Signs You Need To Detox + How To Live A Toxin-Free Life
It’s a polluted world, and the dangerous impact has been revealed: Research is starting to show (1) the link between our increased toxin exposure and autoimmune conditions. Normally, the body does an excellent job at eliminating toxins to keep us healthy and thriving—in fact, we humans are alive because of brilliant biochemistry. Each system of our bodies has its own unique function, but they are all inextricably linked and work together to keep us alive and functioning. When one system goes awry, it often affects other seemingly unrelated aspects of our health, and this is particularly true when it comes to detoxification. Problems in this complex process are one of the biggest factors of poor health that I see in my patients.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for your body’s detoxification systems to be working properly, and although many systems in your body are involved, the primary and most influential organ of detoxification is your body’s largest internal organ: Your liver.
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Your liver does a lot of things for you. Working in constant communication with your stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, and the rest of your digestive system, your liver is responsible for storing and converting nutrients from the foods you eat for your body to utilize. Through its role in the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, your liver works to ensure (2) that blood glucose levels stay stable, preventing blood sugar imbalances and other metabolic problems. But one of its other primary functions is to filter out toxins from the foods you eat and the things you are exposed to in your environment. It’s also a blood purifier, clearing your blood of these impurities so that you only use what you need and don’t get too affected by those things that could compromise your health. Your liver is one busy organ, so if it’s not working well, your ability to detox will be significantly reduced, and that’s bad news for all kinds of reasons.
When your liver is overloaded with toxins because it can’t process them fast enough, this creates a cascade of systemic chronic inflammation in your body, which further affects your liver’s ability to rid itself of these toxins. It becomes a vicious cycle: toxins build up, the body becomes more inflamed, detoxification is inhibited, more toxins build up, inflammation increases, and on and on. The only way to break the cycle is to reduce your toxin exposure and support your liver’s natural ability to detox, allowing the liver to restore itself and catch up with the detoxification workload.
Xenobiotics are chemical compounds (such as drugs, pesticides, or carcinogens) that are foreign to our bodies and could trigger an immune system overreaction, implicating them (3) in the initiation, progression, and exacerbation of autoimmune diseases and other areas of our health including:
- Chronic inflammation
- Skin problems (acne, rashes)
- Brain fog
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Weight loss resistance
- Persistent body odor
- Thyroid problems
- Achy muscles and joints
These chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg of the number of toxins that are in our beauty products, the air we breathe, the food we eat and even the water we drink. Here are some examples:
Perchlorate is a manufacturing by-product of rocket and jet fuel production. It can also come from the manufacturing of car air bags and fireworks. This toxin leaks into drinking water and food supply chains, and almost all of us have some perchlorates in our bodies, according to the CDC. (4) This CDC study not only found widespread perchlorate exposure in humans, but a connection between perchlorate levels and thyroid hormone levels.
Perchlorate can prevent the production (5) of thyroid hormone, which can lead to low thyroid symptoms. One study found (6) babies born with elevated levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone which may have been affected by small amounts of perchlorate in their mother’s drinking water. These studies, and the work of the Environmental Working Group, show that not only is perchlorate exposure pervasive, but that even low levels of perchlorate exposure can have negative health effects on the thyroid. Choose drinking water that has been purified to avoid this toxic chemical.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent industrial chemicals that were banned in the 1970s but are still detected in our environment today. PCBs have been shown to increase thyroid dysfunction, (7) and, by increasing the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone, (8) can make your body resistant to they thyroid hormone due to overexposure, similar to the way insulin resistance (seen in type II diabetes) is the result of chronic high levels of circulating insulin.
PCBs can also affect (9) the liver enzymes that regulate the conversion of thyroid hormone, causing it to be less available in your body. PCBs are stored in fat and may be present in fatty fish from polluted waters or in well water in contaminated areas. Be careful about sourcing your seafood and the purity of your drinking water to further minimize exposure.
