Detox, Demystified: safe, sane strategies that actually work

A swell-planned cleanse can reset your system, and restricting food gives you a chance to break bad habits (sugar, coffee, fast food) and establish new, healthier routines. But what happens after you finish the cleanse?

A better way to detox: avoid toxins on a daily basis, nourish organs and cells with cleansing foods and nutrients, revamp harmful lifestyle routines and listen to your body’s internal signals. Detox round-the-clock, with these four key fixes:

EAT. In general, eliminate packaged and processed foods, or anything with preservatives, artificial ingredients or trans fats. Kick sugar, dairy and gluten, and focus on whole, plant foods rich in antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients that curb inflammation, protect cells and support detox organs. Here’s how:

• Clean up your smoothie. Make your morning blender beverage count: focus on leafy greens, like spinach and kale, and cut back on high-sugar fruits; include berries, beets or carrots for natural sweetness and tons of antioxidants. Instead of processed protein mixes, use hempseed powder for clean protein and omega-3 fats; add organic yogurt or coconut kefir water for gut-supportive probiotics.

Focus on fiber. One of the most important components of a cleanse: fiber encourages regular bowel movements and speeds the elimination of toxins from the body. Plus, adequate fiber promotes healthy gut bacteria and reduces inflammation in the gut. Good choices: broccoli, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, raspberries.

Amp up vegetables. They’re loaded with antioxidants, fiber, enzymes and phytochemicals that repair damage, fight inflammation and enhance detoxification. Crucifers (kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), onions and garlic are rich in compounds that hasten toxin removal; plant chemicals in artichokes protect the liver. And asparagus acts as a natural diuretic to promote urine flow.

• Eat more raw. Cooking diminishes enzymes and nutrients that support digestion and enhance detox. Make one meal a day be a big salad; emphasize bitter greens (watercress, endive, chicory, dandelion) to stimulate liver and digestive function. Dress your salad with a simple blend of olive oil, garlic and apple cider vinegar, and whisk in minced cilantro; it helps remove heavy metals from the body.

Include fermented foods. Kimchi, sauerkraut, plain yogurt and miso are rich in probiotics to improve digestion, nourish gut bacteria and ensure regular bowel movements. And fermented foods contain a wider variety of strains than supplements. Look for traditionally fermented, minimally processed fermented foods, or make your own; The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a classic guide.

• Eat (way) less meat. Excessive animal protein is hard on the liver and colon, and red meat in particular increases inflammation. But you need protein for a complete cleanse, and amino acids are required to produce glutathione—the body’s master antioxidant that plays a critical role in detox. Beans and lentils are rich in protein plus fiber, to promote bowels movements and speed toxin elimination. Avoid cans;  most are lined with BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. Instead, soak dried beans overnight to deactivate compounds that interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption, then drain, rinse and cook.


DRINK. In general, steer clear of sugar drinks (including fruit juice), minimize or eliminate caffeine and alcohol, and emphasize clear water and cleansing beverages. Some tips:

Rethink your morning drink. Replace coffee with a gentler dose of caffeine; green tea is rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation and protects cells from damage, as well as L-theanine—an amino acid that eases stress and anxiety. Black tea’s caffeine content wards off withdrawal headaches, and it’s also high in L-theanine; or try a mushroom “coffee” blend to support detox and cellular health.

• Drink green juice. Fruit juice is loaded with sugar, and the juicing process removes beneficial fiber. Green juices made from spinach, kale and other vegetables are lower in sugar and packed with antioxidants. Include high-water vegetables like celery and cucumber for extra hydration, and ginger to boost digestion. Or process vegetables in a blender and drink without straining, for added fiber.

• Hydrate. Drink plenty of clean, filtered water to speed toxin removal and support kidneys, but avoid plastic bottles—they’re wasteful, and can leach endocrine disruptors and other chemicals. Invest in an under-sink water filter, and keep a glass pitcher of filtered water on your desk or fill a stainless-steel bottle to take in your car.

• Kick cocktails. Alcohol is hard on the liver and other detox organs, and cocktails are high in sugar, fueling inflammation. Avoid alcohol during your cleanse; instead of (boring) sparkling water, make crafy mocktails formulated with cleansing ingredients. Try grapefruit juice muddled with rosemary (it has compounds that promote liver health); or make a shrub with apple cider vinegar, traditionally used to support detox.


LIVE.  A true cleanse involves more than just what you eat and drink; how you live has a profound effect on the body’s ability to detoxify its organs and systems. Here’s how to live:

• Let go of stress. Chronic tension and anxiety increase inflammation, dampen the body’s natural repair mechanisms. Let go of stress: slow down and simplify your schedule however possible. Meditate, practice deep breathing, or take a siesta; a mid-day nap rejuvenates and resets, and even 15-minutes can significantly lessen stress. Or indulge in a massage; besides relieving tension and anxiety, massage boosts circulation and stimulates the flow of lymph.

• Go to bed earlier. Deep, restful slumber is crucial for reducing stress and supporting the body’s detox organs, especially the digestive system. And hitting the hay sooner after the sun goes down normalizes circadian rhythms, encourages more restful sleep and ensures extra time for shut-eye. Dim lights an hour before bedtime—darkness promotes melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone—and turn off electronics, since the blue light they emit can disrupt slumber.

• Move your body. Exercise boosts circulation, relieves stress, stimulates movement of lymph fluid and burns fat, the primary storehouse for toxins. Plus, sweating escorts toxins from the body through the skin, the body’s largest detox organ. Aim for at least half an hour a day of physical movement. Or try yoga; it relieves stress and promotes calm, and twisting and bending the torso massages internal organs and enhances circulation to the liver and digestive system.

• Toss the toxins. Your household cleaners, soaps, sprays, fabric softeners, air fresheners, lotions and fragrances may be filled with parabens, phthalates, DEA and other toxins—not what you need during a cleanse. Toss any toxic cleaning or personal care products, and restock with natural, plant-based alternatives, free from chemical fragrances or scented with pure essential oils.


SUPPORT. Synthetic vitamins and supplements burden the liver and detox organs. But a few carefully chosen herbs can support optimal function, remove toxins and help repair damage. Choose the simplest, least-processed forms—ideally, traditional, organic herbs that improve liver, kidney and gut health. Some of the best:

• Milk thistle, a relative of the daisy and ragweed family, contains silymarin, an antioxidant that protects the liver from toxins, encourages the removal of metabolic waste and repairs and heals damage.

• Dandelion root, traditionally used for liver and kidney detox, contains compounds that promote urine flow, increase bile production, speed the removal of toxins and protect the liver from damage.

• Uva ursi (bearberry) acts as a gentle diuretic, promoting urine flow and supporting the kidneys and bladder. It also contains anti-inflammatory compounds that protect the lining of the urinary tract and help reduce urinary tract infections.

• Burdock root, used in Asian cuisine and traditional Chinese medicine, has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities; it works as a gentle diuretic and can remove toxins from the urinary tract and protect the liver from damage.

• Chanca piedra, a shrub-like herb from the Amazonian rainforest, has anti-inflammatory and diuretic actions, and can increase urine flow, encourage the elimination of toxins and protect the liver from damage.

• Ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, reduces inflammation, balances blood sugar and supports the body’s natural systems to relieve stress and promote restful sleep.