What is Detox?
A Guide to the Scientifically Based, Functional Medicine Approach
People either swoon or cringe when they hear the word “detox.” Those who stand behind it claim it gets rid of their symptoms—everything from brain fog to joint pain and fatigue—while others strongly assert there is no need to detox, and it is just marketing hype. Why such polarized views?
“Detox” used to mean many things, which may be part of the reason for the discrepancy. To some, it might simply be drinking lemon juice in water, sitting in a sauna, or maybe doing a juice fast. However, within Functional Medicine, detox has a specific definition: it is the process of reducing the body’s toxic load by lessening exposure to harmful chemicals we are taking in, while simultaneously implementing nutrition and lifestyle strategies to promote efficient elimination of toxins from the body1.
The first step of detoxification can be done, in part, by lessening the immune system load by removing reactive foods from the diet. The gold standard for this removal is the aptly named “elimination diet”, which is a simplified list of foods to eat and foods to exclude as part of a detox program.
Typically, common allergenic foods and beverages containing corn, soy, wheat/gluten, eggs, dairy, shellfish, and peanuts are omitted from the daily diet in conjunction with caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and red meat for 10 to 28 days, depending on the duration of the program. In scientific literature, using an elimination diet in various formats has historically been used to address various conditions2,3,4,5,6 with differing levels of success.
In Functional Medicine, the elimination diet is often used as the first line of therapy for immune and gastrointestinal issues since it can help with reducing toxic load and cooling down any immune reactivity to foods.
In conjunction with removal of foods, it’s best to take a complementary approach to bolstering the body with specific nutrients to help fortify its pathways of detoxification in the liver, so toxins can be easily removed. For example, it is well known that certain vitamins and minerals—like B vitamins and iron—are required to assist in the activity of these enzymes7. Coupling nutrients together with an elimination diet (through their inclusion as whole, plant-based foods and as scientifically formulated dietary supplements) is perhaps the most robust protocol for a medical detoxification regimen.
In support of this approach, Lamb et al8. showed that a 4-week elimination diet? together with nutrient supplementation ? was helpful in reducing symptoms in women with fibromyalgia.
In conclusion, detox has a very specific and science-based definition within Functional Medicine. In practice, Functional Medicine programs that modify dietary intake and supplement nutritional co-factors that support the body’s endogenous detoxification pathways can mitigate toxic burden to reduce incoming toxic exposures, and, at the same time, equip the body with nutrients known to support the body’s natural capacity to shuttle toxins out.
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1 Institute for Functional Medicine. https://www.functionalmedicine.org/
2 Warners MJ, Vlieg-Boerstra BJ, Bredenoord AJ. Elimination and elemental diet therapy in eosinophilic oesophagitis. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2015 Oct;29(5):793-803.
3 Kim J, Kwon J, Noh G, Lee SS. The effects of elimination diet on nutritional status in subjects with atopic dermatitis. Nutr Res Pract. 2013 Dec;7(6):488-94.
4 Alpay K, Ertas M, Orhan EK, Ustay DK, Lieners C, Baykan B. Diet restriction in migraine, based on IgG against foods: a clinical double-blind, randomised, cross-over trial. Cephalalgia. 2010 Jul;30(7):829-37. doi: 10.1177/0333102410361404. Epub 2010 Mar 10.
5 Bunner AE, Agarwal U, Gonzales JF, Valente F, Barnard ND. Nutrition intervention for migraine: a randomized crossover trial. J Headache Pain. 2014 Oct 23;15:69. doi: 10.1186/1129-2377-15-69.
6 Pastorello EA, Stocchi L, Pravettoni V, Bigi A, Schilke ML, Incorvaia C, Zanussi C. Role of the elimination diet in adults with food allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1989 Oct;84(4 Pt 1):475-83.
7 Textbook of Functional Medicine. Institute for Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA. 2006.
8 Lamb JJ, Konda VR, Quig DW, Desai A, Minich DM, Bouillon L, Chang JL, Hsi A, Lerman RH, Kornberg J, Bland JS, Tripp ML. . Altern Ther Health Med. 2011 Mar-Apr;17(2):36-44.