If you’ve visited a pharmacy, health spa or organic market lately, you’ve probably been amazed by the number of products designed to help remove toxins and pollutants from your body. Herbal teas, supplements, colon cleanses, body wraps and foot pads are just a few of the products and treatments that promise relief from a wide range of symptoms that keep you from feeling your best.
Are toxins in your system the cause of your chronic fatigue, poor digestion, bad breath or recurring headaches? What can you do to get rid of your body’s internal toxins? How do you sort through all the options? Are there things you should avoid?
Here are some things to consider as you begin to navigate the ins and outs of body detox.
Start at the beginning
Dr. Moshe Torem, chief of integrated medicine at Akron General Medical Center says internal cleansing starts with rethinking the substances we put into our bodies in the first place.
Whole foods, like apples, tomatoes or cucumbers, in their natural state, are far better choices than processed foods like potato chips. Sure, the chips contain potatoes, but they also contain a variety of chemicals designed to extend their shelf life or appeal to our taste buds so we will want to eat and buy more.
Natural breads that mold in three days may be inconvenient, but they are far healthier than breads that contain preservatives. The chemicals in the preservatives actually kill the mold (a living fungus) to keep it from growing on the bread.
Think about it. “Mold on bread is like the canary in the coal mine,” Torem says. Miners used to send canaries down into the mines to test the ventilation. If the canary came up from the mine alive, the miners knew they could survive there too. In the same way, bread that doesn’t kill mold is safer for the living cells in our bodies. Food that lasts an unnaturally long time is never as healthy as fresh food, eaten before it spoils.
So, the doctor’s best advice for internal cleansing starts with what we eat and drink:
1. Buy organic and whole foods whenever possible.
This includes fruits, vegetables and eggs. Pesticides, growth hormones and other chemical additives are toxins that we ingest right along with the nutrients we get from these foods.
2. Avoid eating processed foods with added chemicals.
This includes beef or chicken injected with hormones, antibiotics or other chemicals that artificially preserve them, bring them to market more quickly or make them unnaturally tender. All these things are done for marketing purposes, but they add pollutants to much of the food we eat.
3. Drink more water and natural juices, and less soda.
While it’s true that soft drinks are mostly water with carbon dioxide to make them bubbly, they also contain many unnatural ingredients—just read the label. The aspartame in diet sodas is especially bad, according to Torem, as it interferes with cognitive functions and can cause other negative side effects. Juices modified with potassium sorbate to prevent spoiling pollute our systems, too. Opt for natural juices instead.
Supplements and teas
Jon Fiume, vice president of retail operations and natural products at Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacies, says there are many herbal remedies that help the body do the work of internal cleansing.
Herbs like senna, an ingredient in natural laxatives, and milk thistle, used to cleanse the liver, can be taken in small amounts, which are gentler on digestive systems than some more complex multi-symptom cleansing products on the market. They are available as supplements and in the form of teas.
“But not every product is the perfect fit for every person,” Fiume says. That’s why his pharmacists work hard to tailor recommendations to individual clients and to encourage those interested in detox to examine their diet, alcohol consumption and side effects of medications. Exercising regularly and drinking plenty of water are also important.
“I don’t believe in selling quick fixes,” Fiume says. But there are definitely occasions when natural therapies can help. For example, patients who have taken antibiotics to fight infection can experience digestive problems because even the healthy bacteria have been stripped from their intestines. Acidophilus, a natural pro-biotic, can be very helpful, he says.
Four ways our bodies detox naturally
Our bodies naturally release toxins through the lungs, the kidneys, the sweat glands and the gastrointestinal system. Most internal cleansing products and treatments are geared toward working with one or more of those systems.
When we breathe, we take in oxygen and let go of accumulated toxins in the form of carbon dioxide. Intercostal chest breathing is shallow. It is inefficient and requires lots of energy. Deeper, diaphragmic breathing is healthier. It allows the lungs to fill up with more oxygen and exhale more completely. By learning to breathe in a healthy way, we can greatly enhance this process.
