The Samahita Blog

Do We Really Need To Detox?

Anthea Grimason
By Anthea Grimason

A Scientific & Holistic Perspective

With the rise in popularity of detox programs, products and gimmicks there is much warranted debate and push back around certain claims from the detox industry. It’s easy to dismiss the detox movement when most of what is being sold to us has very little or zero scientific evidence to back it up. Yet cleansing practices have existed for thousands of years, so why is that? Are we even toxic? Is detoxification a real process in the body? Do any of these modern detox programs or products actually work? All valid questions in this debate.

The fact that our bodies have an in-built detoxification process is often noted as reason to dismiss all detox programs. This may be true but then the question arises, is that process working to the best of its ability to support our health to the fullest?

In this article we’ll look at what toxins we are being exposed to in the modern world, why they can cause issues, our body’s natural ability to eliminate toxins and what we can do to support this, both with an evidence based detox program and in daily life.

What are toxins exactly?

Toxins can be grouped into a number of categories:

  • Toxic elements e.g. mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead, generally transmitted through water, food, dust, dental fillings and various consumer products
  • Naturally occurring toxins e.g. mold or aflatoxins (found on crops such as corn and peanuts), and any allergens from animals, plants or food
  • Pesticides e.g. insecticides, fungicides and herbicides
  • Persistent organic pollutants e.g. dioxins, furans, Teflon and polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Volatile organic compounds e.g. gas or petrol, solvents, paint, formaldehyde or benzene
  • Plastics e.g. phthalates, BPA and PVC which leach out via UV radiation, heat and chemicals

With around 140,000 chemicals on the global market, exposure in today’s world is unfortunately inevitable. According to UN Environment, the size of the global industry exceeded US$5 trillion in 2017 and is projected to double by 2030, with urgent action required to reduce further damage to human health and economies. “Despite commitments to maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts of this industry, hazardous chemicals continue to be released to the environment in large quantities. They are ubiquitous in air, water and soil, food and humans.”1

An interesting area of study that is growing is around the Exposome2 which measures the total impact of environmental exposure (pollution, toxins, stress, lifestyle, nutrition) even before birth. Many studies have also been done on newborn babies with hundreds of these toxins showing up in their fetal cord blood, for example the Environmental Working Group study which found 287 toxic chemicals in fetal cord blood of 10 newborns.3

While it does seem that exposure to toxins is unavoidable, what will vary is an individual’s personal toxic load and how that plays out in their life. This will obviously depend on a number of factors including total exposure throughout their lifetime, current environment, diet and lifestyle, and the efficiency of their body’s ability to process and excrete toxins.

Why are toxins an issue for us?

The human body is highly intelligent with built-in detoxification pathways in many of the tissues, not just the liver, known as the main organ of detox, but also in the kidneys, lungs, intestines, skin and testes. Toxins can only be excreted via these pathways when they are water soluble however, at which point they are excreted naturally via saliva, tears, urine, feces, sweat, or are exhaled. Fat soluble toxins, on the other hand, tend to accumulate in the body, mainly in fat cells but also in other tissues. Toxic elements such as metals, for example, tend to accumulate in the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. This is one issue.

Another issue can be impaired detoxification abilities within the body. A person’s detox capacity is highly influenced by their diet and lifestyle and will most certainly be impacted if any liver or kidney issues, gastrointestinal health issues or micronutrient deficiencies exist, or if there is toxic overload.

Our bodies, therefore, are not necessarily naturally getting rid of these toxins that we are being exposed to, but the real issue is the resulting health problems including serious disease if toxins are allowed to accumulate. Persistent organic pollutants, for example, have been associated with diabetes, obesity and endocrine disruption. Volatile organic compounds are considered highly neurotoxic. And plastics are known to cause endocrine disruption. Large global organizations such as the World Health Organisation4 and the Endocrine Society are actively studying the real risks of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

According to the WHO, “just over one third (35%) of ischaemic heart disease, the leading cause of deaths and disability worldwide, and about 42% of stroke, the second largest contributor to global mortality, could be prevented by reducing or removing exposure to chemicals such as from ambient air pollution, household air pollution, second-hand smoke and lead.”5 And approximately 19% of all cancers are estimated to have a direct environmental exposure cause.6 It is now understood that causes of complex diseases like cancer are not solely based on genetics but also the effect of environmental factors such as exposure to chemicals, as well as aspects of lifestyle.

