Do you need to detox?

What does “detoxing” actually mean, and how should you go about doing it? *Phytotherapist Jenni Davies busts a few common cleansing myths.

FACT: your body is producing toxins right now. You may also be inhaling air pollutants, eating food laced with artificial additives or even pesticides, your skin may be covered with chemical fragrances, and your stress levels may be through the roof.

There are many good reasons to give your body a bit of a spring-clean… but how do you do it, and how do you know when detoxifying your body – or “detoxing” – is necessary?

Self-cleansing vs detoxing

Our bodies are perfectly designed to process and remove toxins; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t survive. The original medical meaning of the term “detoxifying” refers to removing poisons from the body – for example, ingesting drugs or the ingestion of poison. Over time, people began attaching the word to a general process of elimination and it became something of a buzzword.

Today, most people associate a “detox” or cleanse with quick weight loss or some specific process that’s designed to cancel out the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. According to scientists and medical practitioners, however, a “detox” is nothing more than a myth – and we simply don’t need to do it. While a Google search can uncover a dazzling array of diverse detox plans, the evidence behind many of them is thin – at best – and the risks can be significant.

Extreme detox plans can be dangerous – particularly to those with health conditions like diabetes – and, if maintained for too long, restrictive diets may result in nutrient deficiencies. The idea of detoxing could also encourage some people to live unhealthily, because they think that they can just set it right later with a quick detox or a dose of supplements.

In a study of smokers conducted by the Society for the Study of Addiction, researchers found that, “Participants who believed that they were taking a dietary supplement smoked more cigarettes than did controls.” They concluded that it may create “illusory invulnerability” and thus reduce self-regulation.

A healthy approach to detoxing

We all know full well that we should be enjoying a balanced diet, exercising regularly and avoiding bad habits. But how many of us stick to this? And how many actually want to make a change but don’t know where to start? This is where the right kind of “detox” could make a positive difference.

The trick? Think of it as a break from bad habits, rather than as a magical cure-all body cleanser. Most of us feel better after a break – be it a holiday from work or a departure from unhealthy eating habits – and feeling better can lead to doing better in future.

As tempting as it is to reach for gimmicky products, a sustainable food and lifestyle plan is best in the long-term – and if you stick to it, you shouldn’t feel the need for special detox plans. If you think you can’t stick to it forever, set an attainable goal (say, two weeks) to make it easier and more achievable.

Ready to take a cleansing break? Use these helpful tips to get started:

  1. Start with a doctor’s visit. Many conditions – from blood pressure problems and diabetes to nutrient deficiencies – can cause us to feel under the weather, so rule these out first.
  2. Identify areas of change. Once you’ve checked for underlying factors, jot down what you think may be contributing towards how you’re feeling. Identifying the problem is the first step to improving things.
  3. Go small or go home. Rather than plunging into a super-strenuous diet and exercise programme, introduce changes slowly. Research shows that this is the most effective way to make changes that last. Consulting a dietician may also be a good idea.

Then what?

If you want to give your body a boost, a dietary detox can help. Depending on your lifestyle, there are many changes you can make to improve what you’re putting into your body. Try replacing sugary drinks with water, for example, or eating five portions of fruit and veg every day. Stop smoking, take a break from alcohol or avoid foods that are loaded with saturated fats and additives. Or do all of the above and see how much better you feel!

You can also take a more internal approach to detoxing, by helping your body’s own detoxifying systems to function more optimally. Here’s how:

  • Skin and lungs: Exercise is the best way to clear toxins through these organs, via perspiration and increased respiration. You can also help your skin by taking a break from products containing chemicals, and giving yourself a salt scrub.
  • Liver: Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) is a herb known for liver protection, and could assist in supporting its function. In fact, the extract is used in hospitals for treating mushroom poisoning.
  • Kidneys: Drinking plain water is key, as dehydration makes it harder for your kidneys to function. You could also try dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), a mild diuretic that’s thought to assist in supporting kidney function. (As an added bonus, it also protects the liver.)
  • Digestion: Avoid laxatives and reach for gentler psyllium husks or linseeds instead. Just remember to drink enough water, as these rely on fluid to function.

Detoxing your life

Do your stress levels soar when you scroll through your newsfeed? Do “repeat posters” bombard you with horror stories, bad news and upsetting imagery? Why not take a break from social media – even if it’s just for a few hours a week – and unfollow those people or pages?

Decluttering can also reduce stress and anxiety, so set some time aside to assess what you do and don’t need in your life. Even your digital devices make a difference, so delete all the apps you don’t use and transfer old files and photos onto a back-up device.

When it comes to take decluttering your home, you can double the detoxing benefits by donating unwanted items to charity; giving to a good cause has been shown to has been shown to stimulate endorphin release and activate brain areas related to trust and pleasure.

Whether it’s drinking more water or deleting unused apps, reducing toxicity can never be a bad thing – as long as you use common sense and understand that it’s not a ‘cure-all’ or an excuse to go wild when you’re done. Happy cleansing!

Warning! Never try detoxing if you’re diabetic, pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have kidney or liver diseases. Don’t stop taking medication in order to detox and ask a medical practitioner for advice if you’re in any doubt.

*Phytotherapy is a science-based medical practice that focuses on the treatment of disease using medicinal herbs, plants, plant constituents and traditional knowledge.

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