Predictably, lots of people I know are using a quiet January as a chance to detox. They are mainly just abstaining from alcohol, but some are also steering clear of sugar and fatty treats too. At the other end of the spectrum, there are detox diets that involve days of fasting then only drinking juices and water. But the question is, is it worth it?
What is a detox and who needs to do it?
Detox, or detoxification, essentially means the removal of toxins from the system. Our bodies are built to do this themselves via the digestive system, liver, kidneys, and the skin. The more “toxins” that are ingested, the harder these organs have to work to get rid of them to prevent them doing damage. So if you have been eating a reasonable diet and drinking alcohol responsibly, and you generally feel well, it is likely that your organs are doing ok by themselves. However, if you have been over-indulging for a long period of time, you feel sluggish, tired and unwell, and/or your digestion is slow and not functioning very well, it is likely that your body could do with a bit of a break and some looking after.
Why it might help
Fatty foods and alcohol put extra strain on your liver, as it has to produce more bile and enzymes, to emulsify all the fats and break down alcohol in your blood. Cutting out or significantly cutting down fried foods and alcohol will, a) give your liver a bit of a break and b) allow your tolerance to alcohol to decrease a bit. The problem with having a high tolerance to alcohol is that you end up drinking more to feel an effect, which causes more damage in your body. It’s also more expensive!
In more extreme detox diets, almost all fats and proteins are cut out and all your energy comes from fruit and vegetables. Cutting down protein will spare your stomach and pancreas from having to produce the chemicals necessary to break it down, and will lessen work carried out by the kidneys to remove any excess amino acids (protein building blocks) from the blood. However, protein is essential for growth and repair of the body, so restricting intake for a long period of time can lead to health problems. While reducing fat will spare the liver, it is essential for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and fat is needed for the production of hormones and healthy cells, so again, that isn’t sustainable for any length of time. The other problem with very low-fat and -protein diets is that you will be eating high levels of carbohydrates (which are essentially complex sugars), which have to be broken down by enzymes from the pancreas, and will lead to lots of sugars in the blood and greater demand for insulin to store it all away.
Comparisons of different diets usually come to the conclusion that a Mediterranean diet leads to greatest health, lots of fruit and vegetables, but also plenty of healthy poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats and protein from seafood, beans, nuts, seeds and pulses. So, ultimately, you are better off sticking to a healthy diet and cutting out unhealthy, high-sugar, deep fried food, than going the whole hog and subsisting on juices for a month.
Herbs to help you along the way
If you have decided to cut out/down the alcohol and unhealthy foods for a while, you can help the whole detox process by adding some herbs in the form of teas or added to your food when cooking. There are lots of herbs that are used to help support different bodily organs and systems, which can aid detoxification. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is particularly great, as the leaves can be used to help support the kidneys (and act as a diuretic) and the roots promote liver activity. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and milk thistle (Carduus marianum) both help to boost phase II biotransformation in the liver (this is a step in the detoxification process that prevents build up of toxic chemicals). Milk thistle has also been found to have a protective effect on liver cells and improved liver function tests have been demonstrated in many clinical trials. Cleavers, or goose grass (Galium aparine), is known traditionally as a “blood cleanser”, which helps to boost elimination of toxins by supporting the lymphatic system. It has also been found to be high in antioxidant compounds. Finally, nettles are great to add into your detox support mix, as they help cleanse the body of uric acid, act as a mild diuretic, and are really high in vitamins and minerals.