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Detox Facts and Fiction

by Sarah Cimperman, ND


Environmental toxins are chemicals in the environment that are harmful to our health. They begin to accumulate before we’re even born and the older we get, the more toxins our bodies contain. So far, scientists have detected 232 different chemicals in the cord blood of newborn infants and 493 different chemicals in people of all ages. As our awareness of environmental toxins and their impacts on our health continues to grow, detox products and protocols are becoming increasingly popular, from fasting and raw food diets to footbaths and body wraps. But do these things really work? And what is detox anyway? A basic understanding of detoxification can clear up the misconceptions.

Detox Facts

Detoxification is the removal of toxins from our bodies and it’s something that our bodies do naturally. In fact, your body is doing it right now. Every single second, our cells are generating energy and waste products as a normal part of metabolism, and every single second, our bodies are working to eliminate these waste products. The same mechanisms that help our bodies excrete natural waste products also help us excrete unnatural compounds like environmental toxins.

Sometimes environmental toxins that should be excreted are stored instead. This happens when we’re continuously exposed to high concentrations of harmful chemicals that overwhelm our capacity to eliminate them, which is often the case in our modern industrialized world. And because environmental toxins are fat-soluble, they’re also stored whenever our bodies store fat, which happens when blood sugar and insulin levels are elevated. High blood sugar and insulin levels are usually a result of eating too many sweets, starches, and processed foods, although high levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, can also be responsible.

The body interprets high blood sugar as a sign that we have more glucose in our blood than we need to meet immediate energy requirements, so the liver turns excess sugar into fat and it’s stored for future use inside fat cells. High levels of blood sugar trigger the release of the hormone insulin, which prevents fatty acids and the environmental toxins that tag along from being released. They are only discharged when blood sugar and insulin levels are low and the body is burning fat for energy. As fatty acids are released back into the bloodstream, toxins are released at the same time.

Detoxification is a process that involves several organs, hormones, enzymes, and nutrients, and it happens in three steps. Mobilizing stored toxins is the first step. After they travel through the bloodstream to the liver, in the second step chemical reactions transform them into water-soluble compounds that are easier for the body to excrete. These chemical reactions are dependent on co-factors like amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. In the third and final step, water-soluble toxins are eliminated from the body through the intestines, kidneys, and skin.

Detox Fiction

Low blood sugar and insulin levels are necessary for detoxification but most popular "detox" protocols include foods, drinks, and/or supplements that can raise blood sugar and insulin levels. These include juice, whole grains, starchy fruits and vegetables, and natural and artificial sweeteners. As a result, elevations in blood sugar and insulin cause toxins to be stored rather than released, and detoxification doesn’t happen.

Fasting and calorie restriction are also popular methods of detoxification, but they can cause more harm than good. Drastically reducing calorie intake or consuming no calories at all will certainly lower blood sugar and insulin levels, but without adequate amino acids from protein-rich foods and the other necessary nutrients to drive chemical reactions in the liver, the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms are compromised and toxins that have been released from fat cells can build up to harmful levels. Fasting is not necessarily detoxification and it should always be done under the guidance or supervision of a doctor.

Simply eating raw food, adopting a vegan diet, soaking your feet, or nourishing your skin is not detoxification. These things may be good for us (or not) and they may help minimize our exposure to toxins, but they don’t detoxify our bodies. Detoxification can only happen under three conditions:

1. Our bodies are burning fat for energy because we have eliminated sweet, starchy, and processed foods from our diet and we’re keeping levels of stress hormones low by getting enough sleep and practicing relaxation.

2. We’re taking in the nutritional co-factors the liver needs to do its job including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids.

3. We’re supporting the routes of elimination by having daily bowel movements, drinking plenty of water, and sweating through exercise and sauna therapy.

The Bottom Line

Done correctly, detoxification can be used to maintain good health and prevent disease or it can be used to improve poor health and reverse chronic conditions, like prediabetes. A truly effective program incorporates a healthy diet, nutritional supplements, regular exercise, stress management, good sleep, and sauna therapy. If you are interested in detox, see your naturopathic doctor for an individualized protocol or read The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings.

References are available upon request.

Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City and author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings (www.prediabetes detox.com). Follow Dr. Cimperman on Facebook, Twitter and her blogs, A Different Kind of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet. Find her at www.drsarahcimperman.com


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