Detox Dilemma: How To Make A Detox Plan That Delivers In 2020
Make your new year’s resolutions work for you with these science-backed tips for a detox strategy that actually works!
Detox Diet Craze
Is your detox plan breaking down built up toxins or breaking down your will to go on? Are you ringing in the new year with the motto “new year, new everything” or “old habits die hard”? Short-term detox diets that claim to cure everything come a dime a dozen, but what does the science say about detoxing?
In a health-and-wellness universe full of supplements, diet fads, and unrealistic expectations, I’m here to provide some clarity on what separates a real detox strategy from just another bogus get-thin-quick scheme.
What is “Detoxing”, actually?
The fact that humans have made it this far is a testament to our given ability to adapt to whatever’s thrown our way.
When our bodies are working well, we’re able to manage the amount of foreign substances that stick around in our bodies. This process is known as “detoxification” or more broadly, “metabolism”.
The word detox is thrown around a lot, but it’s pretty unclear what a “detox diet” is. Is it a short-term weight loss diet that is so extreme that it almost guarantees a rebound in weight?
Is it just clearing out the processed foods from your diet?
Or is the diet actually supposed to clear out built up chemicals?
I just want to get it straight now: our organs are already able to detoxify most of what comes at them. Inflammatory triggers are managed by an immune protocol; most foreign chemicals are processed and cleared; heavy metals are chelated and excreted; your body even has a systematic way to get rid of infectious pathogens, mold, and parasites.
If your body has such a specific, coordinated, and universal detoxification system, why then would you just pick any random detox plan that claims to melt the weight and beat fatigue?
Health issues arise when foreign substances come in faster than your body is able to get rid of them. They stress the organ that they accumulate in. The stress from one overwhelmed system spills out into other body functions, which over the long run leaves you with pernicious inflammation and difficult-to-track-down symptoms.
The detoxification strategies we cover here are targeted towards getting rid of what specifically is triggering your symptoms. We’ll start broad and get more detailed, helping you find science-backed strategies to help you live the life you want to.
How Does Your Body Detox?
Let’s start with a brief intro to how your body processes things, literally almost everything.
This process is fascinating because it applies to chemicalsーboth natural and syntheticーin your food, supplements, drugs, and anything else your body recognizes as coming from the outside. Let’s take a tour of the detoxification system.
Imagine taking a pill, almost any pill will do. First, it’s broken down in your stomach and transported through your intestines to your liver. The way your intestine cells absorb or ignore the pill’s contents is the first step of clearing a foreign substance.
Once it gets to the liver, here’s where classical detoxification occurs.
Some of the drug evades the liver’s catch and ends up circulating in the blood. Whatremains (and what keeps on coming in from your blood) gets processed in three phases:
- The substance is chemically altered to make it easier to handle
- It is attached to a glutathione molecule (your body’s master antioxidant, see here for more on glutathione) or a number of other carriers to make it easier and safer to move
- The substance is finally transported through the blood to be filtered out by the kidney.
Although that process holds true for most drugs and foreign substances, you can imagine that the body is a bit more nuanced than that. Some drugs are converted to their active form via that first phase of detoxification, which completely negates the idea that increasing the activity of detox enzymes will effectively detox your body.
Another important thing to know about the phases of detoxification is that certain chemicals from plants can deactivate or ramp up their function. This is the basis for evidence-based detox regimens.
Your body uses the same processes to take care of some of the toxic buildup that can result from byproducts of normal metabolism.
Other process are needed for special cases. Clear examples include how you mitigate inflammation and oxidation, dealing with heavy metals, or clear parasites.
In the case of a detox from alcohol, an addictive substance, or something that your body develops a resistance to, it’s important to understand how your body’s natural tolerance affects the function of other symptoms. In some cases, activating detoxification enzymes that you have developed a tolerance to may make withdrawal symptoms worse. Make sure to seek the help of a healthcare practitioner before altering your metabolism in any significant way.
Detox Diets And Weight Loss
Many chemicals build up in fat stores, making weight loss a good detox strategy.
Unfortunately though, most joint detox/weight-loss diet plans are really dressed up versions of a short-term crash diet. They draw you in with empty promises and cherry picked reviews, but leave you hanging on to your sanity during the cleanse and hanging on to your weight once it’s all over.
If your goal is weight loss, and the associated detoxification and the well-being that can come with it, you should focus in on sustainable strategies for long-term weight loss, not on rapidly losing water weight.
Here are the top tips to lose weight and clear built-up toxins over the long haul. Follow these strategies and you’ll keep losing weight long after your new year’s resolution has lost its lustre.
