It’s the beginning of a New Year, and that means two things are going to start popping up for most of us: guilty hangovers and self-promises of a New Year health kick.  Devoid of any real statistics I wouldn’t hesitate to guess the most common goal of New Year dieters will be weight-loss.  However following that, a detox or cleanse will be on the cards for many.

But what is a detox or cleanse exactly?  It summons up imagery of green juices and the promise of ridding your body of toxins.  But what even is a toxin?

The following will hopefully separate fact from the fiction when it comes to this popular topic.  As well as elucidate the only things you really need to do to “detox” your body.

What are toxins?

The Oxford definition is as follows: “A poison of plant or animal origin, especially one produced by or derived from microorganisms and acting as an antigen in the body.”

When discussing detoxing in pop-culture however, toxins are usually referred to as any substance that can cause harm in the body; a definition that is at best broad, and doesn’t take into account the complexities of biology.

One such complexity worth noting is that the consumer (not in a marketing sense) and dose matter.  For example, Theobromine, the alkaloid in cocoa responsible for making us humans feel good, is toxic for dogs.

Another compound toxic to our canine companions is caffeine.  Yet caffeine has been shown to provide numerous benefits for humans, including increased cognition and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.  Again though, dose is crucial.  At a high intake caffeine can kill, and in some people, even low doses can cause unwanted symptoms such as insomnia and irregular heartbeat.

To go one further, even water can be toxic in high doses.

What you should be realising is the ambiguity of the word toxin and how it is used.  It doesn’t matter if it synthetic or naturally occurring, there are other factors such as the dose that determine its toxicity.

What is detoxing?

The typical woo-peddling guru definition would go something like this:

“A detox is a process in which a person makes lifestyle changes – such as abstaining from certain foods, consuming others, and cleansing their bowels – to clear their body of toxins”

“Toxins” being anything from heavy metals, to pesticides, to stress, dependant entirely on where you get your information.

An investigation in 2009 looked at 15 common detox products or systems ranging from the criminal V-Water Detox which cleansed your body and “whisked away the nasties”, to the Boots Detox 5 Day Plan that promises to “flush away toxins”.  They found that not a single company had evidence to back up their claims.  Further to this, and perhaps scarier, they couldn’t even explain what “toxins” their products actually targeted.

Referring back to our original definition then, “detoxing”, if anything, might include removing metabolic bi-products that could build up and cause harm to an organism.  So how do we remove such bi-products?

So how can you “detox”?

You can start by merely continuing to live and breathe.  As mentioned earlier, context is key when determining toxicity, and we know that the accumulation of any substance in the body can reach toxic levels.  Thankfully, your organs are constantly taking care of this for you.  No amount of juice cleansing or coffee enemas is going to fast track this process; what will however, is removing unhealthy habits that do cause a rise in levels of unwanted substances in the body.

Two obvious culprits here are smoking and excessive drinking.  One could also suggest moderating intake of nutrients known to cause disease in excess (including sugar, minerals, and almost every substance bar the water-soluble vitamins*).  Which brings us back to the same basic solution really; focus on a variety of wholefoods (foods that are for the most part unrefined), drink plenty of water, and don’t eat excess calories.  From there, cutting out unhealthy habits and eating whole nutritious food will reduce the regulatory load on your organs, and that’s about as much as you need to do.

Is it really that simple?  Nutritional science isn’t, but in regards to practicality when it comes to “detoxing”, yes, it really is.  As much as your “inner consumer” wants there to be a miraculous herb, or an aloe vera and lemon concoction that sets you back $100, there’s nothing worth spending your money on outside food.  Just get the basics right and that will have the biggest impact!

Got a question or a comment?  Shoot it through to alex@realnutrition.net.au