Detox is a word synonymous with fad diets. But the truth about detox is a little more complicated. Detoxification is a natural process occurring continuously in your body. This process keeps you healthy by eliminating potentially toxic substances. Although this occurs naturally in the body, modern living bombards us with factors that contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle. Here we will examine how your body has the innate ability to rid itself of toxins and look at ways supplements may help when your body needs a little extra help.
What is detoxification?
Your body has internal systems that work together to ensure you remain healthy. These include the digestive, respiratory, integumentary (skin), immune and lymphatic systems. Together these systems process potentially harmful substances and move them out of your body before they can cause damage; this process is referred to as detoxification.1 Below we will explore each of your body’s primary detoxification systems and look at how you can possibly optimize their function.
What is a toxin?
Surprisingly, there is still much debate over the definition of a toxin. Most can agree that a toxin is a harmful substance produced within cells or organisms. If we were to delve deeper, we could further define a toxin as a volatile substance that is a product of metabolic activities.2 When referring to a toxin in the context of a detox diet, then you would be referring to substances such as pollutants, heavy metals, synthetic chemicals, and additives found in processed food and drinks. These toxins can accumulate in the body for years and can be difficult to eliminate.3 But how can you tell if you need to detox?
Signs you may benefit from a detox:
Depending on lifestyle, environment, and diet, your body can start to accumulate toxins.4 These toxins can disrupt how our cells function and your body may start to show signs and symptoms including: feeling sluggish, tired, skin problems, weakened immune system, poor digestion, and feeling aches and pains.3 Let’s look at some ways your body detoxifies itself and removes these toxins.
Your digestive system:
This system is massive! Your small intestine alone can measure up to 7 meters! The primary function of the digestive system is to process food, deliver nutrients, and eliminate waste. The digestive system consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and anus. The gallbladder, liver, and pancreas are also considered part of the digestive system.5 Learn more about some of the digestive system’s functions below.
As the body’s primary line of defense against toxic substances, the liver helps your body metabolize nutrients and eliminate chemicals, heavy metals, drugs, and alcohol. The liver makes essential proteins known as metallothionein; these proteins are vital for neutralizing heavy metals.6 The liver also has multiple pathways that produce enzymes that help metabolize drugs and other toxins. A healthy, functioning liver is an essential part of detoxification. If your liver is overburdened, toxins can accumulate in your bloodstream, this is when illness and disease can arise.7
The intestines have an essential role in how your body detoxifies. Firstly, the intestines contain bacteria that can produce chemicals that are either good or bad for your health, this bacterium acts as an important guard against potential pathogens. 5,8 Additional to the bacteria found in your intestines, Peyer’s patches are lymph nodes found in the small intestine that screen for foreign substances before any nutrients are absorbed through the colon into the bloodstream. It is vital to keep transit through the intestines moving to flush out potentially dangerous substances.9
Nutrients to the bloodstream
One of the ways in which the digestive system assists detoxification is by delivering nutrients from food to your bloodstream. By doing this, you are providing nutrients to other organs that require these nutrients to function and detox. 5 An example of this is delivering antioxidants found in food to cells to protect them from the damage caused by free radicals.
Your gut microbiome consists of approximately 100 trillion microorganisms. These microorganisms are mostly viruses, fungi, and protozoa. These microorganisms help your body break down foods, produce hormones, and maintain a robust immune system.8 Once again, providing your body with nutrients to help protect your cells and act as a defense to potentially harmful microorganisms.
The fiber in the diet
Your gastrointestinal tract is also a path of elimination. Your gastrointestinal tract gives your body an efficient way of eliminating substances or undigested food it doesn’t require. This means it can eliminate potentially harmful toxins.5 This is where dietary fiber is essential; it is the bulking agent that moves through the digestive tract and takes these toxins with it. This essentially stops and carries stagnant substances sitting along our digestive tract before they cause harm.
Your skin acts as a barrier. The skin is your shield; it is your outer layer that keeps bacteria, viruses, and chemical toxins from entering your body. Although the skin is highly efficient at stopping things from getting in, it is also a channel for your body to eliminate metabolic substances. One way it does this is through sweat; your sweat helps eliminate heavy metals and other chemicals.10 So, it makes sense that activities like exercise are so great for eliminating toxins and boosting your health.
Your immune system:
The immune system is a complex system of cells that work hard to identify and eliminate foreign substances from the body. The immune system consists of white blood cells, blood plasma, antibodies, the lymphatic system, and bone marrow. During times of stress or illness, your body can have a weakened immune system. During this time, you are more susceptible to foreign bodies such as viruses causing further harm. A strong immune system is a critical process in regulating how your body removes pathogens that can harm us. Your immune system uses vitamins C, A, and zinc to function at its best.11 The lymphatic system is also a part of the immune system and is discussed in more detail below.
