From the air we breathe to the water we drink to the food we eat, almost everything in our environment is laced with “man-made chemicals and toxic substances.” Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Toxins are also promoted within the human body by sedentary lifestyle habits, poor diets lacking in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. In short, our “organs of detoxification and excretion are overwhelmed and our body is overloaded with waste products and toxic metabolites which render it vulnerable to all sorts of bacteria and viruses.”
This is a terrifying statement, one which is relatively true, and yet it spurs people to make the wrong decisions about dealing with said toxins.
I’m talking about artificial, marketed detox and cleanse programs.
If you haven’t taken part in one of these, then you’re probably one of the few. This seemingly “healthy” and “necessary” trend has taken the health and wellness world by storm, sucking in even the most prominent voices of right and reason.
Of course, when you get right down to the science of the human body, most detoxes and cleanses aren’t “healthy” and definitely aren’t “necessary.”
Alright, yes, it’s oftentimes a good idea to give your body a break from the baked goods, processed foods, refined carbs, and sugar-heavy products, especially following the holiday season. Infusing your diet with lots of plant-based foods that are high in dietary fiber, protein, healthy fats, and loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, while also cutting the processed products is an extra step that will do your body and mind a world of favors.
Yet, this is what is called eating healthy, not cleansing or detoxing.
Not only is their confusion around the need to detox or cleanse, but, as you can see, there’s also a whole lot of confusion around the terms, what they mean, and what they entail.
More and more research is surfacing about detox and cleansing programs in which people follow a highly restrictive diet for a short (or lengthy) period of time that claims to boost your body’s ability to rid itself of toxins. While there are definite ways to aid your body in detoxifying — such as increasing certain foods that boost the health of natural toxin filtering organs and systems — your body is already detoxing on a regular basis, every day!
First and foremost, let’s take a stab at defining the terms.
Detoxification refers to “diets, regimens, and therapies — sometimes called ‘detoxes’ or ‘cleanses’ —” that promise to “remove toxins from your body, [help you] lose weight, or promote health.” The problem with defining a detox is that there actually isn’t one single definition, but a variety of approaches that can be devised by a medical doctor, a naturopath, a nutritionist, or your next-door neighbor. Some of the most popular detox approaches include fasting, drinking juices or beverages, eating only certain foods, using dietary supplements, using herbs, reducing environmental exposures, or even using a sauna.
Cleanses follow many of the same guidelines as detoxes, except they generally include more over-the-counter products. These OTC products are well-known for ‘cleansing’ certain parts of your body such as your digestive tract or lymphatic system. For example, one of the most popular cleanses happens to be a colon cleanse, which is performed by “enemas, laxatives, or colon hydrotherapy (also called ‘colonic irrigation’ or ‘colonics’).”
Why is “healthy eating” lumped into the same category as detoxification and cleanse?
The human body is a natural detoxifier, that’s why we have a host of organs and systems that naturally detox our bodies on a regular basis — through fecal mater, through urine, through our pores, and so on. What we eat is a crucial component for a healthy body and therefore healthy detoxification. By eating a diet rich in plant-based foods that are filled with dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, you’re basically boosting your body’s ability to rid itself of those toxins and environmental stimulants on a daily basis.
Eating a healthy diet is a forever detox that doesn’t involve highly restrictive habits, chemical products, or uncomfortable cleanses.
Human Body Detoxification 101
I’ve talked the talk about the human body detoxifying itself on a regular basis, but how exactly does this take place? If you’re geared up to really enhance your body’s ability to detox, then this is the first step — education on the natural detoxification systems. Below are the main organs that provide detoxification. Keep in mind, there are more to the puzzle, such as skin and the respiratory tract, yet the below highlighted are the main game-changers.
First, let’s tackle the big behemoth, the liver.
The liver “represents the body’s major detoxification system.” To begin, this organ “inactivates and removes toxic substances that have been ingested,” including many environmental factors such as “food additives, harmful minerals, toxic medications, [and] excess hormones.” On top of that, the liver also extracts “residues and waste material” from the blood and excretes them via “the intestines or kidneys.” What about protection from natural dangerous agents? The liver is there for you! Within the liver, there are Kupffer’s cells, which “filter and destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and cancerous cells.”
As I said, the liver is a behemoth when it comes to detoxing the body!
Next up? The kidneys! The liver and kidneys play many roles in tandem, yet you need both of them at high functioning levels to really get those toxins out of your body.
