7 Essential Tips to Detoxify Naturally
So, you’re tired all the time.
The day is a struggle without caffeine.
Maybe sometimes your gut feels a little funky as well. Perhaps you’ve gone as far as to put yourself through several elimination diets, a natural detox routine, meditation…and yet, you still feel crummy and exhausted. You’ve removed three entire food groups, added six new supplements to your routine then tried to choke down a few superfood smoothies. And again, you’re still not feeling as great as you imagined you would feel.
Have you ever thought that your symptoms might be related to your body’s inability to detoxify?
Yes, “detox” is a very real concept! The term sounds like kooky slang but poor detoxification is a genuine issue that often neglects to be addressed when it comes to optimizing human health.
You always hear us say (over and over like a broken record!) that you must get to the root of why your body is not functioning optimally. As crazy as it may sound, the need for detoxification, or at minimum improving detoxification, is the answer more commonly than you may think.
In today’s article, I am going to review the metabolic process of detoxification and explain how you can fight fatigue by utilizing nutrition interventions to optimize your detoxification pathways.
The Detox Craze
In the earlier days of my career, I used to laugh when someone would come to my office begging for a “whole body detox” or “daily cleanse”.
I had every right to think that way, didn’t I? I mean, after all, I was seeing young teenage girls who had just attempted a 10 day cleanse consisting of green juice with an occasional ice cube for dessert. There was even a period of time I had a handful of NFL players jumping on the coffee enema band wagon. (Uhhh no thanks, I would rather consume by mouth.)
So, like most dietitians, I brushed it off, said it was hogwash and moved on.
But then, as years passed, I started to ask myself why? Why do so many people feel the need to purify their system? ESPECIALLY professional athletes. Aren’t they supposed to be the healthiest of us all? Is this really just a craze or is there something off-balance on a deeper, more physiological level?
No question, something is off and in fact it has been off for a long time. But first, let’s review the basics of human detoxification.
What Does it Mean to Detoxify?
Detoxification is a metabolically complicated process, but when broken down, it’s really quite simple.
When we are exposed to toxic substances, there are pathways within our body that are responsible for breaking down these substances and transforming them into metabolites to be excreted by the body. These substances are usually fat soluble but must be morphed into water soluble substances in order to be excreted by the body.
And just so we are clear, toxic substances are not limited to rare and lethal chemicals like cyanide. In fact, anything that you ingest or inhale that is foreign to the human body, is technically a toxin.
It’s not just the cigarette smoke as you walk down the street but its the food dye and artificial sweeteners in your food. It’s the chemicals in your lotion, laundry detergent, and makeup (check the EWG Skin Deep Database to see how your home products are rated). It’s that new car or new home smell (as nostalgic as it is, they’re not good for us). It’s the lead in old paint and chemicals in your car exhaust. It’s the BPA in your water bottle and the glyphosate (Roundup) on your wheat, corn, and soy.
The list goes on and on and on.
We are constantly swimming in toxins.
Toxins can also reside within you. For example, all humans have bacteria in their gut, but when the wrong strains of bacteria overgrow in the wrong places, (SIBO: Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), this can be toxic to the body. Another example: All humans have candida, a naturally occurring yeast in the body but when the candida overgrows, this too can be toxic to the body.
And right about now is the point in time where most people would either click away from this article or lock themselves in a closet for the next 20 years as a way to stay “safe.” However, I hope that you do neither of these things.
Living a life virtually free of toxins is not humanly possible. Trust me, if it were, I probably would not have a job. However, not everyone will suffer from exposure and those who do can absolutely take the steps to cushion the blow by learning how to detoxify.
We are all exposed to toxins from time to time. BUT our genetics and the way that we take care of ourselves PLUS the way we practice nutrition is what dictates how well we will respond.
When you know better, you do better and learning the basics of detoxification today, can potentially save you from debilitating condition years from now.
What I wish more people understood, is that sometimes the reason we are so fatigued, or have a ton of new food sensitivities or funky gut health etc. is because of our body’s toxic burden. Add genetics and poor diet on top of that and we become a ticking time-bomb.
Needless to say, 10 days of green juice, a few ice cubes and a coffee enema is not going to help much as for some people, this is a serious clinical issue.
Bottom line: The more conscious we are of what we put in and on our bodies, the more efficiently we can fight international and external toxins.
So, are You Saying I Need a Daily Cleanse?
Unfortunately, a “daily cleanse” will do almost nothing for you, especially if your toxic burden is truly more than your body can bear. You might feel a little better after your “daily cleanse” because perhaps you have removed foods that your immune system does not like, but you are not supporting your body’s natural detoxification process in the long run.
Just as nutrition should be individualized, so should be the process of detoxification.
Attempting to detoxify is all about fixing gaps and filling in metabolic loop holes for the individual. Sometimes we have to emphasize more protein and other times its more of an issue where we are working on correcting nutrient deficiencies to help the body run like a well-oiled machine.
Here are the top reasons a human’s detoxification system is impaired:
- Your ratio of protein, carbohydrate and fat is completely off-balanced.
- Or, your diet may be balanced in terms of macronutrients, but may be off-balance when it comes to antioxidants, phytonutrients, etc. resulting in micronutrient deficiencies.
- You have been or are being exposed to something toxic from the outside world, or something internally as mentioned above.
- You are constipated (Doesn’t matter the cause).
- You have an induction or inhibition in Cytochrome P450s. (See below)
- You have a “leaky gut”. (Recognized medical term = intestinal hyperpermeability). In other words, the barrier of your intestinal lining has been broken down and now items are sliding through that should not be sliding through.
Please keep in mind that the need for detoxification can be a result of one of the issues listed above, and those who are chronically ill are often dealing with all 7 issues.
At first, these issues may present themselves as fatigue and joint pain. However, 5, 10, 20 years down the line there is certainly a chance that cancer, autoimmune disease, various neurological conditions, etc. may be the end result.
Take a look at the picture below. Stare long and hard, and let it burn into your soul. I say this because so many qualified health care practitioners will tell you that nutrition has nothing to do with detoxification and then here is my favorite “Your labs related to your liver look normal and besides, the liver is meant to detoxify your body so you shouldn’t be worry about it.“
Hopefully if anything, you notice that there are specific nutrients required for phase 1 and phase 2 of detoxification. So let’s say for example that someone is extremely deficient in B6 or glutathione, this could significantly hinder their ability to detoxify, leading them to feel sick or fatigued.
In phase 1, our body takes the toxic compound and breaks in down into an intermediate compound that our body can excrete BUT in the process, it actually turns that compound into something more dangerous and volatile than it was originally. Next, phase 2 takes the compound and prepares to excrete it from the body. Finally, surprise, it’s in the toilet.
Fun fact: Check out all the amino acids in required in phase 2 of liver detoxification. Adequate protein intake is so, so critical for the liver to be able to detoxify! This is why someone following a very low protein diet might struggle when it comes to reversing chronic illness.
If I Don’t Need a Daily Cleanse, Then What are You Suggesting?
Again, this process will look different for each person, but here is a brief overview of what it truly means to help someone detoxify.
Step 1: Your health care provider administers a comprehensive diet and past medical history evaluation. This should be followed by a discussion of your work/living environment in order to help remove or reduce your exposure.
Step 2: We start by attempting to reduce someone’s toxic burden. Sometimes it’s an issue of past exposure and sometimes the individual is living/working in a toxic environment at the moment.
For what its worth, I’ve seen the cross-fit-extraordinaire-dentist who had years of exposure to mercury. The marathon-running-teacher suffering from mold as her classroom was very old and had water damage. The college soccer-star who had 11 vaccines at once in order to compete overseas.
Step 3: We want to make sure gut health is in check. A properly functioning gut is critical for success. The goal is to make sure you do not experience gastrointestinal upset/bloating after meals AND you are having bowel movements at least once a day. We also don’t want to see a circus of large food particles in your stool.
Years ago, when I first began my functional medicine and functional nutrition training, I will never forget learning that people who do not have a bowel movement at least once, ideally twice a day, are actually at a much greater risk for disease down the road.
Why? Because this is often suggestive of their inability to excrete toxins. Particularly those with a family history of autoimmune disease. Makes sense, right? But how many times have you heard a health care provider tell someone, “It’s ok that you don’t go every day, it’s probably just how your body operates.” We’ve definitely heard it and we know a lot of parents who said they were told this when they asked about their children and babies.
Step 4: We want to make sure your weight is in check and nutrient deficiencies are corrected. And yes, maybe your diet is well balanced but stress and certain medications, especially is taken for an extended period of time, can deplete the body of nutrients that are essential for detoxification.
Step 5: If appropriate, it’s time to dive a little deeper into your genetics. This allows us to see which foods, specific nutrients, and supplements are needed in order to support your body’s detoxification pathways.
Who Needs A Natural Detox Most and What Are the Signs?
If you have not felt well for months, or even years, despite major attempts to improve your health, you may be a great candidate for detoxification support with a highly trained Functional Medicine Practitioner.
Common symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Anxiety and or depression that appeared later in life
- Joint or muscle pain
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Poor memory, inability to concentrate, trouble word-finding
- A feeling as though you are “allergic” to everything and it only worsens as time progresses
Those who are most commonly at higher risk for the inability to detoxify would be those who are suffering from:
- Numerous nutrient deficiencies
- Renal dysfunction
- Medications that slow down the elimination process (think pain meds)
- Also, those who eat a Standard American Diet full of chemicals, hormones, refined sugar, pesticides, trans fat, excess caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners.[1,2]
To put this VERY simply, if you are not going #2 each day, those toxins are reabsorbed back into the system = NOT good.
OK, now that we have that straight. Let’s briefly discuss an important genetic component: cytochrome P450s.
Cytochrome P450’s are a family of enzymes, mainly responsible for clearing drugs, lipids, and toxins from the body. When there are variants in these genes, the expression of DNA changes and therefore can alter your body’s ability to clear and metabolize.[3,4,5]
Here’s one example. CYP1A2 is the main enzyme responsible for caffeine metabolism. I am currently working with an athlete who has a CYP1A2 gene variant and as a result, he becomes WIRED from one cup of decaffeinated coffee!! Straight up hands are shaking and can’t sleep well that night even when the cup was consumed early in the morning.
The craziest part of it all? He lived for years with unexplained anxiety and unrefreshing sleep because he was consuming caffeine daily to get through tough workouts and long days at the office. Now that he is caffeine-free, he is a different human.
Yet we have others who can drink a pot of coffee at 10 pm and swear that they sleep like a baby. A prime example of how genetics matter BIG TIME when it comes to your body’s ability to detox.
How Does the Need to Detox Relate to Fatigue/Food Sensitivities, Gut Health etc.?
So, we briefly discussed the cytochrome P450 enzyme family. If there is poor genetic expression of clearance enzymes, A.K.A cytochrome P450s AND the individual is living with a large load of toxins, the human body begins to break down. In other words, the body can no longer clear toxins as efficiently as before.
Fatigue, nausea, joint pain, muscle aches, strange skin conditions- the list goes on and on.
Now, I am not a geneticist nor am I pretending to be, but I do think it’s important to understand genetics on a very basic level if you want to truly understand why one person feels great and another feels ill even if they eat the same foods and live under the same roof.
So, we each have our own genetic code which is categorized by four nucleotides: Letters A,C,T,G. When one letter, or nucleotide, replaces another, it is referred to as a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced “snip”.) A SNP is not a gene mutation, but a gene variant.
Every single human has SNPs, but SNPs differ from person to person. In other words, we all have the same genes, but we have them in slightly different versions. The gene variance is why our metabolism, nutrient needs etc. differs from person to person.
Genetic variations greatly contribute to the ability to clear toxins.
This is why, for example, you might have two individuals exposed to a major toxin- let’s say, black mold in a college dorm- and one roommate does not feel much different after the year ends yet the other roommate cannot breathe, cannot think, can barely move out of bed and is suddenly suffering from depression. The variation of SNPs plays a large role in the difference in tolerance and reaction.  MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) is probably the most widely recognized SNP.
Now, I think it’s worth noting that just because you have a gene variance does not necessarily mean that you will suffer from disease. The variance alone does not mean you are doomed however, it does mean you are at a greater risk.
Ok, moving on.
Let’s say you have poor gut health (as many of us do) from eating junk food, taking meds, feel stressed etc. over the years. This can hinder your body’s ability to detoxify naturally. It basically, “clogs” the detox pathways if you will.
There is a point in phase two detoxification where the body binds (conjugates) and removes estrogen through a process called glucuronidation. Poor gut health leads to high levels of the special enzyme (beta-glucuronidase) that is responsible for the binding and removal of these estrogens. The higher the level of this enzyme, the more estrogen molecules are broken a part vs. paired together for efficient excretion. The end result? Estrogen levels begin to recirculate vs. leaving the body and suddenly we start to experience weird symptoms like fatigue, painful periods, bloating, and we are at a greater risk for developing disease such as cancer as we age.
One of the best ways to fight this process? Probiotics!
Research has shown that probiotics can prevent the deconjugation of estrogen and bile acids, thus improving the body’s detoxification of hormones and toxins.
Are There Certain Foods That Detox Your Body?
Yes, there are foods that support your body’s natural detoxification process. However, loads of kale, cilantro, and water can only take you so far. First, I want you to make sure that you are focusing on these 7 tips as these pertain to everyone, no matter your genetics:
Best Tips to Help Us Detoxify:
- Be mindful of your cookware. Bye bye Teflon! We love these stainless steel pans and these cookie sheets.
- Choose whole foods. AKA, 80% of your diet should be foods that do not have a bar code.
- Eat fiber– at least 25g a day. Think chia seeds, flax seeds, legumes, fruit, and veggies!
- Drink purified water like a champion. (We use THIS reverse osmosis filter in our kitchen. And yes, I would recommend remineralizing your reverse osmosis water.)
- Be mindful of how you prepare your food. I know certain foods taste great burnt, but my motto is “if its black, put it back!” No more burnt meat and veggies. We are finding more and more links to cancer.
- Eat a rainbow of plants. Not joking, the more color you eat, the greater your chances of reversing damage on a cellular level.
- Do not neglect prebiotics and probiotics. Incorporate at least 2 TBSP of fermented foods daily.
The Best Detoxifying Foods
Alright, now let’s focus on the best detoxifying foods.
Eating the right foods can support detoxification at the cellular level. Did you hear that, the right FOODS? Plural. In other words, a juice cleanse will not detoxify you. There needs to be a greater emphasis on amino acid intake from high-quality protein sources such as pasture raised chicken, wild-caught fish, grass fed meats, organic legumes etc. which are lacking in fruit and veggie juices. Furthermore, it’s also about correcting nutrient deficiencies which of course will be different for each person.
Here are some of the best detoxifying foods:
It’s all about a combination of the right foods in addition to everything we listed above. No single nutrient is able to take on such an incredible job, so we all need to stop searching for a magical pill or concoction and focus on working hard on creating a well-rounded approach to detoxicication.
The Best Detoxifying Foods Are…
The foods you should place at the top of your list when trying to detoxify are: Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, rosemary, turmeric, onion, garlic, green tea, walnuts, broccoli, kale, cabbage, arugula, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower.
Antioxidants suppress free radicals produced by phase one of detoxification. The bright beautiful colors you see in many of your fruits and veggies? Those are antioxidants. Aim for AT LEAST two colors at every meal.
Make Brassicas Your BFF
The brassica family is a group of vegetables known for their ability to up-regulate genes responsible for detoxification (AKA, inducers of Cytochrome P450s). Try to incorporate these little guys at least once a day, preferably twice!
The best examples include: broccoli, cauliflower, mustard greens, cabbage, kale, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, arugula, radish, turnip, watercress.
Consider Micronutrient Testing
I wish this was just a right of passage for every human in life, but unfortunately, it is not.
If you have not felt well for a long time, I would strongly consider reaching out to a dietitian trained in functional nutrition in order to see what nutrient deficiencies you might have. I wish I could say that most people are not suffering from this, but oddly enough, in almost 10 years of practice, I have never seen someone have absolutely zero deficiencies. Not even my professional athletes who make millions and have a personal chef.
The Key Nutrients That When Deficient, Will Cause Impaired Detoxification
There are certiain nutrients that we’re most commoly deficient in when we have an impaired ability to detoxify. These include: B vitamins, glutathione, magnesium, CoQ10, alpha-lipoid-acid, N-acetyl-cysteine, and amino acids such as taurine, methionine, cysteine, glycine, and glutamine.
Eat Fiber Like it’s Your Job
Consuming 25-30g of fiber each day (from real food) will help your body detoxify better than any coffee enema, green juice cleanse, or combination of the two with a sauna.
Put the Fiber One bar down and start incorporating more legumes, fruits, veggies, seeds, and nuts.
If you toss 1/2 cup raspberries into your bowl of oats at breakfast, throw 1/2 cup cooked beans onto your salad greens at lunch, enjoy a pear with a handful of nuts for a mid-afternoon snack and incorporate a cup or two of veggies at dinner, you’ve met your 25g target.
Summarizing How to Detoxify
Alright, that was a ton of info. To summarize, eating fresh whole foods, drinking purified water, making sure you are consuming adequate protein, and using non-toxic cookware is goal number one, no matter who you are or what your genetics say. These practices alone can help reverse chronic health issues.
If you’ve already mastered the above and you’re still having trouble, it’s time to schedule an appointment with us or a functional dietitian near you in order to dig deeper. There is a good chance you have a lot to uncover.
Last but not least, if you’re feeling totally overwhelmed but want to learn more, check out the book Detoxification and Healing: The Key to Optimal Health this is a great read to learn more about the detoxification process and how you can apply these concepts to your everyday life.