Dioxin is a highly toxic herbicide that is the primary component of Agent Orange, to which so many were exposed during the Vietnam war. Dioxins (like PCBs) are known to have disruptive effects (10) on the endocrine system, and I have seen many patients who served in Vietnam, whose current thyroid problems are likely related to Agent Orange exposure.
Soy may not sound like a toxin but the phytoestrogens in soy proteins can have a toxic-like effect on the thyroid because they have been found to inhibit thyroid peroxidase. (11) Soy is able to disrupt (12) normal thyroid function by inhibiting the body’s ability to use iodine, blocking the process by which iodine becomes the thyroid hormones, inhibiting the secretion of thyroid hormone and disrupting the peripheral conversion of T4 to T3. Researchers have also found (13) that infants fed soy formula had a prolonged increase in their thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels compared to infants fed non-soy formulas. In addition to its thyroid-impacting effects, soy is also one of the most commonly genetically modified foods (GMOs). As we still do not fully understand how GMOs affect human health, this is something additional to consider.
There are many different types of pesticides, but their use is ubiquitous and many antifungals and weed killers used on produce have been shown (14) to decrease thyroid function and increase weight-loss resistance. One study (15) found that women married to men who used pesticides in their daily work (such as in farming or landscaping) were at a much higher risk of developing thyroid problems than other women. Another study warns (16) that about 60 percent of pesticides used today may affect the thyroid gland’s production of hormones. Choose organic foods to minimize this effect!
6. Flame retardants
According to several studies, flame retardants, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), can disturb thyroid function. Flame-retardant chemicals are found in television and computer screens, as well as in the foam used for furniture and carpeting padding, and many of us have PBDEs in our bodies already, which have been linked (17) to behavioral and developmental problems. Using natural products in your household could help reduce your exposure.
Plastics are bad for the environment. We all know that. But they can also be hazardous to your body’s environment. Antimony, a chemical that leaches from plastic bottles, is one concern. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found antimony levels in fruit drinks and juices in plastic bottles at levels 2.5 times higher than what’s considered safe in tap water! Phthalates in some plastics have been shown to decrease thyroid function. Bisphenol A (BPA) – also used in plastics, food can coatings, and dental sealants – decreases thyroid receptor site sensitivity, causing thyroid resistance, similar to PCBs. Best to avoid plastics as much as possible. Store food in glass or steel containers, and never heat food in plastic.
Non-stick may be convenient, but that convenience comes at a price. One study (18) found that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used to make Teflon, food wrappers, and other products, can affect thyroid function even at moderate levels of exposure. A study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher concentrations of PFOA are associated with (19) the thyroid conditions that are seen today. Try getting to love stainless steel cookware and store your food in glass containers to avoid exposure to this chemical. Also minimize your consumption of packaged food, as the packaging may contain PFOA.
Exposure to halogen such as fluoride and chloride can lead to a decrease of iodine transport, (20) since these chemicals are molecularly similar to iodine. This similarity means that halogens can occupy your iodine receptors in place of iodine, making the body’s iodine levels unusable. This can subsequently block the conversion of T4 to T3. This reduces your level of the active form of thyroid hormone. Specifically, even at low doses of just 2 to 5 mg per day, fluoride has been found to suppress thyroid function. You can absorb these halogens through your food, water, medications, and the environment, so keep your diet and environment as clean as possible and if you are able, work with your doctor to minimize the use of non-crucial medication.
10. Heavy metals
Mercury, (21) lead, (22) and aluminum can all trigger antibody reactions in the body, which can lead to autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Grave’s disease and Hashimoto’s disease. While you may have heard of acute heavy metal poisoning that would show up on a conventional blood test, this is a slower, more chronic type of heavy metal toxicity which can only be accurately demonstrated with a urine test using a chelating agent. The chelator will pull the metals from your cells where it has leached, so it can actually be measured on the test. A functional medicine practitioner can order this test and help you pinpoint the source of the toxicity so you can eliminate it.