Your kidneys purify “the blood from harmful substances, such as toxic medications and other chemical substances, by filtering them out of the blood and excreting them in the form of urine.” On top of that, the kidneys also “remove acid that is produced by the cells of your body and maintain a healthy balance of water, salts, and minerals — such as sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium — in your blood.” Why is this important? Without proper balance the body’s “nerves, muscles, and other tissues … may not work normally.”
When you think of the intestines, you may not realize that the tract stretches all the way from “the mouth to the colon.” Plus, it’s not just for digestion, but the intestines are also tasked with “the elimination of toxins.” Digestion takes center stage, yet “as soon as the different phases of digestion are completed, the nutrients, … penetrate through the intestinal mucous membranes” and are transported to the liver.”
Yes! We’re back to the liver momentarily.
The liver does what it does best — detoxes — then “redistributes the nutrients into the bloodstream” and the “various chemicals, toxins, drugs, heavy metals and excess sex hormones that were extracted, are dumped by the liver into the bile” at which time they are carried back into the small intestine. From the small intestines, these toxic materials “continue through the intestinal tract to exit the body in the stool.”
You may think the intestines are done, but not quite.
The last step of the process takes place in the colon, where “whatever can still be utilized … such as fiber, is broken down with the help of the intestinal micro flora, and is transported to the liver for detoxification.” The remaining “insufficiently digested, large alimentary molecules and toxic residues remain in the intestines to be excreted with the fecal matter.”
The Lymphatic System
While the liver is a behemoth in the detox department, the lymphatic system is both a detoxifying force, as well as our body’s main line of defense against foreign invaders. The lymphatic system not only aims to defend the body, but it’s also one of the main agents in the “purification of the body fluids.”
At all times, there are “about two liters of lymph fluid [circulating] in our lymphatic vessels that cover the body from the tips of the toes to the top of the head.” This lymph fluid allows “the waste products to leave the cells and be carried away to the venous bloodstream and evacuated.” The network is vast: lymphatic capillaries lead to lymphatic vessels and “finally to the lymphatic glands.” The entire system is necessary, yet the glands are really where the action is at. Lymphatic glands “are stations where infectious agents are filtered and lymphocytes (white blood cells, ‘the police’) are produced.”
You’ve definitely heard about the spleen and you know you have one, but did you know it’s one of the main components of your detox system?
First off, the spleen is “part of your body’s lymphatic system” and its main job is to “filter your blood.” Along with filtering your blood of toxins, your spleen also “affects the number of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body, and the number of platelets, which are cells that help your blood to clot.” On top of that, when the spleen “detects bacteria, viruses, or other germs in your blood, it produces white blood cells, called lymphocytes, to fight off these infections.”
The Myth of Detox and Cleanse Programs
I may be ragging on detox programs, yet seeking to get your body healthy is an admirable goal. In fact, humans have been practicing this health trend for thousands of years. From the Native American sauna-like sweat lodge practices to the bloodletting, enemas, and fasting of the 20th century, we’re dead set on getting rid of those “bad bugs” in our bodies.
With that said, besides mentally tricking us into feeling healthier, are detoxes and cleanses actually healthy?
Based on emerging research, the answer grows closer and closer to an outright no with a side of high health risks. This is especially compounded by the fact that many people go into detox programs and cleanses without seeking medical advice.
In a recent article published by the Harvard Medical School, Harvard Women’s Health Watch entitled The Dubious Practice of Detox, each of the most popular types of detoxes and cleanses were analyzed in regards to actual scientific evidence regarding effectiveness.
Here are two specific cases, which outline why detoxes and cleanses are not only unnecessary but oftentimes dangerous.
Case #1: Master Cleanse Diet
One of the most relevant examples was the analysis of the Master Cleanse Diet — involving a 10-day diet of warm salt water, a concoction of “water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper,” and a cup of laxative tea. The analysis found that during the cleanse, dieters lose weight drastically, mostly from fluid loss, “frequent bowel movements, or diarrhea produced by saltwater and laxative tea.” Yet, “once the dieter resumes normal eating, rapid weight gain follows.”
Plus, the health risks of this diet are far greater then what you may gain.
First off, the Master Cleanse is “lacking in protein, fatty acids, and other essential nutrients,” as well as carbohydrates. Basically, you’re starving your body of the nutrients it needs to actually detox naturally. On top of that, the “daily laxative regimen can cause dehydration, deplete electrolytes, and impair normal bowel function,” all of which, once again, disrupt your natural detox systems. This cleanse has also been shown to “disrupt the native intestinal flora, [the] microorganisms that perform useful digestive functions,” which — if the diet is performed regularly — can lead to “metabolic acidosis, a disruption of the body’s acid-base balance.” Metabolic acidosis “can lead to coma and death.”
