I can’t tell you how many people have told me that a “detox” protocol made them feel extremely ill. They take detox supplements, pills or tinctures, and within a few hours they suffer dizziness, diarrhea, chills, outbreaks or even vomiting. These symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on the person and what they’ve taken. Such is the legacy of what I’m calling “extreme detox supplements” that seem to be designed to cause as much suffering as possible while framing it all as a “healing crisis.”
I’ve always had a problem with the idea that such symptoms are routinely explained away as a healing crisis; as if you must suffer before you can heal. In this must-read article, I’m going to blow away detox myths and reveal why many people suffer such extreme illness during a detox. I’m also going to teach you how to detox safely and get away from the serious health risks found in extreme detoxing protocols.
Also, I urge anyone reading this who is considering a liver detox, kidney detox or heavy metals detox to pursue such activities only under the supervision of a licensed naturopath or integrative medicine M.D. who can guide you with a personalized protocol that’s right for you. Don’t “wing it” when it comes to the serious business of an aggressive detox.
Detox basics: Your liver dumps toxins into your small intestine
To understand why an extreme detox can make people feel so sick, you first have to understand how detox really works. This is an oversimplified explanation, but the fundamentals are correct: Your liver filters toxins out of your blood, including pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, ammonia and chemicals.
Your liver then dumps these toxins into your upper GI tract as part of a bile mixture used for digestion. Importantly, this reintroduces these toxins into your digestive system, where they can be quickly reabsorbed through intestinal walls and cause acute toxicity where you are essentially being “re-poisoned” with the same exact toxins your liver just pulled out of your blood.
(Note: Your kidneys also remove many toxins and flush them out of your body through urine. This is why kidney function is so crucial to your health. The heavy metals cadmium and mercury cause severe kidney damage, by the way.)
If you are eating a holistic, whole-food diet at the same time your liver is dumping toxins into your GI tract, then food fibers will tend to capture those toxins and trap them, ultimately transporting them out of your body through bowel movements. But if you aren’t eating any fiber — for example, you’re on a “juice fast” or a “juice cleanse” — then you have a potentially huge problem: You have no fibers to trap the toxins your liver is dumping into your small intestines! So those toxins get reabsorbed right back through your intestinal walls and into your blood.
All this helps explain why drinking nothing but fiber-less juice (i.e. “jucing detox”) during an aggressive supplement detox can be disastrous. If you aren’t eating fiber during your detox, what you are really doing is:
1) Collecting all the heavy metals, toxins and poisons from your body’s cells, tissues and organs.
2) Concentrating them in your liver (and bile).
3) Dumping them back into your small intestine all at once where they can now cause acute toxicity and poisoning.
This is all made even worse when the detox supplements you’re taking are more effective at pulling toxins out of your body’s tissues because then your liver is concentrating more heavy metals into bile and dumping them into your intestines. In effect, your body is concentrating the toxins, making them even more dangerous than they were before.
Fiber-less juice fasting while taking detox supplements may be a really bad idea
What makes all this worse is the fact that many detox protocols demand that you drink only fiber-less juice such as wheat grass juice, celery juice, carrot juice, etc. at the same time you are taking aggressive detox supplements. The lack of fiber in these juices means that many of toxins pulled out of the blood by the liver will be reabsorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, possibly at acutely dangerous concentrations.
After the diarrhea and cramping finally stops, people will often say, “I feel SO much better now! The detox worked!” Except for the fact that everybody feels better after diarrhea stops. Feeling better after making yourself sick is not exactly my definition of getting healthier.
As part of a daily diet, of course, juicing can be incredibly healing. I’m a long-time advocate of daily juicing or even short-term juice fasts, but juicing is by definition a fiber-less diet, and as a result it should never be used in conjunction with aggressive supplements that are going to increase the toxin load in the GI tract.
In other words:
* If you are juicing, don’t take aggressive detox supplements at the same time.
* If you are taking detox supplements, make sure you are eating whole foods with plenty of natural fiber.
Sometimes feeling like you’re poisoned means you are actually being poisoned
I believe it is extremely unfortunate that detox participants who suffer extreme symptoms are always told those symptoms are, in effect, “GOOD!”
Sometimes that’s simply not true. Many participants in James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge spirit journeys were also told that their extreme dehydration and hallucinations were “good” as well, but it turned out they were on the verge of death. Indeed, three people died in his sweat lodge experiences, and James Ray was convicted of negligent homicide. (He was released from prison last year.)
Even as they were on the verge of death, these people were told that their symptoms were all part of the “spiritual journey” from which they would emerge as stronger people. This is nearly identical to the extreme detox message told to many consumers, in which even serious illness is excused away as part of the healing journey.
As I’ve examined this issue more closely over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the detox supplement industry is in a worrisome state of denial about the safety of its more aggressive products. This is probably why the FDA banned cascara sagrada in 2002 for use in laxative products (but it’s still legal to use in herbal supplements).
Although it sounds bizarre, customers of extreme detox supplements made with cascara sagrada are actually taught that diarrhea is a sign of healing and is therefore something to be sought after when taking detox supplements.
I strongly disagree with this: diarrhea is never a sign of good health, and removing toxins from the body should never need to involve extreme suffering, nutrient loss or the kind of dehydration and cramping that comes with diarrhea.
Anyone who tells you a detox has to hurt to be effective should not be trusted.
Skip the extreme supplements and detox with real food
The longer I’ve examined the detox industry, the more confident I have become in the fundamental idea that your everyday diet is the only detox you really need.
Every food item you eat every single day, in other words, should be part of a cleansing and toxin elimination lifestyle. My view on this has evolved over the years, of course, and today I no longer believe we need to suffer through “detox” regimes to experience lasting health. A healthy, whole foods diet that’s rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and plenty of clean water is, all by itself, a “daily detox.”
Truth be told, your daily diet is either helping you eliminate toxins or accumulate toxins depending on what you eat. A diet of processed foods and contaminated supplements will increase your toxic burden, but a diet of fresh whole foods will naturally and automatically eliminate toxins.
Engaging in regular exercise that causes you to sweat will greatly magnify your body’s detox capabilities, by the way. Many toxins are released in your sweat, and that explains why people who exercise regularly (or who use saunas as therapy) tend to be far healthier and less toxic than those who never sweat.
People who drink plenty of fluids also tend to be healthier: water helps your kidneys eliminate toxins with high efficiency.
Bottom line: Detox should never be a crisis
My bottom line in all this? As one of the most widely-read voices in the natural health industry, I want to encourage us all to think in a more clear-headed manner about detox supplements and detox experiences. I have become increasingly convinced that extreme detox supplements may actually be causing more harm than good. Diarrhea is not healing, and the explanation that you need to suffer through a “healing crisis” just doesn’t hold water.
In truth, every glass of clean water you drink is a “detox” elixir. Every stalk of celery you chew and swallow is a detox food. Every glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice you drink is a detox beverage. Every algae superfood you eat is a “detox” superfood. Every exercise that produces sweat is a detox exercise, and every hike into nature where you are surrounded by trees is a detox hike.
Your body is already programmed to detox itself automatically (which is why you have a liver and kidneys), so if you embrace a healthful lifestyle, your body will automatically detox itself with every breath, every heartbeat and every bowel movement.
Healing shouldn’t hurt. If it does hurt, something’s probably wrong with your approach.
Excerpts from The Toxin Solution by Dr. Joe Pizzorno