Body Detoxes | The pros, cons and side effects

Body Detoxes | The pros, cons and side effects

Written by registered Nutritional Therapist Uta Boellinger Dip Nut mBANT rCNHC

The Detox! Look at any social media platform, magazine or the news (especially just after Christmas) and you’ll no doubt find countless detox plans and diets all promising a wide-ranging array of health benefits. Reduce inflammation, ‘purify’ blood, lose weight (of course), sleep better, improve skin health, boost energy, anti-aging… the list goes on. 

There’s an equally long and bewildering number of things to do to achieve all these benefits. If you’re confused but also tempted, you’re not alone. 

So, what is a detox, do they really work and are there any risks? Let’s explore.

First of all, it’s important to understand what detoxification means. In its simplest form it's the removal of potentially harmful substances from the body. Yes, these can be external toxins such as drugs, medication, alcohol and cigarette smoke as well as environmental pollutants and pesticides, but many of these substances are also produced as by-products of the body’s own mechanisms such as spent hormones. 

The second important factor we need to understand is that your body is incredibly well equipped to remove these substances. It does this in 3 steps:

  • Turning toxic substances into water-soluble compounds (via enzymatic reactions)
  • Neutralising the impact of these now potentially more toxic compounds (they become more ‘reactive’ once they’re water soluble)
  • Excretion from the body

The first 2 steps happen in the liver, your body’s largest organ. Step 3 happens via your kidneys (urine), intestines (bowel movements) and your skin (sweat).

Why do we need to detox?

So now we know that the body is perfectly capable of detoxifying itself, what on earth is a detox and why would you need it? 

Well, the truth is that whilst having this amazing mechanism in place, our bodies can become overwhelmed.

It’s estimated that the average adult carries at least 700 toxins in their body; it’s therefore safe to say that anything we can do to support our detoxification pathways is probably not a bad idea.

Our liver, kidney, large intestine, lymphatic system and sweat glands 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝘁𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗹𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗹𝘆 𝘁𝗼𝗴𝗲𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗼 𝗿𝗲𝗱𝘂𝗰𝗲 𝘁𝗼𝘅𝗶𝗻 𝗯𝘂𝗶𝗹𝗱 𝘂𝗽, but if we continuously overload the body, it may not be able to 𝗰𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗺 𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗰𝗸𝗹𝘆 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗲𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲𝗹𝘆 𝗲𝗻𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵.

There are other factors that can impact our ability to eliminate toxins from our body. These include:

  • Genetics: various genes have been identified that positively or negatively impact the process, for example by affecting our ability to create the enzymes needed for step 1.
  • Toxin exposure: certain jobs may cause a larger amount of exposure to toxins. Painters and decorators for example, but also hairdressers are affected by this.
  • The food we eat: eating organic can reduce our exposure to pesticides which need to be detoxified.
  • Lifestyle: a sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts overall liver function. Regular alcohol consumption and smoking place a strain on the liver.

If our body struggles to efficiently clear toxins, this can lead to several health symptoms when you reach 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗽𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗶𝘁 of accumulated toxins. Health conditions associated with toxic overload include infertility, allergies, mood disorders, bloating, low energy or chronic fatigue. Because the liver has so many roles in the body, when it becomes overwhelmed it does have wide-reaching effects.

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Is a detox a good idea?

Yes AND no. Whilst it’s definitely a good idea to support the liver and detoxification pathways, most detox plans, and diets commercially available DO NOT do this and are therefore complete nonsense.

Let’s take a closer look at what we would need to do to support our body’s detoxification process:

  • Limit toxins we put into our body
  • Make sure that elimination pathways are working via kidneys and bowels
  • Supply the liver with the cofactors needed to perform its job
  • Protect the liver from damage 

Now let’s look at some of the classic ‘detoxes’ and ‘cleanses’, such as juice fasting or the famous ‘teatox’ and see whether they fulfil the above. 