11. Hair dye
There are multiple chemicals in hair dye that have been shown to contribute to various health problems.
This common preservative is used in hair dyes and has been linked to cancer and fetal damage in utero.
Also reffered to as PPD, this common hair dye chemical is one of the worst, linked to lung and kidney problems and bladder cancer. A 2001 study showed (23) that those who dyed their hair once a month had an increased risk for bladder cancer, which was higher with long-term use and more prevalent in darker dyes.
This preservative is a known immunotoxin and has been restricted for use in Japanese cosmetics, but not in the U.S.
This chemical can be combined with hydrogen peroxide to create hair bleach. When inhaled, it can cause respiratory problems and asthma.
This known cancer-causer is in the majority of hair dyes.
This ingredient is common in some types of hair dyes. Studies have shown (24) it can alter hormone function, ramping up sex hormone levels, which can cause a cascade of health issues.
This toxic fragrance has been linked to cancer, allergies, and immune and neurological system toxicity.
12. Antibacterial products
So you thought that antibacterial soap was protecting you from disease? In 2016 the FDA banned the use of triclosan and other chemicals in hand soaps because they were deemed unsafe. The triclosan that was previously used in these antibacterial soaps is a chemical that is an endocrine disruptor (25) and impacts thyroid function. One recent study (26) found that triclosan had an effect on thyroid hormones, and another showed (27) that triclosan interacted with androgen and estrogen hormone receptors. Best to use good old-fashioned products without this added ingredient. No need for this chemical boost.
Signs You Need To Detox
The wellness world is buzzing with hundreds of different ways to detox and support your body's natural detoxification process. From juice cleanses to Whole30 to sipping bone broth – there’s a detox out there that you are bound to love.
The question is not if you should do a detox; it’s when. So start listening to your body, and if you are experiencing any one of these, it’s a sign to start your detox method of choice.
1. You have an insatiable sweet tooth
Constant cravings are a big sign that something is off. When processed foods are a staple in your diet it can put your blood sugar and leptin hormones on a roller-coaster ride which increases your cravings even more. When you detox you replace those junk foods with whole, clean food sources filled with hormone-balancing nutrients.
2. You are experiencing digestive distress
This is one of the most obvious signs that you need a complete diet overhaul. Symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea are not only uncomfortable they are a major red flag that things are not functioning properly. A detox will give your gut a break and hit will hit the reset button on your digestive health.
3. Allergies are no longer “seasonal” and happen often
Your sinuses are an extension of your digestive system. So it would make sense that if you have poor gut health your immunity is going to be weak as well.
4. You don’t feel healthy despite eating clean
Detoxing can help those who already eat healthy too. Even the healthiest foods can aggravate and flare a person up. Doing an elimination diet can give your body a break and help you find exactly which foods cause you problems. A cleanse can also provide you with food medicines to help flush out toxins that build up over time and contribute to health problems.
5. You have skin problems
Toxin buildup doesn’t do our skin any favors. Too many toxins can overload your liver (your body’s main detoxing organ) and create buildup. Since your skin also eliminates waste through sweating, all of those problems can appear on the surface in the form of acne and rashes.
6. You are always exhausted
Being in a constant state of exhaustion is not normal. It’s adrenal fatigue. Toxin buildup, inflammation, microbiome imbalances, or stress can cause problems with your brain-adrenal communication which elevates your cortisol and leaves you always waiting for your next nap.
7. You aren’t as mentally sharp
If you lack the ability to focus or struggle to remember various details on a regular basis, you’re dealing with brain fog. When your body can’t eliminate toxins fast enough, they build up and increase inflammation. This inflammation leads to damage to your protective blood-brain barrier, also known as “leaky brain.” A decrease in inflammation will relieve the oxidative stress in the hypothalamus of the brain. A detox will help you flush out all of those toxins.
