Detoxification is what your body does naturally to neutralize, transform or get rid of unwanted materials or toxins. It is a primary function, constantly working and interacting with all other functions. So when talking about detoxification, it is about improving and optimizing the function of your body’s own detoxification systems. By decreasing the number of toxins while at the same time supporting our body’s elimination systems with the nutrients it needs to function properly.
What are toxins? Every day our body comes into contact with a cocktail of toxic substances able to cause harm. These toxins take multiple forms, some obvious (such as those found in cleaning products, smog, cigarette smoke and industrial chemicals); some not so obvious (such as the invisible pesticides and herbicides found on unwashed fruits and vegetables, and the invisible chemicals disguised as additives in pre-packaged foods). And even though our body is constantly working to remove these toxic substances from our system before they have a chance to do any harm, without healthy organs of detoxification (including your liver, kidneys, small intestine, large intestine and lower bowel), our internal processes of eliminating toxins may not work as well as nature intended. Sub-optimum elimination means damaging toxins may spend a longer time in the body. How do toxic substances enter and leave the body?
Let’s examine a toxin’s journey:
Step 1: Toxin entry – toxins enter your body either through the air you breathe (via your lungs), the food you eat (via your digestive tract) or your skin (via the surfaces you touch and some personal care products).
Step 2: Toxin transportation – once absorbed, a toxin is transported via the bloodstream to the liver.
Step 3: Toxin breakdown – on arrival at the liver, most toxins are processed by a myriad of enzymes and antioxidants, and rendered non-toxic.
Step 4: Toxin removal – once rendered non-toxic by the liver, these previously toxic materials are able to be safely removed from the body via the kidneys, (in the urine), the skin (through your sweat) & the bowel (in your faecal matter).
By giving your liver a break, your diet goes a long way to dictating the health of your liver. This means if you eat a lot of processed foods high in fat and sugar, or drink alcohol regularly, or consume caffeine daily – over time your liver can become stressed, fatigued or over-burdened. The most common signs of an overworked liver include indigestion following a meal (especially if the meal is high in fat), poor skin condition (due to toxic overload), digestive discomfort (including nausea, flatulence and foul odours from poorly digested food matter fermenting in your digestive tract) and bad breath (also a sign you are not digesting your food properly). Another nasty side effect when your liver is overworked are the severe, long lasting hangovers you experience from over-indulging (in alcohol, sugar laden foods, fatty foods or all of the above).
Detoxification programmes – are they necessary and how do they work?
A healthy liver works to properly recognise, filter and remove toxins from the body.
An unhealthy or ‘sluggish’ liver on the other hand, combined with other poorly functioning digestive organs, can slow the removal of toxins from the body. The more time toxic compounds spend in your body (particularly in the digestive tract), the more likely they are to cause harm over the long term. But, as luck would have it, the liver is the only organ in the human body able to regenerate itself – meaning if you supply it with proper nutrition and restrict its exposure to toxins, your body is able to regenerate new, healthy cells to replace those destroyed by toxic overload.
By giving your liver a break from your usual routine and excluding toxic foods and environmental toxins that would normally travel through the organ to be digested and excreted by the body, you re-charge the organ, allowing it to restore itself to good health. This can be further enhanced if you add to your diet liver supporting foods and herbal medicines, some of which work to encourage the development of new, healthy liver cells. The aim of a well-balanced detoxification programme is to give your body a break from taxing nutrients (alcohol, caffeine, refined sugars, refined carbohydrates and processed trans-fats) that can affect the function and health of the liver and digestive system, while at the same time, using herbs and nutrients healing and restorative to the organs.
The health of your bowel is vital as it works to support the removal of waste products from your body. In order to perform this function, the bowel relies on the correct balance of two key nutrients – fibre and water. Without adequate fibre, waste products are not able to make their way through the bowel for elimination. Adequate hydration is essential to support the effective and timely elimination of waste products. An imbalance of these nutrients may slow the process of waste removal from the body and, in some cases, result in constipation. During a detox, restoring the health and elimination function of the bowel should be a major focus to support the effective removal of toxins.
The following dietary changes are recommended to support your liver and bowel during your natural detoxification programme:
Drink adequate water: without water (at least 2L of water a day), your body cannot flush toxins through the liver for detoxification, nor properly remove toxins through the skin, urine or stool. In fact, without adequate hydration, fibre is not able to do its job of bulking the stool, therefore waste products may be left to linger in the bowel, causing digestive discomfort and disrupting proper elimination. Signs you are not drinking enough water include hard, difficult to pass stools, constipation and dark yellow coloured urine.
Reduce caffeine intake: for many of us, the most difficult part of a detoxification programme involves giving up our daily coffee/s. Even for the short-term, this can be difficult as headaches, nausea, and withdrawals are often experienced on the first couple of days of a detoxification. The best way to side-line these symptoms is by drinking adequate water to prevent dehydration and supporting the liver with detox herbs such as Milk thistle. Remember that tea and chocolate also contain caffeine, so these will need to be limited or excluded.
Reduce alcohol intake: when you consume alcohol, your liver, kidneys and brain are affected by the dehydration it causes, which often results in the cloudiness and headache felt the next day. Adding insult to injury, alcohol also causes a deficiency in some key B vitamins necessary for proper liver detox processes to occur. It is therefore essential you replace both water and B vitamins not only during your detoxification process, but also on your recovery days following a big night out.
Reduce salt intake: salt is hidden in many pre-packaged and processed foods, meaning we often consume more than we think. Salt affects our level of hydration in the body and our processes of elimination, particularly if you don’t hydrate with water regularly. Drinking too much dehydrating coffee and alcohol or consuming a diet low in hydrating fruits and vegetables, can also hinder the detoxification process.
Reduce pre-packaged and processed foods: pre-packaged and processed foods often contain added salts and sugars. These ingredients are combined with foods to preserve their stability and flavour as they sit on the shelf. When it comes to detoxing though, these foods can do more harm than good. The best rule of thumb when it comes to choosing foods during your detox is if it comes in a packet, 9 times out of 10 you probably should not be eating it.
The purpose of a detoxification program is primarily to support the kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system and skin of elimination so that toxins present in the body can be metabolized and excreted. The benefits of a good internal cleanse with an effective detoxification system is necessary for good health.