The Ins and Outs of a Dirty Word… “Detox”

By Ellie Fisher

Detox is a term that gets thrown around a bit in the world of health, but what does it actually mean? Detoxing has become a blanket term for an intervention to promote good health (and often weight loss) through the elimination of stressors to the body. The purpose of a detox is exactly that: to clear out toxins and waste products in our system that accumulate as a result of ongoing and persistent toxic exposure. First and foremost, I want to be clear: 

A DETOX IS NOT A CRAZY FAD DIET. A DETOX DOES NOT INVOLVE STARVING YOURSELF. YOU CAN NOT BUY A DETOX OVER THE COUNTER.

Clever marketing strategies tell you things like weekly juice cleanses, shakes, fasting or diets of water, pepper and lemon juice will rid you of your woes. In fact, when you engage in this you are putting your body under more stress at a time when it most needs to be functioning most optimally. Initially, these programs may leave you feeling better. Of course they do! You’ve stopped putting into your body what’s been putting you under pressure! What they don’t do is target YOUR specific area of concern. They do not provide you with the foundations of good nutrition that you can carry on with you into the future “post detox” and they certainly do not provide you with all of the nourishment your body needs as it is trying to repair itself. Like pouring a bucket of water on a bushfire, they are of little help, can be dangerous and really need professional assistance if you are to experience any benefit. 

The prompt for people to start a detox is usually brought on by feeling a bit sluggish mentally and physically as the body starts to let you know it is struggling with what you have been doing. Your body is clever and can tell you when enough is enough – think of it like the engine light coming on in your car. Would you carry on driving with that light flashing at you and hope it goes away? Or take it to a mechanic to have the problem fixed before you end up with major problems?

Complications of toxic overload aren’t always this obvious and can manifest later down the track as reproductive and fertility problems (e.g PMS), immune disorders (e.g. frequent colds and flus, allergies), cardiometabolic disorders (e.g. high blood pressure and diabetes), weight problems, fatigue and low energy, neurological imbalance (e.g. heightened anxiety and depression) and abnormal cell turnover. Reducing your toxic burden or “detoxing” is therefore essential not only to improve our energy, vitality and body composition in the short term, but also to maintain good health and protect ourselves as best we can from illness into the future.

What puts us under pressure?

When we consider a “detox”, typically people associate this with the exposure of their bodies to unhealthy foods, alcohol and lifestyle choices over a short period of time. This is a perfect time to perform a detox, as your usually have a prompt from your body that things aren’t going quite right. Dietary allergens like wheat or dairy, alcohol, high refined sugars and saturated fats can increase the burden on our detoxification organs. This leads to to compromised gut functioning, sub-optimal performance of our inbuilt filters and sluggish immune defences that can result with the development of disease and leave us feeling a little worse for wear.

What you may not have considered before is exposure to the everyday toxins of modern life, beyond what you eat and drink. Environmental pollutants can be difficult to avoid, with pollution of the planet alarmingly increasing and a greater volume of cars on the road contributing to exhaust fumes and compromised air quality, even in homes away from major cities. What’s more, environmental chemicals are all around us as a result of farming and production, most of these existing in our own homes. 

These chemicals are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs). Found in everyday household products (eg. Cleaning sprays, dishwashing liquid, etc.), personal care products (eg. Shampoo, body wash, makeup, etc.), plastics, cigarette smoke and drugs. POPs are around us all the time! Pesticides and insecticides used in commercial farming and industry also contain POPs in really high quantities. So high, in fact, an international treaty impact of POPs has been identified as a global problem. 

The reason that we are not made acutely very ill from these POPs is because they are constantly exposed to us at a low frequency, leading to accumulation of toxic metabolites in our bodies that can eventually catch up with us1. The impact that these POPs may be having on you right now does not require complex toxicology screening, a simple audit of signs and symptoms can give you a quick indication of your overall toxic burden and indicate if a little bit of TLC to your body might be required.

(If you are interested in finding out your potential toxic burden, you can email me at ellie@clarigenaturopathics.com for a 2 minute questionnaire.)

How do we detox?

Addressing all of these areas as you can imagine is a big task! Fortunately, our organs work together in synergy and like cogs in a wheel, as one system is addressed there are flow on effects to health throughout your whole body. The point of difference is that a starting point for one person may be different to another.

The liver is usually considered the primary detoxification organ, particularly because it is so well known for its role in processing alcohol. This is only one piece of the puzzle and addressing the health of all your detoxification organs; liver, kidneys, lungs, skin and gut is paramount if you are to achieve the best results. The reason these organs get extra attention is because they are responsible for elimination of things from your body: 

Your liver breaks down toxins and waste products from the environment, food, alcohol into a form that can be sent to the bowels or kidneys. The bowels or kidney then excrete these when we go to the toilet, a well-designed system to ensure that what we need stays in, and what we don’t can get out! The problem is when this system gets backed up from overload, toxins needs to be cleared out in other ways using your elimination organs; such as the liver, kidneys, bowels, lungs and skin. The body is constantly looking for ways to get rid of what is not meant to be there, not matter where from. Under functioning of any of these organs throws a tightly regulated system out of balance and can put your body under pressure. 

But, no matter how pristine your organ function is, the body will not run well if the nutrition you use to fuel it is not right. The world’s best unleaded car will not run if it is filled with diesel. Dietary modification will be therefore likely be a part of a detox process; however this is more about the inclusion of particular food groups rather than food restriction. Depending on your starting point, abstaining from some food groups may be encouraged, however this will not deprive you of any essential nutrition and rather will focus on creating dietary habits that you can take with you (and that you will want to continue!) long beyond what is considered the “detox” process.   

Additionally, looking at what you do will be important to make sure your lifestyle aligns with creating the most optimal conditions for detoxification. For some people this might be looking at exercising more, for others it may be less, for some people this may be looking at changing some of your personal care products, for others the priority may be on stress reduction and relaxation. 

Everyone will have different needs from a detox, which is part of the reason generic over the counter programs just do not cut the mustard. Whatever your motivation to do a detox, whether it be to lose weight, to have more energy and vitality, to have a clean out after a big silly season or any other reason, I encourage you to be fully informed and carry it out alongside a health professional who can support you. No fad diets. No starving. Just the highest evidence based guidance that is tailored specifically to you and your life!

Get real about your health and learn about how to support yourself properly with diet and create habits that sustain you long into your future and have you feeling and looking the best you ever have! Why not now?

1. Persistent Organic Pollutants or (POPs) have been recognised as a global responsibility by the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty that focuses on the protection of people and the environment from chemical pollutants. You can watch a short video or read more about POPs here.

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