To Detox—or Not to Detox? Here’s What the Science Says

With the start of the new year, companies are capitalizing on your New Year’s resolution to revamp your diet by advertising detox diets and cleanses. And while you probably know those juice fasts and wheatgrass enemas are all hype and not very helpful, there’s a good chance you have some questions about detoxing in general. Do you even need to ‘detox’? Can detoxing improve your health?

The Controversy with the Word “Detox”

The topic of detoxification can be polarizing. While you will hear a lot of bloggers talk about the importance of detoxing, you will not commonly hear this from most people in the healthcare profession or academia. That’s because most healthcare practitioners—or people who have actually studied biochemistry, anatomy, and nutrition—will tell you that the liver is able to detox on its own. In fact, one of the main roles of the liver is to process and excrete chemicals, toxins and other substances that you are exposed to through urine, sweat, and stool. Which means that if you drink plenty of water and have normal bowel movements, many healthcare practitioners will tell you that you are detoxing perfectly fine.

The Case for Detoxing

While research and principles of biochemistry support the idea that the liver and kidneys are always detoxing, there are two main reasons why you might need additional detox support.

1. We’re Exposed to More Chemicals in Our Environment Than Ever Before

Our exposure to chemicals, environmental pollutants, and toxins in the environment has significantly increased in recent years—and it’s unclear whether the liver and kidneys are able to keep up with this additional toxic burden. There are billions of toxic chemicals in the environment. Just in food alone, there is a concerningly large number of chemicals. 

One 2018 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics identified more than 10,000 chemicals that are allowed to be added to food and food contact materials (a.k.a. all of the plastic packaging your food is wrapped in at the grocery store) in the United States. And that’s just in our food! A 2011 research review reported that 4.9 million deaths (which equates to about 8.3% of total deaths) were attributable to environmental toxin exposure, such as indoor smoke from sold fuel, outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke. More recent research has established a correlation between your environmental exposure to chemicals and an increased risk of respiratory infections and chronic respiratory diseases; perinatal conditions; congenital abnormalities; several different types of cancer (ex: lung, skin, brain, etc); cognitive dysfunction; Alzheimer’s Disease; attention-deficit disorder; and hearing loss. One review paper cited the top five environmental and man-made toxins associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease as: toxic metals, pesticides & insecticides, antimicrobials, industrial/commercial chemicals and air pollutants. 

Examples of Human Exposure to Toxins

-Outdoor air, such as vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, particles from industrial emissions, etc. 

-Indoor air, such as tobacco smoke and off gassing from furniture, carpet, and construction materials

-Drinking water, such as tap water contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals (like lead, mercury, and arsenic), and industrial solvents due to agricultural runoff and human dwellings

-Chemicals found in our food, such as pesticides, methylmercury, and lead 

-Non-food products, such as food containers, chemical products, cleaning products, and skincare products

-Soil, contaminated with pesticides or other chemicals from agricultural processes

-Occupational exposure, such as the ingestion of chemicals or by-products of industrial processes like agricultural mining

-Human-to-human exposure, such as fetal exposure to toxic chemicals such as mercury during pregnancy

2. Your Genetics May Require Extra Detox Support

While many people can adequately detox on their own, many of us have single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or genetic variants that impair our ability to detox appropriately. This may be why two different people can live in the same mold-ridden basement but only one person gets sick and the other is unaffected. 

There are two different phases of detoxification: phase 1, which is essentially the activation stage and phase 2, which is where the body is preparing for removal. Your genes influence your body’s ability to perform each of these phases. Different gene variants will often decrease phase 1 or phase 2 detox capability. If you have a high sensitivity to chemicals and strong smells, you may want to take a closer look at your genetic profile. While you cannot change your genes, you can change the expression of those genes through targeted nutrition and lifestyle interventions.

Due to the concern about our increased toxic burden and the risk of having various genetic mutations, it can’t hurt to help the liver in its job of detoxing. But that does not mean trusting all “detoxes” and “cleanses” on the market that over-promise results and tend to lack scientific evidence. Instead, you’ll want to support your detox pathways using methods that work. Here’s how.

Detox-Support Step #1: Minimize Toxic Exposure in your Diet

Before you focus on increasing your excretion of toxins you have been exposed to, focus on decreasing your overall toxic body burden or toxic load through the following strategies: 

Buy a Water Filter

Water is one of the top sources of our exposure to chemicals and heavy metals—and most city water has levels that are well above the recommended guidelines. You can find out what your state’s records say about your water based on your zip code. Go to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Tap Water Database to enter your zip code and find out how polluted your drinking water is, as well as which contaminants your water is highest in. Then, you can search the EWG’s website for a water filter that filters out the specific contaminants in your water. The water filter that I often recommend is Berkey Filters. You could also install a reverse osmosis water system throughout your entire home or through the kitchen sink. 

