Detoxification has become a buzzword in the nutrition world and juice cleanses are widely recommended to those seeking to naturally detoxify their body. Juice cleanses generally require the participant to consume nothing but fruit and vegetable juices for a specified, short period of time. Advocates say that juicing unleashes the body’s natural healing power by ridding built up toxins while flooding the system with nutrients and antioxidants. In order to assess the efficacy of juice cleanses we must first understand toxin exposure as well as our body’s natural detoxification process. Toxin exposure is inevitable and not just due to alcohol, cigarettes, and drug toxins but also toxins found in food additives, preservatives, colorings, sweeteners, and flavor enhancers, as well as in heavy metals, agricultural chemicals, cosmetics, fumes, and air pollution. Our bodies take in hundreds of chemical compounds every day, some of these compounds are toxic and others are beneficial and needed. Luckily, the body is very efficient at biologically deciding which compounds should be kept and which need to be removed.
Remember the big picture. Cleanses that provide the false sense that following any diet for a short time will eliminate toxins ignore the foundation of the detoxification process. We are exposed to and process toxins daily. Detoxification is a continuous process requiring nutrients to efficiently remove toxins throughout your life.
Detoxification occurs in the liver via phase I and phase II processing and these systems are exceptionally well adapted to metabolize the vast array of different chemical structures we’re exposed to. Essentially, toxins enter phase 1 processing where they are converted into intermediate molecules, this intermediate is then further converted into an easily removable compound via phase 2 detoxification systems. The processed toxins are then expelled from the body in urine, sweat, or feces. This detoxification process does not occur on its own, but requires activation by enzymes and their cofactors. The enzymes in both phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification systems require specific cofactors to turn the system on and allow for liver detoxification reactions to occur. Some cofactors of phase 1 metabolism include vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid while phase 2 is supported by various amino acid cofactors. Where do these various cofactors come from? The diet! This means that if we eat adequate amounts of these cofactor nutrients we are able to process the multitude of toxins we’re exposed to naturally in the liver. If we do not consume the required cofactors, liver detoxification may be blunted and toxins can build.
So does juicing provide substantial nutrients to aid the liver in detoxifying the body? Fruit and vegetable juice will undeniably pack a big punch of micronutrients, some of which do play a large role in liver detoxification. However, certain nutrients, such as amino acids will be very limited in fruit and vegetable juices. This means that liver detoxification, most notably phase 2, is blunted when consuming juice alone. This picture is made worse when we consider the intermediate molecules. Remember, phase 1 liver processing produces intermediate molecules which are normally further processed via phase 2 before elimination from the body. These intermediate molecules are actually sometimes much more toxic than the original toxin! Increased toxicity in these molecules is not a problem when they may be quickly passed on to phase 2 systems. However, when phase 2 detoxification is dampened by an inadequate supply of amino acid cofactors, the toxic molecules are allowed to build up in the system.
Another important consideration to make is toxin elimination. After the liver has processed toxins into removable molecules, those compounds must be excreted from the body in urine, sweat, and bowels. The first of those two elimination routes require water as the main vehicle for removal via the kidneys and urinary tract system or skin respectively. The latter system of elimination occurs through the gastrointestinal tract, using stool as the toxin carrier. Once the toxins have been processed they are sent from the liver to the elimination organs. Water is in adequate supply with juice cleansing so elimination via the kidneys and skin will function seamlessly on this diet type. However, fiber in the gastrointestinal tract is crucial for toxin removal in stool. The liver sends processed toxins to the bowels with bile, when fiber is present that bile (and toxin load) will bind to the fiber and proceed through the colon and rectum for removal. If no fiber is present, the toxin filled bile will be recycled back to the liver. While fruits and vegetables are naturally a very good source of fiber, when they are juiced they are voided of all their fiber leaving the intestine ill equip to remove toxins in the stool. While juicing may indeed flood the system with nutrients and antioxidants it certainly does not rid the body of toxins. As described juicing does not support liver detoxification systems or toxin removal and the public should be encouraged to think twice before following this very restrictive ‘cleanse’ type.
So how can you best cleanse the body of toxins? If you’re trying to detoxify it makes sense that the first rule of thumb should be to avoid toxin exposure. For some of the most obvious toxins this is simple: quit smoking, skip the alcoholic beverages, and don’t do drugs. Avoidance of other toxins may require a bit more planning. Some food additives can increase our toxin load when consumed in abundance. It is important to note that not all food additives are harmful and spotting an unrecognizable word on a food label does not mean that you should automatically avoid said food. However, since no food additive is required for human health, it is a good idea to choose mostly unprocessed or minimally processed foods. If you’d like to learn more about which food additives should be avoided and which do not pose a threat visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Agricultural herbicides and pesticides are another example of toxins found in (even our healthiest) foods. The most effective way to avoid these agricultural toxins is to purchase organic produce. Fresh produce should always be rinsed thoroughly, especially when choosing non-organic, conventionally grown crops. Environmental Working Group releases an annual ranking of the produce containing the highest agricultural pesticide residues called the “Dirty Dozen.” If buying organic does not make financial sense for you, familiarize yourself with this list and avoid those foods at the top.
Some toxin exposure is simply unavoidable but lucky for us; our bodies are able to process and remove these toxins when fueled correctly. Aside from reducing the exposure to toxins, another important aspect of promoting detoxification is eating foods that support the body’s natural detoxification processes. Recall that specific nutrients serve as the ‘on’ switch to detoxification in the liver. Rather than focusing on consuming each one of these nutrients individually, a minimally processed, whole food, diet that is composed of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plants and/or animal proteins, and dairy will be supportive of liver detoxification. Foods that are very high in antioxidants will be further helpful in neutralizing toxic load. Therefore, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables should be consumed regularly. Hydration and fiber consumption is also needed to rid the body of processed toxins. Drinking a non-caloric beverage (preferably water) throughout the course of the day will maintain hydration. Choosing whole (un-juiced) plant-based foods will ensure you’re reaching your daily fiber needs. Large amounts of sugar and trans fat can also negatively impact the liver. Limit added sugar in the diet and check nutrition facts labels for hidden sugars like syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, agave, honey, and molasses. Avoid trans fat by not consuming foods with hydrogenated oils in their ingredient list.
Remember the big picture. Cleanses that provide the false sense that following any diet for a short time will eliminate toxins ignore the foundation of the detoxification process. We are exposed to and process toxins daily. Detoxification is a continuous process requiring nutrients to efficiently remove toxins throughout your life. Going on a multiday detoxification cleanse once or twice a year is not realistic for toxin removal long term because we are exposed to toxins continuously. Instead, detoxification should be a lifestyle shift in which appropriate, whole-food nutrients are eaten daily and toxin intake is limited as much as possible.