These days the term “detox” is bandied about as the answer to everything from losing weight to beating cancer. Often without much evidence, there’s a widespread belief that putting yourself through detox can even help manage “incurable” health issues such as chronic pain and autoimmune disorders.
I’m on board with the trend, but with some reservations. I think you have to exercise care about what detox methods you use, whether they’re safe, and whether they actually work.
The term detoxification means eliminating harmful substances such as lead, mercury or other heavy metals and pesticides, as well as additional dietary and environmental toxins– even drugs– that accumulate in your body. In the modern world, it’s next to impossible to avoid a build-up of these substances.
I do believe that ridding the body of these poisons can help heal or prevent a whole range of diseases. Most of the evidence is anecdotal – based on case studies. There’s no shortage of individuals who can tell you how they cleared up chronic problems with the help of detoxification.
Probably the most dramatic examples are people who had mercury fillings removed from their teeth, and then detoxified their bodies of accumulated mercury. In some cases, long-term, major illnesses cleared up.
But when it comes to less dramatic poisons, here’s the thing: Your body already has its own detoxification systems in place and can purge toxins by itself. Now, I don’t want you to think there’s no need to worry about accumulated toxins in your tissues on the grounds that your body can “take of the problem all by itself.”
But it does meant that the first — and smartest — step to detoxification is to support your body’s natural detoxification process.
Seven Ways to Support Your Body’s Natural Detox System
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics1 offers these tips for helping your body detoxify. And by the way, we should all be following this commonsense advice all the time, not just when we’re thinking about detoxification!
- Stay hydrated with clean water.
- Eat five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
- Consume dietary fiber each day from vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains to help maintain bowel regularity.
- Eat cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli and Brussel sprouts, berries, artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks and green tea. These support detoxification pathways.
- Consume adequate amounts of lean protein, which is critical to maintaining optimum levels of glutathione, the body’s master detoxification enzyme.
- Consider taking a multivitamin/multimineral to fill any gaps in a healthy diet, since certain vitamins and minerals enable the body’s detoxification processes to function.
- Eat naturally fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut — or take a high-quality probiotic — to help promote a healthy gut.
But what about going beyond this sensible advice for healthy living, and doing something extra to rev up the detox process?
Separating Fact From Fiction
According to Dr. Michael Smith, writing at Webmd.com,2 if you’re hoping to detox your body, don’t waste your money, because your body is an expert at getting rid of toxins no matter what you eat.
Webmd is no friend of alternative or functional medicine – so look at his advice as the mainstream perspective.
“Toxins don’t build up in your liver, kidneys, or any other part of your body,” he says, “and you’re not going to get rid of them with the latest detox wonder.”
Factually, this is not true. Toxic substances DO build up in the liver and kidneys – your body’s filters.
Dr. Smith especially cautions against diets that promise to detox your liver with supplements or “cleanse” whatever the diet determines needs clearing out.
He’s right to the extent that some recommended detox methods are dubious. You have to pick carefully. There are detox supplements that are safe and effective – chlorella comes to mind.
Katherine Zeratsky, a registered nurse at the Mayo Clinic3 agrees with Smith’s comments. Still, she admits that some people report feeling more energetic during and after detox diets.
“However, there’s little evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from the body,” Zeratsky says. “Indeed, the kidneys and liver are generally quite effective at filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins.”
Again – this mainstream advice is questionable. I favor “affirmative action” to get rid of toxins, but if you’re going to go beyond the seven safe steps I suggested earlier, you have to choose carefully.
What Can a Detox Do?
In my view, a good place to start with detox is to consult a doctor who can test you for levels of heavy metals. He can then recommend a chelating agent – typically EDTA, a chemical that binds with these metals and flushes them out of your body with your other wastes.
This doctor can then test you after a round of EDTA to find out if your heavy metal levels are low enough, or if you need further help.
Besides taking out poisons, EDTA also chelates useful minerals you don’t want to lose, and this is why I’m opposed to people doing EDTA chelation at home. It should be done under a doctor’s supervision. You need to make sure you need chelation in the first place, and that your levels of vital minerals like potassium aren’t plunging while the treatment is in progress.
Many detox diets resemble intermittent fasting regimes, which can improve some biomarkers of health. Read more about the potential benefits of fasting here. I am firmly convinced that fasting is a useful practice, although I can’t speak to whether fasting gets rid of toxins.
For other diets that claim to detoxify, the evidence may not be all we could wish. An Australian review4 states that although the detox industry is booming, there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets.
A Canadian review, published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health,5 concluded that “unfortunately, there is limited research on many of the programs and therapies that are commonly used, and scientific evidence is often lacking to support the audacious claims frequently made to vulnerable, sick people.”
The takeaway? Choose your detoxification methods carefully. Seek out professional help if you believe that heavy metals are contributing to your health problems. Meanwhile, in my experience, you can never go wrong by increasing the amount of green vegetables, healthy fruits, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and clean water in your daily diet.
I also want to mention that taking an infrared sauna several times as week is an effective way to get rid of toxins. I’ve got a home sauna and it’s one of the best purchases I ever made.