8. Your joints are always sore
Ongoing inflammation does a number on your joints and muscles. If you aren’t pushing yourself at the gym but are constantly sore and achy you most likely have chronic inflammation that needs to be addressed.
9. You’re constantly stressed
Not all detoxes need to be food-based. In my functional medicine clinic, I see stress as a contributing factor to all types of health problems. Stress can act like a trigger for everything from depression to autoimmune conditions. A food based cleanse can be great to relieve physical symptoms of stress but detoxing from outside stimuli such as social media or toxic relationships as well can do wonders for your mental state.
10. Just the thought of a detox gives you anxiety
When the idea of giving up certain foods makes you sad or anxious it’s a sign of an unhealthy emotional attachment to food. For some, food is used as reward or punishment rather than the healthy fuel your body needs to thrive. Detoxing can help you determine if your eating habits have emotional roots. If so, you can then take steps to change your relationship with what you eat.
11. You struggle to lose weight
One of the first things I tell my patients is, “We need to get healthy to lose weight, not lose weight to get healthy.” Your microbiome contains a vast collection of bacteria. When you don’t have enough good bacteria, bad bacteria takes over and leads to inflammation and a slowed metabolism. Start healing your gut and your weight loss will be a by-product of optimal health.
12. Your hormones are out of whack
Hormone problems can be anything from fatigue to weight-loss resistance to irregular periods. Each of these health problems can be traced back to chronic inflammation due to poor diet and toxins.
13. Your breath and BO aren’t so fresh
You know that expression “You are what you eat”? Well, in this case, you reek what you eat. Since your body is always trying to eliminate toxins body odor is a sign that toxins have reached an overwhelming level. So put down the deodorant stick and pick up some green juice instead!
14. Your sleep patterns are off
Underlying hormonal issues like adrenal fatigue and leptin resistance can lead to irregular circadian rhythms. By eliminating toxins and reducing inflammation you’ll be getting eight interrupted hours of shut eye before you know it.
15. You are anxious and depressed
Depression and anxiety oftentimes stem from excessive inflammation. “Leaky brain” triggers an inflammatory-autoimmune response against your brain and nervous tissue. You may find that during a cleanse you begin to feel a sense of calm.
16. You often get cold sores
About 90% of people have had a cold sore at least once in their life with 40% of people dealing with recurring flare-ups. We have the herpes simplex virus HSV-1 to blame for this. And don’t worry, this is different than the HSV-2 strain that causes genital herpes! The HSV-1 virus lays dormant most of the time waiting to strike. When your immune system is weak the virus is most likely to activate. A detox can help boost up your immune system.
If you answered yes to more than one of these, it’s time to do something! Instead of a quick-fix detox go to the next-level and do something sustainable and make your entire life a cleanse.
How To Remove Toxins + Cleanse Your Life
1. Get a comprehensive health history
A functional medicine look at health starts with a detailed health history, including an assessment of your environment at home, work, and the toxins you might be exposed to on a daily basis. Some common toxin-filled environments can be:
- Autobody repair shops
- Nail and hair salons
- Dental offices
- Factories using chemicals
- House cleaning and janitorial service
- Moldy buildings
- Buildings containing lead paint
2. Find out if your body has created antibodies to toxins
I recommend running blood labs to see if your immune system is creating antibodies against some of these toxins, fueling inflammation throughout the body.
3. Address inflammation and immune disregulation
When managing autoimmune conditions, your primary goal should be to control inflammation levels and balance the immune system. To start, I recommend healing the microbiome, managing stress, and cleaning up your diet, among other tips.
4. Clean greener
Conventional dish soaps, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and household cleaners contain harmful chemicals. Ditch those and look instead for products labeled nontoxic, especially those with plant-based ingredients. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit group doing work on this topic, has a great guide to nontoxic cleaners.