  • Some of these detoxes do indeed encourage participants to limit alcohol, smoking and junk food whilst ‘doing the detox’. This would of course limit toxins we put into our body, which is a good thing. 
  • None of the popular detox plans and cleanses I looked at paid any attention at all to the elimination pathways. The first thing nutritionists address with a patient with sub-optimal detoxification is ensuring daily bowel movements. From my own experience in clinic, having regular bowel movements is unfortunately far from common and there’s a complete lack of awareness of its importance. However, now that you understand how your body works, simply picture all the broken-down toxins in your body which are to be eliminated via your bowel, just sitting there for 24 hours or more. What happens is they become reabsorbed which of course is problematic, particularly with spent hormones. As the popular plans and fad diets don’t address this at all, in fact the lack of fibre in many of them (juice fasts) could easily have the opposite effect, I would not recommend any of them.
  • Cofactors needed by the liver to optimally perform its job as master detoxifier include amino acids (from protein), micro-nutrients such as B-vitamins, as well as compounds such as sulphur. A key trait of the majority of detoxes and cleanses is that they’re low in protein. Whilst fruit and veggies are great for us, they are not ALL we need! The complete lack of protein (amino acids) from many of the protocols found online simply mean the liver will not be able to perform its job. This is a very risky strategy.
  • Whilst the liver goes through the various stages of detoxifying substances, it can become damaged by those toxins. A key step in supporting our liver is therefore protecting it from damage. This is largely done through the consumption of antioxidants. There are also various herbs and spices which can be protective. Therefore, detox plans which include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables do fulfil some of this requirement.

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Do nutritionists recommend detoxes?

There are several other reasons why detox fads are not something nutritionists would recommend:

  • They’re not long enough. Often claiming results in as little as 24-48 hours. The reality is that less drastic measures over a longer period will be much more effective. 
  • Detoxification support is finding the balance between not overloading the body with toxins but still putting in the compounds we need for the liver to work. So just going from drinking wine and eating chocolate for 2 weeks to a 3-day water fast is a really bad idea!
  • Any health benefits you see are due to eliminating processed foods, alcohol, and other unhealthy substances from your diet.
  • They’re stressful for the body because they’re extreme. Like most things when it comes to health, little and often over a longer period is not only more effective but you’re also less likely to suffer from side-effects such as nausea, headaches, and breakouts. 
  • Many detoxes recommend fasting. Whilst short-term fasting has numerous health benefits, it doesn’t work for everyone and in some people can increase stress. In women it can also negatively impact our reproductive hormones. 
  • Some involve unhealthy substances such as juices which are high in sugars or, even worse, teas or supplements which are effectively laxatives.
  • Meal replacement plans often contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, and colours etc.  This completely negates the point of ‘cleansing’.
  • Whilst some detoxes advocate beneficial herbs and spices which may support liver function, there’s little point doing any of this in isolation.
  • A one-off detox is not the most effective way to support your liver, ideally you need to be supporting this process on a 𝗱𝗮𝗶𝗹𝘆 𝗯𝗮𝘀𝗶𝘀

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What can you do?

There are several things you can do to support your body’s detoxification pathways. They include:

Limit toxins

Alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs, caffeine, processed food, sugar and additives.

Potentially limit

Pesticides from food (go organic if you can), animal proteins which may contain hormones and medication (buy local & free range/high welfare only.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water - at least 1.5. litres.

Increase fibre and micro-nutrients 

Increase vegetables and plant-based proteins. 

Cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, bok choi, rocket and watercress - these support liver function.

Increase antioxidant rich foods 

Such as berries, dark chocolate and in fact most fresh fruit and veg.

Include liver supporting herbs and spices

  • Garlic

  • Ginger

  • Turmeric 

  • Green tea 

  • Ginseng

Consider the following

  • Saunas, epsom salt baths (sulphur), exercise and dry brushing to stimulate the lymphatic system which aids liver function.

  • Short-term fasting under supervision.

Whilst the above are general guidelines to get you started, the best thing to do if you’re keen to detox is work with a nutritionist who can create a personalised plan for you, depending on your current health and lifestyle as well as your goals. 

*This information is for educational purposes and should not replace medical advice. If you have a diagnosed medical condition you should consult a doctor before making any major changes to your diet or taking supplements.

By Lucy Laight

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