Mind and Body

Detox science: How to boost the body's natural detoxification system

Skip a "detox diet" and follow study-backed advice.

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At the start of a new year, it’s tempting to go full-on out with the old, in with the new. Advocates of detoxes take a literal approach when it comes to this mantra, using diets, regimens, and therapies to rid the body of toxins and improve health. Detoxification programs range from drinking only juice to taking laxatives in an attempt to cleanse the colon.

Although they are immensely popular, there is very little science to back up any claims that detox programs actually improve health, experts tell Inverse.

“To my knowledge, there aren’t any detox diets that are considered reputable by experts,” Jamie Baum, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Arkansas tells Inverse. “Most people probably claim to feel better after detox diets because they’re actually just eating healthier and possibly exercising.”

Sharon Kirkpatrick, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, also tells Inverse that there is no evidence that any detox diets that claim to rid the bodies of toxins are effective. But Kirkpatrick also points out that these diets aren’t necessary either, given that “the human body has mechanisms, including the liver, to deal with toxins we may be exposed to.”

But there are some benefits — if you just act naturally.

If the aim is to remove toxins from your body, you should “let your liver do its thing.” Baum also notes that there are several ways you can support your body’s natural detoxification system — without buying into any sort of scheme.

"We are fortunate that our bodies are already equipped with a sophisticated detoxification system.”

Detox diets are popular, Emma Laing, a clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia, says “because people are attracted to the idea of a quick fix to improve health.

What are toxins?

The body has toxins that are produced internally (like lactic acid and waste products from gut microbes) and externally (like lead from air pollution and chemicals in tobacco). If there’s a build-up of these toxins and the body can’t excrete them fast enough, then they can be harmful to health.

If you’re healthy, then the liver, kidneys, and colon should remove any minor toxic substances on their own, because that’s their job. And there are science-backed procedures used to remove serious toxins, like metals, and medical detoxification programs aimed to help people manage the physical symptoms of addiction withdrawal.

The liver already helps your body detoxify. Flickr

The “toxins” referenced by detox diets and cleanses don’t refer to those toxins and they don’t really refer to any specific toxins at all. A face mask claiming to remove toxins, for example, is just removing dirt — not pulling toxins from your bloodstream.

When the word “toxins” is used, it conjures the feeling that there’s something bad in you that you should get out — even if you don’t know what that is. 

Give your body a boost

If you want to help support your body’s natural detoxification system, there are a number of steps you can take.

Robin Tucker, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University, tells Inverse that drinking an adequate amount of water is a good first step. This prompts urination — and urine is an important way we remove harmful substances from our bodies.

She also recommends that people hit their necessary fiber intake — 38 per grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women. Fiber traps unhealthy cholesterol and promotes healthy bowel movements — “another way we rid our bodies of harmful substances.”

Food like broccoli helps boost the natural detoxification system.Flickr

Kelly Pritchett, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Central Washington University, recommends to Inverse eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, and that people “get the body moving versus following any detox regimes” which she describes as “not sustainable.”

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli and Brussels sprouts, alongside berries, artichokes, garlic, onions, and leaks, all support the detoxification pathways. The Academy also recommends that, if you are investing time into natural detoxification, that you take a multivitamin in order to fill in any gaps you might be missing.

Meanwhile Baum recommends that people attempt to reduce their intake of sugar and salt, and increase their intake of fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut — which help gut health.

The problem with detoxification programs

When it comes to going with a detoxification program, compared to supporting the body’s natural detoxification system, the issue isn’t only that one won’t help you be healthy while the other one will. Instead, extreme consequences can accompany the more extreme detox diets.

Laing explains that these can include an upsurge in food cravings, feelings of sluggishness from not meeting your caloric or fluid needs, and a reduced ability to exercise or participate in other physical and social activities. The detox diets that include herbal supplements can lead to adverse food and medication interactions. And while using products that contain diuretics or laxatives can result in lost water weight, that loss is just temporary.

She suggests that, before one embarks on a detox diet, they should ask themselves questions including: Will this diet negatively affect my finances and my mental and physical health? Will I need to go on a detox diet repeatedly once I start eating as I usually do? Have influencers endorsed this diet, instead of credential health professionals?

These questions are especially important is one has a history of disordered eating, if they are pregnant or breast-feeding, or if they take certain medications. 

Kirkpatrick advises that people try to “disengage from diet culture” and consult with a registered dietitian about any concerns or individual goals.

While it’s tempting to choose a quick fix, the steps proven to enhance overall health involve improving eating, sleeping, and exercising. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition — but if one hits those basics, they are off to a good start.

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