This information helps us understand that toxic exposure is a real issue especially as it’s correlated with serious disease, and that even early life poses risk of exposure, meaning we all most likely already have a burden that needs to taken care of. It might be in our best interest then to ensure we are supporting our bodies in doing its job of excreting that which is not needed.

How do we support detoxification?

The good news is that it is possible to get rid of the fat soluble toxins that are stored in our tissues via the body’s own detoxification process, which is essentially the biotransformation of fat soluble toxins into water soluble toxins so we can excrete them. The problem with most detox programs or products is that they are not considering the full detoxification process from mobilization to excretion, rather looking at one isolated area. Or, the actual process is simply not understood.

At a cellular level, the four phases of detoxification are:

  • Phase 0, the intake of a fat soluble toxin into the cell.
  • Phase I, the process of oxidation/reduction reactions which turns the toxin into a free radical
  • Phase II, the addition of reactive metabolites with an endogenous compound e.g. glutathione conjugation, which creates a water-soluble toxin that is no longer a free radical
  • Phase III, the excretion of the water soluble toxin from the cell

First the toxins must be mobilized. Then only after all four stages of detoxification are complete are the toxins water soluble and can be excreted via sweat, tears, urine, feces or breath.

As mentioned in a previous article, an effective detox program therefore must include:

  • mobilization (removing stored toxins from tissues and cells)
  • detoxification (biotransformation of toxins through the four phases)
  • excretion (the elimination of toxins from the body)

All this can be achieved by calorie restriction, very specific foods and supplements, as well as exercise and sweating.

This clear understanding of what detoxification actually is, as researched and being taught by people like Functional Medicine doctor, Dr. Bryan Walsh, unfortunately debunks many of the detox products and practices out there as they are either incomplete or simply have no evidence as to their effectiveness.

Prevention is better than cure

Ideally we aim to prevent accumulation of toxins, and therefore the risk of disease from the inevitable exposure, with what we can control – our lifestyle. Traditional systems like Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine are designed to work towards prevention of disease with a more holistic approach than modern medicine, by focusing on maintaining the body’s natural healthy state.7 Cleansing practices that are either done daily to support overall health, or as part of a detox program have also always been part of Ayurvedic and Yogic traditions.

The key really is what we do every day to take care of our bodies. Naturally, a person who is active, eats well, stays hydrated, sweats, sleeps well, breathes well and spends plenty of time in nature will likely not have as high a toxic load as a person with a terrible lifestyle living in a congested city. All the elements have to be managed.

We will continue to cover practices and tips for managing daily life in our educational blogs and articles, but specifically for detox some helpful practices to incorporate include:

  • Eating a whole foods diet8 with plenty of cruciferous vegetables
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Exercise and movement
  • Staying hydrated
  • Sweating regularly
  • Practicing breathwork
  • Spending time in nature

Conclusion

The detox debate is important as who would want to waste time and money on something that doesn’t work? At Samahita, we draw upon the holistic wisdom of ancient traditions, but also invest considerable time in studying the latest research in health, to provide genuinely effective tools and the right environment to our guests, so they can maintain or move towards good health and vitality. All that we offer is based on years of personal and guest experience, ongoing yogic studies along with scientific research, to provide an environment, programs and nutrition that offer a natural detox.

Bottom line is – we are undoubtedly exposed to toxins, we may need the help of a detox program, but lifestyle plays a huge role in managing the effects of modern life. Let’s help our intelligent bodies do the work to detox, and let’s apply some discernment with our choices, also.

1 UN Report: Urgent action needed to tackle chemical pollution as global production is set to double by 2030:  https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-urgent-action-needed-tackle-chemical-pollution-global

2 The Exposome: measuring the complex exposures we face as humans: https://humanexposomeproject.com/ 

3 EWG. Body Burden: The pollution in newborns: https://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns

4 WHO. Identification of risks of endocrine-disrupting chemicals: overview of existing practices and steps ahead: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/159343/Identification-risks-endocrine-disrupting-chemicals-overview-en.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

5 WHO. Preventing disease through healthy environments. A global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks:

https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/204585/9789241565196_eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

6 WHO. An overview of the evidence on environmental and occupational determinants of cancer: https://www.who.int/phe/news/events/international_conference/Background_science.pdf

7 Ayurvedic Biology – An Unbiased Approach to Understand Traditional Health-Care System:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297663091_Ayurvedic_Biology_-_An_Unbiased_Approach_to_Understand_Traditional_Health-Care_System

8 NCBI. Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26167297

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