Detoxification, detox, cleanse…all hot words in the holistic health industry. Who hasn’t done one (or at least thought about doing one) sometime in their life? As a naturopathic health care provider, I’ve come to respect the power of a good detox for my patients’ health, but also acknowledge how confusing the detox and health world can be. Throughout my ever-evolving adventure within the world of health detox, I have gotten myself lost down more than a few rabbit holes, and that’s with a medical background. So, my goal in this article, is to bring awareness and simplicity to the detox world so you can more easily navigate your health. As humans, we inherently know that we feel better when we periodically clean house, so to speak. However, what really is detox, what is a toxin, and how do you choose the right detox for you?
Essentially, there are two steps that need to be taken with every detox protocol.
Step one: Eliminate the toxins in your body.
As a fundamental bodily function, detox is the removal or neutralization of toxins through various organ systems in the body. The top five organs that are in charge of elimination are
called the emunctories and they consist of the liver, kidneys, skin, colon, and lungs. Of those organs, the liver and kidneys are the organs that manage the bulk of detoxification. The liver is in charge of filtering out toxins from the blood and neutralizing them into less harmful substances that can then get filtered out of the body through the emunctories. A good percentage of toxins that the liver processes are what we call fat soluble (they travel through and store well in fat.) The kidneys cannot eliminate a fat-soluble toxin because what we eliminate through the kidneys is primarily water (imagine mixing water with oil.) So the liver sends these toxins through two phases of detoxification, literally called phase one and phase two, to make them water soluble, ensuring the kidneys can easily filter them into the urine and out of the body.
When the body is exposed to excessive toxins or the emunctories are not functioning efficiently, health symptoms appear. The most common symptoms of excessive toxic exposure include, fatigue, memory loss, brain fog, headaches, sleep issues, anxiety, and depression. More serious diseases that have been linked to toxin exposure include cancer, autoimmune diseases (such as Hashimoto’s thyroid disease and lupus) and neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.) These are not uncommon symptoms or diseases, indicating a universal need to focus on supporting our body’s elimination processes. Here are the five major emunctories and one simple recommendation for supporting each one:
Drink clean water. This helps keep kidney filtration flowing smoothly. Aim for at least 60 ounces (about 8 cups) per day.
Skin: Sweat. Vigorous exercise and time in a sauna get the job done, aim to move your body daily.
Lungs: Breathe clean air. Get outside (preferably in the woods), breathe deeply, and do deep breathing exercises, all of which happen to also be great for stress management.
Colon: Eat fiber. Insoluble fiber acts as a sponge in the colon, ensuring toxins being eliminated through the stool are actually eliminated and not reabsorbed into the blood stream to wreak havoc.
Liver: Eat your broccoli. Broccoli is part of the brassica family of vegetables that are the super stars of liver detox support. Other veggies in the brassica family or that support the liver include: Kale, collards, chard, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beets and artichoke.
Step two: Reduce your exposure to toxins.
In order to reduce exposure, you have to know what to look for, so what is a toxin? The technical definition of a toxin is a poison produced by an organism that causes ill effects. If a toxin is synthetically made (like a chemical), it’s actually called a toxicant. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use toxin to indicate any substance, organic or synthetic, that can cause ill effec ts to the body. Toxins can be endogenous (coming from byproducts of functions within the body) or exogenous (coming from the environment outside the body.) Most folks have the goal of cleansing environmental toxins when they venture into a detox program, which is a great start. Endogenous toxins are a whole new bucket of worms best addressed by a detox savvy physician. However, if you support detox well with a cleanse that fits your individual needs, elimination of both endogenous and exogenous toxins will he supported to some degree. So what are these exogenous toxins that we’re trying to get rid of? Here are the top 5 toxins in the environment and how to easily reduce your exposure for better personal and planetary health.
1) Pesticides and herbicides
Health risks: Developmental delays, diabetes, peripheral artery disease, neurological dysfunction, impaired digestive abilities, allergies, leaky gut, celiac disease, cancer
Simple avoidance measures: Eat organic, or at least follow the Clean 15 and dirty dozen recommendations from the Environmental Working Group. Avoid spraying those beautiful dandelions on your yard and home gardens
2) VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and solvents: The chemicals that create the smell of paints and glues commonly used for home improvements. Health risks: Neurological damage, liver, kidney, and lung damage, cancer.
Simple avoidance measures: Buy no or low VOC paints and glues, use an air mask and an air filter when use of VOC containing products cannot be avoided. Avoid synthetic indoor air fresheners.
3) Mold: One of the most concerning being black mold which is common in the damp climates of the Pacific Northwest. Health Risks: Memory loss, difficulty concentrating, neurological damage, vertigo.
Simple avoidance measures: Keep your living and work environments dry, take care of any water leaks or damage within 24 hours, run a quality HEPA air filter in your living and work spaces, consult a mold remediation specialist for proper, safe mold removal if mold is detected in your space.
4) Heavy metals: Lead, Mercury and Arsenic are the most common but there are a whole slew of metals that have negative effects on the body. Health Risks: Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, neurological dysfunction such as memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Simple avoidance measures: Avoid/remove mercury dental amalgams, avoid/remove lead paint and water pipes from older buildings. Have your home’s drinking water tested and/or install a home water filter.
5) Plastic: BPA free is a good start but all plastics come with some risk. Health Risks: Heart disease, hypertension, breast cancer, endometriosis, obesit.y
Simple avoidance measures: Avoid plastic packaging and bags by bringing your own reusable bags and choosing brands that use glass or cardboard packaging. Choose a glass or stainless steel water bottle and food containers.
The world of environmental exposures and detox is expansive and can frankly a bit depressing. However, every step towards reducing toxic exposures and improving your toxin elimination is a step in the right direction and there is a lot you can do so don’t despair!
In fact you can go start your simple detox right now: Get your shoes on and head to one of the many great local trails for a run, hike or brisk walk to build up a sweat and deeply breathe in some fresh air. Come home, eat a big bowl of fiber-dense, organic broccoli. Daily detox accomplished, it really can be that simple.
As always, please be sure to consult a physician before making any big changes to your health routine. If you need support in navigating your personal detox and world of environmental exposures reach out to a detox savvy (environmental medicine) physician such as myself or other naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, and functional medicine health professionals.
Life is medicine, how do you want to LIVE your life?