5. Use essential oils instead of toxic fragrances
Instead of using toxic air fresheners, candles, and colognes or perfumes, opt for essential oils. They’re a great alternative to toxic fragrances and in addition, they can have potent healing qualities.
6. Bring the outside in
One way to clean the air you breathe is by having fresh, well-kept household plants inside your house and work space. Spider plant, dracaena, garden mum, and peace lily are all great indoor plants to purify your indoor air.
7. Use nontoxic personal products
Remember, your skin is your biggest organ, and it absorbs all the toxins that are in conventional soaps, shampoos, and makeup products. According to the EWG, the average adult uses 9 personal care products daily that expose them to 126 different chemicals.
Instead of store-bought lotions, try using pure almond, jojoba, or coconut oils on your skin instead – these natural options are excellent for moisturizing and repairing dry skin. There are also great nontoxic beauty options out there for your hair, skin, and nails.
8. Wear natural sunscreen
EWG research suggests (28) that 84 percent of sunscreen products are harmful to consumers. At the same time, many of us take avoiding sun exposure too far and are vitamin D deficient as a result, which can further trigger autoimmune problems. Opt for safe nontoxic sunscreens instead – and aim for around 10 minutes of sun exposure every day without sunscreen.
9. Make your own bone broth
Chicken stock and chicken bouillon cubes are common pantry ingredients but the chemicals in them are just not helping you. I’ve talked many times about how bone broth is a better alternative that has many gut healing benefits, and I absolutely recommend including it in your diet. If convenience and efficiency is your priority then companies like Bare Bones and Kettle & Fire are great resources that I recommend.
However, if saving money is a bigger priority simply make your own. You can use the recipe found here to get more bang for your buck and more healing with each bite. For reference, you can get over 1 gallon of bone broth plus the chicken meat from 1 whole, pasture-raised, organic chicken for about $10.
10. Support methylation
Methylation, a biochemical process, happens more than 1 billion times a second in your body to keep you alive and healthy, and one of its primary purposes is detoxification. Many people with immune problems have genetic methylation impairments, such as MTHFR gene mutations, which makes it difficult to detox on your own. To boost your body’s ability to detox, support methylation pathways with these super detox foods:
Green leafy vegetables
Methylation requires folate, which is found in greens like kale, collards, chard, and spinach. Make sure to fill up on lots of nutritious greens every day. If you find you can’t handle the roughage of raw greens, cooking them first can help mitigate any gastrointestinal upset.
Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and asparagus also support methylation. These vegetables also contain the powerful antioxidant glutathione. This antioxidant is essential for activating phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification.
Organic organ meat
Grass-fed organ meat, like liver, is the most bioavailable-rich source of B vitamins on the planet, which are essential for optimal methylation.
11. Use superfoods to detox your body
Make sure to bring detoxing foods into your day, such as:
- plantain leaf
- red clover blossom
Whether you use them in smoothies, on salads, or with your meals, rotating these foods throughout your week is a great way to turn your meals into good detoxing medicine.
12. Drink clean water
Use a quality water filter in your house to remove at least the majority of common toxins that are found in most municipal water supplies.
13. Dump the toxic nonstick cookware
The chemical compound used to make Teflon can be very difficult (29) for the body to eliminate. Instead of using Teflon or other cheap nonstick cookware, try cast iron or nontoxic ceramic.
14. Eat organic
One easy but powerful way to minimize your toxic exposure is to eat food that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. Organic food is getting increasingly easy to find and affordable, making it an option for a much greater share of the population than it once was. Still, there are places it may not be available. If you can’t find or afford organic food, try buying food in season that is locally produced, as this requires much less chemical intervention. Check out local farm stands or farmer’s markets. The EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists will help you determine which produce to buy organic and what to buy conventional if you can't buy all organic.
Make sure to thoroughly wash your conventional produce. A quick scrub with vinegar water and a soft vegetable brush can remove more residue than rinsing alone.
