With all of the different “detox” programs, diets, information, and products out there, you’ve probably been conditioned to think that you have to go through some tortuous diet or drink weird teas to detox your body. But you don’t actually need to learn how to detox your body. The truth is, your body is already doing that job for you every second of every day, no matter what you’re eating or drinking. Learn more about the body’s natural detoxification processes and what could cause them to function at sub-optimal levels.
Detoxification isn’t just a word made up to sell products, nor is it something you have to force your body to do. It’s actually a series of processes and functions that happen throughout your body. “[Detoxing] is just a method of metabolizing and expelling toxins safely,” says Samantha Franceschini , a health coach and nutritionist at Parsley Health.
A word on toxins: toxins are harmful substances that can be found in food, water, the air, the environment, and even things like cleaning and personal care products. Some examples of outside toxins you might be exposed to in everyday life are BPAs, mold, heavy metals, bacteria, and parasites . Franceschini says not all toxins come from the outside, either—your body makes some on its own, like free radicals . So yes, they’re harmful to your health, but your body was designed to handle some amount of these. (For instance, your body needs vitamin D for strong bones, teeth, and muscles, for proper immune function, and even to help with mood regulation, but, as with many other substances, if you take too much vitamin D, it can lead to bone loss, kidney failure, and excess calcium levels.) In fact, your body has multiple built-in systems to tackle toxins.
Your body is working behind the scenes 24/7 to remove toxins, thanks to the help of some key organs and systems. “On a daily basis, your liver, kidneys, large intestine, lymphatic system, and sweat glands work together to reduce the body burden, or buildup, of toxins. Of these organs, the liver does play the largest role but all are important in their own ways,” says Franceschini. These are the top ways your body detoxes:
Your liver is one of the major players when it comes to detoxing. “The liver is constantly working, it’s filtering out all the things that don’t belong,” says Franceschini. The liver helps filter toxins and aids in metabolizing macronutrients used in detoxification. The liver has two main phases of detoxification, which require an abundance of specific nutrients to function properly.
When things are working optimally, your liver can take out the trash (aka toxins) efficiently. But sometimes the liver can become congested or have an overload of toxins which can “stress out the liver,” according to Franceschini. This stress impacts how well the liver can do its job, which can lead to other symptoms or issues, like hormone imbalances since your liver helps get rid of excess hormones.
The kidneys are important for a number of functions, and they also play a role in helping your body remove toxins and waste. “The kidneys filter the blood continuously, filtering approximately 1600L/d of blood, sorting necessary electrolytes and other components from waste,” says Franceschini. You need to support the kidneys with proper hydration, a well-balanced diet, and make sure your protein intake is balanced so the kidneys can do their job well, she notes.
The digestive system plays a few key roles in the detoxification process. First, your digestive system breaks down food and nutrients that the liver needs to run both phases of detoxification. Your digestive system also helps carry out the waste and toxins that your liver, kidneys, and other organs worked so hard to filter out.
You may not consider your skin an organ, but it is the largest organ in your body. When you sweat, your body expels toxins, which is why the skin plays an important role in the detox process. Since sweating helps your body get rid of toxins, when you’re working to actively support the detox process, exercise and sauna can be helpful ways to make sure the toxins you’re working to clean out exit the body efficiently and effectively.
The lymphatic system is a complicated network of tissues and organs in your body (including your lymph nodes and lymph fluid). One of the key functions of the lymphatic system is to help the body get rid of waste and toxins. “This is your sewage system of the body. You can compare it to a toilet that automatically flushes,” says Franceschini. The lymphatic system collects wastes from the cells and “It’s constantly working to eliminate toxins from our system.”
Since we all come into contact with different toxins every day in varying amounts, sometimes the exposure can have a cumulative effect and overburden the body’s natural ability to detoxify, according to Franceschini. Your body can become sluggish in how well it gets rid of those toxins, which can lead to symptoms or other potential problems.
Genetics is another factor in poor detoxification. “If you have a genetic mutation like MTHFR, that actually compromises your body’s ability to detox just from a genetic factor,” says Franceschini.
Doctors can test you for the MTHFR gene , and they can also run a series of other tests that can help tell them how well (or poorly) you might be detoxifying. Some markers doctors may look for are liver stress which can be shown through reading liver enzymes, and kidney markers, for example. “They can actually look at labs to see how those organs are functioning and if you are able to properly detox or what systems need the most support,” says Franceschini.
Other lifestyle factors that can interfere with your body’s detoxification processes are poor sleep and poor stress management. According to Franceschini, skimping on sleep and not managing stress is one way to impair your body’s ability to detox since, “You’re recharging your battery, just like you plug your phone in at night to make sure that your phone is charged for the next day. That’s what sleep does for our system and stress. This allows all of these [detox] processes to happen.”
Equally important is solid nutrition since avoiding inflammatory foods is important for detoxing. And it’s not just about avoiding certain foods—you need to make sure you get enough of the nutrients needed to support your body and help it do its job. Hydration is also key since “water is going to help flush out toxins,” says Franceschini.
Some signs and symptoms that can point to poor detox or toxin overload, according to Franceschini:
If you have any of the symptoms above, it’s important to talk with a doctor, as they can also be signs of other health issues. At Parsley Health, providers use advanced testing to uncover the root of symptoms. Should they uncover signs of poor detoxification, your provider and health coach will work to uncover what could be causing it. “We do really in-depth visits with your doctor to determine your life history and why are you experiencing some of the symptoms that you’re experiencing,” Franceschini says.
If there is a toxic overload on your body, your provider and a health coach come up with custom protocols needed to support your body’s natural detoxification processes, including a nutrition plan, sleep hygiene, stress management, movement, and hydration tailored to your needs.
Typically, you will also take targeted supplements which could include glutathione and a binder (a supplement that binds the toxins in your gut so they are easier to expel) for mold detox, for example. Other detox protocols could require combinations of supplements or herbs, which could be anywhere from 2-10 total supplements, depending on the person, according to Franceschini.
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She is passionate about translating expert and science-based wellness advice into accessible and engaging content. Her work is featured on Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and going to new workout classes all over New York City.