People choose to undertake a detox diet for different reasons. Some choose to do it to support general wellbeing, to assist with the treatment of a specific medical condition, or in preparation for pregnancy.
Regardless of whatever purpose it serves for you, it’s important that the detox process be both safe and effective. Otherwise you are going to feel unpleasant for a while, for no real benefit.
What is a Detox Diet?
A detox diet, whether it is a full juice fast, a vegetable diet, or a gentler tea detox, is a diet that encourages your body to expel any built-up toxins you are harboring in your organs and tissues. (1)
When done correctly the diet will stimulate your liver, kidney, and colon–which are the primary organs for removing toxins from your body–and increase their efficiency and effectiveness during the detox, as well as after the detox diet has been completed.
Detox diets are not considered a ‘new way of eating’ and they are not intended to be undertaken long term. Rather, it is something a person would participate in for a specified amount of time (7-14 days usually) before returning to a regular (healthy) program of diet and exercise.
There is no doubt the symptoms of an effective detox are generally unpleasant. You are forcing your body to expel chemicals and toxins that have otherwise been safely sequestered away in various organs for (usually) quite some time. The process is worthwhile though, and can have result in improved general health, as well as having weight loss implications.
Do I Need to Detox?
Your body is designed to deal with foreign and toxic substances. As previously mentioned, your liver, kidney and colon are constantly working to clean your blood and expel waste and toxins that you have ingested with your food. And if that’s the case, is there really a need to undergo a detox diet, especially if it’s going to make you feel unwell?
The real answer to that question is “possibly not”. If you’re willing to guarantee that you eat a healthy diet that is void of processed foods, caffeine, food coloring, refined sugars, alcohol or pesticides, then you probably don’t need to detox.
If you’re being honest with yourself, though, you’ll admit that’s probably not the case. In today’s environment, it is extremely difficult to avoid these substances. And while not all of these things have devastating long term effects (although some of them do) the human body is not designed to work while it is laden with them.
Perhaps you find yourself unusually lethargic? Perhaps you are having gut problems, or headaches and joint pain. Maybe you are experiencing some hormonal imbalance that is presented itself in other ways. (2)
Whatever the motivation, conducting a detox diet can help with these issues. And even if it doesn’t, if you conduct the detox in the correct fashion, ensuring your diet is nutrient-rich, a detox diet isn’t going to hurt you. (3)
How Do I Know It’s Working?
There are a number of easy to recognize symptoms that will indicate your detox diet is effective. We’ll take a moment now to consider what the common effects one might encounter, why you would expect to experience that effect, and what can be done to minimize the impact of it.
1. Acne Breakout
Not everyone who undertakes a detox diet will experience this symptom. However, as your body is able to expel toxins through the skin (via sweating etc), a diet that increases the toxin load through the pores may lead to breakouts. These might be particularly evident if you are continuing with strenuous exercise during the detox (which is not always recommended).
There have been some studies that link acne to diet (usually to high sugar intakes via chocolates etc), but the substances that would normally trigger the condition are generally absent from a detox diet. However, if you do experience a breakout during a detox you will want to consider the fat content of your diet (including fats from nuts and avocados).
If you reduce the level of fats, particular Omega-6 fatty acids, this may have the effect of eliminating, or at least reducing the severity of the outbreak. (4)
Otherwise clean your skin diligently and take comfort form the fact the breakout will be short lived, and is an indication the diet is having the right effect. If your acne breakouts persist beyond the detox period, perhaps it may not have been the detox at all, but the common acne culprits which are hormones, excess proliferation of follicular cells, bacteria, or excess sebum. (5)
2. Moodiness and Irritability
There are a number of suggestions as to why a detox might cause this consequence. It could be because you are breaking eating and dietary habits your body has become accustomed to, like eliminating caffeine for example. This is also the case for people who rely on food for emotional satisfaction. Certain foods like chocolate, activate dopamine signals in the brain, which make you feel pleasure and happiness. Without those foods, you could be left feeling sad or dissatisfied. (6)
Some detox diets can leave you feeling hungry. For example, a juice cleanse, where the diet is nutrient-rich, however volumes are reduced, can lead to irritability.
