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These days, health and wellness trends are countless and ever-changing. Among those that seem to have acquired mass followers (as well as skeptics) are detoxes and cleanses. Most of us living in contemporary society feel like our internal and external toxic loads are literally weighing us down, so it’s no wonder people are searching for healthy methods of eliminating the excess. Our supermarket checkout lines are trimmed with magazine headlines shouting about kick-starting your imminent slim-down with a “Five-Day Detox,” or ridding your lethargic digestive tract of stubborn waste matter with a “Three-Ingredient Master Cleanse.” But do any of these work, or is it all hype? Can drinking only juice for several days or rigorously cleaning up your diet to support certain organs help you achieve a better physical balance? When should you do a “cleanse” or a “detox,” and what’s the difference between the two? Is there a difference?
Our Cleansing Organs
The human body is an excellent housekeeper. A healthy, functional body has the natural ability to rid itself of toxins and waste products through its excretory system. Almost any endogenous (from within the body) or exogenous (from outside the body) substance has the potential to be toxic to our bodies if it occurs at the wrong time or place, or in the wrong amount; it’s our excretory system’s job to keep this in check.
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The excretory system is made up of several of our hardest-working organs. The liver processes pharmaceutical drugs, toxic metabolites, and excess hormones; removes bacteria from the bloodstream; and transforms substances that enter circulation — whether through the skin, lungs, or digestive tract — into waste products that are eliminated through urine and feces. The kidneys, which help maintain proper fluid levels, filter waste products from the blood that are then excreted in urine. The lungs, the body’s personal air purifier, inhale oxygen to distribute into the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide through respiration; they also help rid the body of toxins that get trapped in the mucus of the respiratory system. The large intestine at the end of the digestive system turns indigestible, solid matter into feces to be evacuated. The skin, the organ least appreciated for its detoxing functions, steps in to expel chemicals and waste materials through sweat if the liver, kidneys, and lungs don’t do a sufficient job. Working hand-in-hand with the excretory organs of the body is the lymphatic system, which filters cellular waste products before they enter the bloodstream.
Each organ has its unique role in keeping us well and keeping toxic chemicals from building up in our bodies. Together, they make up an elegantly cooperative system that works for us around the clock. So why would a cleanse or detox be needed, especially if we maintain a healthy lifestyle and adhere to a diet of nutritious plants and whole foods?
The Need to Clean
Many of us try to keep unhealthy substances — such as sugar, caffeine, and alcohol — to a minimum. We avoid bleached and refined grains, processed junk food, synthetic dyes, and transfats because they wreak havoc on our waistlines and our gut health. We ritualize exercise to keep our hearts and heads strong. We reach for herbal tinctures and teas to maintain our wellness or to soothe us when we’re feeling unwell. That said, we’re all human, and we partake in the occasional indulgence, be it an extra cup of coffee, a second glass of wine, or too many pieces of Halloween candy. Luckily, our bodies do an excellent job of allowing us, with hardly a hiccup, to dabble in the occasional swerve away from our normal dietary rules.
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But that’s only what we consciously put into our bodies. In addition to the fuel we choose to consume, we’re exposed every day to environmental chemicals that need to be processed by our excretory organs. Over time, the combination of what we ingest and what we’re exposed to, as well as the efficiency of our excretory organs, can affect our metabolism, skin health, hormonal balance, and the speed at which we age. We may suffer from poor digestion, gastrointestinal discomfort, bloating, or gas; our skin may be prone to breakouts; and we may be more prone to illness. In short, we may ultimately need to give our detoxification organs a well-deserved break in order to enhance the function of these important excretory organs.
Cleanse, Fast, Detox
The terms “cleanse” and “detox” are widely used interchangeably. Even popular nutrition and wellness platforms and self-care journals describe detoxes and cleanses as “general processes of ridding the body of built-up impurities for improved health,” without distinguishing one from the other. This is a misconception. While nuanced, there’s a distinction between the two: One has a goal of “taking the load off” the digestive systems by simplifying the diet (i.e., consuming easy-to-digest foods or beverages); the other is intended to “clean up” the diet and enhance the body’s detoxification function by taking out potentially aggravating foods, incorporating foods and herbs that support the organs of detoxification, and considering lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and better sleep, that support the body as a whole.