Generally speaking, eating too much is the main cause of weight gain. Regardless of the type of calories, if you eat too much of it you’re body will store it as fat. If you eat fewer calories, you will lose fat.
This is not a law carved into stone, but a generalization that applies to most people. There is ample evidence that “calories in, calories out” is not the whole story, but it takes up a big part of it.
That being said, not all macronutrients are created equal. Calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein affect inflammation, insulin, and your metabolism differently. Importantly, different calories affect how full you feel afterwards and how your body processes those calories.
Take a slice of cake, for example. Refined grains and nutrient-free sugar. Loads of saturated fats cooked at burning temperatures. Enough salt to keep you going for a 5K in the heat. All these combined tell your brain that this meal tastes good. Really good.
So good that it’s TOO good, in fact. All those poor-quality nutrients combine to overwhelm your brain’s hunger and fullness signals, making you want more and more. Ever wonder why you crave more sugar after you’ve already downed dessert? Blame a brain stuck in the paleolithic ages that craves foods to make you fat in oder to prepare for a lean winter.
Beyond that, the research shows that low-carb and low-fat diets are about as equally effective in weight loss. What’s more important than where the calories are coming from is how the diet feels for you.
I’ll shout it from the rooftops: “The diet that works is the diet you can stick to.”
With the idea that all macronutrients are created equal, here’s a basic guide to eating well for sustained weight loss:
Make sure you’re getting enough proteinーyou can cut fat or carbs, but there are many reasons to NOT cut your protein.
Protein is regarded as the most filling macronutrient. More specifically, collagen is known as one of the most filling proteins [Veldhorst et al. 2009].
The other major benefit of getting enough protein is that it helps you hold onto your muscle. Having enough muscle translates into better metabolism and being able to resist fatigue while losing weight.
A significant problem of all the weight-loss detox plans is that a juice-based cleanse guarantees that your body will start catabolizing (aka breaking down) itself. Doesn’t sound like you could keep that up for long, does it?
Instead, stick with an evidence-based weight loss strategy that spares your precious protein reserves.
Complex carbs burn slow and steady, giving you long lasting energy compared to refined, or “white” grains.
Fiber is essentially a complex carb that’s too complex for your body to handle. It stays intact until it gets to your colon, and then your gut bacteria go about processing it. The byproducts are anti-inflammatory chemicals, salvaged calories that have powerful metabolism-regulating effects, and an added perk of helping you feel full for longer.
In the category of carbs should come the natural sugar substitutes that don’t have any calories. Stevia and monkfruit (two of the safest out there) can help initiate and sustain behavior change, but they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for a insatiable sweet tooth. Consider these a bridge to get you towards eating less sugar.
Fat calories are the most misunderstood of the three major macros. The low-fat diet craze is on it’s way out, but not without leaving multiple generations confused and left with more diseases than when the “Great American Diet Experiment” began.
Calories from fat burn slower than any other calorie. They leave you full for hours and have marked advantages over refined carbs (better HDL, better triglycerides, lower blood sugar and insulin, etc.)
Even the much-feared saturated fat appears to be relatively healthy when you take carbs and foods that trigger insulin out of the picture.
Oilsーwhich contain monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fatsー are renown for their anti-inflammatory effects.
Yes, even the feared omega-6 fatty acids work in positive ways when eaten alongside an otherwise healthy diet. Not that you want to eat an excessive amount of one type of fat at the expense of anotherーtoo much of anything will kill you!ーbut scientists are starting to understand that many pathways paint a favorable picture for oils of all kinds.
Even so, the most important unsaturated fats for weight loss are omega-3 fatty acids. You’ll find these in fish, seafood, grass-fed and wild meat, and nuts and seeds (like walnuts, chia, and flax). Omega-3’s are critical for resolving the inflammation leftover from burning excess fat.
So, what’s better: losing 5 pounds of water in 10 days, or 5 pounds of fat in a month? Don’t fall for the weight-loss-detox-cleanse bogus, try these tips to legitimately lose the weight and keep it off.
* A note on short term fasts if you’re not overweight. Theoretically, these types of diets can provide a powerful reset button for your metabolism. It’s important to practice these safely - most people are physically capable of a brief fast, but you’ll definitely want to watch out for symptoms of malnutrition like excessive fatigue and reintroduce food slowly and carefully so you don’t put yourself into a state of shock. If you’re worried about too much weight loss, look for a targeted cleanse like those listed below that emphasize certain kinds of foods.
Weight loss is a common and popular detox method, but it’s not all that specific. “Lose weight, lose toxins, feel better”: it doesn’t get more general than that!
If you want a real detox regimen though, you’re going to have to go beyond the clickbait and empty reviews to figure out how legitimate a plan is for yourself.
One marker of a bunk detox plan is if it claims to “detoxify your whole body” or “total detox” or some other generalized claim. If your symptoms are the result of a specific toxin, are you going to use a shotgun approach and risk deranging everything, or will you take a crossbow’s aim to get rid of that toxin?
The types of toxins that can build up and cause symptoms include:
- Metals, especially heavy metals
- Pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites
- Mold and mold toxins
- Synthetic chemicals, environmental pollution, and other persistent chemicals
- Free radicals, reactive oxygen species, and inflammatory triggers
- Nutrient and anti-nutrient sensitivities.
- Byproducts of metabolism (aka “endobiotics”).
Elements of a targeted detox plan
Since detoxification should be specific to you, I’ll offer some tips that legitimate detox plans should feature. These are just the important ones to look out for; any complete detox plan will require a strategy unique to you.
How to Detoxify Metals
Metals and minerals are essential nutrients in miniscule quantities. When healthy metals and minerals are eaten in high quantities though, they build up and cause wide-reaching damage. Heavy metals like lead, mercury, or radioactive metals have no place in a healthy body, and exposure from the environment and human activity almost guarantees health issues.
The common approach to metal and mineral over-exposure is what’s known as “chelation therapy”, which uses antioxidants with mineral-binding capacity to help clear tissues of dangerous levels of metals.
However, these approaches must be medically supervised, carry side effects, and there are less intense ways to get rid of metals if they haven’t built up to overtly toxic levels.
Certain minerals compete with heavy metals for absorption. If the metal exposure is through your diet, one possibility is adding in more zinc, copper, or selenium to your diet to limit how much the other metals are absorbed. This method is risky since those minerals can also build up to toxic levels.
Similarly, you can consume phytate-rich foods. Phytate or phytic acid is a chemical common in whole grains that binds to metals and limits your absorption of them. Once again, this will only work on the metals that you are currently eatingーnot the ones that have already built up in your system.
In the case of mercury, additional selenium may help manage the negative effects of mercury overconsumption [Ralston et al. 2016].
The way these metals cause damage is by causing oxidative damage, so you’ll want to support your innate antioxidant defense system with the tips in the “oxidation and inflammation” section here or below.
How to Detoxify Pathogens
Did you know that 70% of your immune system is in your GI system? A healthy diet is the cornerstone of a robust immune systemーeven a little fast food or processed junk can damage your gut’s immune system and impair your response to infection.
One thing to consider when thinking about detoxifying infections is that the way you feel when you’re sick isn’t caused by the bacteria or virus itself; those symptoms are caused by your immune systems reaction to those invaders.
As long as the symptoms don’t start to get dangerous (uncontrollable fever, dehydration, etc.), it’s important to not just treat the symptoms: you need to support the inflammatory arc: from the inflammatory trigger to the immune system’s explosive reaction to the resolution of inflammation.
That’s right, that inflammation is a sign that your immune system is working properly.
There are few evidence-based ways to treat or prevent a cold or flu with a special diet (you can just treat the symptoms, though), but there is research to show that elderberry, echinacea or bioavailable zinc at the very first sign of an infection can reduce the length and severity of your illness, making the difference between being strung out on the couch for a week and being able to function through a relatively shorter sickness.
For regular supplementation, consider garlic to dramatically reduce the symptoms of a cold, but vitamin C, echinacea, and ginseng may also provide a bit of benefit.
When it comes to parasites, the research is still in early stages. Certain supplements, diets, and cleanses are said to be effective for some people, but the jury is still out on this one. Subscribe and we’ll let you know when we see the next evidence-based diet treatment for parasites!
How to Detoxify Mold
Mold, and more importantly: mold toxins, are emerging as one of the most common sources of diffuse, difficult-to-pinpoint symptoms. Exposure to certain kinds for too long is a direct cause of cancer.
High quality clinical trials have proven that activating certain detoxification pathways in the liver can reduce the cancer-causing power of molds. It’s important that each phase of detoxification is supported, as an imbalance that can leave chemicals partially processed makes them even more dangerous.
Broccoli sprouts do just that, and have been studied extensively for their systemic anti-toxin and anti-inflammatory activity.
How to Detoxify Harmful Chemicals
Synthetic and harmful natural chemicals are used in food processing, agriculture, manufacturing and we are exposed to more everyday in the air we breath and materials we touch.
Some of these chemicals are persistent. This means they stay in your body indefinitely and can’t be removed with any therapy. It’s the EPA’s job to monitor and regulate these chemicals but unfortunately the EPA is only able to reactーnot preventーcatastrophes caused by poor oversight.
Because your body’s detox mechanisms are generalized, they are often able to handle environmental toxins. However, since these toxins are so new to the scene it’s easy for them to overwhelm your defenses, warranting a detox regimen.
