When you think about how to detox, what comes to mind? Is it the restrictive diet Gwyneth Paltrow swears by or an intense sauna session? Maybe it’s trendy juice cleanses that became mainstream in 2010 or the detox teas that promised you’d lose a whole pant size after a couple weeks (which, like, how on earth can that possibly be healthy?). There’s no doubt that wellness trends can be confusing AF, especially when the supplement industry is doing more marketing than being a helpful resource. There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to detoxing the body. So, for the betterment of humanity and to prevent another woman from suffering through a juice cleanse, I wanted to set the record straight on what “detoxing” really is and how we do it.
In this article
What does “detox” mean?
We throw around the words “toxins” and “detox” when it comes to food, wellness routines, and beauty products, but what do they really mean? “Toxins are toxic molecules that can be ingested by the body through external sources,” explained Dr. Alejandro Junger, MD, an LA-based cardiologist, founder, and medical director of the Clean Program and best-selling author (also commonly known as “the father of detox”). “Outside toxins are all human-made chemicals: air pollution, chemicals in water or beauty products, medications, building materials in our houses, and mostly from processed foods or non-organic produce.”
Before you quit your current life, move out to the country, and live totally toxin-free, rest-assured that your body has a solution. “Fortunately, a majority of these toxins can be converted and expelled, thanks to the ‘detoxification system’ in the body,” Dr. Junger said. There’s also what’s known as internal toxins, like excess cholesterol, bacteria, viruses, etc., that the body fights and removes internally. It turns out that we don’t need products, cleanses, and diets to help us detoxify. The body is a powerful detoxifying machine all on its own.
How does the body detoxify?
Spoiler alert: a lot of ways. Many major systems in the body are part of the detoxification process. “The body detoxifies in a few ways: the liver and kidneys play the biggest roles, but the digestive tract and skin play important roles as well,” explained Dr. Chris Airey, MD, the medical director at Optimale and a practicing physician with the NHS. “The liver removes toxins and breaks them down so that the kidneys can pass them out. The kidneys filter out waste, the digestive tract passes harmful substances out of the body through bowel movements, and the skin detoxes through sweating.”
“Your liver does the heavy lifting when it comes to detoxifying the body of substances it sees as waste or harmful,” agreed Dr. M. Kara, MD, a longtime doctor at The Cleveland Clinic and founder of KaraMD. “It does this by metabolizing these harmful substances into less harmful ‘metabolites’ that are then eliminated via the digestive tract (bowel movements), kidneys (urine), and skin (sweat).”
If this is all getting a little too “biology class” for you and anatomy is not your thing, the bottom line is that a healthy body is built to identify, process, and eliminate substances that are either unnecessary or harmful all on its own (no juice cleanse required).
Though the liver, digestive tract, kidneys, and skin are known as the MVPs in detoxification, the body gets rid of toxins in many other ways too. Dr. Junger cited the way we breathe as a form of detox as well: We breathe out CO2, which is a toxic waste product. Even with something as mindless and simple as breathing, the body knows to breathe in something useful and good for the body (oxygen) and breathe out the bad (CO2).
When do toxins become harmful?
I know what you’re thinking: If the body gets rid of all the bad stuff on its own, why do we need to be aware of consuming toxins? Does that mean that clean beauty is a scam or that we can eat Taco Bell for every meal without consequences? The answer: obviously not.
Yes, the body has an amazing detoxification system, but there’s only so much it can detox. Think of your body like a river: If a branch or boulder fall into the river, it’s no big deal. The flow of the river pushes the branch or boulder and carries it out to sea, right? But if there’s an overflow of branches and boulders, the river can no longer push through, and it creates a dam. Toxins are like branches and boulders: Your body is made to detoxify, but if there’s an overexposure, the body cannot work fast enough to get rid of them all. Plus, the liver, digestive system, and kidneys need some TLC in order to do their job. You know your body works best when you treat it well, and that goes for the detoxification system too.
Ways to assist the body’s natural detoxification process
1. Get enough sleep
As if you needed another reason to turn your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and get to bed early tonight. “Sleep gives the body a chance to essentially reset itself,” Dr. Kara said. “By having the opportunity to slow down and refresh, the body can eliminate any toxic waste that has built up during the day.” That’s right, there’s more purpose to precious shut-eye than dreaming about Regé-Jean Page. When you’re not spending energy on digesting food, moving around, or focusing on work tasks, the energy in your body can go into detoxifying. Make sure you’re getting a full 7-9 hours of deep, restful sleep to keep your body working its best.
2. Be aware of what you eat
You knew this was coming. Yes, what you eat matters. Not only do processed foods contribute to the toxins put into your body, but foods that are good for you are also good for keeping the organs in the detoxification system healthy. For example, the digestive tract eliminates through bowel movements, but it needs fiber in order to make consistent bowel movements. Dr. Kara suggested limiting excess sugar or processed foods and eating antioxidant-rich foods (fruits and veggies!) and foods high in fiber. Also, shop organic whenever you can. “By purchasing organic foods, you can avoid many herbicides, pesticides, and other hormones that contribute to toxic waste,” he said.
“Plants are filled with nutrients that are used by the liver to make enzymes that help it detox,” agreed Dr. Junger. “The more species of plants you eat in a variety of colors, the more chances you will have of getting these nutrients as well as feeding the good bacteria that do 30-40 percent of the work of detoxification needed.”
3. Drink more water
You already know that drinking water is the secret to great skin thanks to Gabrielle Union, but it’s also a key player in detoxification. “Drink more water and stay hydrated, as water helps the kidneys flush out toxins more easily,” Dr. Airey suggested. One of the major ways we get rid of those toxins is through—you guessed it—our urine. So not only does hydration assist the kidney’s flush of toxins, but it also makes you urine more frequently, meaning you’re eliminating more toxins (so I guess it’s not a badge of honor that you can hold it through a six-hour flight?). Forget detox teas, powders, or juices. All you need is good ol’ fashioned water to help the body get rid of what it needs to.
Exercise can help you get stronger, improve heart health, and even boost mood, so it’s no surprise that the one-stop-shop for optimal health is also good for getting rid of toxins. Dr. Airey explained that exercise promotes lymphatic circulation and sweat, both of which are crucial to the body’s detoxification process. The lymphatic system is another important part of the body’s detoxification, and one of the ways to move “waste” to the lymph nodes is through moving and working the muscles. Plus, sweat not only expends electrolytes and water, it also rids the body of toxins. BRB, going to sign up for hot yoga!
5. Reduce your exposure to toxins
Besides just helping your body be healthy overall so it can work optimally, you can also make some changes to avoid exposure to toxins to reduce the amount of detoxification the body has to do on a regular basis. Many toxins are unavoidable (especially in our modern world), but be aware of where you can make simple swaps or changes that are not only better because they reduce your body’s exposure to toxins but are also better for the planet. “The simplest way to assist the body’s detox system is to reduce exposure,” Dr. Junger recommended. “Filter your water, filter your air at home, and spend time in nature breathing fresh air. Use green materials when building your home and use non-toxic/clean cosmetics, toiletries, and laundry products.” Think of these little updates as your way of telling your body, “Thanks for all you do, and I got your back!”
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.
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