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A cleanse, or fast, involves undertaking a simplified diet in order to take the burden off the normal digestive routine so it can focus on clearing, rejuvenating, and repairing. This may result in removing built-up excrement, mucus, and toxins from the digestive tract to improve digestive function. Traditionally, people in many cultures have undertaken a spring cleanse as winter food stores ran low and the first greens of spring, such as chickweed and dandelion, became available. While this was typically out of necessity, it had the benefit of replacing the heavy winter diet of carbohydrates and meats with light, digestion-stimulating greens. These days, a cleanse often involves liquids, be it a temporary diet of pressed juices or other liquid diets using apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Popular juice fasts are high in simple carbohydrates and may result in blood sugar spikes that result in “low energy, muscle loss, and poor focus and mood. … Resulting weight loss is due to the bowel contents emptying, but isn’t lasting fat loss.” In fact, juice cleanses may actually slow a person’s metabolism through muscle wasting. A more gentle and moderate approach of eating specifically selected whole, easy-to-digest foods can bring more sustainable, effective results.
A detox, on the other hand, primarily alleviates daily strain on the body’s liver and kidneys by following a specialized diet that removes certain foods, such as meat, dairy, soy, grains, carbohydrates, caffeine, sugar, or alcohol, and focuses on replacing them with a healthful, whole foods diet. This is usually done in conjunction with consuming more water. Essentially, the idea is to remove the substances that slow you down in favor of a “cleaner” diet and an overall mission to “reset” by conscientiously eating, exercising, and resting for a restorative and eventual energizing effect. The protocol you choose depends on what you intend to eliminate through change and the outcome you wish to bring about.
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Detox allows for a considered diet in lieu of juices or other simplified food regimens. There are many foods that specifically work with your body to support the liver as it undergoes metabolic detoxification, the process by which the body breaks down and excretes waste products and toxins. Certain molecules are required as catalysts in each of the detoxification pathways that take place in the liver, and each of us can support our body’s ability to effectively perform metabolic detoxification by ensuring we have plenty of these in our diet. These include sulfur-rich foods, such as Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts); garlic and onions; methyl donors, such as beets, leafy green vegetables, and mushrooms; and vitamins A, C, and E (collards, kale, and spinach).
Ultimately, a temporary cleanse, or a longer-term detox that embraces meaningful dietary and lifestyle changes, can be beneficial methods of periodic maintenance for our hardworking bodies. Either regimen can provide you with a renewed and optimally functioning excretory system, leaving you feeling lighter, clearer, and more energetic. As with any change in your normal diet or exercise program, always discuss the specific cleanse or detox with a naturopathic physician or qualified professional before proceeding.
Digestive and Detox Support Tea
This simmered tea is a lovely way to incorporate digestive and detox support into your daily routine!
- 1 teaspoon burdock root
- 1 teaspoon dandelion root
- 1 teaspoon crushed milk thistle seed
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ginger root
- Honey (optional)
- In a small saucepan, combine all herbs with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, and then immediately reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Strain out herbs. Let tea cool for a few minutes before serving. Add honey, if desired.
How Herbs Help
There are many herbs with targeted healing properties to incorporate into your diet as teas, tinctures, or part of your healthy meals. Herbs can be a beneficial player in any healthy routine and can help support the detoxification process. Bitter herbs, such as dandelion root and burdock root, can help stimulate liver function and support the detoxification process; turmeric and milk thistle can aid in protecting the liver and helping it regenerate from damage.
Burdock root. Photo by Getty Images/13-Smile
Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is a nutritive herb that supports and stimulates healthy digestion, liver function, and lymphatic circulation, helping to remove waste products from tissues. Fresh burdock root can be chopped up and cooked like carrots and other root vegetables.
Dandelion root with leaves. Photo by Getty Images/Madeleine_Steinbach
Dandelion leaf and root (Taraxacum officinale) are both nutritive herbs that can be enjoyed in foods and beverages. Dandelion leaf is used for its diuretic effect on the kidneys, while the root stimulates the liver’s removal of waste products; both are bitter herbs that stimulate digestive function.
Ginger root. Photo by Getty images/4nadia
Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) stimulates digestive function and eases digestive upset, such as bloating, intestinal spasms, and nausea. It makes a delicious pre- or post-meal tea!
Milk thistle seed. Photo by Getty Images/white_caty
Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) is a liver-protective herb that can help liver cells regenerate after damage and protect cells from oxidative stress. Milk thistle seed is a food-like tonic herb without a strong taste; you can easily grind it up and sprinkle it on food.
Turmeric rhizome. Photo by Adobe Stock/bilderhexchen
Turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) is an anti-inflammatory and liver-protective herb. Its bitter and pungent taste also helps stimulate digestive function. Turmeric powder is readily available as a culinary spice and can easily be added to foods and beverages.
Marlene Adelmann is the founder and director of the Herbal Academy, an international school of herbal arts and sciences, and The Herbarium, a virtual membership website for plant enthusiasts. Through the school and online herbal classes, Marlene has brought the wild and wonderful world of herbs to more than 70,000 students across the globe. You can visit her at The Herbal Academy.