Detox (short for detoxify) is a commonly used catch-all phrase for removing toxic substances. In the human body, this can include eliminating excess sugar, alcohol, processed food, preservatives, drugs, etc. After periods of overindulgence in these toxins, it can be very appealing to embark on a journey of cleansing.
It seems logical to think that cleansing the body with herbal teas, juices or supplements will help speed recovery from illness or overindulgence. There has been a long history of alternative cleansing practices like fasting, enemas, herbal extracts, extreme sweating in saunas or hot houses, and even bloodletting. However, just because something is marketed as ancient or natural, it does not mean it is a cure or a good idea. I think most of can agree that removing blood from the body will not improve our health, but many forms of modern detox have similar effects. Detox aids are big business and there is no evidence to suggest that these purported remedies improve health or speed recovery from illness, and in fact, some may impede recovery due to dehydration and malnutrition.
THE BIOLOGY OF DETOX
To understand the biology of detox, it is best to start with some basic human biology. Our bodies are efficient machines that crave homeostasis or balance. Every organ, tissue and vessel work together to operate as one. Our bodies were built to welcome and manage outside influences both positive and negative. When we take in anything — from food and drink to bacteria, pollutants, and viruses — we are ready for the challenge armed with our most powerful weapon – the liver.
The liver is a relatively large organ weighing around 3 to 4 pounds, and more importantly, it is involved in hundreds of internal reactions. Perhaps the two most important nutrition-related functions are regulating blood sugar and removing toxins that your body cannot process. In fact, everything we take in is processed by the liver and broken down into simple elements that can be removed by either breath, urine, or feces. So every time we exhale or go to the bathroom, we are eliminating toxins.
The question remains, “Will a detox help remove toxins that my stressed liver cannot handle?”
As mentioned earlier, the human body craves balance. Balance is not achieved by extreme changes. Your liver and other organ systems are working day and night to move toward balance. The best way to achieve balance is to maintain a stable diet and exercise pattern. I realize this is not exciting or sexy. It does not promise quick or dramatic results. You may not feel very different right away but a moderate diet high in fiber, low in sugar and low in alcohol with regular physical activity is the best way to support your liver and its recovery efforts. In fact, the addition of detox teas and supplements can actually hinder your recovery from overindulgence because you are introducing a potentially toxic substance that your body needs to work to remove.
IMPROVE YOUR LIVER HEALTH
- Cut back on sugar and alcohol. This will help your liver do what it is already doing for you – removing toxins.
- Stay active. Regular physical activity lowers blood sugar which also lessens the burden on your liver.
- Eat fiber. Complex carbohydrates and high fiber lower blood sugar and make the liver’s job easier. (Remember to drink water with high fiber foods to get the best results).
Perhaps the real question to ask yourself is, “Why do I need to detox? Did I drink too much wine over two weeks of holiday indulgence? Do I want to stop the cycle of months of takeout and Netflix? Do I want to live a more healthful lifestyle? Am I ready to take control of my diabetes?” Making a note of your reasons will help you make an informed decision about how to approach the concept of detox and what is best for you. As always, your Registered Dietitian can guide you to create a lifestyle plan that will work for you.