Detoxing Is a Hoax
Here's what to do instead.
'Tis the season for detoxes and misplaced hope. As a registered dietician and resident nutrition expert to my friends and family, I constantly get questions about detoxes and cleanses, especially as people are trying to move beyond their holiday-season gluttony.
Even if you do find yourself on the wrong end of a holiday binge, unfortunately, there's no evidence that drinking a series of juices, teas, or any of other so-called 'detox' products do anything besides profit the people selling them. Whenever I hear someone promoting a detox or a cleanse, I just roll my eyes and keep it moving. There are no shortcuts to health, yet plenty of "gurus" and celebs will tell you that drinking kale juice with activated charcoal can make you "toxin-free." These claims are everywhere from food blogs to food labels, and they've become falsely legitimized by their ubiquity. But there is good news!
Detoxification is a process that your body is already extremely well-equipped for, and there are certainly things you can do to support this—no quick fixes or miracles, but rather lifestyle choices that can give you a good baseline. I'm fully aware that it's not sexy to tell people to eat their vegetables, but it's the only advice that actually works… and it has the benefit of not costing $13 a bottle.
First let's get this toxins thing straight.
The word "toxin" gets thrown around a lot, and I doubt that half the people using it even know what they mean by it. A toxin is just something that can be harmful to you, but this is about as broad a term as it gets. There's a spectrum; toxicity depends on what it is and how much you take in. Even water can be toxic to you if you drink too much of it.
On one end of the spectrum you've got really dangerous things like lead and drain cleaner that require a call to poison control if they end up in your body. On the other end, there are low levels of toxins in the foods we eat, things we drink, and even the air we breathe. We also produce our own toxic waste products through normal body processes, like exercise (which produces lactic acid) and digestion (which produces an array of other waste products that become your poop). Alcohol is somewhere in the middle—it's toxic, which is why you feel drunk, but it can also normally be filtered by the body without a problem.
Here's another important point: The urge to detoxify your body come January has nothing to do with a buildup of toxins. Feeling bloated and fatigued is the result of the entire gingerbread village you ate on Christmas and washed down with a gallon of champagne on NYE. Your body has already processed those things by now; you just feel shitty because you've gained weight and interrupted your normal eating, sleeping and exercising schedule. Nonetheless, the things you'd do to promote your body's natural waste removal are the same things I'd recommend you do for post-holiday season recovery.
Your body has dedicated a lot of its structures to detoxification, and the systems in place are highly efficient. So when a Captain & Cola comes in through your gastrointestinal tract, your first line of defense against anything harmful is your intestines themselves, aided by gut bacteria. They decide what gets absorbed into the bloodstream, and can be choosy (for example, they can neutralize viruses and bacteria that would be harmful if absorbed). If your gut doesn't absorb something, the only way left is the exit to the rear.
Pretty much everything you do ingest goes straight to your liver, where some complicated chemistry determines what to do with it. If it's something useful (like sugar from the cola) the liver sends it out into circulation, but if it's not immediately usable or could be harmful, your liver has enzymes to neutralize it and send it off as waste to be removed from the body through urine, mostly.
Your liver is filtering more than a liter of blood every minute, which means all the blood in your body will run through it about every five minutes. This is a huge job, and one that takes place regardless of whether you pay attention to it or not. Still, you can do some things to help this filtration system work more effectively. (None of them involve drinking only maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper for three days.)
Help a liver out.
So you've woken up wedged between Captain Morgan and Colonel Sanders, and you now understand that no amount of honey, cayenne pepper and lemon juice is going to return you to normal. Here's what to do once you've stopped ingesting garbage. (For the record I secretly love KFC, but let's not dwell on that.)
Your first move should be to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Water is what's going to carry waste products out of your body through your urine, sweat and feces. What's an easy way to know if you're hydrated? Check your pee. If you're not peeing every few hours, or your pee is not clear to light yellow, you need to drink more water. Juice doesn't count, since it's usually high in sugar and makes more work for your liver when what you need is just water to flush it out.
I'd also make an honest effort to get some exercise once you're more hydrated; you'll kickstart the movement of fluid around your body and it can also help you poop, both of which can help with bloating. I'm not talking about running a marathon, but go for a walk, and not just to get a bacon-egg-and-cheese. (Or here's a gentle hangover workout.)
As you start feeling a little bit better, consider what you're doing on the regular to keep from feeling this way in the future.
Then there's the long game.
You can now dedicate all that time and money spent on cleanses to living a moderate life that keeps your body's natural detox systems running smoothly. Remember all those enzymes your liver is using to break down unwanted compounds? Those are made from substances in certain foods you eat—specifically whole fruits, vegetables, and protein.
I'm now going to do that thing health professionals do when they tell you how much to eat in terms of 'servings' and 'grams', which I firmly believe everyone should be familiar with. Don't worry, we'll walk through this together.
You should be having fruits and vegetables in whole form (ie, NOT JUICE) in the ballpark of five to nine servings a day. Juice is not a substitute (have you caught on yet?). A "serving" is basically either a cup of raw veg or a half-cup cooked. Not only do they have the nutrients you've heard of—vitamin C, iron, etc—but they are also home to phytonutrients that support liver function. These nutrients are especially high among cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, etc) and garlic, onion, and some herbs. Another huge plus of eating all this veg is the fiber.
Do not underestimate the importance of fiber in your life. Fiber plus water means healthy bowel movements, and healthy gut bacteria. Both of these support waste removal in the liver and in your intestines. You also need fiber as a sort of internal exfoliator to brush over your gut cells—keeping them healthy and absorbing nutrients properly.
Look for fiber from vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. Around 25g of fiber a day is ideal, but trust me when I tell you to spread it out unless you want to find yourself doubled over with gas pain. You can get around 2g in a slice of whole wheat bread, 7g in a half-cup of beans, and 3g in a cup of broccoli.
As for protein, you need it for healthy liver function, but if you're a meat eater you're likely already getting enough. Go for roughly .8 gram per kg body weight, or around 55g per day if you're 150 pounds or 65g per day if you're 180 pounds. A small 4-ounce chicken breast has about 35 grams of protein in it, and a cup of most beans has about 14g, so this shouldn't be too hard to achieve daily even if you're vegetarian or vegan.
Final note: if your occasional binges (of any kind) become less occasional, there's no amount of water, fruits and vegetables that will undo the permanent damage to your various organ systems. You can't keep getting punched in the face over and over and come out with the same number of teeth. But you knew that already.
If you ever want to publicly Insta your embarrassing nutrition questions and get a reasonable answer based on real science, tag me @vmmartinet and @tonic and we'll get back to you.