"Detox": what does it mean? Is it good for our health?

The VITL Nutrition Team / 8 Jan 2018

After the overindulgence of the festive season, many of us feel the urge to ‘detox’. But what does that actually mean? And does it really do us any good?


There has always been controversy over ‘detoxing’. Especially in January when the market is awash with boxes of strange potions and powders claiming to cleanse you from previous overindulgences, but can they really work or is it a myth?

What are 'toxins'?

Toxins are substances that are poisonous or damaging to humans. They come from:

  • The plants and animals we consume
  • Bacterial by-products
  • Heavy metals such as lead and mercury
  • Organic chemicals in our environment eg. fuel for our cars, cleaning products, skincare products
Even healthy foods contain some toxic elements; for example, beans have lectins and quinoa has saponins. Many healthy nutrients such as vitamin A or iron in very high quantities can cause toxicity. However, most of what we consume is at low enough level that we are barely aware of the detoxifying process. In fact, we are detoxifying all the time, via your liver, kidneys, bowels, skin and breath. If your body didn’t do this effectively all the time you wouldn’t last very long. 

That said, your diet, environment, lifestyle, and even the type of bacteria in your gut, can build up, increasing our toxic load. Alcohol, coffee, cigarette fumes, pollution, and cleaning products are all major factors. An increased toxic load or poor nutrition may lead bottlenecks in the liver’s detoxifying process which causes volatile intermediaries to be recirculated in the body, causing potential short and long damage to cells and DNA. Over time, this can manifest itself with feelings of sluggishness, digestive issues, poor sleep and immunity or longer-term development of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

Reducing your 'toxic load'

Ideally we should keep our toxic load to a level where our body can optimally function. However, if you've 'overdone it' recently and are feeling the negative effects, the best thing you can do is take a period where you focus on reducing your toxic load whilst simultaneously increasing foods that contain nutrients that facilitate detox and elimination.

So what should you cut out to reduce your toxic load? 

The obvious ones are caffeine, smoking and alcohol. Cured meats are another source that should be avoided. Buy organic produce to avoid residue pesticides and herbicides. Look out for your food/drink containers, detergents, and beauty products, many of which contain chemicals and plastics that we ingest and then have to detoxify. 

How to nutritionally support detoxification pathways?

It's a misconception that you need to effectively starve yourself in order to properly 'cleanse' or 'detoxify'. The opposite is true; in fact intense nourishment is required. 

Aim for a plant-based diet rich in fibre, antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals. Protein is key too for the liver so lots of fish and plant proteins with some organic lean meats or game meats is ideal.

Some nutrients in foods are especially good at supporting liver detoxification pathways, helping to support and regulate liver detoxification pathways. 

  • Antioxidant vitamins C, E and beta-carotene
  • Turmeric
  • Broccoli
  • Green tea, support and regulate liver detoxification pathways. 

Glutathione is a major antioxidant that is produced and used in the liver and you can support its production with onions, leeks and garlic, leafy greens, and avocados.

Is fasting a good idea as part of a cleanse? 

A short, nutrient-dense fast with juices and smoothies can be effective for a day or two to nourish whilst resting and rebalancing your digestive system. However, long-term, low-calorie 'detox diets' will have a counterproductive effect, both leaving you nutrient deficient and craving unhealthy high-calorie foods such sugars and fats. 

Fasting should only be undertaken by those with optimal blood glucose control, a rule of thumb for this is those who can easily skip meals without feeling dizziness, tiredness, low energy, sugar/carbohydrate cravings or losing mental focus.

Download the VITL App today and get access to the 7-day VITL detox meal plans from renowned nutritionist Alli Godbold, packed with easy and delicious recipes to help you love your liver this January