Tuesday 19 February 2013

Is your detox doing more harm than good?

Right now, it seems like every second person I run into is on some sort of "detox" program. On the one hand, this is great as it is an indication that people are actually investing some time and care into improving their health and wellness. On the other hand, the programs out there can vary from downright dodgy (I'm looking at you Lemon Detox) to potentially beneficial but often not as effective as they could be. Now don't get me wrong, this is not a post to discourage you from detoxing. This is simply to show you how to get the most out your detox so you become one of those annoyingly bubbly and energetic people who bounce through their day singing to the birds. Or like Peter Griffin from Family Guy after he has had a RedBull: 

I think in the world we live in today, some sort of regular deep "cleanse" is necessary. Not only are we consuming crappy foods and drinks, but we are surrounded by harmful toxins which can build up in our body and wreak havoc on our overall health and wellness. The problem with most detox programs is that they only focus on the food and drink aspect:

- no sugar
- no caffeine (currently doing this one at the moment and STRUGGLING! Thank god for nana naps and liquorice tea)
- no alcohol
- no meat
- no dairy
- lots of juices

There are a lot of "no's" in there! What about the "yes's"? While these approaches (with a few exceptions) may be helpful in lessening the future burden on our system, they do not fully address the toxic load that is already present, nor do they take into account the myriad of other ways our body is being flooded with harmful chemicals. Are you lost? Should I back up a few metres? 

OK, let's start with the liver…

Why would we start with the liver? Well it is our primary detox organ! It is the role of the liver to filter our blood before it enters the systemic circulation and gets carried to the rest of our organs and muscles etc. Not only does it process all of the food and drinks we consume, but it also deals with hormones, medications, alcohol, drugs and metabolic by-products, to name a few. If the liver is not functioning optimally, if it has too much work to do (I'll expand on this later) or if we are not providing it with adequate support during a detox then we may either not be reaping the full benefits of our cleanse or, we could be causing more damage than good!

WHAT? More damage with a detox? How??

Okey dokey, I apologise if this gets a bit nerdy but hey, that's who I am. I also want to point out that this is a very brief overview of how the liver detoxification system works. If you want to geek out further, feel free to get in touch! Also, feel free to skip this part and go straight to the tips on how you can make your detox more effective. 

Alright, are you ready? There are 3 phases of detox (however the third takes place in the kidneys). For effective detox, we need all phases working properly. In the liver, if one of the two phases is not working adequately, highly reactive by-products (i.e. toxins) can build up and cause cellular damage which may lead to further health issues throughout the body. Phase I reactions are essentially responsible for removing the garbage from your blood and processing chemicals to undergo phase II reactions. Let's stop here for a moment. The cleanse that you may be doing right now - all that juicing and healthy eating - that's in the realm of phase I detox. Good job - you are off to a great start! Most detoxes stop at this point. Why is this a problem? Because as I mentioned above, the metabolites from this phase, if not removed, can be incredibly harmful to the liver. SO….we need to look after phase II….

Phase II is very complex and involves a number of pathways that we do not need to go into here. In essence, phase II is responsible for "wrapping up" the harmful by-products from phase I into water-soluble "packages" so they can be excreted in the urine via the kidneys (or in bile via bowel movements). 

Let's cut to the chase - how do we get this "phase II" detox hip and happening? There are a number of things you should take into account when trying to get this baby working optimally:

1. Is your toxin load still too heavy for your liver to handle? I know what you're thinking - "No I'm juicing all organic vegetables, I'm not smoking, I'm not drinking, I've given up coffee. WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT FROM ME!!??". Firstly, calm down - stress will only make matters worse. I want you to think about if you are still exposed to any of the following:

- The birth control pill - this nasty little monster will not only prevent your detox from being effective but may be doing long-term damage to your liver and entire hormonal system. I stopped taking the pill 2 years ago and things still have not returned to normal. GET OFF IT NOW! Ladies, if you really want to be healthy, get to know your cycle - take matters into your own hands. For more on this, read "The Garden of Fertility" by Katie Singer.
- Other medications - these all need to be processed by the liver and hence, add an additional burden. Please, ALWAYS consult your medical practitioner before stopping any medication. Not so fun fact - if you are taking a statin drug (for cholesterol) and you are dosing up on your grapefruit as part of your detox, STOP NOW!! Grapefruit juice inhibits the enzymes needed for the breakdown and clearance of statins and can lead to a toxic build-up in your body. 
- Skin care products, perfumes and cleaning products. Most are filled with incredibly harmful chemicals which not only increase the burden on your liver, but are potential "endocrine disruptors" which muck up your hormonal system leading to other complications. Go natural! I use olive oil of almond oil as a moisturiser now and my skin has never been softer (and that says a lot, considering I used to work for the #1 skincare brand in Australia). For more on this, check out The Environmental Working Group.
- are you eating or juicing too much fruit? While a little fresh fruit is absolutely beneficial, too much can be detrimental as fructose (the sugar found in fruit) has to be processed by the liver and is therefore adding yet another thing for the poor little over-worked organ to do. Fruit juice is much worse as it does not contain the fibre that whole fruit has and is therefore a greater hit to the liver. Try to stick with whole foods. If you must juice, stick with veggies and ALWAYS use filtered water. 

