Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join Today!.
It’s that cleansing time of year again, when ads for miracle detox plans litter social media posts and the pages of magazines. But is a detox really necessary? Technically, no. Your body has its own sophisticated and efficient detox system that includes the liver, kidneys, and intestines. That said, a sane, simple cleanse can optimize your natural detoxification system, give your body a break from bad habits, and leave you feeling lighter, cleaner, and revitalized. Unclear about cleanses? Check out these eleven easy tips for a safe-and-sane detox.
1. Keep it simple—and short.
You know those flashy programs that include hundreds of dollars of premade juices or complicated supplements, or the starvation diets where you drink nothing but lemon water with maple syrup and cayenne? You’re wasting your money and your time—and possibly harming your health.
Steer clear of any detox or cleanse that sounds extreme, says Serena Poon, nutritionist, detox expert, reiki master, and founder of Just Add Water super nutrient foods and supplements. And forget those two-week regimens. They’re hard to follow and create a sense of deprivation, so when you go back to your regular diet, you’re more likely to binge. A three-day cleanse once a month or every other month is really all you need to hit the reset button and break a pattern of unhealthy habits—especially after vacations, holidays, and stressful periods at work.
2. Don’t starve yourself.
Good news for those of us who like to eat: fasting isn’t necessary—and may not even be the best approach. Any extreme reduction in nutrients that lasts longer than a few days can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, and a starvation diet that leaves you feeling deprived makes it more likely you’ll fall off the detox wagon with a loaded pizza or a box of Krispy Kremes. Fasting also shifts your body into starvation mode, so when your cleanse ends, you may gain more weight from eating less food.
Instead of deprivation, focus on light, pure foods that support your body’s natural detox mechanisms, says Poon. Think greens and raw, fiber-rich vegetables to keep your digestive system moving, plus antioxidants to bolster your body’s natural detox mechanisms. Additionally, onions, garlic, cruciferous vegetables, and cilantro support the body’s ability to remove heavy metals, and cilantro also speeds the excretion of certain toxic chemicals. [Editor’s note: For more on heavy metals, see below.]
3. Go easy on the juice.
“I usually tell my clients to avoid pure juice cleanses,” says Poon. “I love adding cold-pressed vegetable juice to almost any eating regimen, especially cleanses, but juice-only cleanses are problematic for a few reasons.” For one thing, they’re hard to complete. And they don’t include fiber, which is crucial for toxin elimination through the digestive system. “Fruit juices also contain a lot of sugar,” says Poon, which can cause inflammation.
Cold-pressed vegetable juices, especially those made from greens, are a better choice. Invest in an inexpensive juicer and make your own from organic vegetables and greens for a fresher and less-costly alternative that also avoids plastic bottles.
“Drinking water is really important during a detox or cleanse,” says Poon. “Ample hydration supports your kidneys, which are essential organs for detoxification.” Easy ways to increase water intake:
- Keep a bottle of filtered water at your desk and in your car to sip throughout the day.
- Drink a full glass of water after every bathroom break.
- Break up the boredom with sparkling water, or lace still water with a splash of juice.
- To rehydrate after sleeping, sip 16–20 ounces of warm water with lemon as soon as you wake up.
- Try a hydration app such as HydroCoach, WaterMinder, or Aqualert that reminds you to drink up.
5. Face your addictions.
Just to be clear: if you’re dealing with a serious addiction to alcohol or drugs, a cleanse is never a substitute for professional help. But for everyday demons such as sugar, coffee, sodas, junk food, or fast food, a simple detox can help break persistent patterns. And once you establish a healthier baseline, you’ll feel better and crave less.
Your unhealthy habits will definitely rear their ugly heads during any detox, so start small. “People with persistent habits usually just need to be persistent with their cleansing,” says Poon. “If a cleanse doesn’t work the first time, keep working at it.” Try a one-day regimen, then gradually progress to two or three or longer. If you can’t stick to your one-day cleanse, try again the following week.
6. Make simple swaps.
In addition to periodic short cleanses, make detox part of your daily life. Start with one not-so-healthy eating pattern—like that Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino—and commit to a better option. Be realistic: you’re unlikely to swap your beloved morning coffee for a cup of green tea, so a skim milk latte, sans sugar, may be a likelier substitute. Or maybe you sub your morning pastry for a whole-grain bagel with a slice of cheese or turkey, or dress your salad with extra virgin olive oil instead of ranch.
“We want to make it sustainable,” says Poon. “Many people get overwhelmed by trying to bring new habits into their regimen all at once, and then feel defeated when they forget or can’t keep up.” The point is to set yourself up for success, and find a palatable switch you’ll stick with.
7. Move and sweat.
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s a myth that you excrete toxins through your skin. The skin’s primary role in the body’s detox system is preventive—to act as a barrier against harmful compounds such as bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, and chemicals.
Having said that, exercise and sweating are important during a detox to boost circulation, increase respiration, and keep energy moving through your body. Regular exercise also protects against inflammation to keep your body’s detox system functioning properly. But during a cleanse is no time for running a
marathon; stick to light, gentle exercise such as yoga, tai chi, or a meditative walk in the woods.
8. Support with supplements.
The right supplements—food-based, preferably organic, and without any chemical fillers—can support your organs’ natural detox efforts. Don’t overdo it: overloading your system with handfuls of pills is pricey, complicated, and a burden on your liver.
“Supplementing your cleanse with supergreens can help alkalize, oxygenate, and detoxify your body,” says Poon. Chlorella, a type of algae, may enhance the elimination of heavy metals and other toxins. Probiotics support gut health, essential in moving waste and toxins from the body, and milk thistle contains compounds that support liver function. And always check with your health care provider to be sure supplements aren’t contraindicated with any pre-existing conditions or medication you’re taking, says Poon.
9. Detox your kitchen.
Purge your pantry before your detox. Toss the cookies, chips, and canned food, and fill your fridge with fresh fruits, vegetables, and greens. Stock up on healthy fats such as coconut oil, avocados, and nut butters, as well as whole grains and clean protein, including beans, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised poultry and eggs. And commit to cooking in, not eating out. Find a few simple meals that you can prep in minutes to support clean eating.
10. Detox your life.
Your brain may need a detox as much as your body. Take a break from electronics, violent movies, or stressful reading (such as the daily news). Toss chemical-filled household cleaners and personal care items, and stock up on plant-based products. “Getting enough sleep is also really important because your cells regenerate while you sleep,” says Poon. And try meditation. A daily practice can help you make mindful choices about food, and breathwork can detoxify your respiratory system, says Poon. [Editor’s note: see Pure Zen for more on meditation.]
11. Be realistic.
No matter why you’re detoxing, be clear on one thing: a cleanse isn’t a fix for months of bingeing. And it’s unlikely that you’ll shed 20 pounds or make your skin glow like a supermodel’s. So be realistic about why you’re detoxing, and set clear, specific goals. Are you taking a break from caffeine? Do you want to kick that pizza habit or minimize your sugar cravings? If you’re reasonable about your expectations, you’ll be more satisfied with the results—and more likely to make regular cleanses a lasting part of your life.
Make it: Serena Poon’s Luminous Elixir Recipe
Related article: Are You Eating Foods High in Heavy Metals?