I also always recommend purchasing pasture-raised poultry and grass-fed beef for the most nutrient dense and toxin-free meat. If this simply isn’t in your budget though, be sure to buy lean meat. The fat is where many toxins are stored in animal meat, so purchasing lean meat is an easy way to avoid those toxins.
15. Rethink your microwave use
Microwaves can significantly reduce the nutritional content of food. One study (30) found that broccoli cooked in the microwave lost up to 97% of its beneficial antioxidants. By comparison, steamed broccoli lost only 11% or less of its antioxidants. Another study demonstrated that garlic lost many of its beneficial qualities after being microwaved. The extra minute or two on the stove is worth the nutritional boost.
16. Sweat more
We all contain some toxins, so while you are working on taking in a lighter toxic load, you can also work on removing what’s already there. Sweating is a great way to start. Some efficient methods for sweating besides regular exercise are to use an infrared sauna, take a hot yoga class, or soak in a hot bath. I don’t know about you, but I feel cleaner already!
17. Green up your workplace and home
Purify the air you breathe by bringing some fresh plants inside your house and workplace. Spider plants, dracaena, garden mum, and peace lilies are nature’s air purifiers.
18. Drink dandelion tea
B vitamins act as fuel for methylation (methylation is your body’s biochemical superhighway that controls your ability to detox) and they are found abundantly in dandelions. Brew up a cup of dandelion tea to support methylation and optimal liver function.
19. Take milk thistle
Milk thistle is a plant that aids in eliminating toxins that have built up in the liver. It also helps to restore liver cells that have been damaged from increased toxin exposure. It’s one of the most well-researched natural remedies for treating liver problems and has been used for years to treat (31) a variety of liver ailments, from hepatitis to alcoholic liver disease. You can take it in a supplement or drink as a tea.
20. Eat beets
Beets are also great for helping break down toxins through increasing (32) enzyme activity. Give your liver a boost with beautiful beets – I enjoy roasting them as a side dish, or adding them to a salad seasoned with garlic (a two-for-one live- supporting combination)!
21. Try burdock root
As a tea or supplement, this root is another detoxifying wonder, especially when it comes to heavy metals. Burdock root has natural diuretic properties, so it flushes fluids from your body along with toxins. This is especially stimulating for your detoxifying lymphatic system.
22. Target your supplements
I personally curated The Detoxer’s comprehensive formula with B vitamins to support methylation and various phytonutrients to support antioxidant activity, boost detoxification, and drive-down inflammation. The Detoxer is designed to work synergistically with each piece in The Collection to aid in mitigating all major contributors to less-than optimal health.
23. Opt out of store-bought drinks
I’m a beverage guy so I fully understand and can relate to a love of drinks, but I also know that they can get pretty pricey. If drinks like Zevia or Rebbl aren’t available to you, don’t opt for a “light” drink mix or cheap “diet” drink. Instead go for sparkling water, infuse your own water with fruits and herbs, or buy your favorite organic teabags and infuse additional flavors into it. If you have to add any sweeteners to your tea, check out some of my other articles on sweeteners to find the best one (and remember to use in moderation!).
Every person is uniquely complex, with individual genetic tolerances for toxins and individual life situations that can influence specific exposures. Think of your genetic tolerance as an empty bucket. The toxins you are exposed to gradually fill up the bucket. Some people’s buckets are smaller than those of others, and therefore fill up faster. Some people have more drastic exposures than others and can fill up even a large bucket more rapidly. And some people can be exposed to all of these toxins and show no noticeable effects from them.
There is no “one size fits all” solution for resolving toxin exposure. It’s easy to say “I’m doomed, you’re doomed, we’re all doomed!” but knowledge is power. You can make informed decisions to decrease the level of stress your thyroid is up against. You can also investigate these underlying issues and address them head on with professional guidance. And lastly, remember, your body is amazingly resilient. It wants to heal.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
Healing The Shame-Fueled Relationship
Between What You Eat And How You Feel