2. Are you supporting both phases of liver detox through nutritional or supplemental avenues? 

- A good phase I supplement is milk thistle extract. 
- In phase II, we really want to encourage the production of glutathione, our body's main anti-oxidant. How? Don't take a glutathione supplement - these are useless as they do not survive the digestive process. Instead, if you want a supplement, consider something with N-acetyl cysteine, which is the precursor to glutathione. Alpha-lipoic acid has also been shown to help. Speak to your healthcare practitioner about these. 

Foods to aid detox

- beetroot, carrots, capsicum, eggplant - "eat the rainbow" - brightly coloured veggies contain flavanoids and beta-carotene which are excellent anti-oxidants. Beetroot also helps with liver drainage.
- garlic - assists in removal of heavy metals from the liver
- brazil nuts - provide selenium which acts as an anti-oxidant and co-factor for glutathione action. Two brazil nuts per day are enough to provide you with your requirements
- eggs, broccoli and spinach - provide B-complex vitamins which are necessary in phase I to improve liver function and promote decongestion
- liver - eating liver helps your liver. SImple as that. Actually, it's more complex, but I have waffled enough today.
- cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage help the liver produce the enzymes necessary for detoxification. Note: minimise these if you have any thyroid issues
- dandelion greens (or tea), mustard greens, chicory - bitter vegetables increase the production and flow of bile and therefore aid excretion of waste products
- vitamin C-rich foods such as fresh orange (whole), berries, spinach, kiwi fruit. 
- radishes and watercress - rich in sulfur, necessary for glutathione production
- plenty of filtered water (not tap)

Some other ways to get the tox out of your body

- dry body brushing - this helps stimulate lymphatic drainage, thereby aiding the elimination of toxins from the body. I like to do this before my shower each morning with a dry bristle brush, using long strokes towards the heart with a fair bit of pressure
- sleep - vital for recovery and optimal wellness. If you are not getting good quality sleep in a dark room each night, then you are hindering your progress towards health and vitality. I really should have put this at the start. Put this as a priority, people!
- stress management - I know I always blab on about this but that's because I have experienced first-hand what stress can do, even when you have all of your other ducks in a row, and I don't want you to have to go through the same thing. Meditate if you can, just for 5 minutes a day. Or even just 5-10 mins of deep belly breathing will help to reduce stress and cleanse our system
- self-love - don't beat yourself up! Love yourself and be grateful for what you have. Each night, write down at least one thing you are grateful for. It doesn't have to be big, it could simply be "I'm grateful that the cat didn't pee on the carpet today". Easy as that. Be kind to yourself - treat yourself as you would treat your best friend. 

Are you overwhelmed? Don't be discouraged! A lot of these things can (and should) easily be incorporated into your daily menu. If you're having any troubles, or if you are confused, please feel free to get in touch with me - I would be more than happy to help you out - kate.theholisticnutritionist@gmail.com

Please also do not underestimate the benefits of simply cleaning up your food and drinks - every little bit counts! 


  1. Well I believe that you can detox without having to do it for one week. I also believe that meat shouldn't be excluded. Vegetables and meat both provide the bulk of the nutrients we need for our bodies to function well, but vegetables provide one side and meat the other. Plus, if you are not eating processed meats then it is unlikely anything will need to be detoxified from this. I don't understand how someone can detox and then go back to eating a western diet it's just illogical.

    1. I completely agree with you! I am of the belief that your general detox guidelines (other than cut out meat) e.g. give up processed junk food and drink should be part of an ongoing lifestyle program, rather than just a few times a year. The detox part where the liver may need some extra support is where some herbal supplements and extra care might come in. I agree that if you are eating a clean whole food diet, the requirements for detox are less, however unfortunately it is difficult to escape the other toxins in our environment that come from transport, cleaning products and skincare, to name a few.

  2. It is true that sometimes toxins can harm too much.

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