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Detox: Sensible or stressful for the body?

When we set out to write a piece on detox, the idea was to share it early in the new year, as this time always brings feelings of a fresh start. Resolutions run rampant and the words detox and diet are heavily marketed within the wellness industry. 

But then COVID hit. And somehow, all at the same time, everything stopped and everyone scrambled. Blogging took a backseat for JBK while we hustled hard to stay afloat. 

Now, with some light at the end of the tunnel, these same feelings of a reset and fresh start are coming full circle. You’re ready to get out of your house, clean up any unwanted quarantine habits, and thoughtfully add back aspects of your “old life” into your new normal.

While this reset mindset can be helpful in inspiring healthy change, it often evokes a distorted perception and unhealthy response to the concept of detox. So let’s take a step back and dig in a little more. 

What does detox mean anyway?

The definition of detoxification is the process of removing toxic substances or qualities. When looking at the human body, the term detoxification, or detox, generally refers to the process of clearing a toxin from the blood.

OK, so what is a toxin?

The word toxin is pretty buzzy itself these days. You’ve probably heard it used in reference to things like pesticides, chemicals, and additives that make their way into your food, your water, and even your personal care and cleaning products.  

From a scientific standpoint, a toxin is a poisonous substance produced by a living organism (either plant or animal), which can cause disease or cellular injury. 

How’s that for broad? It might seem like a catchall, but the reality is, we’re surrounded by toxic substances every day. They’re part of life. Some of them we choose to introduce into our bodies (like alcohol) and some we don’t (like pollutants in the air we breathe).

Therefore, there are ultimately two ways to lighten your toxic load:

  1. Avoid toxins in the first place
  2. Support your body’s natural detox pathways

 

Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Step 1: Avoid

The fewer toxins that get in your body, the fewer your body has to deal with. Think of it like immunity: you can load up on vitamin C and elderberry, but if you don’t wash your hands before you eat, you’re making your body work harder to fight germs.

  • Eat organic when possible. Your best bet? Go organic when you can and when it counts, like when buying meat, dairy (if you do it), and the produce that is most exposed to pesticide residue. Refer to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Shopper’s Guide to Produce. It’s updated annually and tests hundreds of samples of produce after they are washed and prepared for eating to see what pesticides remain.

 

  • Filter your water – water utilities have to treat water for waterborne illnesses (bad stuff, like E. Coli and other types of bacteria that cause serious illness), but to do that they use chemicals like chlorine. These chemicals aren’t exactly what you want to drink, and they also tend to produce other contaminants and byproducts in the water. Want to know what’s in yours? Check out the EWG tap water database. And then invest in a good filter that fits your budget.

 

  • Limit plastics – consider the use of plastics in your home – things like plastic water bottles and plastic food wrap and containers. If you can’t exclude them completely, try to avoid heating food or water in plastic, as heat can cause more chemicals to leach out into whatever the container is holding).

 

  • Clean up your personal care and cleaning products – sadly, there is little regulation in the United States around the safety of personal care and cleaning products (the last legislation around safe cosmetics was put into place in 1938, well before many of the current-day chemicals were introduced, so the laws that exist around safety aren’t particularly useful.) Check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guides to cleaning and cosmetics.

 

Step 2: Support

But let’s face it, we live in a dirty world and exposure to some level of environmental toxins is unavoidable. But the good news is, your body is already equipped with its own very powerful detox mechanisms. So rather than driving yourself crazy trying to avoid them all, the next best option is to help support your body’s natural processes to rid itself of toxic substances. 

Love your liver

That’s right, all otherwise healthy bodies are equipped with an organ that works hard day in and day out to sort out the crap and get it out of your body. That rockstar detox organism is the liver. It acts through a two-phase process to rid the body of toxins:

  • Phase I begins the transformation of dangerous chemicals into less harmful substances and prepares them for easier excretion.
  • Phase II involves attaching other molecules to the toxins which allows them to be removed through bile or urine.

The process is complex, but it is comprehensive and quite efficient. So the best thing to do to detox: support your liver! You can do this by eating foods that your liver loves, and that will help it best perform its detox functions. Do your best to incorporate the following into your diet:

  1. Beets
  2. Cruciferous vegetables 
  3. Lemon 
  4. Alliums like garlic and onion 
  5. Leafy greens
  6. Fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro
  7. Algaes like chlorella and spirulina 
  8. Turmeric 
  9. Apples
  10. WATER!

So rather than putting yourself “on a detox” for a fixed period of time, reset your mindset to enable your body to have the best chance at avoiding and eliminating toxins on a daily basis. It’s a much more manageable process for your body, and a much more balanced approach. Empower yourself to focus on small daily detox efforts that will add up to big benefits for the body.   

About the author

Hillary Bennetts is the founder and owner of Purposeful Plate Nutrition, through which she provides nutrition consulting to individuals and businesses. She also provides business consulting and content creation services to companies in the health and fitness industry.

Prior to studying nutrition and launching Purposeful Plate, Hillary spent almost a decade in corporate consulting with Ernst & Young and KPMG. Purposeful Plate is the result of combining her lifelong passion for health and wellness with her business background and nutrition education. 

Hillary holds a BA in Economics from Washington and Jefferson College, an MBA from Emory University, and an NC from Bauman College.

A marathoner, mountain climber, and mama, she lives in Denver with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. You can find her online at purposefulplatenutrition.com and on Instagram at @purposefulplatenutrition!