Relaxation techniques, guided imagery, yoga, tai chi and meditation are examples of practices Torem recommends to maximize the productivity of your respiratory system and help your body detoxify naturally.
2. Kidney functions
Keeping your kidneys healthy and functioning well helps your body to detoxify by breaking down proteins and getting rid of sodium through the urine. Proper hydration with healthy fluids and avoiding overindulgence in alcohol are two natural ways to keep healthy kidneys functioning at full capacity.
Because water is the heaviest element in the body, and water loss equates to quick weight loss, many people are attracted to herbal diuretics (which cause them to urinate more) as a means of internal cleansing. The risk here is that diuretics can cause damage to kidneys, Torem says.
Some toxins escape our bodies through the pores in our skin when we perspire. This happens regularly even in cold, dry weather when we are unaware of the process because our perspiration evaporates into the air.
Working up a sweat through vigorous exercise is a good way to work toxins out of your system naturally. Therapies like wet and dry saunas should be used in moderation.
4. Digestion and colon function
The digestive system is complex. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach begins to disinfect food before it continues on its path through the small and large intestines. Toxins and indigestible materials exit the body through regular healthy bowel movements.
Some approaches to improving digestion naturally involve 24-hour juice fasts to rest the intestinal system. More extreme treatments involve colonic enemas (that may contain herbs or even soap), colonic cleansing supplements or teas. Aside from enemas as a treatment for prolonged constipation, Torem says the benefits of such treatments are questionable from a scientific standpoint and they introduce new potential dangers. These include toxifying your body with new substances and dehydration—losing too much liquid which could lead to more serious side effects including low blood pressure or stroke.
Herbal wraps, foot pads, soaks and more...
Most “quick fix” solutions to internal cleansing are of questionable value, but people believe that they work, Torem says.
Some products and treatments may actually be harmful. Body wraps, for example, are “not something I recommend that anyone do,” he says. The excessive heat and over wraps that prevent normal ventilation can be especially dangerous to people with diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease or obesity, he warns.
Foot baths probably fall into the category of “no harm/no foul.” The jury may still be out on their scientific benefits, but they can certainly be helpful in terms of both good hygiene and relaxation, Torem says.
Even good things can be bad for you when taken to extremes. Learning to know your body, doing your homework on product ingredients and being aware of potential risks from various cleansing regimes can be the best way to protect your health.
A traditional full-body massage can take an hour or more. It increases circulation and reduces edema so that blood can be filtered more efficiently by your liver and kidneys and do a better job of delivering fresh oxygen and nutrients to the tissues throughout the body.
It also induces a parasympathetic or relaxation response. This ability to “rest and digest” helps the body to slow down, breath more deeply, rest more fully and metabolize foods more efficiently, according to John Bletsch, director of education at the Ohio College of Massotherapy.
Circulation to the lymphatic system can be enhanced with a very superficial, very light form of massage known as lymphatic drainage. A 20-minute neck and facial lymphatic drainage offers immediate, visible results by helping the lymph system to remove toxins and pollutants more effectively.
Bletsch said he has had students whose coloring improved dramatically (from a pasty appearance to rosy glow) with this technique. It may also be useful after oral surgery, for example, to reduce swelling and bruising, Bletsch said.
Vivette Saccone of Body Harmony Massage favors a combination of neuromuscular and trigger-point therapy to release lactic acids from tight muscles helping patients relax and offering relief for specific symptoms like chronic headaches, for example. She uses hot towels and warm rocks in her massages. “The repetitive movement cleans out the acids and gets oxygen flowing to fatigued and stressed muscles,” she says.
All these factors work together to combat the negative effects of ongoing stress and stimulate the body’s ability to detoxify naturally, as it was designed to do.
However, it is important to stay adequately hydrated in the 48-hour period before and after getting a massage. And alcohol is best avoided for the 24 hours before getting a massage to avoid a feeling of nausea during the therapy, according to Bletsch.
“I tell people that just as they would avoid drinking and driving, I recommend that they avoid drinking alcohol and getting a massage,” he says.