Case #2: Intestinal Cleansing
If you haven’t seen the pictures on the internet of intestinal cleansing, then you count yourself lucky. Basically, an intestinal cleanse is meant to shave off all the icky buildup on the inside of your colon, leaving it smooth and shiny and clear of debris.
Yet, don’t let those pictures persuade you into performing this cleanse. First off, many of these pictures are actually faked. Secondly, when they aren’t faux, “they are probably showing stool generated by large doses of the regimen’s fiber supplement.” In short, you’re paying for a cleanse to help you have a large bowel movement.
Per The Dubious Practice of Detox article, there’s actually “no medical evidence for the cleansing procedure as a whole.” Furthermore, the analysis of intestinal cleanses found that the rational — “to dislodge material adhering to the colon walls — is fundamentally mistaken.” How so? Well, the article explained that “when fecal matter accumulates, it compacts into firm masses in the open interior of the colon; it does not adhere to the intestinal walls as the ‘sludge’ depicted in the advertisements.”
Let’s just call a spade a spade … it’s a scam.
Plus, intestinal cleanses follow the same risk guidelines as the Master Cleanse with a drastically increased risk of “dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, impaired bowel function, and disruption of intestinal flora,” all of which negatively affect your body’s ability to naturally detox.
Alright, so detoxes and cleanses aside, how can you boost your body’s ability to kick those environmental and internal toxins to the curb? Start out by making sure your detoxing organs and systems have the nourishment and care they need. Luckily, fiber-rich and antioxidant-packed plant-based foods are the best way to make this happen!
Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, beets are one of the best plant-based foods to keep in your kitchen! They’re incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, folate, vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, and iron. Plus, these vibrantly colored veggies “contain high levels of antioxidants and other health-promoting properties.” When it comes to detoxing, “beet juice can amplify specific enzymes that support the liver and aid in detoxification.”
Try out a few of these make-you-love beets recipes: Flourless Cake with Walnut and Fig Crust, Beet and Balsamic Hummus, Beetroot Cake Porridge, Pink Latte, Orange Vinaigrette Beetroot Salad, or this super simple Beet Soup.
Apples are not only a super easy snack to take on the road, but they are also a great healthy treat to curb that sweet tooth! On top of that, they’re known as a great aid for your body’s detoxification systems. Apples contain a soluble fiber called pectin, which “helps purge toxins from the bloodstream and lower LDL cholesterol.”
Plus, cooking with apples couldn’t be easier! Slice them up raw for a snack or try some plant-based creations: Apple Pie, Apple Cinnamon Buckwheat Porridge, Half Rainbow Salad, Fermented Apple Probiotic Butter, Fresh Apple Cinnamon Juice, or this Apple Chia Jam.
Much like beets, cilantro is one of those foods that people either love or hate. Except, when it comes to cilantro, your dislike may be implanted in your DNA! With that said, no matter what, cilantro has always been known as one of the best plant-based herbs to boost your body’s detoxification. Why is this? Cilantro is what’s called a chelator, which means it “binds to heavy metals and [helps] your body excrete them.” Per a 2013 Scientific World Journal study, “cilantro can enhance mercury excretion and decrease lead absorption.”
Looking to get cilantro in your kitchen? Here are a few fun ways to utilize this heavy metal-fighting herb: Mint and Cilantro Chutney With Ginger, Cilantro, Lime, and Black Bean Rice, Cilantro Lime Rice, Cilantro Lime Glazed Chickpeas With Mango Salsa, Super Green Parsley and Cilantro Smoothie, or these Cilantro Lime Tacos.
So, this one may not be a plant-based food perse, but water is an integral component of a healthy body. Water “regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints, aids digestion and nutrient absorption, and detoxifies your body by removing waste products.” Yep, water is an essential component for ridding yourself of toxins and waste! This lovely, plentiful liquid “transports these waste products, efficiently removing them through urination, breathing, or sweating.”
But, this doesn’t mean you have to focus on drinking plain old water! You can mix that water up into yummy beverages to get your daily hydration such as Good Morning Beet Juice, Fresh Lavender Lemonade, Raw Turmeric Ginger Smoothie, Juicy Grapefruit Green Juice, or this Spicy Carrot Clementine Juice.
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