Your kidneys consist of two bean-shaped organs. These small, powerful organs are working hard all day-everyday filtering your blood and getting rid of toxins through excretion in urine. This process ensures toxins are removed from circulating within your body before they can cause harm.12 Interestingly, medicine uses tests that screen kidney function and urine for drugs and toxins, this indicates their importance in removing these substances from the body.
Your respiratory system:
When you think of the respiratory system, you may think of the oxygen you breathe in through your lungs, but there is so much more going on. The respiratory system contains microstructures that act as the first line of defense from potentially toxic substances.13 Some of these microstructures include the hair in the nose or the mucus that lines the lungs. Both capture and help expel particles before they can cause you harm.
Your lymphatic system:
The lymphatic system consists of tissues and organs that help rid the body of waste products – including toxins. The lymphatic system has its own circulatory system consisting of vessels that contain lymph. Lymph carries white blood cells through the body, picking up waste product for filtration through lymph nodes. The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus.14 Some ways people stimulate lymph movement and drainage include dry brushing, massage, yoga, and regular exercise.
Traditional ways people detox:
Cultures have used different methods of detoxification for decades. Some may work; some are just outright ridiculous. Let’s look at some of the most popular ways people use to detox.
Intermittent fasting has been used throughout different cultures for centuries. Research offers some support for these diets.15 Intermittent fasting can be done in many ways, all ways restrict food intake, which reduces calorie intake for a period of time each day or on certain days weekly. The most common ways to intermittent fast include – 16 hours of fasting, followed by 8 hours of eating or eating a regular diet for 5 days, and restricting calories to 500-600 calories for 2 days. 15,16 Some people find intermittent fasting helpful for weight loss as it restricts calories whilst making your diet feel less restrictive. It allows you to eat as you like during the times you are consuming food. Intermittent fasting has a strong following and appears to be a sustainable way of eating that may provide a healthy way to eat. More research is needed to determine if intermittent fasting is safe and effective in the long-term.
The popularity of juice cleansing has gained momentum recently. The idea behind the juice cleanse is to consume only juices for a period of anywhere from 1 – 5 days.17 This cleanse is designed to flood the body with nutrients whilst giving the digestive system a break from digesting solid food. This is intended to relieve the body of exposure to potential toxins while providing nutrients that may support your body’s natural detoxification pathways. It is low calorie, which is also likely to result in some degree of weight loss. The research is limited as to whether there are long-term benefits to this cleanse. Always consult a licensed health professional before considering using a juice cleanse. Those with a history of eating disorders should be cautioned, some research has found a potential link between juice cleanse diets and the development of eating disorders.18
There are endless amounts of supplements now available on the market designed to assist your body in detoxification. These supplements contain ingredients designed to improve digestion, increase gut mobility, remove toxins, and provide the body with the nutrients it requires to detox. It is always important to discuss with a health professional the supplement required for your specific needs. It should be noted, while little research has been done in the area, studies have not supported the use of any “detox” diets.19
We all strive to achieve a healthy diet, but modern living sometimes makes this challenging. Many choose to detox by simply removing exposure to toxins and increasing foods that help detox. This may include drinking more clean water, eating more fruit and vegetables, reducing exposure to allergens, chemicals, food additives, and eliminating coffee, alcohol, sugar, and cigarettes.20 Often people will combine a healthy diet with other ways of detoxing, such as supplement use, exercise, or fasting.
Exercise has strong research to support its beneficial effects on health.21,22 This alone provides enough reason to include exercise in your day-to-day life. Additionally, exercise also happens to make us sweat – well if we are working hard enough at it! As discussed above, through sweat, you eliminate toxins such as heavy metals. So, it makes sense why exercise is so good for us.
Can supplements help?
Supplements work in two ways. Firstly, by offering your body the nutrients it needs to support your natural detoxification pathways. Secondly, by encouraging the transit of substances through your digestive tract. Here we will look at different supplements that can help with both.
