A Life of Toxic Exposure. Why Detoxification is Real and How It Can Affect You. (Part 1 of 2)

A recent article was written stating that detoxification is a myth, and outside of the conventional definition related to alcohol and drug therapy. There is no such thing. This article will demonstrate how inaccurate and misleading such a cynical claim is, while also providing a solid foundation on just what the various aspects involved in detoxification are. Thus, my overarching intention for this rebuttal is threefold: 1) to provide a discrepant perspective countering the notion that detoxification is a myth; 2) to provide a simplified yet thorough understanding of the mechanisms by which detoxification is effective; and 3) to address several common misconceptions related to detoxification.

Conventionally when the word detoxification has been used, it related to a process through which physicians facilitate the release of excess toxins (namely, drugs and alcohol) from the body. The process can range from an emergent situation resulting in pumping the stomach full of charcoal to quickly rid the body of the toxin, or be as involved as staying at an inpatient facility receiving both pharmaceutical and psychological support to assist the individual in coping with their addictions. In this instance, it is safe to say there is no single food or handful of foods that would achieve such a profound level of chemical cleansing of the body in a similar fashion. 

When viewed through a more unconventional or abstract perspective, detoxification or cleansing, can be an effective therapy for improving one’s health and wellbeing (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc), through a selective overhaul of their food and product choices.

So why all the confusion surrounding the notion of detoxification? Simply put, when the word is used in the context of conventional medicine it applies exclusively to alcohol and drugs. When applied to a more alternative or broader context, it refers to a general process through which the body is assisted and supported in the release of environmental and pharmaceutical toxins. A very well-spoken friend of mine framed it the following way: 

As a case-in-point, if you took a group of people (even skeptics) and after a month of healthy food and product choices, asked them to identify with statements such as "I feel healthier", "I feel cleaner", "lighter", etc., you would not find much contention. But, because people use the word "detox" to describe such effects, a word which is typically associated with something more clinical and/or pharmaceutical in nature, people's interpretations of that word (and it's association with otherwise innocent claims by some healthcare professionals) is inextricably linked to the traditional use of the word "detox", and the intended interpretation by many well-meaning health professionals is lost. Word choice matters greatly--as does definition. By using the word "detox", a health professional is putting the onus on him/herself to provide tangible ('hard') evidence of the elimination of "toxins". This is difficult to do in that these toxins (plaques) are not easy to illuminate/quantify/track. Herein lies the primary ammunition for naysayers who callously label the act of cleansing/rebooting/purifying/etc. as "quackery". The word is the epistemological 'anchor' that keeps this issue as divisive as it is. People's preconceptions of the notion are tied not to the concepts within the notion (cleanliness, purifying our filters, mitigating toxins, etc.), but rather they are tied to the word 'detox' and the preexisting association. 

Another issue with the aforementioned naysayer article on detoxification as a myth, is that the author failed to differentiate to the reader the difference between efficacy and effectiveness. This is a crucial point. Efficacy refers to “statistically significant, generalizable, transferrable results as a function of controlled experiments using a substantive sample size.” Effectiveness refers to “the degree of efficacy for the individual.” Some interventions work very well for certain individuals and not so much for others. For example, if a researcher conducted a study in which the n=400, and the end results indicated that <200 individuals exhibited statistically significant changes in whatever health metric was being observed, that doesn't necessarily mean that the effectiveness of the intervention is less than 50%. The efficacy would be reported as <50%, but the effectiveness for many individuals might not be affected by that. This is a crucial point to keep in mind--especially within the domain of naturopathic medicine and it's constituent fields--with skeptics abound and few of them thinking critically enough to keep this crucial distinction in mind. 

Now that we’ve laid the foundation, let us begin by building a working understanding of the pre-requisites for detoxification.

