Is a Detox Cleanse a Real Thing?

Flushing toxins with a liver cleanse might sound like a terrific health reboot. But if you're looking for the fastest way to detox, we're got news for you: filtering impurities is the job of your liver, kidneys and digestive tract.

Is a Detox Cleanse a Real Thing? Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/Tetra images/GettyImages

Do you really need to detox the detoxers? The best answer may be: Limit your exposure to toxins and support the health of your organs.

The Problem With 'Liver Cleanses'

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health, there's no scientific evidence that commercial cleanses or flushes remove any more toxins than your body does normally.

What's more, some detox plans could actually be harmful. Take juice cleanses. Drinking unpasteurized juices can make you sick from bacteria. Drinking large quantities of any juice high in a substance known as oxalate can cause kidney stones in some people, and a juice diet can spike blood sugar to unsafe levels in people with diabetes, states the NCCIH.

The agency notes that the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several companies because they sold products containing illegal, potentially harmful ingredients or made false claims about products' ability to treat serious illnesses.

Read More: Symptoms You May Experience During a Cleanse

Other Thoughts on Cleaning Your System

Skip junk food. It's true that people often rave about how much better they feel after a cleanse. However, that could be because their detox diet included no highly processed foods that have solid fats and added sugar, says a Mayo Clinic dietitian. Simply avoid those foods on your own, she adds, and there would be no need for cleansing.

Don't assume supplements are a quick fix. Some cleanses involve herbs and other supplements, but health experts note that use of such products isn't one-size-fits-all. Some, like milk thistle and turmeric, may support liver health, but they still might not be right for everyone. "They can be harmful if you have any liver or kidney issues," says Dahlia Gomez, RD, CDE, an outpatient dietitian and diabetes care and education specialist in San Antonio and spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. "Talk to your health care provider before starting any supplement."

Seek professional advice. People eager for a comprehensive approach to their health might find a good fit with a naturopathic physician, called an ND. Naturopathic medicine blends natural medicine—people's natural healing ability—with conventional diagnosis and treatment. NDs emphasize prevention and treat the individual rather than the disease. Many of them work with patients on personalized detoxification, the NCCIH points out, but they also focus on ways to minimize the impact of environmental toxins on your health, according to the Institute for Natural Medicine.

According to a survey of NDs published in December 2011 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, some of their most commonly used therapies include smart and effective lifestyle steps, like eating more fruits and vegetables and taking individualized vitamins, minerals and herbs that promote a healthy liver, gallbladder and lymphatic system.

A Detox-Free Path to Better Health

Here's how you can get started on your own:

Step 1: Reduce Your Exposure to Environmental Toxins

You don't need to be standing next to a smoker to be exposed to dangerous toxins — though of course that doesn't help! From pumping gas to relaxing by a cozy fire, day-to-day living can bring you into contact with chemicals, pollutants and other dangerous substances.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks people's exposure to hundreds of environmental chemicals by measuring blood levels in participants in the multi-decade study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

As good a job as the kidneys and liver do to filter and eliminate ingested toxins, they don't get rid of all of them. So it's a must to reduce exposure at home, work and play, according to the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Use natural alternative cleaning products as much as you can—vinegar to get rid of grease and mildew, lemon juice to remove stains and odors and to clean glass, baking soda mixed with water for all-purpose cleaning and olive oil to polish furniture. And always bring fresh air into the space while cleaning, with either an open window or a fan.

Wet dusting and mopping are better than dry dusting and sweeping, which often just moves particles around, according to the American Lung Association. To remove allergens and airborne toxins, use high efficiency (HEPA) filters in your HVAC system.

A kerosene heater that isn't properly cleaned and adjusted can give off carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and soot, warns the ATSDR. For better ventilation, leave a window cracked and open the doors between rooms. If you have a fireplace, make sure a professional chimney sweep cleans it regularly, and never burn treated lumber, which can release toxins as it burns.

Read more: 8 Advantages and Disadvantages of Organic Foods

Even hobbies can expose you to toxins. Whether you're changing the oil in your car or crafting with glues and paints, wear protective clothing—long sleeves and pants, gloves, a mask and goggles as needed. Wash your hands with soap and warm water when you're done.

