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Understanding What Detoxification Really Is

The concept of detoxification seems to pop up in a cyclic fashion each year, often during mid-season. January is one of three periods when the topic appears extensively on the web, on magazine covers, in chemists and health store windows.

Is detoxification just a fashion fomented by excessively health-conscious minds? Lets have a closer look at what really lies behind the concept.

Our metabolisms function in the same way as any energy-producing machine. If you can think of yourself as a system that produces energy (and stores it) through fuelling and disposal of waste, this will help you understand the rationale behind the concept of detoxification. Any leftover waste, or toxin, that has not reached the exit doors will crystallise and eventually create health issues.

Detoxification: an ancient practice

Amazingly, but ancient medicines such as Chinese Traditional Medicine and Ayurveda have since long understood the importance of detoxification cleansing. The Amerindians, the ancient Greeks and Romans were already using methods such as sweat baths, plants for external and internal use, and intestinal cleansing. It has been reported that the Roman aristocracy had already understood the issue of lead and mercury poisoning caused by the use of these metals.

Even though a lot of the ancient medical concepts underwent significant transformations since the fact that body toxins and cleansing were bothering the minds of ancient people talks a lot about the significance of the matter. 

What are toxins and where do they come from?

The bright side of the story is that our systems are naturally designed to detoxify

Unfortunately, the flip side of the picture is that our bodies are not designed to cleanse itself from the toxins we artificially produce and bathe in.

Air pollution, pesticides and food additives, chemicals from medicine or contraception, cosmetics, perfumes, hygiene products, plastics -- are only the tip of the iceberg. To this must be added endotoxins, those toxins that we produce from within: hormones due to an overload of stress, to mismanaged training sessions or a failing digestive system for instance.

Our body's natural detoxification system

Detoxifying is one of the essential functions of our metabolisms. Organs such as livers, large intestines, kidneys, skin and lungs do the job naturally.

1) The liver is at the head of the line. It breaks down used up hormones, digested food, chemicals and other toxins. This processed waste turns into highly toxic water-soluble molecules called free radicals that are and must be rapidly washed out of our bodies. This is when it is best to have an efficient detoxifying system!

Free radicals then go through the gallbladder where they combine with bile before moving to the large intestine where they are evacuated thanks to the action of fibre that triggers bowel movements. 

Now is the moment to remind you of the crucial importance of diet. The ability to break down toxins depends entirely on the molecules derived from food (B and C vitamins, amino acid, selenium...).

2) Inevitably, gut health is crucial for the detox process to function properly. All the more so as the quality of your microbiome dictates hormone balance (but also brain function and immunity). 

And for girls, the detoxification of used up oestrogen is only possible thanks to a specific gut bacteria called estroblome located in the large intestine. This means that if you are prone to heavy periods, bloating, fibroids, cysts and also hypertension and female types of cancer, it is worth checking out if you are detoxifying properly.

3) Kidneys are in charge of managing fluids and filtering blood. They are also responsible for balancing your PH levels through an efficient regulation of electrolytes (calcium, potassium, magnesium and others, which is again, directly dependant on what you eat).

4) Lungs are often only considered as respiratory organs. But oxygen inhalation goes together with the release of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is not the only toxin at work, once oxygen is carried into the cell it is converted into energy, water and also free radicals. Although absolutely vital, breathing also carries its load of toxins and oxidative stress.

Athletes are on the front line: the more you inhale, the more toxins need to be evacuated. Think about it!

Studies have also brought to light toxic molecules found in breath after ingestion of certain foods (sulphides after eating onions, limonene after drinking coke.)

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me..." if I need to detoxify. Your skin is the best mirror ever. It is the last step in waste elimination. Acne, rashes, itching, nodules, body smells, are all easy signs that indicate the need to detox or not.

Look out for signs

It may be easier for you now to identify signs that you need to detox. As 5 of your vital organs are implied, symptoms may vary from recurrent headaches to sleep disorders, brain fog, skin rashes, bad breath, weight gain, constipation, premenstrual symptoms, and others.

Look at your tongue; does a white film cover it? Are your eyes puffy? Do you feel sluggish in the mornings? 

Remember: all machines need regular cleansing!

With the help of a specialist, it is wise to identify the different steps to take in the detox programme. The 3 major organs (liver, kidneys and intestine) are interdependent; detoxifying the liver without cleansing your intestine would be like washing a sink with a clogged drain. In the same way, health issues often disappear after a detox program, which avoids the use of medication and its load of toxins.

Help your body do the job

The first step we would advise you to take is to list all sources of toxins in your environment. Are you exposed to synthetic chemicals (medicine, the pill, etc.) Do you drink alcohol? Is your food organic? How much sugar, meat and dairy do you eat? Are you prone to stress? 

Another idea is to scan your metabolism and make an overview of your entire system: check out your tongue, your skin, how you feel in the mornings, how are your bowels functioning, your moods. Is your training and sports nutrition adequate?

Once you have carried out your inventory, start by reducing your toxin intake. 

The second step will be to increase toxic elimination by using herbs and supplements to strengthen and promote optimum organ function.

For an efficient detox programme incorporate regular physical activity and also body and mind hygiene such as meditation, breathing techniques, skin brushing and so forth.

Most detoxifying programmes follow the same logic. Do not venture into a long-term programme alone. Do ask for a specialist's advice, work on your nutrition and decide together which plant or supplement is most adapted to your personal case. 

Author: Marie-Noëlle Bourgeois, Nutritionist at Bounce Up Micronutrition

Further Reading

The Happy Hormone Guide: A Plant-based Program to Balance Hormones, Increase Energy, & Reduce PMS Symptoms, Shannon Leparski, Blue Star Press 2019. 

Ma Bible de la Naturopathie, Sarah Juhasz, Luduc.s editions, 2019.

Denis Riché, Micronutrition santé et performance, ed De Boeck, 2008

Buszewski B, Kesy M, Ligor T, Amann A. Human exhaled air analytics: biomarkers of diseases. Biomed Chromatogr. 2007 Jun;21(6):553-66. doi: 10.1002/bmc.835. PMID: 17431933.

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