Demystifying Detox

Detoxing is all the rage these days. But what’s the right way to approach it? Here’s everything you need to know to lose your toxins without losing your mind.

Fifteen years ago, when I first wrote about detoxing, everybody laughed and said I was mad. Nowadays people think you’re mad if you’re not detoxing. Everywhere you turn, books and magazines are touting the “latest” or “best” detox. The drugstore shelves are heaving with products promising to squeeze out every kind of toxin, while spas have a barrage of treatments purporting to cleanse and rebalance your entire system.

There is no doubt we live in a toxic world, so a growing awareness of the issues and a desire to embrace a healthier lifestyle are certainly beneficial. But you have to wonder why detoxing, in particular, is so popular. My feeling is that it’s mainly about control. We live in an increasingly frightening world over which it seems we have little or no real influence. We may feel we can’t get rid of terrorism, or job insecurity or an uncertain economy, but that we can take control of the “nasties” within our own bodies.

Also, in a world where confusion and information overload reign supreme, there is a real psychological yearning for clarity and purity. We can see this in the desire for minimal design and for cleaner homes, as well as in the embracing of mind-body disciplines such as yoga, tai chi and meditation. But I sometimes wonder if we’re beginning to lose sight of the real value and purpose of detox beneath all the increasing layers of commercial greed and wishful thinking.

Detox Mania

I’m not the only one to wave the red flag. Naturopath Roger Newman Turner, ND, DO, BAc, author of Naturopathic Medicine: Treating the Whole Person (HeALL, 2000), has been lecturing and broadcasting internationally on naturopathy and detoxing for more than 40 years. He strongly believes that the detoxification fad has gotten out of hand. “We’re seeing a good many distortions of the principles behind it,” says Turner. Suzanne Duckett, author of Spa Directory (Carlton, 2002), agrees: “There’s detoxing and then there’s ‘detoxing.’ For instance, some spas offer serious cleansing programs while others will just wrap you up in bandages and throw in a bit of algae. Basically they’re making a fast buck.”

We’re definitely witnessing the rise of what I term “detox lite”: treatments and supplements that promise to detox you without demanding any work on your part. Sorry, but all the wrapping and massage in the world won’t detox you on their own. You can’t expect a cleansing supplement, however pricey or fancy, to take the thought and effort out of true detoxing. Herbs and micronutrients can help the process, but if you’re trying to detox while continuing to load your body with the wrong food – or too much food – you’re simply wasting your time and money.

Even if you’ve committed to doing a serious detox, the choices can still be overwhelming. Should you go for contrast hydrotherapy or colonics? Fasting or liver flush? Should you eat just vegetables, just rice, or add in lean protein? It’s tempting to forget the entire detox idea altogether.

“People are always looking for an easy way,” says Carol L. Roberts, MD, of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA), noting that very few people do the research and are diligent enough to complete a formal detox program. “However, the concept of detoxing is still valid,” she asserts, “and even an inadequate effort in the right direction may be better than no effort at all.”

So don’t throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Detoxing is worth doing – you just need to sort the helpful from the hype.

Working the System

Despite detoxing’s popularity, there is as yet little scientific evidence for its benefits. So nobody can claim with total confidence that detoxing can cure you of any particular disease or improve your health. Yet the anecdotal evidence for detoxing is abundant, and naturopathy – which has advocated detoxing for more than 100 years – bases its entire philosophy on the need to detoxify the body. “There is growing awareness in the medical community of the role of toxins in many chronic illnesses,” says Roberts. “The science is definitely there but not widely used yet.”

A good detox works on all the major players in your body’s detoxification system: liver, lungs, kidneys, skin, intestines and lymphatic system. Detoxing can, in some cases, improve quite serious medical conditions, according to nutritional therapist Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the United Kingdom and author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible (Crossing Press, 1999). “The liver is key,” he says, “and just about any allergic, inflammatory or metabolic disorder may involve or create suboptimum liver function. This might include eczema, asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic infections, inflammatory bowel disorders, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and hormone imbalances.”

It’s also not uncommon to notice huge shifts in mood when you detox. These can be positive, or initially difficult. “Any changes we make on a physical level are likely to have an impact on our emotions and minds as well,” says psychologist and nutritionist Dawn Hamilton, PhD, coauthor of Super Energy Detox: 21-Day Plan With 60 Allergy-Free Recipes (HarperCollins, 2002). “While we are cleansing the physical body, we can also experience an ’emotional detox,’ meaning that old emotions come to the surface to be released.”

Because detoxing involves cutting out alcohol and caffeine, you may also notice your energy levels balance out and your mind become clearer and more focused. Sleep often improves, as well: Many people find relief from even chronic insomnia during a detox.

