Detoxification is an essential function in the body. Believe it or not, your body can detox naturally if you eat a nutritious diet! You wouldn’t know it with so many variations of commercial detoxes and cleanses and each one is advertised with many health claims and compelling testimonials. The question is: Do they really improve skin and digestion, boost the immune system, increase energy, reduce inflammation, or cure diseases? A lot of the time—even when they don’t explicitly say so—they’re code words for a calorie restricted weight loss diet.
But, what effect can they really have on your health? How can you use nutrition to support your body’s detoxification naturally without spending money on expensive detox `supplements.
What is detoxification?
Detoxification is your body’s own process for breaking down and eliminating toxins. We are all exposed to toxins every day through food, water, and the air we breathe. Toxins include those naturally found in tiny quantities in foods (e.g., methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables—which are very healthy). There are also synthetic toxins found in medicines, pesticides, and preservatives (e.g., sulfur dioxide is used to preserve some fruits and vegetables).
In fact, the body makes its own toxins through normal everyday processes like digestion, metabolism, and physical activity (e.g., urea which is excreted in the urine).
The good news is that your body does a great job breaking down toxins and eliminating them.
Because the world is full of toxins that can affect us, we’ve evolved some pretty sophisticated detoxification systems. Detoxification systems are mainly in the liver, but are also located in the kidneys, gut, etc. They help to make toxins less dangerous and allow them to be excreted mostly through urine and stool and also through breathing and sweating.
What does this have to do with nutrition?
These detoxification systems are made from many biochemicals in our bodies, such as enzymes. Part of what makes enzymes work are key essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. So, getting quality nutrition helps your body maintain all aspects of your health—including detoxification.
What are “detox diets” and “cleanses”?
Search the internet and you’ll find thousands of website pages and posts on these topics. There are so many different types of detox diets and cleanses being advertised. Many make bold promises of weight loss and improved health.
Detox diets and cleanses often include at least one of the following:
- Eating more nutritious foods
- Reducing [junk/processed/fast] foods
- Avoiding alcohol and/or caffeine
- Eliminating some common allergens (e.g., wheat or dairy)
- Replacing meals with smoothies, juices, teas, or powders
- Short or long-term fasting
- Only eating/drinking a handful of recommended foods/beverages
- Taking several dietary supplements and/or laxatives
- Getting “colon cleanses” (enemas)
Some of these recommendations seem reasonable and healthy. It’s hard to argue that eating more nutritious foods or reducing processed foods isn’t a good step towards better health. However, some of the more extreme recommendations can pose a risk to people including those with underlying health conditions, children, adolescents, athletes, older adults, or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. As you can imagine, the more foods you eliminate from your diet, the fewer nutrients you will get. So, one of the risks of extreme diets in the long-term are nutrient deficiencies. As we discussed, it’s counterintuitive to cut out too many foods because there are critical nutrients scientifically proven to be necessary for your body’s natural detoxification enzymes to work efficiently. Nutrition is key!
Another risk with certain detox supplements or teas are serious side effects. You may have heard about cases of unsafe ingredients or contamination that have harmed people.
Overall, there is a lack of good quality research into detox diets and cleanses, as most studies have been conducted on animals, not people. As Dr. Robert H. Schmerling from Harvard Health says, “It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.”
There’s no evidence that detoxes or cleanses actually help your body eliminate more toxins than it normally does. A few studies show that they can help with initial weight loss, however experts believe that’s due to a reduction in calorie intake. The weight lost is often water and carbohydrate (not fat), so it’s easily regained as soon as the dieting stops. There are no studies of the long-term effects of detox diets or cleanses.
Some people claim to feel better and more energized when they’re on these diets. This may be because they’re eating more nutritious foods and fewer processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
Having said this, there may be medical conditions for which eliminating certain foods is recommended. For example, if you have a food allergy or intolerance or if you need to be on a low-fiber diet due to digestive issues you have a valid reason for eliminating certain foods. Before jumping into a detox diet or cleanse, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first.
Nutrition plays a vital role in your body’s ability to naturally detoxify and eliminate toxins. And you don’t need to follow an overly restrictive or extreme detox diet or cleanse to support them.
How to use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification
You probably don’t need to eliminate a long list of foods from your diet. In fact, getting enough of your daily nutrients is what can help ensure your detoxification enzymes have what they need to keep up their ongoing very important work.
Here are a few simple things you can do every day to “detox” yourself:
- Don’t unnecessarily expose yourself to toxins in the first place. Avoid things like caffeine, sugar, tobacco and alcohol.
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough water – this promotes excretion via urine. Use a reverse osmosis water filtration system at home if it fits into your budget.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables – choose organic if possible. These are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber.
- Include a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. These contain compounds that help support detoxification pathways.
- Get enough dietary fiber by eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By promoting bowel regularity, these help to eliminate toxins from the body via your poop.
- Transition to a more plant-based diet will swing your diet towards more high fiber and nutrient-dense foods.
- Enjoy some naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These promote digestive health and support your gut microbiome.
- Consume lean protein. Protein is needed for many things including maintaining optimal levels of a “master” detoxification enzyme called glutathione.
- Consult with a registered dietitian to see if you may be lacking in any key nutrients. Follow recommendations to eat more or less of a certain food or nutrient or take high-quality supplements if necessary.
Nutrition is a key aspect of detoxification. Your body’s own natural detoxification pathways in the liver, kidneys, etc. include many enzymes that require vitamins and minerals to function optimally. By getting enough of your essential vitamins and minerals, you’re supplying your detox enzymes what they need to work.
Detoxification diets or cleanses that you see advertised online tend to overpromise. They often oversell their abilities to improve health. There are almost no quality human studies showing benefits and there are no long-term studies. I recommend speaking with your healthcare professional before embarking on a detox diet or cleanse. If you are looking to lose weight, consider a nutritious and varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, reduced portion sizes, and be active every day.
If you have questions about diets, nutrition, detoxification, or weight loss consult a registered dietitian who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals.