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Sunday, April 29, 2012

What is Detox Really?

Detox powders, products, protocols, and programs are everywhere these days, from raw food and vegan diets to foot baths and body wraps. But do they really work? And what is detox anyway?

Detoxification is often synonymous with a "cleanse" or "cleansing" and it means different things to different people. The United States National Library of Medicine defines detoxification as the removal of harmful substances from the body and I agree.

It's a good goal because more than 400 chemicals from the environment have been found in human blood and fat tissue, according to the Cancer Prevention Coalition. And environmental toxins have been linked to some of the deadliest and most debilitating diseases including
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Infertility
  • Endometriosis
  • Depression
  • Autoimmune disease

Unfortunately, removing environmental toxins that have been stored inside our bodies is not as easy as it sounds.

Most environmental toxins are fat-soluble and they're stored inside our fat cells. The only way to get them out is to burn fat for energy, because when fat cells release fatty acids into the blood stream, they release stored toxins as well.

Once toxins begin to circulate throughout the body, they can cause more harm than good if the liver isn't efficient at changing them into excretable water-soluble compounds and if our bodies aren't efficient at eliminating them through the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract.

Detoxification can only happen when the body is burning fat for energy, and our bodies only burn fat instead of sugar when insulin levels are low and sugar isn't widely available. When insulin levels are high, the body will always store fat and toxins, never release them.

Low blood sugar and low insulin levels can be achieved by eating a diet low in sweets, starches, and other easily digestible carbohydrates (or through supervised calorie restriction). But most popular "detox" protocols offer or allow foods, drinks, and/or supplements that can raise blood sugar levels, including
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Dried fruit and fruit preserves
  • Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots
  • Winter squashes
  • Grains including whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal, and processed grains like flour (bread, baked goods, cereal, pasta) even if they're gluten-free
  • Natural sweeteners
  • Artificial sweeteners (they may not raise blood sugar but they do raise insulin levels)
These foods can actually have the opposite effect of detoxification because they cause the body to store toxins, not release them. For real detoxification to take place, blood sugar and insulin levels must be low. Other things must happen too.

A good detoxification program should accomplish four goals:
  1. Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins in food, water, and your home environment
  2. Release toxins that your body has stored back into blood circulation
  3. Up-regulate enzymatic pathways in your liver that break down circulating toxins, making them easier to excrete
  4. Increase excretion of detoxified compounds through all routes of elimination

So simply eating raw food, adopting a vegan diet, soaking your feet, or nourishing your skin is not detoxification. These things may be good for us and may help to minimize our exposure to toxins, but they don't necessarily detoxify our bodies.

Also, it's important to realize that detox isn't right for everyone and one program doesn't fit all people. If you're interested in detoxification, ask your naturopathic doctor to design a program tailored to your unique needs and goals.


Cancer Prevention Coalition. Carcinogens at Home. Available at

Chevrier J et al. Body weight loss increases plasma and adipose tissue concentrations of potentially toxic pollutants in obese individuals. International Journal of Obesity-Related Metabolic Disorders. 2000 Oct; 24(10):1272-8.

Liang Y et al. The effect of artificial sweetener on insulin secretion. 1. The effect of acesulfame K on insulin secretion in the rat (studies in vivo). Hormone and Metabolic Research. 1987 Jun; 19(6):233-8.

Müllerová D and Kopecký J. White adipose tissue: storage and effector site for environmental pollutants. Physiological Research. 2007; 56(4):375-81.

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