Food intolerance is another issue. A good detox follows the path of an elimination diet (used to diagnose food sensitivities and intolerances). If you have undiagnosed food intolerance, you could well notice huge health benefits. In fact, as a result of detoxing, many people report having beaten or seen dramatic improvements in conditions such as asthma and eczema; headaches and migraines; hay fever and sinusitis; PMS; and palpitations and chest pains. On a mental level, food intolerance can cause depression, forgetfulness and confusion as well as irritability, aggression and hyperactivity. If you suspect you have food intolerance, it could be worth detoxing under the supervision of a professional so you can reintroduce suspect foods following your detox to determine which are causing you problems. (For more on this topic, see Fitness Fixes, page 36.)

Although detoxing should not be confused with a weight-loss diet, many people do experience some loss of excess weight. Although quantities of food are not usually limited on detox, the major causes of weight gain – excesses of refined carbohydrate, sugar, saturated fat and alcohol – are limited in most detox regimens. Detox also can help reeducate your taste buds and eating habits, making it easier to later stick to a healthy weight-loss plan.

But detox is no magic bullet. If you have a serious health condition, detoxing won’t cure it. It might help, but you will need to seek professional advice and have realistic expectations. Many people expect detox to miraculously change their lives – but it can’t. Only you can make that kind of shift. Still, a detox may get you started down the right path.

Pick a Program

There are a variety of detox programs and protocols from which to choose. On the whole, though, there are two major approaches: fasting (and variations thereof) and limited detox diets. Fasting is the original and perhaps most stringent detox. Fasts can last anywhere from 12 hours to seven days, and in their purest form, only water is taken.

“The physiological changes during fasting involve a wide range of metabolic factors, including levels of amino acids, hormones and minerals,” says Turner, who believes that periodic fasting can be useful for conditions like asthma, sinusitis and colitis.

However, he points out, you should check with your physician before, during and after fasting. (Fasting is not advisable for those with neurological disorders, cancer or hyperthyroidism.)

Limited fasts can include just drinking fruit or vegetable juices. Mono-diets (in which your diet is temporarily restricted to one particular food) also come under the banner of limited fasts. “Both of these have the effect of saturating the system with the particular nutrients of which the food is composed,” says Turner. Other variations of limited fasts include the “grape cure” (red grapes and juice only), which is said to be effective for high blood pressure and fluid retention, and the rice diet (boiled rice plus some fruit), which is sometimes used by naturopaths in cases of cardiovascular disorders or obesity.

Mono-diets should not be confused with fad diets like the “grapefruit diet” or the “cabbage soup diet” that promise quick weight loss. Although you will temporarily lose some weight if you undergo a water fast, mono-diet or limited fast, extended fasts and mono-diets are not a safe, or even effective, way to lose weight.

The majority of modern detox experts often avoid restricted fasts and opt instead for various limited detox diets, which are ideal for most people who want an effective, safe and easy-to-follow detox. “This type of regimen uses a low-toxin diet plus plenty of the key nutrients needed to speed up the body’s ability to detoxify,” explains Holford. In limited detox diets, you eliminate the foods and drinks that cause the most stress to the body’s detox systems, and then replace them with foods that are either neutral or that actively help detoxification.

All detox experts agree that this involves cutting out alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, saturated fat, salt and processed food. Beyond this point, though, the naturopaths and nutritional therapists diverge, especially when it comes to animal protein.

“In my view, there is no place for animal protein in any detoxification regimen,” says Turner. “It just makes additional work for the liver and kidneys.” But Holford disagrees and advocates some animal protein because “your liver needs amino acids (from protein) for detoxing.”

The consensus? It’s really up to you. If you have serious health issues, though, or if you want more guidance, it would be worth putting yourself in the hands of a well-qualified naturopathic doctor. He or she might suggest a stringent form of detox, such as fasting or mono-dieting, but it would be carried out under supervision – either as an in-patient at a clinic or with regular physician contact.

If you want to detox on your own – and you don’t have serious health problems and are not on medication or pregnant – I’d strongly recommend you try the following seven-day gentler limited detox diet. This form of detoxification is ideal because you can maintain energy levels and are less likely to suffer other common detox side effects such as headaches and nausea. It’s worth noting that any limited detox diet should not last beyond four weeks, as avoiding certain foods entirely may set up intolerances.

Jane Alexander is a U.K.-based journalist and author of many books on natural health and holistic living, including The Detox Plan for Body, Mind and Spirit (Charles Tuttle Company, 1998) and the soon-to-be-released The Detox Kit (Hay House). Visit her Web site at

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