If you're exposed to chemicals on the job, ask for and wear all required personal protective equipment. Shower or change clothes before going home to avoid taking contaminants with you, and wash your work clothes separately from the rest of your family's clothing.

Even if your job doesn't involve direct contact with chemicals, be aware of dust, fibers and fumes. Don't ignore it if you smell something funny or see dust buildup in your workspace.

Step 2: Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins in Food

Buy organic produce when possible—these foods tend to have more antioxidants and bioactive compounds to support health than conventionally grown produce, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine report.

If you're on a limited budget, use the Environmental Working Group's Clean 15 and Dirty 12, its guide to produce with the most and least pesticide residue. "Always wash off fresh fruits and vegetables before you use them, even those with a peel you discard and even those that are organic," Gomez says.

"Olive oil is by far the most researched fat, with heart-healthy benefits as seen in the Mediterranean Diet" Gomez says. "I recommend using it daily, but not when frying as it can burn. Oils that can withstand frying temperatures include peanut oil and grapeseed oil." Avoid charring meat when grilling—this changes the proteins and creates carcinogenic byproducts, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Read more: 11 Healthy Grilling Tips for the Best Barbecue Ever

Mercury is a known hazard in fish, and the bigger the fish, the more it has. Also, check out the Environmental Protection Agency's fish advisories in your area for warnings about locally caught fish.

Chemicals used to make plastics, such as BPA and phthalate, can leach into foods, according to the National Library of Medicine's Tox Town project. They're in food packaging and wraps used not only at fast-food restaurants but at sit-down ones, too, according to a study published in June 2018 in Environment International. Store and reheat food in glass containers as much as possible, and choose safer plastics.

Read more: How Microplastics Might Be Messing With Your Weight

The canning industry estimates that 90 percent of food cans are now BPA-free, but it's unclear if current replacements are safe. "Choose fresh or frozen produce when possible," says Gomez. "When you need to use a canned food, wash the outside of the can with dish soap and water, then drain and rinse its contents before cooking."

According to the American Chemical Society, BPA has not been removed from aluminum beverage cans to the extent that it has been removed from most food cans.

Step 3: Take Care of Gut, Liver and Kidney Health

Liver health. A bad diet threatens liver health while a good diet can protect it. For instance, some fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients enhance liver function, notably green leafy vegetables, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine report.

On the other hand, an abundance of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are threats. "Increased consumption of sugar from sweetened beverages like sodas, sweet teas and juices and from eating pastries and sweets daily can increase the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance," Gomez says. "Processed foods often contain HFCS because it increases shelf life and is cheap to use."

Her advice? "Have whole fruit with all its fiber instead of juice and whole wheat toast or yogurt instead of pastries."

A growing liver threat on the rise is a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which occurs when excess fat accumulates in the liver. One of the most common causes of liver disease in the U.S., it frequently develops in people who are overweight or have type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Gut health. The body gets rid of toxins through waste—poop and pee. Thus, supporting your digestive and intestinal health matters. The bacteria in your intestinal tract love fiber and make up about 70 percent of your immune system—their involvement includes serotonin production and vitamin D metabolism. "Fiber keeps the gut bacteria healthy and keeps us healthy," says Gomez.

While all fiber feeds gut bacteria, you want to eat both insoluble fiber, which keeps you regular, and soluble fiber, the gooey kind that helps flush out cholesterol. The recommended amount of fiber is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams for men.

Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods are great because they're loaded with good bacteria to boost the diversity in your intestines, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Kidney health. Kidneys are your body's filter — they filter your blood every 30 minutes. "To protect your kidneys, keep your blood pressure in control by following the DASH diet, along with your health care provider's recommendations for medications if you're diagnosed with hypertension," Gomez says.

"Diabetes prevention is also important as high blood sugar can damage the kidneys," she adds, recommending a yearly A1C blood test. It provides a snapshot of your blood sugar level and is one of the measures used to diagnose prediabetes and diabetes, according to the NIDDK.

"Exercising at least 150 minutes per week can also be beneficial in both blood pressure and blood sugar management," Gomez says.

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