Commercially available detoxes are a scam. There, we said it.
Colon cleanses, detoxing smoothies, juice cleanses, detoxifying supplements, capsules, teas, and essential oils ... the list of these products gets longer every year.
But which toxins are they supposedly removing?
In medicine, a "toxin" is generally a drug, and “detoxing” is being weaned off the drug.
In the modern wellness world, the meaning of toxin has become much fuzzier. It might mean synthetic chemicals, pollutants, heavy metals, or processed food, among many other options.
As the authors of a review of detoxes write, “Despite the widespread popularity of detox diets, the term ‘toxin’ remains ill-defined.”
They explain that “No rigorous clinical investigations of detox diets have been conducted.”
In this feature, we’ll focus on your body’s own incredibly efficient detox systems, which have evolved over millions of years.
In particular, we’ll focus on your liver and kidneys, your body’s primary detoxifying workhorses.
They handle the toxins your body generates, including the lactic acid your muscles produce and waste products from your gut microbiome.
These organs also tackle toxins that enter from outside — through food and drink, the air you breathe, and your skin.
Love your liver
Once you’ve digested your dinner, anything that gets absorbed through your gut lining and into your blood makes its way to your liver along the portal vein. This includes nutrients.
Your liver turns them into compounds your body can use, stores them, and sends them to cells when needed.
Your liver also takes on toxic substances as they arrive.
How does it make toxins safe?
Your liver is home to an impressive suite of enzymes. Some turn dangerous toxins directly into pussy cats, and this is called phase 1 metabolism.
But your liver still needs to get these subdued toxins out of your body. So, it moves on to phase 2 metabolism.
In this phase, enzymes in your liver "conjugate" the pussy cats — they attach another compounds to the toxins. This makes them water soluble, so they’re easier to get rid of.
After conjugation, your liver sends the modified toxins to your kidneys, where they’re removed in your urine. Or, it adds them to bile, which is sent to your gut, so they end up in poop.
Toxins might need to go through phase 1 metabolism multiple times with more than one enzyme before moving on to phase 2. It’s a wonderfully complicated system.
Using its incredible armory of enzymes, your liver can handle a huge range of potential toxins, including medicines, drugs, heavy metals, microorganisms, and old red blood cells.
Now, let’s look at the next detox powerhouse, your kidneys.
Care for your kidneys
Your kidneys are essentially filters — they trap toxins and remove them in your wee.
These organs can handle a wide variety of toxins, including chemicals produced during metabolism, like ammonia, urea, uric acid, and creatinine. They also remove the conjugated toxins from phase 2 metabolism.
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In addition, our kidneys help rid us of industrial toxins, like heavy metals. Plus, they help us excrete compounds from food when we consume too much, including salt, vitamin C, and B vitamins.
How do they do it?
Each of your two kidneys contains around 1 million tiny units called nephrons. And each nephron has a filter called a glomerulus, which is a tiny cluster of blood vessels.
The glomerulus filters your blood, only letting through small molecules and liquid — so your blood cells and proteins stay in.
Each nephron also has a small tube called a tubule. After the fluid is filtered by the glomerulus, it moves along the tubule.
From there, fluids and other things your body needs, like nutrients and minerals, are shunted back into your blood to circulate around your body. And what’s left in the tubule — i.e., the trash — becomes urine.
Other detox systems
Your liver and kidneys, as we mentioned, are your detoxification powerhouses. But other organs and systems help out.
One example is your gut: If you eat something toxic, you might vomit or develop diarrhea to expel it before it causes harm. You also poop out the toxins that your liver adds to bile.
And your skin is a protective barrier — It helps keep water-soluble toxins from entering your body.
We should mention that toxins aren’t removed through your skin. You can’t “sweat out" toxins.
And while we’re on the topic, “detoxifying face masks” might clean your face — in the same way that soap does — but they won’t pull toxins from your blood through your skin.
Meanwhile, your lungs help remove toxins and microbes that you breathe in. For instance, tiny hairs trap larger particles. And mucus traps the smaller particles, which then get expelled.
What should you do?
Although your body has incredible detoxification systems, they can get overloaded. Your liver and kidneys are workhorses, not miracle workers.
If you consume too many heavy metals, for instance, you will get very sick eventually. The same goes for other toxins, including alcohol.
Still, by this point, colon cleanses and liver detoxification supplements won’t help.
Your body does need support to work effectively. But it doesn’t need a “cleanse.”
Supporting your liver
If you drink, reduce your alcohol intake: Take 2 or 3 days off alcohol every week, preferably in a row.
Maintain a moderate weight.
Only take the medicines you need as your doctor prescribes.
Supporting your kidneys
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, you can support your kidney health by:
Maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
Staying in a healthy blood cholesterol range.
Not eating too much salt.
Taking medicines as advised by your doctor.
Getting enough sleep: 7–8 hours a night.
Quitting smoking, if you smoke.
If you’re feeling low in energy or just under the weather, looking for a quick fix with a detox product is tempting. Sadly, the companies who market these products know this. But they can’t deliver.
In truth, most of us already have all the detoxing capabilities we need — our liver and kidneys, in particular. We just need to look after them.
Making small, sustainable changes can help you feel better.
With that said, if you’re worried about your health, speak with a doctor, who can check for underlying conditions. Similarly, if you’ve consumed something genuinely toxic, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
All about portal vein: A pictorial display to anatomy, variants and physiopathology. Insights Into Imaging. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6428891/
Can you sweat toxins out of your body? (2019). https://uamshealth.com/medical-myths/can-you-sweat-toxins-out-of-your-body/
Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: A critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. (2014). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jhn.12286
“Detoxes” and “cleanses”: What you need to know. (2019). https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know
How does the liver work? (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279393/
Liver: Anatomy and functions. (n.d.). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/liver-anatomy-and-functions
Looking after your liver. (n.d.). https://britishlivertrust.org.uk/information-and-support/love-your-liver/looking-after-your-liver/
Mechanisms of hepatocyte detoxification. (2018). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128099544000438
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (2023). https://liverfoundation.org/liver-diseases/fatty-liver-disease/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease-nafld/
Physiology, renal. (2022). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538339/
Take care of your kidneys and they will take care of you. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/kidneydisease/prevention-risk/take-care.html
The kidney dysfunction epidemic, part 1: Causes. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal. (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4718206/
The liver is a factory. (n.d.). https://www.hepatitis.va.gov/basics/liver-as-factory.asp
Your kidneys and how they work. (2018). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/kidney-disease/kidneys-how-they-work