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Q: I have digestive issues. How can a detox help me?

A: “Digestive issues” covers a pretty wide array of symptoms, conditions and causes, so without knowing specifically what your issues are, it’s hard to answer. If, for example, you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, and are experiencing constipation, fatigue, bloating, gas, or other issues as a result of exposure to wheat, no detox in the world is going to fix that—you’ll just have to stop eating gluten.
That said, a wide range of digestive issues can be helped by a detox. That’s because a lot of digestive issues are caused by food intolerances, with gluten being only one of the many substances that can cause problems. Since nearly every detox I know of removes all of the “usual suspects” (wheat, sugar, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, and peanuts), symptoms are often alleviated. The trick is to know which foods were the problems so that you can modify your diet appropriately after the detox is over. [See “7 Hidden Causes of Weight Gain.”]

Detoxification Demystified

The term “detoxification” has been around forever, but it remains a misunderstood and misused term. People use it to describe everything from total fasting, to spiritual retreats, to specialized nutritional regimens for the removal of specific toxins like mercury. A quick Internet search for “the detox diet” brought up so many listings that if I counted them all I’d still be at it, and this article would never have been written!

So is there any commonality for all these different programs? Yes. The liver.

The liver is the “clearing house” for toxins in the body. Everything has to go through it, including all toxins from the air, water, exhaust on the freeway, medicines, pesticides, even toxins made in our own body as a byproduct of metabolism. Nothing gets a pass as far
as the liver is concerned. Its sophisticated two-tiered system of detoxification enzymes—known as the Phase One and Phase Two Cytochrome P-450 enzymes—helps to rid our bodies of all toxic riff-raff.

However, you can imagine, the liver can get overwhelmed with the workload. It’s like it has an overflowing “in” box, or a message center that says “this voice mailbox is full.” And while the liver isn’t the only organ that detoxifies us, it’s certainly the most important, and the one that’s on duty 24/7. This is one reason conventional medicine often scoffs at the concept of a detox, since they point out that the body is always detoxifying naturally. This is true, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t use a little help from time to time.

So What Is a Detox?

For our purposes, let’s define a detox as a period of time during which we give our systems—our livers and digestive systems—a much-needed rest. It’s a kind of “time out” from the daily assault on our cells of environmental pathogens and problematic foods (or foods that are perfectly fine for some people, but not for you). Doing a detox is kind of like rebooting a sluggish computer, or more accurately, like emptying the trash that’s taking up a huge amount of memory.

Renewed Vigor and Increased Energy

Along with your actual detox, exercise can stimulate circulation and sweat, which assists in escorting toxins out of the body. Additionally, saunas, massages, and even acupuncture are purported to enhance the results of a detox and help to minimize possible side effects such as headaches or nausea. (Of course, if you experience any of these effects intensely or have any other serious symptoms, you should consult a physician.)

While most conventional medical doctors will scoff at the idea of a “detox,” there are MDs (and other integrative practitioners) who swear by the concept.

If you’re seriously interested in the concept of detoxing and not just in following the latest fad, check out The New Detox Diet by Elson Haas, MD, as well as a book written by Alejandro Junger, MD. It’s called Clean, and it’s one of the smartest and best books on detox around, endorsed by health luminaries such as best-selling author Mark Hyman, MD.

Junger’s core concepts are easy to understand and hard to argue with: Number one, toxins and stress create obstacles for normal functioning. Number two, modern eating habits and lifestyles pollute our bodies. Number three, by removing the obstacles and providing what’s lacking, our bodies bounce back to health and energy is restored.

Supplements Can Help

Remember, the liver is ground zero for the detoxification process, so it makes sense to give your liver all the help it can get. Supplements can be useful. Many contain nutrients that assist the liver in the two-step process Phase One and Phase Two detoxification. For example, milk thistle is one of the best herbs on the planet for the liver. Some detox formulas or kits will also contain a mild laxative, usually made from the natural ingredient senna, and perhaps some digestive aids like enzymes.

One final caution: If you’re thinking a cleanse or detox is the perfect way to lose weight, think again. Weight loss isn’t the goal of a cleanse, though many people do them for just this purpose. Weight lost during a detox is almost always gained back. However, a smart cleanse can certainly jump-start a new approach to eating and health.

The bottom line: A detox is not the way to lose weight and keep it off permanently, but it may be one of the smartest ways to teach yourself something about how your body works. After all, digestive issues are just your body’s way of complaining that you’re feeding it something it doesn’t particularly like. Use this period to find out what that is, and then modify your regular diet accordingly. If you look at a detox as a kind of a jump-start—a way of increasing energy and mental clarity, and simply feeling lighter and refreshed—it may be just what the doctor ordered.

Good Buys …

VIBRANT HEALTH Vibrant Cleanse, with mineral-rich maple sap, organic lemon juice, and metabolism-stimulating cayenne, is formulated to support the body during a detox.

WORLD NUTRITION PuraCell blends minerals, herbs, enzymes, and chlorella and can be used as either a gentle daily detox or short-term “flush.”

ARTHUR ANDREW MEDICAL Devigest ADS is ideal for use after completing a detox (or as an everyday digestive aid), providing key enzymes necessary for the digestion of common problem foods.

Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, aka “The Rogue Nutritionist,” is a board-certified nutritionist and the bestselling author of 13 books on health, most recently The Great Cholesterol Myth (FairWinds Press, 2012). Visit him at and follow him on Twitter @jonnybowden. Do you have a health question for Jonny? Send it to Write Health Q&A in the subject line.