Avoid Drinking From Plastic Bottles

This advice goes for adults and babies! Try to avoid reusable plastic water bottles and baby bottles, which are lined with Bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. BPA is a commercial plasticizer and endocrine disruptor that is also found in the lining of canned foods and drinks, food packaging, cash register receipts and many more products, as evidence by the 6 billion pounds of BPA produced every year. Research shows that BPA impacts regulation of hormones and the entire endocrine system. It is associated with breast and prostate cancer, neurobehavioral problems and reproductive abnormalities. Studies also show that BPA is able to leach from storage containers (like plastic water bottles) into the water. In one study, there were detectable levels of BPA in all room temperature water samples that had been stored in a polycarbonate water bottle. In a 2018 study, researchers had teenagers follow a BPA-free diet for one week and still detected traces of BPA in 86% of the participant bodies 

Replace Plastic Storage Containers with Glass

For the same reasons it’s smart to avoid plastic water bottles, it’s a good idea to make an investment in glass storage containers. Given how common it is to clean plastic storage containers in the dishwasher—which exposes the plastic to high temperatures and leaches BPA as a result—this is especially important. You can also bring glass mason jars to grocery stores such as Whole Foods and purchase your nuts and seeds without plastic bags by weighing the empty mason jar and then weighing the filled mason jar and recording the difference for your purchase. 

Steer Clear of Fish That Are High in Heavy Metals

Some fish are higher in mercury, Polychorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) than other varieties. One of the biggest concerns is high levels of mercury, which is a neurotoxin that can impair cognitive function. The best fish to purchase tends to be those that are smaller, such as scallops, sardines, and anchovies, in addition to wild salmon. The fish that are highest in mercury include tuna (albacore, yellowfin, bigeye, ahi), orange roughy, swordfish, grouper, king mackerel, halibut, and sea bass. For more information on purchasing safe seafood, use this NRDC guide.

Purchase Organic Meat, Dairy and Certain Produce

When you see the USDA Organic certification, you can be sure you’re getting a product that does not contain synthetic fertilizers, most synthetic pesticides and antibiotics or growth hormones. If you can’t buy everything organic, the most important are meat, dairy, and a handful of fruits and veggies (a.k.a. the “dirty dozen”). Visit the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Shopper’s Guide for a list of foods that are highest in pesticides (read: the ones that are most important to buy organic!) as well as their “Clean 15” list of foods that are lower in pesticides (and as a result, OK to buy conventional). I also highly recommend purchasing high quality meat and fish through a membership like Butcherbox, that delivers organic meat to your house monthly.  

Detox-Support Step #2: Enhance your Body’s Natural Ability to Detox

Stay Adequately Hydrated

Make sure you’re drinking enough water as a basic but powerful way to ensure that your liver is detoxing as it’s designed to and supporting your phase 1 detox pathway. Aim for half of your body weight in fluid ounces. 

Add Detox-Promoting Vegetables into your Diet

Vegetables are critical to your body’s natural detoxing capabilities. Specific detox-promoting vegetables are those that contain sulfur and help increase glutathione levels. This includes broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, mustard greens, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, arugula, watercress, daikon radishes, garlic, and onion. Try to get at least two cups of these detox powerhouses each day! 

Aim for 30-40 Grams of Fiber Daily

Fiber is found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. Not only does fiber bind to cholesterol and remove it from your body, but it also does a similar thing with contaminants in your system. Eating adequate fiber is key for proper elimination, which is thought of as phase 3 of detoxification.

Increase Turmeric in your Diet

Turmeric is extremely beneficial for many aspects of lowering inflammation but it is also very involved in the detoxification process. The curcuminoids in turmeric support both phase 1 and phase 2 pathways and promote the production of glutathione. You can try to start adding turmeric to your diet by adding a daily turmeric shot!  

Get Adequate Protein in your Diet

Your detoxification system requires adequate protein consumption because several of the amino acids found in protein-rich foods drive phase 2 detox. Examples of protein-rich foods can include collagen protein powder, bone broth, organic chicken, grass-fed feed, eggs, wild salmon, organic tofu, beans and lentils. The amino acids in these foods, specifically glycine, glutamine and cysteine aid in the production of glutathione, your master antioxidant for detox-support. 

Eat More Omega 3s and Fewer Omega 6s

When it comes to protecting the body from harmful environmental pollutants, omega-3s are one of the most important anti-inflammatory nutrients. This is why it’s important to eat at least 2 to 3 servings of low mercury, omega-3 rich fish per week, such as wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, cod, and scallops. Research suggests that eating more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s (found in canola, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, soybean, corn, and peanut oils) can decrease the inflammatory response that happens as a result of exposure to PCBs.

Sweat Regularly!

Sweating regularly through exercise and the use of infrared saunas provides a great opportunity to excrete the high toxic overload that is in our environment.

Get Rid of Toxic Emotions and Relationships

Toxicity can also build up when you have toxic people in your life, suppress your emotions, and hold onto resentment. Part of enhancing your body’s ability to detox involves emotional releases, too! Things like forgiveness and surrendering your control can go a long way toward helping your body get rid of what it doesn’t need. And while I can’t point to endless research articles on this aspect of detoxing, I know firsthand that it is an important part of our emotional and spiritual health.