a meal plan to the program, which has been a big hit. I generally do detox programs with patients in the spring and summer. During the fall and winter, the body is occupied keeping viruses at bay. This doesn’t mean that we can’t do a detox program over the winter, but extra immune support would probably be added.
Detox programs are not for everyone. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not undertake one, nor would I jump to this type of program with someone with a long-standing chronic illness that causes debility. For patients on medications, or with liver/gall bladder/kidney disease, check with your ND about possible interactions.