Most of us are familiar with examples of the much-touted ‘detox’ – lasting anything from 24 hours to a few weeks, examples include:
- Fasting for short periods
- Eating only fruit and vegetables, or their juices
- Cutting out major food groups
- Avoiding caffeine, sugar or alcohol
- Supplementing with a ‘detox’ solution, pill or tea
The good news is this form of ‘detox’ is unnecessary because our bodies are well equipped to manage toxins and waste products. We already have in-built mechanisms to filter, break down and remove them. Organs like the skin, liver, kidneys and gut all play a role in detoxification. This means if we overindulge – say we have a drink or two too many – the body, in this case the liver, works hard to break down the alcohol into products that the kidneys can safely remove.
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How to support your body to detox
Diet and lifestyle modifications help enhance your body’s natural detoxification processes these include:
- Exercise – staying active is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle but you don’t need to be an athlete to reap the benefits. A simple walk after eating is thought to improve the way your body metabolises food while exercising with friends has been shown to increase the levels of endorphins released while working up a sweat. Regular activity helps to lower inflammation and supports your body’s lymphatic system, helping it work more efficiently.
- Reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods and sugars – these foods have been linked with chronic diseases, obesity and diabetes. Replacing them with healthier choices like wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen or tinned, is the best way to ensure you’re avoiding ultra-processed foods.
- Eat the rainbow – colourful foods including berries and fruits, as well as nuts, dark chocolate and green tea, are rich in plant compounds (polyphenols) and fibre which both play a beneficial role in our health. Eating a plentiful amount of these foods on a regular basis may help lower your risk of disease and support your ability to detox well. These foods also support your gut and the beneficial bacteria that reside there. Gut health plays an important role in the elimination of waste products and in maintaining immune health.
- Get adequate sleep – this is important for energy levels but also for our brains to work well and clear waste products more efficiently. Be sure to stick to a regular sleep schedule and limit blue light exposure before bed as this may interfere with your natural sleep cycle, and ensure adequate morning daylight exposure to help set your natural sleep-wake cycle.
- Stay hydrated – your whole body can suffer when dehydrated, affecting everything from your skin to your concentration and focus. Many of us misinterpret thirst for hunger, so be sure to always have a bottle of water to hand and sip throughout the day.
- Limit your use of recreational drugs, like alcohol – these reduce your liver’s ability to carry out its normal functions, including that of detoxification.
- Don’t skip meals or eliminate food groups – your body will go into starvation mode and you’ll be far more likely to make unhealthy food choices later in the day. A balanced diet is something we should strive for all year round, so allowing yourself the occasional treat will help keep you on track in the long run. Read about how to incorporate a balanced approach to eating in the 80/20 diet.
Can supplements help me to detox?
There is no current evidence to support the use of ‘detox’ diets, teas or certain supplements. Furthermore, although a 2017 review suggested that juicing and ‘detox’ diets may lead to initial weight loss because of calorie restriction, this weight is likely to be regained when you resume a regular eating pattern.
If you are considering a supplement, here’s what you need to know:
- Activated charcoal – the effects of activated charcoal are limited to your gut so, regardless of what the marketing tells you, this supplement cannot absorb toxic materials from other areas of the body. There’s no evidence supporting the regular consumption of activated charcoal as either beneficial or helpful.
- Milk thistle – this well-researched herb has been used by herbalists for centuries, the active component is called silymarin, which has antioxidant properties and is thought to support the liver. Although generally considered safe, you should check with your GP before taking milk thistle and women who are pregnant or breast feeding should not take this herb.
- Dandelion root – naturopaths and herbalists believe a tea made from dandelion root may support the liver. A 2017 study suggests the mechanism behind this is thought to be the bile-producing effects of a type of carb called polysaccharides, found in the dandelion’s root.
- Colon cleansing – this may include the use of laxatives to promote bowel transit or the cleansing of the bowel using colonic irrigation. Laxatives, such as the natural plant senna, work by stimulating the muscles of the gut. When used excessively, laxatives may lead to electrolyte imbalances and dehydration and may cause longer term disruption to your natural bowel function. Those with a history of gut disease, severe haemorrhoids, kidney or heart disease as well as women trying to conceive, who are pregnant or breast feeding should refer to their GP before taking these products. Colonic irrigation is often touted as a means to promote general health and support ‘detox,’ however, the procedure is not supported by published literature and as such cannot be recommended at this time.
- Diuretics – these are designed to promote the flow of urine and, in so, increase the removal of excess water, salts and metabolic by-products. Long-term diuretic use can affect levels of important minerals (electrolytes) in the body which may have serious consequences including abnormal heart rhythm and muscle spasms. A better approach is to use the natural diuretic properties of certain foods and drinks including coffee, tea, watermelon and celery.
In certain cases, ‘detox’ aids may actually be damaging to health, this may include ‘detox’ teas. Although many ‘detox’ formulations are simply benign blends of various herbs, others may include compounds that are damaging to the liver or have chronic laxative effects.
While following a ‘detox’ diet may encourage some positive habits like eating more fruit and vegetables or drinking more water, unless you have been advised by a medical professional to eliminate certain foods, you don’t need to severely restrict your diet or take supplements, teas or potions. This is because your body is well equipped to detoxify and remove waste, so the best strategy for dealing with over indulgences is to get back to enjoying a balanced diet combined with an active lifestyle.
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This article was reviewed on the 11 January 2024 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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