I’ve heard this word thrown around so much, especially during the month of January, that it can begin to wear anyone down. Detox. This “drink this” “eat this” “do this” “don’t do that” word that somehow promises to make you lose weight and set you back on track so quickly you’ll fit right in on any health guru’s Instagram page.
See, the modern day detox is a bit of a misguided fad, but I’m here to help set you straight on what the science actually says about detoxing.
The term “detox” is short for detoxification, which refers to the process of cleaning out the body. It’s an actual word that refers to an actual scientific physiological process of the body. What that pile of words means is that your body already has detoxification mechanisms in place that work every second of the day. This is your body’s natural way of protecting itself from potentially harmful toxins, how you break down and store cellular waste products and how it moves those waste products out of your body.
Pretty awesome eh?
Our bodies are built to maintain something called homeostasis. This is a term meaning balance. Our bodies like balance, even more than they like routine. In today’s world, we encounter over 2.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals each year. From the air we breathe to the clothes we wear to the foods we eat, those little molecules of toxins are everywhere. In order to stay in balance, our bodies are hard at work packaging those molecules up and moving them out so that they don’t cause harm. It’s our liver, kidneys, lungs, skin, digestive system and even our sweat that does this hard work every moment of every day. If those organs didn’t do this work you’d be experiencing acute toxicity, which is a medical emergency, but these systems don’t really need help from fad diets (pepper, maple sugar and lemon water only – no thanks). What our bodies do need is a little bit of exercise, a nutrient dense diet most of the time, a good night’s sleep and enough water.
Let’s pause for a second and talk about toxins. You hear the word get thrown around, and a lot of detoxes are marketed as a way to reduce your toxic load. But I’m going to ask the tough question, “what does that even mean?”
The first thing we all need to understand is that context is crucial. Anything can be toxic, it depends on how much you consume (known as dosage), the species that is ingesting it (animals versus humans), and what that particular substance does in your body. For instance, you probably know that if you drink a lot of water in a short amount of time it can cause some harmful effects, or that chocolate is perfectly fine for humans to consume but can be potentially lethal to our canine friends. Eating substances in food, like potassium, are great (dark leafy greens anyone?) but taking potassium on its own can have some pretty severe health effects.
It’s too simple to call a compound toxic, and most detox programs marketed to the public can’t narrow down the “toxins” that their products are targeted towards (click here). Instead we need to be looking at the compensation mechanisms of our bodies and something I like to call the tipping point.
At some point, eating MacDonald’s every day or drinking a RedBull when you need a boost of energy is going to catch up with you. You’re putting on weight but you can’t get rid of it, you’re getting a mid-afternoon crash, you’re not waking up feeling rested, or your blood work is showing that your cholesterol and blood sugars are getting high. These changes are indicators that your system is reaching its tipping point because it can’t keep up with what’s coming in.
Understanding the biochemical and physiological basis for how your body compensates when it’s been subjected to any environment for any period of time is crucial to understanding how to make your health work for you. Doing a “cleanse” for 14 days might make you lose weight and feel good for the short term, but it’s not sustainable (nor is it healthy) long term. In fact, most detoxes are targeted towards weight loss for this exact reason. It’s quick, it’s easy, all you have to do is eat less food and drink this shake and you’ll be ready for the beach in no time. But when you limit the food you’re taking in you’re also limiting the micronutrients, vitamins and minerals that every cell in our body needs to function. Our skin and our immune systems need zinc, our red blood cells need iron to carry oxygen to our tissues, our eyes need vitamin A, our bones need calcium, potassium & vitamin D, over 300 different enzymatic processes in our body need magnesium, and and and… If we don’t consume enough different foods we don’t absorb those vital nutrients, which will leave you feeling not-so-healthy once your body uses up its current stores.
See where I’m going?
Absorbing the right nutrients is one thing, and ensuring optimal function of all your systems is the other. When I’m looking at the detoxification systems as a whole, speeding up detoxification without ensuring that your body can eliminate the packaged product is actually more harmful than letting your body regulate its own detox speed. Your body naturally detoxifies itself in a safe way and regulating the systems associated with detoxification will increase detoxification as a by-product. It’s about getting to the root of what’s actually going on, not just putting a pretty band-aid on.
When I talk with my patients about making sure their health works for them, not against them, I’m looking to figure out where their bodies are compensating and ensure they get what they need to function, not remove all kinds of foods. In fact, if you’re having to remove food after food after food there’s something else at play. My goal is defining what small, simple changes will lead you towards long term performance optimization so you don’t get those mid-afternoon crashes, so you’re not reaching for 5 coffees a day, so your focus is better and your cholesterol gets under control. It’s not sexy, and it’s not the best for an “instagrammable picture” but 20 years from now your body will thank you.
I’m playing the long-term game – what about you?
I put together a little something to help you get off to the right start if you really want long-term health.