Life would be so much more fun if we could indulge in all manner of unhealthy food, drink and other bad habits and then just wash all of the ill effects away with an aggressive liver detox. Unfortunately, that is not the way your body works.
Exposure to heavy metals, chemotherapy or black mold can require medical intervention to remove or neutralize toxins, and dialysis is necessary for people whose kidneys are damaged or diseased.
But, barring special circumstances such as these, detoxing is simply not necessary and the methods touted by people trying to sell you detoxing supplements, teas, diets or kits do not actually work. They are also not generally regulated or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means there is no way to be confident in either the quality or the safety of the ingredients.
Your liver, lungs and kidneys all work together naturally and effectively to identify, screen out and excrete any toxins you may take in. You cannot speed this process up, but with careful attention to what you put into your body, you can support its built-in detoxing systems.
Ditch the Detox Myths
The term detox is a medical one used to describe the process of treating addiction. It has become a popular term for anything from just avoiding sugar for a set amount of time to a full-on water fast, but it is misleading when used this way.
According to the experts at Tufts University, one of the problems is that the companies marketing their detox products either do not define or do not agree on exactly what toxins need to be removed, and exactly how their products accomplish this.
A popular belief about detoxifying — that toxic sludge builds up in your body and can only be forcibly removed either by supplements, teas or tisanes, or by a high colonic treatment — has no basis in science. Your digestive and elimination systems are highly evolved and incredibly efficient. Even if you are occasionally constipated, there is no resulting sludgy buildup. And if there were, as long as you did not rupture your bowels or intestines, it could not poison you.
Another myth surrounding detoxing is the idea that fasting allows your body to concentrate on removing toxins without having to be distracted by digestion and elimination. The exact opposite is true, explains Columbia University's "Go Ask Alice!" advice site.
As laid out by Alice, your body requires nutrients to function, and certain ones are actually required for your body's natural detoxification systems to work. The phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables and citrus fruits, for example, help protect your cells from becoming cancerous and also help your liver to neutralize harmful substances.
Dropping to a very low calorie count can cause your metabolism to slow down, which certainly will not cause your organs to go into overdrive. Your body is constantly rebuilding itself, and that takes a lot of energy. Depriving your body of the calories, nutrients and amino acids that it needs to function at its peak lessens its ability to identify, neutralize and excrete toxins.
Understand How Your Liver Works
Your liver is a small, dark, reddish organ that sits in the top right of your abdomen. Holding about 13 percent of your body's blood supply, which is equal to a pint or so, your liver weighs about 3 pounds. This busy organ has more than 500 different functions, according to the experts at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
After your blood passes through your stomach and intestines, it goes to your liver. Here the blood is broken down into much smaller components. Nutrients are sent back into your bloodstream to nourish you. Your liver breaks down whatever medications you are taking so that your body can use them more easily. It also creates bile, which carries waste to be eliminated either as feces or urine.
Loading your body up with toxins, such as alcohol, nicotine and high doses of medications, can damage your liver. Even if you do not drink alcohol, certain factors can put you at risk for fatty liver disease, warns the Mayo Clinic.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when your liver stores too much fat. In people who do not drink alcohol, this can be caused by several different things, including high levels of fats in the bloodstream, insulin resistance, high blood sugar levels and being overweight.
If the level of fats in your liver becomes too high, it can cause cirrhosis. This happens when your liver tries so hard to fight inflammation that it develops scar tissue. If enough of your liver is scarred, it cannot repair itself — and the damage can lead to liver cancer and the shutting down of your liver.
No fad diet or prepackaged liver detox product will reverse this condition. According to the National Institutes of Health website PubMed.gov, the only treatment for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is to lose between 7 percent and 10 percent of your overall body weight and to exercise.
Learn the Truth About Toxins
Toxins come into the body in many different forms. Environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke and asbestos, an overabundance of minerals or heavy metals, and the abuse of alcohol or drugs can require medical intervention to remove, or medical support to wean you from a dependence on them.
According to the health experts at Rush University Medical Center, products sold over the counter and folk remedies such as a raisin water recipe to remove toxins from your body actually do no such thing. Part of the problem is that the people selling the remedies never specify which toxins their magic cure-alls remove.
