Does “detoxing” or “cleansing” actually work?

Does “detoxing” or “cleansing” actually work? The short answer is, if you are using whole foods, then YES! For the long explanation, read on…

Many people (including nutrition experts) say there is no point in doing a detox diet or cleanse because our bodies naturally clean out impurities and toxins that get into our systems. This is true… kind of. In a perfect world (you know the one none of us live in), we wouldn’t need to give our bodies a break from the onslaught of toxins we are exposed to every day. The detoxifying pathways of the liver and other organs would hum along collecting, neutralizing and eliminating anything that could harm us.

That perfect world need to look something like this…

  • Nutrient-dense, well-balanced way of eating without alcohol, white sugar, or any other food/drink that the body views as toxic or inflammatory
  • All food grown organically in nutrient-rich soil without any chance of exposure to herbicides/pesticides/insecticides
  • Food production and storage that doesn’t expose our food to chemicals like BPA and PCBs
  • Personal care products made from natural ingredients that have not been linked to health problems (ex: most antiperspirants and some vaccines have aluminum in them which has been linked to breast cancer, almost all red lipsticks have lead in them)
  • Perfectly pure air with no pollution from smoking (direct or second-hand), emissions (ex: carbon monoxide from burning fossil fuel), chemicals (ex: dry cleaning and fire retardant chemicals, asbestos, dioxin), airborne heavy metals (like lead and mercury), and other pollutants released from industrial factories
  • Clean drinking water without 300+ contaminants from things like pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and pollutants released from industrial factories

To illustrate how all of these things add up in the system, imagine that it is your job to do laundry for your family. If your family is very clean and conservative in how they wear their clothes, you can easily keep up with work, getting it washed and folded in a timely manner so the clothes don’t pile up. (This would be like our ideal world mentioned above.) However, if your family has hobbies that result in dirty clothes or just like to change clothes often or you have a big family, then the dirty clothes can start to pile up. And no matter how hard you work, you can’t catch up. Imagine how much worse this gets if you run out of detergent! You might resort to stuffing dirty clothes in the cupboards just to get them out of your way and hope they don’t start to smell up the whole house.

The same thing happens in our bodies. In an ideal situation, the liver (our primary cleansing organ) collects bad stuff, neutralizes it through pathways that utilize antioxidants/amino acids/vitamins/other nutrients, and eliminates it via the kidneys or in bile that ends up in the feces (you can get a more complete description here). But, if we are exposed to a lot of bad stuff (either purposefully or as a result of living in our environment), the liver gets backed up and has to work really hard to keep your body toxin-free. At some point, the liver will reach its max throughput. If you aren’t consuming the nutrients your liver needs to do its work (ie, run out of detergent), then the liver can get backed up. Eventually, toxins start getting stored in cells all over your body in an attempt to prevent damage from the toxins and in waiting for your liver to be ready to deal with them.

Also, when you are eating a well-balanced, clean diet, the good microbes that live in your intestine thrive and keep the bad microbes in check. The good microbes also give off nutrients that your body absorbs and utilizes. But when you eat junk (including refined sugar, white flour and alcohol), your bad microbes (including bacteria and yeast) increase in number and give off chemicals that are not good for the body, causing symptoms through the body and upsetting your internal ecosystem.

When you do a whole food detox or cleanse, you:

  • Optimize the liver’s working environment,
  • Give your body all the tools (nutrients) it needs,
  • Feed the good intestinal bacteria, and
  • Starve the bad intestinal microbes.

In return, your liver cleans up its own toxins and, once it has the bandwidth, summons other cells to release their toxins to be removed. And the microbiome in your gut returns to an appropriate balance that help keep your intestine and whole body healthy.

Again, you aren’t changing the way your body functions. You’re simply giving it the best possible situation in which to do it. Or using the words of Dr. Alejandro Junger: just as we wouldn’t tell a professional athlete not to run or lift weights because the body is capable of moving on its own, we shouldn’t tell people who live in a toxic environment (which is everyone) that detoxing isn’t necessary for optimum health.

So, if you are like me, focusing on eating super clean with a variety of whole foods and no junk for a few weeks twice per year, helps my body return to optimal function. (And helps to break some bad habits that I sometimes slip into as it relates to the way I eat!) I’m not changing my body’s innate cleansing capability. I’m turning it into a professional detoxing machine! 🙂

If you are interested in doing a cleanse or a detox, but aren’t sure what to do, join one of my group programs or contact me to talk about how I can help you one-on-one.
Image courtesy of Gratisography.

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