How to actually detox

Get rid of those toxins the scientific way.

jar of cucumber water on white marble
Hint: soothing cucumbers aren't involvedSarah Gualtieri/Unsplash

The turn of the decade is mere hours away, but it can be hard to imagine your 2020 self when you’re in a ham and egg-nog-induced lethargy. After weeks of inundating our bodies with treats and drinks, nothing is more enticing that the hope of a quick fix, the promise that you’ll be back to your best with a little activated charcoal, green juice, herbal tea, or apple cider vinegar. All you need, the internet says, is a quick detox.

The detox industry is having a moment—and a very profitable one. But cleansing our bodies of impurities is anything but a new idea. Ayurvedic medicine, one of the oldest forms of traditional medicine, has employed a five part detoxification method—including medicated enemas and drug-induced vomiting—since the 2nd century BC. But here in 2020, we have a much better understanding of our supposed detox needs.

The very phrase ‘detox’ implies that there are toxins that need to be removed. Cleanses are rarely clear on what exactly these substances are, but it is true that your body contains harmful molecules that can cause cancer, organ damage, reproductive issues and even death. But the truth is, your body already does an excellent job of eliminating those problematic chemicals because it’s an optimized detoxing system in itself.

“If your body already has a working liver, working kidneys and working lungs, your body already has the balance it needs,” says Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietician at the Mayo Clinic. Alluring detox tools really aren’t necessary.

More to the point, there’s really no evidence that detoxes remove toxins from your body in the first place.

While arguably ineffective, most detox methods are not directly harmful. But they do come with their risks. Consuming nothing but green juice for a few days is an unbalanced approach, but it probably won’t hurt your body, Zeratsky says. However, every case is different. Last year, due to a history of gastric bypass and recent antibiotic exposure, a woman developed a severe kidney condition after starting a green juice diet. So, if you do decide you still want to jump on the detox bandwagon, definitely check with your doctor first. And don’t expect to feel better soon. Days spent fasting or running to the bathroom will likely make you feel fatigued and uncomfortable.

There’s also evidence that detoxing might not serve your mental health. In one Hungarian study researchers interviewed people staying in juice cleanse camps, a sort of health retreat. They found that detoxing was the number one reason cited for the juice cleanse, which was commonly paired with laxatives. Participants’ reasons for detoxing commonly overlapped with indicators of purging disorder and orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. The risks to long term mental health may therefore be worse than any immediate physiological risks.

Most of the time, when people say they are looking to detox, what I actually hear is that they want “to hit the reset button,” says Zeratsky. “You can do that with good nutrition.” Cleanses and charcoal aren’t really worth the investment.

So if you do want to ditch the drowsiness and rejuvenate, you don’t need to buy teas and tinctures. Try these tips instead to keep your body’s natural detox system in optimal shape.

Get enough sleep

First, don’t skip out on your nightly seven hours. Research has shown that your brain undergoes a natural detoxifying process in the wee hours of the night, removing harmful byproducts—like the amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimers—produced during a normal day of neurotransmission. But that process is only completed when you get the full seven hours of rest.

Without adequate sleep your brain is slower to process information. One less hour of recommended sleep per night can also throw off your metabolism and increase your risk of pre-diabetes. Insufficient rest overall has been linked to diseases like obesity and hypertension, and seems to damage your immune system and lower your life expectancy. Nothing seems to go untouched when you skip out on the shut-eye.

Drink plenty of water

Water is critical for more than feeling hydrated. It keeps your bodily fluids flowing so that the lungs, kidneys, and liver can do their jobs. All bodily processes release some kind of waste, and having enough water is critical to keep blood vessels open and those byproducts flowing to the liver and kidneys where they can be filtered out. (In the kidneys, you need enough water so that extra ions, sugars, and waste products can diffuse from the blood into the kidney and eventually leave your body as urine.) But when you’re not sufficiently hydrated, your kidneys try to conserve water by concentrating your urine. In the short run, the higher concentration of waste products in your urine means you lose less water, but in the long term it increases your risk of kidney stones and urinary tract infection.

Ironically, some detox methods—like colon cleansing, which can cause cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea—can actually work against your efforts to stay hydrated. Getting rid of fluids via excessive urination or defecation just makes it harder for your liver and kidneys to function.

So grab your pillow and a water bottle, and make your first purchase of 2020 something more fun—and effective—than a detox.