Few things in life are guaranteed. In the health and wellness world, however, there are at least two. Every January, gym memberships will grow, and people will start promoting the latest dietary cleanse or detox supplements they’re taking (or selling) to “reset” their bodies for a healthy start to the new year.

Neither one of these are bad. I love seeing the gym flush with new faces (although, who knows what that will look like in a pandemic world). And wanting to start over with healthier habits can not only make you feel better but also lead to transformative change.

I’m more concerned with messaging around detox supplements or cleanses. Whether through laxatives, diuretics, vitamins, teas, or spices, they often promote ridding the body of toxins (although many are unclear on exactly what they eliminate). Our bodies have an amazing detoxification system already in place — it’s called the liver and kidneys. I’ll clear up some misconceptions around detoxing in a second.

The stress of 2020 has left many drinking more alcohol (including myself), eating less healthy foods (hello, Uber Eats), and spending more time away from the gym. Understandably, we’ll want to rid ourselves of the awful feeling excessive eating and drinking causes. I’ll outline seven ways we can optimize our body’s natural detoxification system to feel better.

Misconceptions About Detoxing

There are some legitimate medical detox programs specifically around stopping the use of alcohol and drugs. Rather, I’m referring to those detox systems marketed to consumers to eliminate toxins responsible for everything from headaches to joint pain to depression.

According to the Mayo Clinic,

Specific detox diets vary — but typically, a period of fasting is followed by a strict diet of raw vegetables, fruit and fruit juices, and water. Some detox diets advocate using herbs and other supplements along with colon cleansing (enemas) to empty the intestines.

Some people report feeling more focused and energetic during and after detox diets. However, there’s little evidence that detox diets remove toxins from the body. Indeed, the kidneys and liver are generally quite effective at filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins.

There are reasons you may feel better after completing a detox diet, but they typically have to do with eliminating sugary, processed foods, and focusing on healthier nutrients. The following ways can help you optimize your body’s natural detoxification system without costing you an arm and a leg in expensive supplements or going long periods with meager calories.

1. Drink More Water and Eat Foods with High Water Content

Water helps your body in more ways than quenching thirst. It aids in removing waste from our systems, and our kidneys won’t function properly without it. The kidneys remove waste products from the blood, eliminate toxic substances in the urine, and receive water-soluble toxins from the liver for processing.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 report establishes as adequate water intake 3.7 (125oz) and 2.7 L (91oz)/day for men and women, respectively, between 19 and 30 years old, while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) indicates dietary reference values of 2.0 (67oz) and 2.5 L (84oz) of water per day for women and men, respectively.

These recommendations cover fluids from water, other beverages, and food. About 20% of daily fluid intake usually comes from food and the rest from drinks. Fruits like watermelon, strawberries, and cantaloupe contain 90 percent or more water. Beverages containing water (like coffee, tea, juice, etc.) also count.

2. Eat Less Sugar and Processed Foods

Reports from the World Health Organization, the UK National Health System, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, the American Heart Association, and the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee all show high intakes of added sugars increase the risk of weight gain.

Obesity can lead to conditions like diabetes and heart disease, which can damage the kidneys and liver. According to WebMD,

Too much refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup causes a fatty buildup that can lead to liver disease. Some studies show that sugar can be as damaging to the liver as alcohol, even if you’re not overweight.

Fatty liver disease negatively impacts the liver and its ability to cleanse the body of toxins. You’ll also find you feel better eating more non-processed foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than eating a diet high in sugar and fat.

3. Get Adequate Sleep

Most people don’t realize sleep is an essential process for removing built-up waste products in the brain and is instrumental in detoxifying our minds.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) writes,

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and her colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Center recently discovered a system that drains waste products from the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid, a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, moves through the brain along a series of channels that surround blood vessels. The system is managed by the brain’s glial cells, and so the researchers called it the glymphatic system.

The glymphatic system, in particular, flushes something called beta-amyloid from brain tissue. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease show a beta-amyloid collection in their brains, and research shows beta-amyloid decreases during sleep. Therefore, many believe adequate sleep can prevent certain neurological disorders.

While some people may need more and others a little less, everyone should aim for 7–9 hours of sleep each night.

4. Reduce Alcohol Consumption

There’s a reason the concept of Dry January (a month-long break from alcohol) is catching on. The holidays, including New Year’s Eve, are notorious for bringing about excessive alcohol use. After a month or so of parties (pre-pandemic), family togetherness, and celebrations, laying off the booze can help us feel mentally and physically better.

Consuming less alcohol is also good for the liver. When we imbibe, liver enzymes metabolize alcohol to acetaldehyde, a toxin. The liver then converts acetaldehyde to acetate and removes it from the body.

For the most part, this process happens smoothly, but too much alcohol can damage the liver. This damage reduces our ability to remove toxins from our bodies.

5. Exercise

The health benefits of exercise are vast. Not only can it improve your mood, combat weight gain, improve sleep, and reduce your risk for certain diseases, exercise can also help remove toxins from the body.

Getting your heart rate pumping and working up a sweat helps your body eliminate toxins through your pores. Saunas and Epsom salt baths are also a few ways to open your pores and let the toxins flow out. As blood circulates through the body, our liver, lungs, and lymph nodes can better filter out pollutants.

Increased blood flow also promotes better circulation to pump white blood cells through the body and help organs cleanse themselves effectively.

6. Eat Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are naturally high in antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. These compounds help fight oxidative stress caused by free radicals and other toxins.

Healthline writes,

By causing damage to your body’s cells, these molecules have been implicated in a number of conditions, such as dementia, heart disease, liver disease, asthma, and certain types of cancer.

Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants helps your body reduce damage caused by free radicals and may lower the risk of diseases that can impact detoxification.

Foods high in antioxidants include berries of all kinds, artichokes, kale, cherries, cabbage, beets, and spinach to name a few.

7. Keep Your Gut Healthy

You’ll find specific detox programs claim to “work” by sending you directly to the bathroom. Many have a laxative component and market their ability to remove toxins that are trapped in the colon. According to the Mayo Clinic, this isn’t necessary.

Your digestive system and bowel already eliminate waste material and bacteria from your body. The intestine is the most regenerative organ in the body. It completely regenerates its lining every five to seven days, allowing it to withstand the process of breaking down food, eliminating waste, and absorbing nutrients.

If you want to stay regular, maintaining good gut health will go a long way to keeping your intestines moving. When the gut becomes unbalanced (like after a round of antibiotics or from a poor diet), this can weaken our natural detoxification system.

Prebiotics and probiotics work to keep a healthy balance of good bacteria to bad. Examples of prebiotics include dandelion greens, asparagus, bananas, apples, onions, garlic, and chicory root. Probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, and pickles.

Bottom Line

Our bodies are remarkably good at handling short-term abuse from late nights, excessive drinking, and a little too much junk food (sounds like my early 20s). While you don’t need to buy a “cleanse” or only drink lemonade water spiked with cayenne pepper for a week, taking care of your kidneys and liver year-round by practicing the fundamentals is a great idea.

Those fundamentals are:

  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Avoiding added sugar and highly-processed foods (or limiting their consumption)
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Exercising
  • Eating fruits and vegetables (4–5 servings per day or more)
  • Maintaining good gut health by consuming pre- and probiotic foods

Now you’ll be prepared when the onslaught of detox diets hits your DMs or your inbox. Save your money and start optimizing your natural detoxification system today.