Updated: Jul 20, 2022
We often hear the word "detox" used in health and wellness spaces, but what does it actually mean? Many times we refer to detoxing in relation to weight loss or as a a short term strategy to cleanse the body. In reality, detoxification is a process the body performs every day in order to remove or neutralize toxins, chemicals, and hormones. You can think of detoxification as the way the body takes out the trash.
The primary way it accomplishes this trash removal process is through the organs of detoxification which include the liver, kidneys, large intestine, lymphatic system, and the sweat glands. Toxins are then excreted primarily through urine, stool, and sweat. We can support the detoxification process by getting the proper nutrients and hydration, in addition to reducing our exposure to toxins in our environment.
Why Do We Need to Detox?
It is estimated that the average adult has at least 700 toxins in their body. We live in a society where we constantly have toxic exposure from a variety of sources including water, food, and air and from time spent in the home or work environment. Every single day our body works hard to eliminate substances like heavy metals, plasticizers, pesticides, herbicides, air pollutants, medications, harmful microbes, and other environmental contaminants we come into contact with.
When we can not effectively clear toxins from the body, the environment become dysfunctional. Imagine if you never took the trash out in your home? It would not be pleasant to live in there for long!!
Increased toxic burden can result symptoms of illness and disease. Common signs and symptoms of increased toxic burden can include:
To stay healthy and feel our best it's important to understand the basics of detoxification, and learn how we can eat and live in a way that aids the body's essential detoxification processes.
Foods to Help Detox
Food plays a critical role in detoxification. The wrong foods can make it more challenging for the body's natural detoxification system to work by creating inflammation and activating the immune system. The right foods, however, can optimize our detoxification pathways by ensuring the body is getting enough of the proper nutrients for detoxification to occur. Below we discuss the key nutritional areas to focus on for more efficient and effective detoxing.
Protein is an essential nutrient required for healthy detoxification, and should be included in every meal for this reason. Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are used by the liver to transform toxins and carry them out of the body.
Excellent sources of animal proteins include eggs, fish, meat, and poultry. There are also a variety of plant based protein sources to choose from including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole soy (ie: edamame miso, natto, tofu, and tempeh). There is also a variety of protein powders including collagen, whey, hemp, rice and pea varieties that can supplement the diet if needed. It is always important to focus on choosing high-quality protein, which may include lean, grass-fed, organic, non-GMO sources. Aim for a total of 10-12 servings of protein each day to optimize detoxification.
Non-starchy vegetables are the perfect accompaniment to protein at each meal, because of their fiber and phytonutrient content. There are four essential categories of non-starchy vegetables that offer individual therapeutic benefits as it relates to detoxification. In general the goal is to eat some from each category every day. Aim for more than 8 servings a day to support liver detoxification and optimize elimination of waste in the gut.
More commonly knows as cruciferous vegetables, this group provides compounds that help the body metabolize hormones in a balanced way. Examples include: cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, radishes
Detoxifying Leafy Greens
This includes a variety of therapeutic greens that can be used in stir-fries, salads, or smoothies and have anti-inflammatory properties. Examples include: kale, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, cilantro, parsley
From the Allium family, this group provide nutrients like sulfur that help the liver detoxify better. Examples include: onions, garlic, leeks, chives, scallions, shallots
Liver & Kidney Support
This includes vegetables that support healthy bile production in the liver as well as help the kidneys excrete toxins more efficiently through the urine. Examples include: artichokes, asparagus, celery, sprouts, beets
In addition to the above categories we also want to include a variety of other colorful, organic vegetables to provide the necessary phytonutrients for detoxification. In addition to healthy greens, cruciferous veggies and thiols, we also want to regularly consume colorful foods like red beets, peppers, and radishes; orange carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, peppers and winter squash; yellow summer squash and peppers.
Fruits that are high in phytonutrients can be helpful for detoxification because they provide antioxidant protection. Fruits that provide targeted nutrients for liver detoxification include apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes (purple), grapefruit, mandarins, oranges, pineapple, pomegranate seeds, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, and tangerines.
