Detoxification is the process of cleansing the body of accumulated toxins. We are exposed to many toxins throughout our lives from various sources: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, our dental fillings, vaccines, prescription drugs, etc. Toxins are found just about everywhere — in our homes, gardens, cars, offices and schools. Manufacturing plants and waste sites are regular sources of ongoing pollution in our water and air, and toxins are sometimes carried from our work environments to our homes (e.g., workers involved in battery manufacturing or pest control can carry toxins home with them on their skin and clothing). Toxins are also commonly found in cosmetics, sunscreens, hair color, furniture, carpets, cleaning supplies, and even cookware. A mother can pass her accumulated toxins to her child in utero or through breastfeeding.
Educating ourselves about the various toxins and where exposure to them commonly occurs can help minimize our accumulation of toxins. This is important because certain substances are particularly problematic for our health. For example, increased levels of heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium, have been associated with neurological disorders, immune dysregulation, and hormone disruption. Heavy metals are found in food, water, old paint, glazes, cigarette smoke, Christmas lights and in many other places. Plastic products also commonly contain toxins, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which have been linked to the incidence of certain cancers. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as benzene and perchloroethylene, can come from paint fumes, recently dry-cleaned clothes, auto shops, and many other sources and can cause hormonal problems and cancer. Non-organic food and unfiltered water may be a regular source of ingested herbicides, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), chlorine, fluoride and many other toxins, all of which been shown to increase our risk of many illnesses. Even processed foods that contain artificial sweeteners, food colorings, additives and preservatives can have a deleterious effect on the body.
Toxin damage occurs in a number of different ways. Toxins can interfere with enzyme pathways and turn on bad genes, or turn off good ones. Toxins can also deplete vitamins and minerals and stress the liver or other organs of detoxification. They can cause cancer, as well as a whole host of other diseases—from high blood pressure to endometriosis. In fact, most chronic illnesses have a toxicity component. Toxins can also make acute illnesses more likely.
Our bodies have inherent processes for detoxification; however, due to the constant barrage of toxins we are all exposed to and the nature of many of the chemicals our bodies come into contact with, we sometimes require additional support. Most cultures around the world recognize this and have incorporated detoxification support (e.g., fasting, sauna, enemas and herbs) into their traditions.
A naturopathic doctor may recommend a detox program for a specific illness (e.g. endometriosis or multiple sclerosis) or as a general health aid. Detoxification programs can take a few days to a few months, with most lasting between a week and a month. The length and complexity depends on your health concerns, constitution and toxic load.
Dietary change, which usually involves eliminating animal products and eating more organic vegetables and fruits, is typical. A period of water fasting is sometimes included. The avoidance of commonly ingested toxins, such as alcohol, is part of the detox, while drinking chemical-free filtered water is always essential.
Supplements to aid in the expulsion of toxins are usually recommended and include vitamins, minerals and herbs to support the liver’s detoxification processes. Chelation therapy (oral or intravenous) is often recommended for the removal of heavy metals from the body, usually in response to test results.
Additional therapies can also be helpful during a detox. For example, colon hydrotherapy is routinely recommended to accelerate the toxin removal. Saunas can be helpful in aiding the body to rid itself of fat-soluble toxins (e.g., solvents) and heavy metals.
Occasional detoxification is appropriate for most people. Chronic illnesses often call for detoxification that may require medical supervision. The routine detoxification of children is not recommended, except in circumstances of medical necessity. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should never detoxify.
A naturopathic doctor can help you find lifestyle practices that minimize daily chemical exposure and formulate a detoxification plan to help decrease your toxin levels.