Whether you are aware or not, we live in a world that is constantly assaulting our bodies with a myriad of harmful substances. Known as toxins, these noxious or poisonous substances are a serious concern with serious consequences if left unchecked. Toxins are typically derived from plants or animals, but can also come from inorganic sources, some of which are essential to our survival because they serve as part of our cellular makeup. These minerals can be found in abundance or trace amounts and include aluminum, calcium, chlorine, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, sulphur, and zinc. Most of the time these elements co-exist in cooperative environment, but all it takes is one of these elements to reach unfavorable levels to become a serious concern. 

A Brief Segment on the World of Toxins

Bacteria are a common source of toxin production. They are released in either one of two ways: they are either excreted by the bacteria or become present as a result of the bacteria being destroyed. The most common path through which toxins are transported throughout the body is via the bloodstream. Circulating the length of the body from head to toe, when a toxin is present one can present with systemic symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and fluctuations in both pulse rate, and respiration. 

How does our body respond to the presence of toxins?

Fortunately, a healthy body without any serious health complications has the innate ability to ward of these harmful substances without any additional assistance on our part. The colon, kidneys, lungs, the liver via the bile, the mucous membranes, and the sweat glands in the skin are all avenues through which our body rids itself of toxins. One familiar example of toxins accumulating in the body is found around joints. As toxins accumulate in a joint space, crystals are formed, resulting in a very inconvenient diagnosis of gout.  

The point of concern is, what happens when a body isn’t able to properly utilize these routes of elimination? Unfortunately, due to a lifetime of childhood exposures, workplace contact with chemicals, pesticide residues on the food we eat, contaminated products we use in our homes and bodies, and the quality of the air and water in our communities, our bodies are exceedingly challenged in properly and efficiently ridding themselves of these harmful substances.  Think of your body as a “filter”, similar to one used in a coffee maker, and the various organs associated with eliminating toxins as a mechanism that helps to keep the filter free of debris and residue, thus functioning optimally. As our day-to-day lives continue to expose us to harmful substances, our bodies can become overwhelmed by toxins. Despite our “filter” working around the clock to keep out all the unwanted substances, the overload can be so great that a backup of sorts occurs. Before long, the “filter” isn’t able to efficiently remove all the toxins, leading to a subsequent accumulation throughout the body. If you’re like me and don’t care for coffee, here is another way of looking at this, if we let our guards down for too long, the pollutants and toxins that can infiltrate and overwhelm our bodies can accumulate to the point of being a serious problem, similar to a computer being overwhelmed with viruses as a result of the user not taking the time to take care of the antivirus software. Our body's natural detoxification machinery is like our antivirus software; if we don't take care of it by updating it with necessary corrections to ward off more aggressive offenders, or let it get bombarded with too much 'toxic' information, we are likely to become symptomatic and in need of a thorough cleansing and rebooting. If left unchecked the toxin levels escalate in the body and we begin to observe a host of diseases associated with toxicity such as: auto immune diseases, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, lethargy and muscle fatigue, psychological ailments such as anxiety and depression, cancer, frequent colds and flu’s, joint pain, arthritic changes, fevers, skin eruptions, and digestive disturbances. [1,2,3,4,5,6]

How early in life do toxins start to infiltrate the body?

In short, toxins begin to infiltrate our bodies while we are still in our mothers’ wombs. What is commonly believed to be a healthy, nourishing environment for the baby is often festering with harmful substances. The Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN North America) wrote, “Mother’s pass a lifetime of chemical accumulation across the placenta during pregnancy, where they become part of a developing infant’s first environment. [7,8]” 

What are the tests used to discover toxins in the body?

How are these toxins tested for and found? Pesticides and industrial chemicals are able to be measured from any human fluid or tissue. For example, in the case of pregnant mothers, blood and/or breastmilk is evaluated for organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. Because these substances take a considerable amount of time to be broken down, they can be found in the body anywhere from months to even decades after the initial exposure! Many other chemicals found in the body can pass through at varying rates. For those that tend to pass quicker than others, a 24-hour urine sample over a period of several days can be another useful way to assess for the presence of toxins in the body.  

