Anyone who’s been stuck behind a city bus inhaling big gulps of diesel exhaust or noticed a funny plastic taste in bottled water has probably wondered how to help their body unload those extra toxins.
The instinct to detox is a great one: We’re exposed to an unprecedented number of toxins in the modern environment. Each year, 2,000 new chemicals are registered for everyday use in the United States, notes functional-medicine doctor Robert Rountree, MD, adding that, “humans have become rent-free storage systems for synthetic chemicals.”
With a wealth of research showing that toxic exposures can contribute to weight-loss resistance, fuel chronic conditions like cancer and diabetes, and both trigger and aggravate autoimmune conditions, engaging in a strategic detox protocol can be a worthwhile practice.
Detoxing too quickly
But detoxing must be done carefully. Just as toxins can cause problems as they enter and stay in the body, they can cause similar problems on their way out. If we detox too fast, or without the right support, we run the risk of reabsorbing some of the dangerous chemicals as they try to make their way out of the body.
When the toxins being released from the body’s tissues outpace the body’s ability to eliminate them, they stay in the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory response, and causing people to feel, in the official parlance, crappy.
“There are two phases of liver detoxification. The first phase liberates the toxin, and the second phase deactivates it. Many people have difficulty with phase two,” writes Eileen Laird, author of A Simple Guide to the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol. “If you feel sick on a detox protocol, there’s a reason. You are essentially getting poisoned with your own released toxins.”
Symptoms tend to mimic the flu. People can experience fatigue, nausea, headaches, dizziness, bloating, digestive issues, chills, elevated heart rate, brain fog, and increased joint and muscle pain. Taken together, these symptoms are known as the Jarisch-Herxheimer Reaction, or “herxing” or “retoxing” for short.
Some health practitioners call this detox reaction a “healing crisis,” saying that if you feel bad during the detox process, then you know it’s working — toxins are on the move. But there’s a broader consensus among practitioners that having a pronounced Herxheimer reaction is not healthy.
Feeling bad during a detox is “not necessarily good or OK,” says functional-medicine practitioner Jill Carnahan, MD. “People shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is herxing; I should just push through it.’ It’s a sign that they should slow things down or take an alternative approach because they’re overwhelming their detox pathways.”
That’s a long way to say that, when it comes to detoxing, the best advice is to listen to your body. “Our bodies speak to us all the time,” says Laird. “It’s risky to override those signals of what our body is telling us is true.”
The first step in any safe, effective detox is to work with a qualified practitioner. Look for someone who has experience with strategic detox protocols and ask them how they work with patients who have a detox reaction.
After that, there are strategies you can use to support and protect yourself during a detox. These strategies will help you live a lifestyle that supports ongoing detoxification long after the targeted detox phase is over.
1. Make sure your symptoms aren’t related to something else. If you’re having an allergic reaction to something in your environment, you will feel consistently crummy. If you’re truly experiencing a Herxheimer reaction, you should feel better in a couple of days, says Carnahan. No matter what, you should consult your practitioner. If you’re having an allergy or other issue, you’ll want to determine the root cause. If you’re having a detox reaction, you’ll want to slow down your detox protocol.
Sometimes people experience a couple of days of flu-like symptoms from simply cutting out certain foods and doing nothing else. This is often talked about as a detox reaction, but it’s more likely withdrawal, says Carnahan. For example, dairy contains opioid peptides called casomorphins, and gluten contains opioid peptides called exorphins — both substances can have a mild opioid-like effect on the body. When these foods disappear from the table, mild withdrawal can follow. If symptoms last more than a couple of days, consult your practitioner.
When someone eliminates sugar, she or he may experience a die-off of intestinal yeast (yeast loves sugar) and a similar set of symptoms. Taking a natural binder, like activated charcoal, can help absorb the yeast and hasten it out of the body.
2. Keep new toxins off your plate. Try to eat organic fruits and vegetables and clean, pastured-animal proteins. Otherwise, you’re taking in toxins at the same time that you’re eliminating them — and never getting ahead.
3. Keep toxins off your body. Make sure your health- and body-care products aren’t introducing new synthetic chemicals into your system. Their effect on the body is no different than food. “If you’re putting it on your skin, it’s like you’re eating it,” says Rountree.
4. Continue with strategies no. 2 and no. 3 after you finish your targeted detox protocol. “Being mindful of toxins all the time can be overwhelming,” says Laird. “People are drawn to detox because they think they can burn the candle at both ends and then just detox seasonally.” The better strategy is to keep those toxins at arm’s length every day. Once you make the switch to clean foods and clean body-care products, the feeling of being overwhelmed by all the new choices will dissipate in time.
5. Make sure you’re getting your minerals. Minerals are critical for optimizing the detox pathways in the body. Two easy mineral-boosting strategies? Take Epsom salts baths (for the magnesium) and drink mineral water, says Carnahan.
6. Eat your (brassica) veggies. The brassica family of vegetables — including broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens — contain sulforaphane, which can increase the enzymes in the liver that break down certain toxins.
7. Eat the rainbow. The health-promoting compounds in vegetables and fruits are also usually responsible for their bright colors. The more colors you eat in a day, the more phytonutrients you’re exposed to — and phytonutrients powerfully assist the detox process and help protect the body against more toxin-related damage. Try to eat one food from each color of the rainbow every day (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple).
8. Load up on fiber. Toxins leave our bodies in one of three ways: through urine, sweat, and elimination via the GI tract. Keep your digestion humming along by eating foods high in fiber, like beans, avocados, berries, peas, squash, and flax and chia seeds.
9. Stay hydrated. The more clean, filtered water you drink, the more you urinate — and the faster toxins leave your system.
10. Sweat. Move toxins out through your skin by getting in a heart-pumping workout or sitting in an infrared sauna.
11. Consider herbal and supplement support. There are some great herbal blends for helping optimize liver and kidney function. Consult with your practitioner about what might be best for your unique situation. The antioxidant glutathione is incredibly important for detox. One of the best ways to supplement with glutathione is to take N-acetylcysteine, or NAC, a glutathione precursor.
12. Rest. “Sleep is powerfully regenerative,” reminds Laird. Getting high-quality rest can optimize all your body’s functions, including its ability to detox.