As a dietitian, I’m asked questions about detoxes all the time. “What do you think of the lemon-water detox?” or “Did you hear about the new celebrity detox diet for weight loss – the one where you only drink water, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup for 10 days?”

Most often, my response suggests that only a few individuals can benefit from such an extreme attempt at cleansing.

For those who try these diets, the emotional rollercoaster is always the same: the excitement of rapid results (most notably weight loss), tiredness or fatigue from lack of nutrients (otherwise known as malnourishment), and happiness and motivation once the diet is over, then the inevitable guilt or remorse from going back to pre-detox diet living and eating.

The end goal of a realistic “detox diet” would be to wean yourself from specific foods or habits, or to jumpstart new behavior changes like starting a new diet and exercise plan to lose weight.

But it shouldn't be to deprive your body of the daily nutrients it needs to support your everyday functioning.

And keep in mind that most “detox diets” won’t help you lose body fat. So if it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is.  

First, let’s set the record straight – these types of unsustainable fad “detox diets” are not what the average health-care professional calls a “detox.” Once you are aware of why you might need to detox and why you might benefit from such a diet, the answer to “Should I detox?” will become more apparent.

Why would I need a detox program? 

Your body already has perfectly capable systems in place to remove daily waste and regulate levels of substrates and byproducts. In a healthy person, the liver, digestive system, lymphatic system, kidneys, skin, and lungs all work together to constantly manage the ebb and flow of acids/bases, toxins, metals, pollutants, alcohol/caffeine, medications, and more that we come in contact with daily.

However, constant exposure to our food/water, environment, and medications, or certain medical reasons, can cause one or more of these systems to become overtaxed or to malfunction. When this does occur, these systems might not be able to flush these substances out of your body.

Over time, toxins can build to an unhealthy level, in which case you might benefit from some outside support.

Heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic are substances that can build up in your body. We are exposed to these heavy metals through air pollution, cigarette smoke, contaminated foods (like certain fish), and from water sources we bathe in or drink.

In excessive levels, heavy metals can damage the body systems that otherwise get rid of them, which exacerbates the malfunctioning of the kidneys, lungs, brain, and circulatory systems. Heavy metals also compete with essential minerals for absorption and transportation within your body, resulting in less availability of those minerals needed for optimal functioning in specific organs and enzymatic processes.

The goal of a detox

The goal of a heavy metal detox should be to support those systems in your body to do their job. For example, many actions can be taken that support the liver. Your liver is arguably the second hardest working organ in the body after your heart. It has direct or indirect contact with every nutrient you consume or produce.

Why you should detox

Chronic exposure to heavy metals can result in adverse symptoms, such as mood changes, deteriorating organ health, digestive problems, fatigue, headaches, infertility, memory or mental clarity issues, poor immune function, and body tingling. 

Your liver might already be giving you signs it can use a detox.

Abdominal bloating, unexplained weight gain, the inability to lose weight with diet and exercise, changes in skin complexion, acid reflux/heartburn, trouble digesting fatty foods, and overheating of the body and excessive perspiration can all be signs that your liver could use a detox. An abnormal lipid panel or skin discolorations are also signs.

You could be exposed to heavy metals if you smoke or used to, are exposed to poor air quality, live in a home built before 1978, or drink water supplied in old pipes. If you are having trouble conceiving or you have an occupational exposure risk, like working with metals or chemicals, then you should evaluate your body’s heavy metal burden. Learn more about the sources of heavy metal exposure.

Follow these 6 steps to start your detox:

1. Test yourself

Screen your personal level of heavy metals with Thorne’s Heavy Metals at-home blood test that provides insights about levels of heavy metals and essential elements in your body. Based on the results, you might need to see a health-care professional or adopt some lifestyle upgrades. 

2. Support your body systems

Consider adding a supplement to your diet that supports the function of the organs and tissues involved in your natural detoxification processes: 

3. Consider a clean-up diet

Avoid all of the “fad” detox diets. Instead, look for locally sourced ingredients and farm-raised meats. Cut out foods that are high in sugar, processed, contain preservatives, or that might be loaded with pesticides. Limit “big” fish consumption – instead consume white/light fish 2-3 times a week. Learn about the specific fish species that are high in mercury.

4. Flush your system

Add exercise, which will liberate your body’s fat stores – where harmful toxins can be stored. Drink plenty of filtered water. 

5. Identify environmental exposures

Start by reading labels on products that come into contact with your skin, hair, and nails. Always wear gloves when using cleaning products or working with household chemicals, and wash your hands frequently.

6. Be a nose breather

Airborne pollutants are everywhere: pumping gasoline, venting into your car when stopped at a red light, and in the recirculated air in buildings and planes. Hold your breath in the presence of short exposures and consciously try breathing in and out of your nose when you can.