Senna leaf is a non-prescription herbal laxative. By promoting movement along the digestive tract, senna may offer a way to reduce the detrimental effects of food particles and other harmful substances sitting in your digestive tract. The active extract in senna is anthraquinone and its derivative glucosides. These glucosides are not absorbed in the digestive tract, but instead, bacteria in the gut release the compounds which act as irritants in the colon and increase mobility. Senna is considered safe to consume but should be used in small doses and for short periods.23
Cascara sagrada bark
Similar to senna, cascara sagrada contains plant chemicals known as anthraquinones. Cascara acts as a laxative and helps relieve constipation by increasing mobility through the bowel. It does this by interacting with bacteria in the intestines and stopping the intestinal absorption of water and electrolytes. This causes pressure to build in the tract, and this stimulates muscle contractions that encourage a bowel movement. It is essential only to use cascara for short periods and to drink lots of water when taking. Cascara is also used by many as a bitter tonic. Bitter tonics are believed to stimulate and improve digestion by increasing the secretion of digestive enzymes and hormones that facilitate food digestion.24 Care should be taken when considering using cascara sagrada bark, studies have found it to have potential carcinogenic effects.25
Psyllium husk powder
Psyllium husk is a source of dietary fiber, made from the seeds of the plant Plantago ovata, which is considered a bulk-forming laxative. It increases mobility in the digestive tract by increasing water content in the stool. Additionally, psyllium is a prebiotic, which means it provides food for the good bacteria in your gut and promotes healthy gut flora. Psyllium can also help you maintain a healthy weight by increasing feelings of fullness.26
Flaxseed powder is also a valuable source of dietary fiber, specifically insoluble fiber. The insoluble fiber consists mainly of cellulose, lignans, and mucilage gums. These mucilage gums are responsible for flaxseed powders’ laxative effect.27 The use of flaxseed appears to be very safe and is likely very beneficial as part of a daily diet, it is also thought to be more effective than psyllium at aiding digestive health.28
Aloe vera gel
Aloe vera contains more than 75 potentially active constituents. These include vitamins, minerals, saccharides, amino acids, anthraquinones, enzymes, lignin, saponins, and salicylic acids. The anthraquinones found in aloe vera are responsible for its bitter taste and laxative effect.29 The Aloe Vera plant is loaded with additional vitamins and minerals that help support the body’s detoxification pathways: including those of the liver, kidneys, and intestines. Aloe vera is not only touted for its detoxification benefits but also its digestive soothing qualities.30
Lactobacillus acidophilus is a beneficial strain of bacteria located in the mouth, intestines, and vagina. When taken as a probiotic supplement, it promotes a healthy gut microbiome by increasing good bacteria levels along the intestinal tract. A healthy gut microbiome helps you properly absorb nutrients, thereby reducing levels of inflammation in the body. Lactobacillus acidophilus can bind to and help eliminate potentially toxic substances – such as the cancer-causing mycotoxin known as aflatoxin.31 This means Lactobacillus acidophilus assists in detoxification by improving the health of the digestive tract and enhancing the elimination of toxins.
Licorice root has more than 300 compounds; these compounds are responsible for licorice roots’ digestive relief qualities and antiviral and antimicrobial benefits. Traditionally licorice root has been used to relieve stomach aches and pains and help improve digestion.32 It does this through its ability to eradicate harmful bacteria that can upset the stomach, like helicobacter pylori.
To detox or not to detox?
You now know the body has the innate ability to detox itself. Unfortunately, for most of us, we live in a world that feeds us processed food, fills the air with pollution, and burdens us with stress. It is not a stretch to think that your body may need a helping hand from time to time. Remember, although supplements may offer some support, it is also essential to exercise, drink clean water, eat a healthy diet, get sufficient sleep, and look after your mental and spiritual health.
If you are looking for that helping hand – our 14-day cleanse contains all these ingredients, to help your body detox naturally.
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- Jaishankar M, Tseten T, Anbalagan N, Mathew BB, Beeregowda KN. Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2014;7(2):60-72. doi:10.2478/intox-2014-0009
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- Janssen AM, van Duijn W, Kubben FJ, et al. Prognostic significance of metallothionein in human gastrointestinal cancer. Clin Cancer Res. 2002;8(6):1889-1896.
- Jackson AA. Nutrition and Liver Health. Dig Dis. 2017;35(4):411-417. doi:10.1159/000456596
- France MM, Turner JR. The mucosal barrier at a glance. J Cell Sci. 2017;130(2):307-314. doi:10.1242/jcs.193482
- Reboldi A, Cyster JG. Peyer’s patches: organizing B-cell responses at the intestinal frontier. Immunol Rev. 2016;271(1):230-245. doi:10.1111/imr.12400
- Liu XX, Sun CB, Yang TT, et al. Decreased skin-mediated detoxification contributes to oxidative stress and insulin resistance. Exp Diabetes Res. 2012;2012:128694. doi:10.1155/2012/128694
- Chaplin DD. Overview of the immune response. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(2 Suppl 2):S3-S23. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2009.12.980
- Fevrier-Paul A, Soyibo AK, Mitchell S, Voutchkov M. Role of Toxic Elements in Chronic Kidney Disease. J Health Pollut. 2018;8(20):181202. Published 2018 Dec 6. doi:10.5696/2156-9614-8.20.181202
- Leiva-Juárez, M., Kolls, J. & Evans, S. Lung epithelial cells: therapeutically inducible effectors of antimicrobial defense. Mucosal Immunol 11, 21–34 (2018). https:/doi.org/10.1038/mi.2017.71
- Moore JE Jr, Bertram CD. Lymphatic System Flows. Annu Rev Fluid Mech. 2018;50:459-482. doi:10.1146/annurev-fluid-122316-045259
- Stockman MC, Thomas D, Burke J, Apovian CM. Intermittent Fasting: Is the Wait Worth the Weight?. Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):172-185. doi:10.1007/s13679-018-0308-9
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