One dietary toxin that medical professionals are becoming more aware of is high-fructose corn syrup. It is found in almost all processed foods. According to the Sugar Science department of the University of California-San Francisco, high-fructose corn syrup may be responsible for the rise in cases of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and its more serious counterpoint, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
High-fructose corn syrup is the culprit here because it is the only sugar that is processed in your liver. Most sugars, such as those found in fruit, also contain fiber that slows down the sugar's absorption. So while your body can easily handle the fructose in a pear or a handful of grapes, high-fructose corn syrup floods your liver all at once, overwhelming it.
Even though high fructose corn syrup is recognized as being toxic to your liver, there are no detoxes formulated to eliminate it or to counteract its effects. This is because it is not possible to pinpoint high fructose corn syrup and remove it with any combination of vitamins, minerals or herbs.
The key to avoiding dietary toxins is to eat a plant-based diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats such as those found in avocados, olive oil and fatty fish. If you do that, you do not need to worry about detoxifying your liver or any of your other organs.
Help Your Liver Cleanse Your Body Naturally
There are several ways to help protect and support your liver. The first way, reminds the University of California-San Diego, is to be careful and aware of your use of acetaminophen. This over-the-counter pain medication is toxic to your liver, and overuse can cause liver damage. Acetaminophen is found in over 1,000 medications, and the recommended daily dosage is only 660 to 1,000 milligrams every four to six hours; your daily limit is 3 grams.
Many pain medications contain as much as 500 milligrams of acetaminophen per tablet, so it is easy to take too much. It is especially important to watch your dosage if you regularly drink alcohol, because combining it with acetaminophen can be extremely dangerous to your liver.
You should also avoid antibiotics that contain rifampin. Herbal remedies such as mushrooms containing psilocybin, along with St. John's wort and kava kava, can also affect your liver.
Along with avoiding potentially harmful substances, feeding your body right can help support your liver. According to the health enthusiasts at Healthline, the best foods for your liver include coffee, tea, beetroot juice, blueberries, cranberries, cruciferous vegetables, grapes, grapefruit, prickly pear, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish.
All of these foods contain powerful antioxidants that help slow down the storage of fat in your liver. Antioxidants also have strong anti-cancer properties and can help ease inflammation. Many of them have not been reliably tested on human beings, so do not look to any of them as a cure-all — but include them as part of your healthy diet.
- Coffee decreases fatty tissue in your liver and eases inflammation.
- Tea contains antioxidants that improve enzyme levels in your liver.
- Beetroot juice may protect your liver from oxidation.
- Blueberries contain anthocyanins, which support your immune response.
- Cranberries also contain high levels of anthocyanins.
- Cruciferous vegetables may support your liver's detox enzymes .
- Grapes, especially red and purple ones, contain resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant.
- Grapefruit may help reduce inflammation.
- Prickly pear might help protect your liver from the effects of alcohol.
- Nuts are high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant.
- Olive oil may help reduce the storage of fat in your liver and increase blood flow.
- Fatty fish contains omega-3 essential fatty acids, which reduce inflammation.
It is best to consume these foods in their natural state rather than as supplements. In the case of fruits and vegetables, eating them whole provides benefits such as fiber, which slows the absorption of their natural sugars and helps with effective elimination.
It is especially important to avoid the supplement form of green tea, because there have been reports of this more concentrated form causing liver damage in some people.
While it may seem to make sense that you can flush your liver with water, even that will not speed up its natural detoxification processes — though staying hydrated is one way to support your liver and kidneys while they carry on with their natural detoxing.
- Tufts University: Health & Nutrition Letter: Do You Really Need to "Detox"?
- Columbia University: Go Ask Alice! Can Fasting Really Help Purge the Body of Toxins?
- University of Chicago Medical Center: How the Liver Works
- Mayo Clinic: Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
- Rush University Medical Center: The Truth About Toxins
- University of California-San Francisco: The Toxic Truth
- University of California-San Diego: Protect Your Liver From Acetaminophen
- Healthline: 11 Foods That Are Good for Your Liver
- PubMed.gov: Clinics in Liver Disease: Current Treatment of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease