Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.
Detoxes can be a healthy way to support your body. But, contrary to popular belief, the best detoxes aren't restrictive or unsustainable. The body has a built-in detoxification system starring the liver, so all you need to do is give the body a little help. A detox that involves eliminating packaged foods and including a variety of antioxidant-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, quality proteins, and some of the nutrient-rich foods is a safe, long-term approach to living a more vibrant life.
Here's how to tell if you need a detox and exactly how to do it the healthy way, no cayenne-laced lemon water required!
Why do we even need to detox?
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Many people are quick to say detoxes are a hoax, arguing the body is more than capable of taking care of itself. "In a healthy body, the process of detoxification runs smoothly," Mark Hyman, M.D., functional medicine doctor and New York Times bestselling author, told mbg.
But the truth is our bodies might not be fully equipped to deal with the toxic burden they're now facing. Explains Hyman, "When you become toxic, the mechanism for detoxification in the liver gets sluggish, and certain toxins can remain active longer than we want or than our systems can handle. This makes us sick and impedes normal metabolism. It also causes fluid retention, bloat, and puffiness."
Today, more than ever, we're bombarded with toxins—from pollution to preservatives, pesticides, and excessive sugar in the foods we eat. These things have the potential to throw blood sugar out of whack, deplete nutrient stores, cause a buildup of substances such as heavy metals, and lead to chronic inflammation—all of which can make us tired and sick. And we'll continue to feel this way unless we make a shift to detoxify.
"The key becomes figuring out how to enhance your body's capacity to detoxify and get rid of waste while minimizing your exposure to toxins," Hyman said.
Although we can't always control the world around us or our exposure to all pollutants and chemicals, we can make strategic dietary changes that can help counter their effects by supporting the liver, healing the gut, maintaining healthy blood sugar, and lightening our overall toxic load. This, in broad terms, is what a healthy detox diet should do.
Signs you may want to consider a healthy detox diet.
Think back to the time in your life when you felt the healthiest. How does your current state compare? If you feel significantly less vital, or you've never felt that great to begin with, then it could be time to rethink what you're eating and try a detox.
Of course, some of these could also be signs that you are sleep-deprived or dealing with another health condition, so be sure to consult your health care provider if you're concerned.
What to eat on a detox diet.
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Since there is no official definition of "detox diet," the suggestions and foods below should be considered to be a framework that can be customized based on your specific needs and preferences rather than a set of strict rules:
Step 1: Start with a strong, whole-foods-based diet.
A good first step is ditching packaged foods and focusing on whole, preferably organic foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, sustainably raised meats, fish, eggs, and minimally processed oils such as olive or coconut oil.
This means you'll be taking a break from most of the foods and additives that tax your system (e.g., added sugars or artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, refined carbohydrates, trans fats), as well as some chemical pesticides from conventional produce, and adding in nutrient-dense foods that will nourish the body and keep blood sugar levels stable.
Step 2: Consider eliminating common food intolerances.
Sometimes the "toxins" that make it more difficult for our bodies to function optimally are foods that we're intolerant or allergic to, but we don't know it yet. Allergies are more obvious and often involve swelling and trouble breathing. But intolerances and their symptoms are subtler and can trigger an inflammatory response in the gut that leads to full-body inflammation and symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, eczema, joint aches, and migraines.
Common food intolerances include soy, gluten, corn, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, and dairy. If you have some of the symptoms above, then consider eliminating potential trigger foods for a period of time (it usually takes a few weeks to notice a difference), preferably under the supervision of a doctor or registered dietitian. You'll also want to consider eliminating alcohol during this period because your body registers alcohol as a toxin and relies on your liver to process and eliminate it, which puts more stress on that organ.
Step 3: Add in specific detox-friendly foods.
At this point, you have a great base diet full of nourishing whole foods. But now it's time to get more strategic and add in specific foods that have been shown to improve digestion, help heal the gut (since a leaky gut allows unwanted toxins into the bloodstream), and support the liver or assist your body's detoxification processes in other ways. These 12 are a great place to start:
1. Sea vegetables
Chlorella, specifically, is a powerful chelator and has been shown to absorb 40% of the heavy metals in a test solution within seven days.* More recent research on animals has demonstrated its ability to support the detoxification processes that rids the body of toxic metals and chemicals, such as mercury.* Consider adding a scoop of chlorella to your morning smoothie. Need some inspiration? Try this recipe.
Dark leafy greens such as dandelion greens, arugula, spinach, and kale (and even algae like chlorella) contain plant chlorophylls, which help remove chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals from the bloodstream.* Specifically, early research shows that chlorophyll can reduce the risk of liver damage caused by aflatoxins (dangerous compounds produced by fungi that can be present on a variety of foods, including peanuts) by increasing the activity of certain enzymes and removing toxins.*
3. Cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts contain sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates, which are protective against chronic conditions, help maintain the body's normal inflammatory response, and, according to renowned functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, M.D., help the body remove toxins.*
One study found that a drink made with broccoli activated enzymes that help pick up pollutants from the bloodstream and flush them out via urine.* Cruciferous veggies are also high in fiber, which helps feed "good" probiotic gut bacteria and promote healthy digestion.* That's critical because a damaged (or leaky) gut allows various toxins and bacteria into the bloodstream, contributing to issues like systemic inflammation.*
These ruby-hued roots contain a type of antioxidant called betalains, which help promote normal inflammatory processes in the body and support liver cell repair thanks to their potent antioxidant properties.* Beets also boast high amounts of dietary nitrates, which can expand blood vessels and enhance blood flow and thus help to maintain healthy blood pressure.*
Consider blending your beets with a peeled orange, some ginger, a splash of seltzer, and some ice for a refreshing treat.
If you're craving a sweet treat on your detox, then opt for deep-hued berries such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. These are all relatively low-sugar and high-fiber, which means they'll help keep blood sugar stable and cravings at bay.*
They're also loaded with phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which have potent antioxidant properties that scavenge free radicals and enhance brain health and mood.*
6. Green tea
Here's a great reason to make a morning cuppa matcha a habit. The phytochemicals in green tea induce phase II detoxification pathways. In phase I, toxins are made water-soluble by enzymes, and in phase II, toxins are bound to protective chemicals that neutralize them and allow them to be eliminated via bile or urine. The polyphenol antioxidants in green tea are also anti-inflammatory and have disease-preventing effects.
Forget lemon water, adding some lemon (or lime or orange) zest to your morning smoothie is an even better idea. Turns out that citrus rinds contain a compound called D-limonene, which has been shown in animal studies to help reverse oxidative damage caused to the liver as a result of a high-fat diet. Sipping on lemon water throughout the day still has its perks, though—it's a great way to stay hydrated, which helps promote the movement of toxins out of the body.
9. Herbs and spices
If you're experiencing digestive woes, then consider adding parsley to your diet. This often-overlooked herb acts as a natural diuretic and helps prevent bloating. It also contains anti-inflammatory vitamin C. Cilantro is another great pick because it has been shown to help accelerate the excretion of heavy metals like mercury and lead from the body. Try adding both of these herbs to your morning smoothie. Want more of a kick?
Go for ginger, a spice that promotes balanced blood sugar and optimal digestion.* Or start using more garlic, which contains naturally detoxifying sulfur compounds (just like cruciferous veggies) and combats the growth of unfriendly bacteria in the gut.
10. Fermented foods
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods are loaded with "good" probiotic bacteria, which promote healthy digestion and a healthy, stable gut that keeps toxins out of the bloodstream. And according to functional medicine experts like Lipman, they may also help clear heavy metals out of the body.
11. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds, particularly hemp, flax, and chia, are rich in fiber and antioxidants that promote optimal digestion and move food through the body faster, which therefore aids in toxin removal. Nuts are great, too, particularly walnuts, which have high amounts of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats help reduce inflammation and can boost learning, memory, and overall brain function.
12. Bone broth (and other glutathione-boosting foods)
Glutathione is an antioxidant concentrated in the liver that helps bind toxins and escorts them out of the body via urine or bile. Glutathione also enhances the absorption of various nutrients in the foods you eat. "Lower glutathione levels, [however] ramp up oxidative stress, free radicals, and infections," Hyman told mbg. "Low levels also overload and damage your liver, making it unable to detoxify."
Glutathione can be obtained directly from a few foods, including avocado and asparagus, and it can also be produced by your body from the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. Foods containing the building blocks of glutathione include bone broth and sulfur-containing foods such as cruciferous veggies and garlic. Getting enough vitamin C, vitamin D, and minerals like zinc and selenium are also important for glutathione production. (For detox supporting supplement recommendations, check out our liver supplement roundup.)
Step 4: Don't forget to move your body and get plenty of sleep.
Sweating takes some of the detoxification burden off your liver. According to Wendie Trubow, M.D., functional medicine gynecologist, detoxification is dependent on two critical factors: avoiding additional exposure to toxins and removing toxins that are present in the body. Ridding the body of the toxins is done through two major pathways. The first is by improving liver function, and the second is through sweating. "The skin is our major detoxification organ, and sweating is the best way to get the toxins out of our body," she says.
If you don't exercise already, then start with something like walking and build up to 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day. Strength training is also helpful. In addition to exercise, sweating can be done with infrared saunas, steam, or Epsom salt baths.
Additionally, aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night. "During restorative sleep, the brain is able to repair cellular damage from toxins and other exposures," Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., integrative neurologist, told mbg. "Make sure you're giving your brain a chance to slow down and repair itself every night by getting enough sleep."
Bottom line: Detoxes (done right) can be a healthy way to support your body.
Our bodies are exposed to more toxins than ever, and a safe, whole-foods-centric detox can counter some of the damage. A common misconception is that detox diets must be extreme, that they're expensive, or that they're all green juice misery—but this doesn't have to be the case. In fact, they can (and often should!) resemble a pretty simple, balanced, whole-foods-based diet. No pricey prepackaged meals necessary.