What does it actually mean when someone says they’re doing a detox?
There are many different kinds of detoxification protocols and many perspectives on how they're done. Living in Boulder, CO, I can tell you that everyone here is a self-proclaimed expert in detoxification. “I’m doing a cleanse – I’ve only had lemon water with cayenne in it for 10 days.” OR “I’m doing a cleanse – no protein just lots of hot yoga and raw veggies.”
The truth of how to properly cleanse is actually somewhere far, far away from these types of comments. I have seen many patients get sicker, not better, on a ‘detox’ done through a gym membership or a yoga studio because there’s just not a one-size-fits-all approach to detoxification. Yes, you can cleanse twice a year by taking things out of your diet (alcohol, caffeine, sugar, chemicals), but doing a detox to enhance your health and address a specific condition is very different.
Detoxification, while something that we all feel we should do, may in fact not be a good idea for everyone.
First and foremost, it’s important to know exactly what you’re detoxing from. Is it heavy metals found in your mercury amalgam fillings or the fish in your sushi? Perhaps it’s pesticides that have leaked into your well or coming from untested water in your municipal system? Maybe it’s the DDT that was on last week’s red pepper? Some of these chemicals will never leave voluntarily and need to be thoughtfully coaxed out of your tissues for excretion and elimination.
Testing is a good approach to measure your current toxin exposure and toxic load.
Testing for toxins means that you can be targeted in your detox with the appropriate diet, nutrients, and therapies (e.g., sweating or lymphatic massage). There are several good tests available to measure what could be lurking in your fat and bones. For example, it’s important to know how much BPA from plastics is in your system, or how high your level of stored parabens is from your cosmetics or fragrances. Knowing precisely what you’re treating is critical to avoid making you any sicker than you already are.
Detoxing someone who seems generally well without knowing what they’re trying to detox from can actually make them worse.
Toxins come in many forms but are loosely defined as any substance or environmental influence that disrupts metabolism in a manner that, if left untreated, results in chronic illness. Think of a bathtub with a leaky faucet. The drips into the tub represent exposures we all face daily. Once the accumulated water has reached the top of the tub it spills over, and this is when a person will start to have symptoms.
The goal of detoxification is to lower the tub’s water level so you don’t have any more symptoms. Optimally, you should have very little water in your tub, which means your body is doing a good job of detoxifying itself, you’ve minimized ongoing toxic exposures, and your liver is not overburdened.
Detoxification means increasing the elimination of toxicants. Not everyone’s detox system works the same or as efficiently.
Impaired or imbalanced detoxification increases susceptibility to environmental toxicity, meaning it increases your sensitivity to your environment and everything in it. Disease risk = susceptibility + lifetime exposure + toxic potency.
I used to think that only people who were really sick, and perhaps even disabled, were overloaded with toxins and couldn’t detoxify. That the folks in the health food store wearing masks were sadly off their rockers. Today I know exactly what was going on: they had impaired detox pathways from years of being under-supported, and they were experiencing total toxin overload. Super. Sick. People.
I predict that there will be more and more people with masks on their faces, reacting to their environment, if we do not all do some type of detoxification regularly.
Some of the causes of impaired or imbalanced detoxification include:
- Overwhelming toxic load (letting the “water in the tub” get too high)
- Impaired excretion of toxins (problems with elimination through the liver, bowel, kidneys, lymph, and skin)
- Imbalance in macronutrients that support detoxification (e.g., fat and protein)
- Deficiency of detoxifying substances (e.g., nutrients, glutathione, etc.)
- Dysregulation of detox enzymes (e.g., from genetic influences)
Most of us are not chronically sick or imbalanced enough to become severely affected by the toxins in our environment, but what we are starting to understand is this:
- Cumulative exposure contributes to toxic load, and everyone’s tipping point is different.
- Low levels of exposures are considered more dangerous than we once thought.
- The more we’re exposed to, the greater the toxic load and the closer to our tipping point we become.
Our body possesses an innate ability to metabolize, detoxify, and excrete the various influences that we come in contact with.
Fortunately, it is programmed to do all of this without us keeping track. The liver manages and metabolizes many of these influences, then sends the end products to the intestines to be eliminated as stool, the kidneys to be eliminated through urine, the skin to be eliminated through sweat, and the lungs to be eliminated through breath.
If any of these pathways of elimination are compromised (e.g., constipation, inability to sweat, or lung damage from asthma or exposure to cigarette smoke), a person’s toxic body burden will increase. So as you can see, the routes of elimination are vital to the continued elimination of toxins, and more organs are involved than just the liver.
In short, detoxification requires identifying what needs to be eliminated, targeting a specific approach to that toxin, supporting routes of elimination for that toxin to be optimally eliminated, and reducing further exposure.
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Mary Shackelton, MPH, ND is a board-certified Naturopathic Doctor who practices family medicine with an emphasis on women’s health, treating all female-related conditions including: PCOS, Menopause PMS, Menstrual Disorders, Hormone Imbalances, Osteoporosis, Vaginal infections, Fibrocystic breast disease, Abnormal pap smears, Endometriosis, Ovarian cysts, Fatigue, Infertility, Mood Disorders and more. She is also experienced in treating Thyroid Disorders, Heavy Metals Toxicity, Food Allergies, Eczema, Acne, and Gastrointestinal Disorders.
She completed post-graduate training in natural women’s medicine at the Institute of Women’s Health and Integrative Medicine in Portland Oregon, is a frequent contributor for NDNR - Naturopathic Doctors News and Reviews, and lectures locally on a variety of topics related to Women’s Health. She is also a True Goods advisor. Prior to practicing medicine, she earned a Masters in Public Health from San Diego State University and a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from the University of California at Riverside. Mary lives with her husband and children in Boulder, CO.