Liver detoxification strategies that boost your antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and chemical detoxification systems, similar to the ones used for mold, are recommended for getting rid of plastic molecules, pesticides, and pollution. Some of the best include:
- Isothiocyanates that come from glucosinolates in cruciferous (dark green) veggies; they’re particularly high in broccoli sprouts
- Tannins and other phytochemicals in bitter plant parts
- Polyphenols in whole foods, especially in herbs, spices, citrus, and berries
- Many others, see the publicly available article by Hodges and Minich (2015) for a comprehensive overview.
How to Detoxify Oxidizers And Inflammatory Agents
Free radicals are tiny reactive atoms or molecules that wreak havoc on your body. They are associated with aging, chronic diseases, eating processed and fried food, and low levels of physical activity. Read up on this in our first post on antioxidant systems here.
Too much of these small-yet-damaging agents are the most clear cause of oxidative stress which then leads to inflammation. This spectrum of damaging triggersーfrom individual free radicals to oxidative damage to oxidative stress and inflammation is unique in that many of the players are part of normal physiology in very low doses.
For now, know that vitamins, minerals, plant-based antioxidants, and other inflammation-fighting agents like the full-spectrum polyphenols in Resync Recovery all interact to take care of inflammation and oxidative stress issues.
How to Detoxify Nutrients And Antinutrients
Sometimes nutrients in what you eat can cause unwanted symptoms. This is not a classic detoxification case though. Your body is able to get rid of trigger foods and the symptoms pass when you pass your bowels.
Causes of nutrient sensitivities are numerous:
- You might not have the right gut bacteria to process certain nutrients. A probiotic of good bacteria can be helpful here, as is continuing to eat the nutrient in small quantities for an extended period.
- You might not have the right enzymes to fully absorb nutrients (think of lactose-intolerance, which is an inability to make the lactase enzyme that clears out lactose. This can be solved by eating a manageable level of foods you’re sensitive to or by using digestive enzymes.
- You might have a sensitivity to specific polysaccharides (a special kind of carbohydrate). This is called “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”, which affects up to 20% of the U.S. population. It can be managed by finding an IBS dietitian/gastroenterologist to help you follow a low-FODMAPs diet that restricts foods you can’t tolerate.
- You might have a bona-fide immune system response to certain foods. If this is temporary, it may be an indicator of leaky gut, which has not established therapy but has been treated with collagen peptides and an ancestral diet. If it’s an intolerance, like celiac disease, your immune system attacks your own cells and can only be resolved by eliminating the trigger food (in this case, gluten in wheat products). If it’s a chronic allergy, like a peanut allergy, there is recent evidence that something called “immunotherapy”, in which small frequent exposures can allow your body to develop a resistance, may be effective [Dantzer et al. 2019].
The common thread between these approaches it that they each restrict your diet in some way. For many, a restricted diet is the only permanent solution not involving drugs or surgery; it is not a “detox diet”.
Some people have a clinical sensitivity to antinutrients in foods like oxalates, phytates, lectins, saponins, and others. An elimination diet is the only treatment for these as well.
An elimination diet starts with a period of intensive food elimination and slowly reintroduces potential trigger foods to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Starting an elimination diet is tricky and should only be done with the supervision of a nutritionist or dietitian, preferably with a LEAP certification.
Remember the most important thing of any diet you try: “The more restrictive your diet, the closer you have to manage it”. Don’t risk getting a nutrient deficiency and seek a qualified healthcare provider for help with elimination diets!
How to Detoxify Metabolic Byproducts
Your body is perfectly capable of clearing unwanted toxins that are a buildup of normal metabolic processes.
For example, if you burn protein for fuel, you’ll generate ammonia. Ammonia is so toxic that your body converts it to uric acid and gets rid of it in your urine. This is a perfectly normal process most of the time, but it can get out of hand and cause kidney damage.
Because metabolic detoxification is so general (it could feasibly refer to ANY process in your body), there’s no way a cookie-cutter “detox” diet could really target your specific issues. There are established medical protocols for many metabolic disorders, so talk with your healthcare provider on this one!
Key Takeaways on Detox Diets
- Be wary of short term weight loss cleanses that leave you fatigued, don’t actually provide a unique benefit, and don’t support long-term weight loss.
- Be wary of detox strategies that aren’t targeted to specific toxins or specific detoxifaction pathways.
- Seek a competent healthcare provider to safely follow a personalized detox strategy.
- Make sure your detox strategy is targeted to your specific needs.
- Trust your gut! People have died from following radical detox plans, so use your best judgement and talk to a supportive healthcare provider before attempting something that seems drastic.
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