Known as biomonitoring, these methodologies look for chemicals and their breakdown-caused byproducts, also known as “metabolytes.” “Studies may also measure biological markers that the body produces (or fails to produce) in response to the presence of a chemical. For example, exposure to certain pesticides inhibits the body’s production of an enzyme called cholinesterase. In California, a baseline level of the enzyme is established for farmworkers, and periodic testing over the course of the growing season is then required to measure cholinesterase in workers’ blood. If enzyme activity is low, steps must be taken to reduce pesticide exposure.[7]

What can testing accomplish?

With each and every test performed we create a more diversified database for monitoring chemicals of widespread concern, track trends in human exposure to pollutants, and even document the impacts of shifts in policy. Researchers and agencies can then present this data to the government to promote the need for protective measures to be taken such as: labeling products, restricting the use of harmful chemicals, and educating the public of the harmful effects of exposure to toxic substances. 

Importance of understanding the individual responses to chemicals

Given that each of us is unique in our genetic makeup and the environment in which we work and live, we are all going to react differently to the chemicals we come into contact with. “Levels of pesticides that may cause no harmful effects when found in the body of one person can be devastating to another. These are biological and physiological differences that are impossible to measure or predict.[7]” 

Key Considerations Moving Forward

Instead of employing crude adjectives, blunt language, and sharp cynicism to tear down an idea, it is my hope by now you are beginning to see how context and perspective can either provide a narrow-minded view or much broader lens through which to view this topic. Both conventional and alternative medicine have the capacity to compliment one another. Through this integration of ideas, practices, and procedures we will provide the greatest service to our communities. There is still much to learn and discuss on the subject of detoxification. As we forge forward let us remember the true universal objective of science is to "keep the door open". The notion of how to support the body's ability to cleanse itself is by no means an open and shut concept. It has clearly been established that our bodies come into contact with countless harmful substances each and every day. With scores of emerging studies demonstrating how early in life our environments are polluted with toxins, and the devastating side effects that are observed, it is imperative that we exercise caution and discretion with the products we choose to consume and apply, and the items with which we surround ourselves.

In Health and Wellness,


1.     http://www.epa.gov/mold/append_b.html#Health_Effects. Accessed 10 December, 2014. 
2.     National Research Council (US). Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: A Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1992. Allergy and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Distinguished. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234794/. Accessed 9 December, 2014.
3.     Selner, J. C. and Staudenmayer, H. 1985. The relationship of the environment and food to allergic and psychiatric illness. Pp. 102-145 in Psychobiology of Allergic Disorders. Young, S., editor; and Rubin, J., editor. editors. New York: Praeger.
4.     Alpay, Kadriye, Mustafa Ertaş, Elif Kocasoy Orhan, Didem Kanca Üstay, Camille Lieners, and Betül Baykan. "Diet Restriction in Migraine, Based on IgG against Foods: A Clinical Double-blind, Randomised, Cross-over Trial." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Dec. 0005. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
5.     Ashford, Nicholas,  Miller, Claudia, Chemical Exposures, Low Levels and High Stakes New York: Van Norstrand Reinhold 1998 pg. 126-127.
6.     nHong ZR, Hong SY, Han MJ, Lee HS, Gil HO, Yang JO, Lee EY, Hong SY “Clinical observation of 12 farmers who believe themselves to have suffered from chronic pesticide intoxication.” Korean J Intern Med. 2008 Mar;23(1):1-4.  
7.     http://www.panna.org/science/biomonitoring/body-burden-health. Accessed 9 December, 2014. 
8.     S. M. Waliszewski, A. A. Aguirre, R. M. (2001). Organochlorine Pesticide Levels in Maternal Adipose Tissue, Maternal Blood Serum, Umbilical Blood Serum, and Milk from Inhabitants of Veracruz, Mexico. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 432-438.