Similarly there is a suggestion that the toxic substances you are seeking to expel through the detox process are unnatural and can cause irritability in their own right. By forcing your body to unlock these substances for the purpose of removing them, you can cause the moodiness to escalate before it recedes.
This symptom is also generally short-lived, and usually impacts the dieter during the first few days of the process. The key to dealing with it is to understand that it is a natural response to the body’s accelerated self-cleaning that you are triggering.
3. Fatigue and Sleep Disruption
There is some belief that a detox diet needs to necessarily be a fast in which you starve your body of nutrients, but ideally, this should not be the case. When conducted in the proper manner, a detox diet should provide your body with all the essential nutrients it needs, but eliminate any harmful substances that have no material benefit.
However, these diets can leave you feeling lethargic and drained of energy. This is primarily because the diet is stimulating your body to work extremely hard to rid itself of stuff it doesn’t need and can’t otherwise process. That effort in itself can be exhausting, regardless of nutrient load.
The key to dealing with this outcome is to reduce the external workload on your body. Revert to moderate exercise routines, and schedule additional rest periods. Plan for 8 hours sleep a day, and be willing to take naps if necessary. Stressing your body with a heavy workload and exercise regime during a detox diet can be detrimental, and should be avoided until the diet has run its course. (7)
Headaches are a common symptom of a detox diet, and there are several things that can cause them. Sudden withdrawal from caffeine or sugar can have this effect, as can dehydration. Additionally, a headache can be a symptom of fatigue that has been brought on by the diet. (8)
We would not generally recommend pain relief medications during a detox, as the process is intended to remove built-up chemicals, not stimulate the ingestion of more. Remember, medications are processed in the liver, so don’t interfere with your body’s way of repairing and fortifying the liver by ingesting more toxic substances.
The most effective treatment for headaches during a detox is still to drink plenty of water and get some rest.
These two actions will deal with the most common causes of the headache. If the discomfort is being caused by substance withdrawal (such as coffee), there are a number of herbal detox teas that contain caffeine and can be used to support you during the process.
5. Digestive Discomfort – Gas, Bloating, Nausea
Detox diets generally represent an increase in the volume of fresh fruit and vegetables being consumed, and this can cause digestive issues. These symptoms therefore are the consequence of the dietary change, rather than the increased liver and kidney activity. (8)
That being said, some of the herbs evident in detox teas have diuretic effects (which can cause increased urination and bowel movements). In addition to this, the bowel is one of the methods of removing built-up toxins, and the increased activity in this organ can result in nausea and stomach discomfort.
Maintaining hydration during incidents of nausea is crucial. If the discomfort leads to prolonged or protracted episodes of vomiting, there may be another underlying issue that needs to be addressed, and you should consider seeking medical advice. Otherwise this is also a symptom that should pass within a few days as your body adapts to your new diet.
No one goes into a detox diet with the express intention of making themselves feel unhealthy. No one craves headaches and nausea. Nonetheless when you make a decision to undertake a detox program, you need to be conscious that these feelings are going to occur. You will get headaches. You will get bloated and gassy. And you will most probably be snappy and unpleasant to be around.
But you will need to keep the outcome of the diet clear in your mind. If you are going to clean your house, you need to pull all the rubbish out first so you can get rid of it. Detoxing your body is a similar process. In order to achieve the benefits to your general wellbeing that a detox diet is intended to deliver, you need to pull all the toxins out of your organs and tissue so you can get rid of them. And doing that as adverse, though short-lived, consequences.
A detox diet has other consequences as well of course, and those are not adverse, and not short lived. You will be making yourself healthier, assisting with your weight lost trajectory, cleaning up your skin, improving your mental acuity, and potentially increasing your fertility and chances of getting pregnant. These are all commendable goals, and ultimately worth the effort.