Buckwheat, millet, gluten-free oats, and quinoa are foods that add dietary fiber for enhanced gut elimination and detoxification. It is recommended you opt for certified gluten-free grains unless your healthcare provider determines that you are able to safely include gluten in the diet. At our practice we use advanced testing called Zoomer panels that assess a variety of reactions to wheat and grains, beyond just allergy or celiac testing.
Another crucial aspect to support detoxification is proper hydration. It is important to drink plenty of clean, filtered water throughout the day. The recommended amount of fluids required each day can be determined by measuring body weight in pounds and dividing that number in half, which give you the total ounces of water to consume each day.
Broths, meat stocks, teas (ie: dandelion, ginger, green) and other decaffeinated beverages like fresh, raw, cold-pressed vegetable juices are also good choices to help supplement fluid intake.
Reducing Toxic Burden
Supplying the body with enough of the right foods and nutrients to support detoxification pathways is important. It's also very important to reduce our exposure to toxins and lessen the overall toxic burden the body has to respond to.
We can minimize our exposure to potentially harmful substances by:
Selecting fruits and vegetables that are organic. If you can't buy all organic produce, use the The Dirty Dozen guide, from the EWG, which lists the produce items with the highest pesticide burden, to help you focus on which foods are most important to eat organic.
Cleaning produce well to remove surface pesticide residues, waxes, fungicides, and fertilizers. Soaking produce in a mild solution of additive-free soap like pure castile soap. Washing produce before peeling it so dirt and contaminants aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable. Peeling off the skin or removing the outer layer of leaves of some produce (e.g., lettuce, cabbage).
Buying organically-grown animal products (e.g., meats and dairy) and opting for lean meats over fatty animal products, since pesticides concentrate in fat. Avoiding processed meats (ie: cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage), as well as charred meats, both of which have been linked to increased rates of cancer.
Reducing intake of larger fish like tuna, swordfish, shark, Halibut, mackerel and Chilean sea bass, which have been found to have the highest levels of mercury. Choosing wild-caught fish, as farmed varieties may contain increased levels of hormones and toxic chemicals.
Avoiding processed foods containing preservatives such as benzoate, sulfites, BHT, and BHA; food colorings such as FD&C yellow #5, #6, etc; or artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame
Limiting exposure to canned foods and plastic bottles of water due to the presence of toxins like bisphenol-A which are known as "endocrine disruptors" because of their impact on hormone function.
Minimizing nuts roasted in oil and limiting peanuts which can have have high levels of a mold that produces a potentially harmful compound known as aflatoxin.
Avoiding Teflon non-stick cookware which can release harmful chemicals into your food. Cooking with non-toxic pans, skillets, and pots made from stainless steel, ceramic, glass, and cast-iron pots and pans is a safer option.
Opting for filtered drinking and cooking water whenever possible. The Tap Water Database, can help you select a water filter that can help reduce contaminant levels detected on your local drinking water quality reports.
Using safer personal care and household products. The Healthy Living app makes it easy to determine if your personal care product or cosmetic contains potentially harmful toxins, and helps you find safer alternatives. Choosing safer household and cleaning products using the EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
We feel our best and function at our highest level when the body is able to clear waste efficiently and effectively. We can support the detoxification systems of the body through healthy nutrition and reduced toxic exposure.
For enhanced detoxification support you can check out one of our 14 day detox programs - VegeCleanse Plus (vegetarian protein) or PaleoCleanse Plus (animal protein). If you need more help to develop a personalized approach to detoxification please call 470-266-1380 to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation with a medical provider at Elevate Functional Medicine.
Detox Food Plan Comprehensive Guide. The Institute for Functional Medicine. Version 8, 2020.
Rabia Vaughns, MMS, PA-C is a certified physician assistant who specializes in helping people overcome chronic illness using a functional medicine approach to healing the mind, body, spirit. She is a co-owner of Elevate Functional Medicine.