Let's talk about detox - Part One

Detox – it’s a bit of a buzz word in the health industry and it’s often thrown about by drug companies, social media influencers, ‘health gurus’ and celebrities alike. Almost weekly we hear about a new detox tea, juice cleanse, ‘superfood’ or supplement. When I worked in a health food shop, I had customers coming in almost daily asking for something to help them ‘detox’. Whether it was a tea or a tablet, they wanted something to ‘cleanse’ the body, usually after a big weekend or in the lead up to a special event, such as a wedding or holiday. Interestingly, I would always ask these customers what they meant when they said ‘detox’ – some referred to weight loss or liver cleanses, others talked about ‘toxins’ in general, and many looked around sheepishly before whispering, ‘you know, something to clear things out…a laxative, so to speak’.

When the meaning of the word itself is so vague and has become obscured in a barrage of fad diets, sponsored Instagram posts and celebrity endorsements,  we have to ask ourselves what does it really mean to detox and what are it’s benefits?

Before we get into that however, let’s start with the body itself. Everyday, we are exposed to all sorts of substances that increase the chemical burden on the body – this includes pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, chemicals in plastics and personal care products (like phthalates and bisphenol-A) and noxious traffic fumes. Fortunately for us, our bodies are pretty clever and have designed various mechanisms to clear out such ‘toxins’ – one of the major pathways is a process known as Phase I and II liver detoxification, in which compounds undergo a series of biochemical processes to be converted into water-soluble molecules which may be excreted through the kidneys (in urine) or via the stool. The trouble is, we keep putting the chemicals back in. Each day, we expose ourselves through the foods we eat, the cosmetics and personal care products we use, and the fumes and fragrances we breathe in.

In physiological terms, there is no single process or event that constitutes ‘detox’. It’s not a one-off occurrence triggered by green tea and goji berries. We don’t wake up ‘detoxified’ because we did a lemon detox cleanse. Rather, the body is in a constant and highly sophisticated state of detox, in which it continually processes and attempts to deal with the chemicals we expose it to on a daily basis. Rather than a magic bullet approach, it is much more about what we do to support these processes and the ways in which we minimise our exposure in the first place.

So, how can we detox?

Well first off, we can reduce our chemical burden as much as possible. This means thinking about what we eat, what we put on our skin and what we breathe in on a daily basis. Once we reduce the toxic load going into the body, we can use specific nutrients and foods to increase elimination, support hepatic function and improve the gut barrier lining. This information really deserves a post of its own, so I’ll save that for another day. For today however, I’m going to discuss a few key changes you can make to support detoxification at the start line by reducing your overall chemical burden.

1. Think about your food quality.

Where is your food grown, how has it been processed and what agricultural chemicals, antibiotics, heavy metals or other contaminants could it have been exposed to? Whilst we can’t all afford or have access to organically grown produce, we can use tools like the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen, to choose which foods we buy conventionally or organically grown. If you have the space and time, another fantastic option is to grow some of your own produce – Herbs like basil, chives, parsley and mint can all be grown on a window sill, and small fruits and veggies like strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes often do well in backyard gardens.

Become familiar with reading ingredients lists – Does yoghurt really need to have 7 ingredients, half of which are synthetic colours, flavours and thickeners? Do you really know what ‘621’ is as an ingredient (its MSG, and it’s definitely not something you want to consume on the reg, if at all!)? How much of your food is grown in a field, and how much is made in a lab?

Consider what your food is stored in and how you prepare it; has it been wrapped in plastic or stored in a BPA-lined can? Are you eating hot meals out of plastic takeaway containers, which leach endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates into your food? If possible, swap your containers for stainless steel or glass alternatives, and replace plastic cling wrap with paper bags, reusable containers or Beeswax wraps. In terms of water quality and contamination, Nicole Bijlsma at Building Biology has a fantastic resource here (spend some time on her website, it’s an information goldmine!).

While this is no means an exhaustive list, by gradually making such changes, you can go a long way to helping your body’s natural detoxification pathways by reducing your chemical burden.

2. Think about the personal care products you use.

Everyday, we expose our skin to a smorgasbord of endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates, parabens and petrochemicals, when we slather ourselves in shampoos, moisturisers, after-shaves, deodorants, cosmetics, sunscreens, fake tan and perfume. In many cases, we have little scientific understanding of the long-term or cumulative effects of these chemicals on our health, both in isolation and as the toxic cocktail to which we are typically exposed. The most effective way to reduce our exposure is to avoid them completely or (more realistically) swap them for more natural alternatives, such as those found on my Resources page. You can also use tools like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database, to investigate ingredients found in your everyday products.

3. Improve your air quality. 

Each day in our homes, at our workplaces and on the streets, we breathe in a myriad of fumes in the form of perfumes, air fresheners, petrol fumes, cigarette smoke, industrial pollution, aerosols and off-gassing furniture that adds to the burden on our bodies. This is an unfortunate by-product of our amazing modern world, and one we have relatively little control over, unless you live off-grid in the mountains or out in the jungle! What we can do however, is improve our air quality and manage at least some of our exposure. For example, cut what you can around the home: perfumes and aerosol deodorants? Gone (or replaced by friendlier versions, like those on my Resources page). Air fresheners in every room? Gone! Laundry detergents full of synthetic fragrances? No way sister!

Open some windows and get the fresh air flowing. If you can, choose secondhand furniture to reduce any off-gassing (second hand is cheaper too, and everyone likes a recycler). Avoid damp and mouldy environments where possible, and vacuum frequently! Dust accumulates allergens and other substances like brominated-fire retardant chemicals, so frequent vacuuming and wet dusting is important. Lastly, make your home and car a smoke-free zone, and ditch your co-workers on their cigarette breaks; the less smoke you breathe in, the better!

So that’s it for today; I can’t emphasise enough the importance of reducing your chemical exposure from the get-go, instead of relying of fad diets and juice cleanses to clean up the mess later. Prevention is a fundamental tenet of naturopathy; it’s much better to prevent exposure in the first place, than deal with the consequences later. Stay tuned for my next post, as I’ll be talking about some of the key nutrients and foods required to support your body’s natural detoxification pathways.

Until then,

Niki x