The Truth About Detoxing

By Linia Patel

It’s hard not to be sucked in by the idea that a “detox” or a “cleanse” can wash away your caloric sins, flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go. Before you dust off your juicer or put orders in for dubious, laxative based liquids, it’s important to explore the idea behind the need to rid our body of toxins. Doesn’t the body have its own defenses that naturally cleanse our systems?

[Photo: Le Pain Quotidien]

History of detox diets

The concept of cleansing the body of built-up toxins is not new. In fact, detoxifying practices have been around for centuries. Historically, many detoxification diets were based on religious beliefs and typically involved fasting.

Today, a diet is classified as “detox” if it involves making a change to one’s eating patterns with the goal of ridding the body of accumulated toxins. Detoxification diets vary, but they usually involve fasting, avoidance of many food groups and/or consumption of cleansing beverages. The two most common types of detox diets are liquid plans and those that start with liquids and then progress to solid foods. Detox diets also vary in duration but typically last from 3 days to about a month [1, 2].

The truth about toxins

A toxin is a chemical or poison that is known to have harmful effects on the body. The list of toxins contains hundreds of names – the most popular among them being lead we once found in our water systems, the mercury we find in fish, bisphenol A or BPA found in consumer plastics and pesticides, and the azodicarbonamide we find in cheaply made yoga mats.

However, with toxins, it’s the dose that makes the poison. The toxins medical science is used to dealing with are the ones that enter your body, not to leave them. These are things like snake venom, varieties of poisons and other disease causing agents that derive from plants and animals/ bacteria. The word “toxin” has been hammered so flat and broad that is has actually become meaningless. The toxin your favorite celebrity health expert is talking about seem to come from food [1, 3]. The basic idea behind a 'detox diet or regimen' is that the modern world puts so much stress on our bodies as we are exposed to a large number of toxins on a daily basis. Detox plans also claim that the natural detoxification mechanisms in place in our bodies cannot keep up the detox demands. Therefore, 'active detox' is a good idea.

Built in detox system

The scientific definition of detoxification is the biochemical process that transforms non-water-soluble toxins and metabolites into water-soluble compounds that can be excreted in urine, bile or stool. Your body is actually an efficient detox machine. The skin – your body’s largest organ provides a barrier to harmful substances. Your airways trap and expel harmful substances and chemicals from pollution, while your intestine’s screen out harmful organisms while allowing nutrients to be absorbed into the blood. The kidney excretes waste products into the urine – otherwise the substance stays in the blood.

The main organ involved in the detoxification process is the liver [4]. The liver plays several roles in detoxification: it filters the blood to remove toxins (such as alcohol, drugs and insecticides), gets rid of bile and other fat-soluble toxins and eliminates unwanted chemicals.

The enzymatic process to dispose of toxins occurs in two enzymatic phases: phase I and phase II detoxification. Phase I detoxification or “activation” is when oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis reactions turn a fat-soluble toxin into an unstable intermediate molecule. Phase II detoxification then converts the intermediate molecule into a more stable, water soluble one through “conversion” or “conjunction” reactions. These reactions involve the liver cells adding another substance such as cysteine, glycine or a sulphur molecule to a toxic chemical to make it less harmful and water soluble. The water-soluble molecule can then be excreted through urine, bile and faeces [5].

Photo: Mens Fitness

What does the evidence say?

There are no shortages of glowing testimonials from people who have gone on detox diets claiming to feel cleansed, energized and healthier. The literature recognizes that the detoxification systems in humans is highly complex and is influenced by a number of regulatory systems, have individual uniqueness and are responsive to an individual’s environment and lifestyle. However, there’s no published evidence to suggest that detox treatments, kits or rituals have any effect on our body’s ability to eliminate waste products effectively [1,2].

It's important to note that several factors influence how much of a chemical ends up in the system requiring detoxification by the liver. The gut initially provides a physical barrier to external toxins, but is also the second major site in the body for detoxification. Detoxification enzymes are found in high concentrations in the villi of the intestines. There is also evidence that links poor gut health to an increased toxic load. Good gut bacteria can produce compounds that either inhibit or induce detoxification activities. Bad bacteria can also produce toxins that can enter circulation and increase toxic load [5].

Clean eating and detox

You can actually “cleanse” by eating healthier and being more active.

Here are five top tips

  • Eat at least your 5-a-day. A diet high in fruit and vegetables contributes to a wide range of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Include one portion of cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, collards, kale and brussel sprouts in your diet as this will promote the activity of enzymes that regulate detoxification in the liver.
  • Keep optimally hydrated. The importance of adequate hydration for detoxification cannot be underestimated. Water facilitates urinary excretion and bowel motility, supports the lymphatic system and replenishes fluid through sweat. Green tea is rich in polyphenols which are known for their antioxidant activity, so is a good hot drink choice.
  • Stock up on foods containing sulfur. Sulfur supports the body’s production of glutathione – a powerful antioxidant. Include foods like eggs, nuts, legumes, garlic, onion and leeks in your diet.
  • Fill up on fibre. Soluble and insoluble fiber as found in flax seeds, beans, oats and brown rice can bind to metabolic waste in the gut, carrying them out of the body through the stool. It can also minimize contact with harmful compounds such as acylamides from charred meat by regulating transit time.
  • Think about gut bacteria. Beneficial bacteria from fermented foods such as yogurt and lacto-fermented vegetables or from supplements inhibit the growth of “bad” bacteria, which produce ammonia and other “toxic” metabolites.

Linia Patel is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist. She's passionate about empowering people to better manage their health and optimise their performance through learning the essence of healthy eating. Outside of work, Linia is a wannabe triathlete. Visit her website:

References [1]. Mahan, L.K., & Escott-Stump, S. 2007. Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy, 12th ed. Saunders. [2]. Schaeffer, J. 2008. Spring cleansing: Assessing the benefits and risks of detox diets. Today’s Dietitian, 10 (5), 34. [3]. Jeffer E. 2007. Diet and detoxification enzymes. The Proceedings from the 13th International Symposium if the Institute for Functional Medicine, Managing Biotransformation; The Metabolic Genomic, and Detoxification Balance Points. Altern Ther Health Med. 13 (2);598-S99 4. Genius S. 2011. Elimination of persistent toxicants from the human body. Hum Exp Toxicol 30 (1): 3 – 18 5. Liska D.1998. The detoxification enzyme systems. Altern Med Rev. 1998; 3(3); 187 – 198 6. Percival M. 1997. Phytonutrients & Detoxification. Clinical Nutrition Insights. Volume 5. No 2 7. Moores, S. 2007. Experts warn of detox diet dangers.;