Detox. Toxins. Cleansing. If we don’t periodically elect to ‘go on a detox’, toxins will build up and up in our bodies until eventually we’re glowing green and sliding around in our own noxious sludge. Luckily, juice companies have our back. The annual purging is simple (and often expensive, but you can’t put a price on health, right?): all you have to do is drink your food for a week, allow it to cleanse your liver and blood, and you can look forward to gliding around vibrantly, wearing white and hanging about in meadows.
Thank God for juice detox companies. Without their help we’d have gone extinct ages ago.
What’s a toxin?
A toxin is a substance that we can absorb, inhale, ingest or that otherwise finds its way into our bodies, that’s foreign to us and could cause us harm. Things like cigarette smoke, air pollution, herbicides, pesticides and cosmetics can all be toxins. Substances produced by micro-organisms and plants can also be toxins. ‘Toxin’ is another word for ‘xenobiotic’ (xeno – foreign; biotic – relating to living organisms), which is what I’ll call them here.
In short, xenobiotics are everywhere, they’re inevitable, and they’re impossible to avoid.
What actually IS detoxification?
Detoxification isn’t a process we can undertake deliberately. We can’t set aside a week out of the year to just get it done as though we’re cleaning out the garage.
Your body is a master at keeping out and/or getting rid of things that could harm it. It is constantly neutralising and evicting would-be troublemakers. It doesn’t need us to ‘go on a detox’. Think about it: over a lifetime, we are subject to a pretty huge toxic load, some self-inflicted and some not. If blowing £200 on a week’s worth of juice for one guilt-ridden week each year was mission critical… well, we’d all be screwed, wouldn’t we?
That isn’t to say we don’t need to provide our bodies with what it needs to get the job done – we absolutely do – but we do that with what we eat, every day, consistently, over time. That detox tea you remember to drink once every couple of weeks is doing bugger all.
Several organs have a role in detoxification:
- The digestive system
- The liver
- The kidneys
- The skin
- The lungs
However since the liver is the main site for detoxification, I’m going to talk about that and why it’s capable of doing its job without our input.
What does the liver do with toxins?
After leaving the digestive tract, food, pills, alcohol and anything else you’ve swallowed goes to the liver before it’s allowed access to the rest of the body. This is obviously an excellent move on the body’s part as it minimises the likelihood of things that are likely to kill you getting out into general circulation. This is why some drugs can’t be taken orally – the liver metabolises them before they make it to the target tissue.
Liver detoxification takes place in two main phases. Phase one makes xenobiotics water-soluble, and phase 2 conjugates them to another molecule which can dissolve in water, allowing it to leave the liver either via the blood to the kidneys to be peed out, or in bile to be excreted as part of poo.
The liver is a busy organ. Detoxification is only one of its many roles. It burns a few hundred calories a day just going about its business, so unless you have liver disease or legitimate drug or alcohol problems, you don’t need to worry that it isn’t managing its workload.
It’s January 3rd. I’ve been hungover for three weeks straight and now I feel guilty. Is there something I can do to help my liver?
Yep, absolutely – although you aren’t going to reverse the damage caused by a three-week bender (sorry, but let’s keep it real. It’s a good liver. It isn’t a magic liver). However, there are no short-term fixes with your diet; this is stuff that needs to be done day after day, year after year.
The different detoxification phases make use of a number of nutrients which you need to supply via your diet.
Phase 1 requires B vitamins, BCAAs, glutathione, flavonoids and phospholipids. These are pretty readily available. Cook from scratch, eat your veggies, get enough protein, keep it varied and stick to unprocessed foods as much as possible. This will ensure you get adequate amounts of each of these nutrients or their precursors.
Phase 2 requires B vitamins, amino acids, glutathione and sulphur. Well, this is interesting. Vegetable and fruit juices aren’t exactly known for their protein content, and yet… Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Cysteine, an amino acid, is prerequisite for glutathione synthesis. Cysteine and methionine (another amino acid) are important sources of sulphur. In order words, protein is needed for phase 2 detox, which means juice alone just ain’t gonna cut it.
There is also a sort of ‘unofficial’ phase 3: elimination. Detoxifying is all well and good but we have to get the metabolised baddies out of the body, too. Some go to the kidneys to be peed out, the rest form part of poo. If you’re all bunged up because you’ve been living on beer and take-away they ain’t going anywhere, so make sure you’re getting adequate fibre and staying hydrated. In related news, what’s removed in the juicing process? Oh yeah, fibre.
Another thing. Not only is it stupid to deliberately deprive your body of a the nutrients needed to complete the job, it can also create problems. Phase 1 of detoxification makes xenobiotics reactive and forms radicals. If they aren’t picked up by phase 2 (or antioxidants), they will react with other molecules and cause more damage than even the initial substance might have caused. We need phase 2 to be active in order to stop these radicals wreaking havoc. For that, we need amino acids. And to get it all out of the body, we need fibre. Juice is a poor source of both.
Other things that can impact your body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate xenobiotics are your genes, your age, your gut flora, certain drugs, grapefruit (if you decide to start shoveling in grapefruit when you’re on medication, best to speak to your doctor because it inhibits certain phase 1 enzymes which can in turn affect medication dosages). In other words, factors that are part of your wider state of health and lifestyle, and won’t be addressed or corrected with a carrot juice.
TL;DR: Juice fasts are a waste of money
So you can see from the above why juice, detox tea, fasting, tinctures, massage and anything else that claims to be ‘detoxifying’, isn’t. Or at least not in a way that’s going to make any material difference to your health. It might make a material difference to your bank balance, but that’s about it.
We can’t do anything to ‘cleanse’ the body (I would be interested to know what people think is happening to their insides when they’re cleansing). The body isn’t like that cupboard under the stairs which gradually accumulates more and more crap until it becomes a legitimate health and safety hazard and you’re forced to clean it out. It doesn’t need cleaned. It just needs fed appropriately.