Reviewed by Bill Rawls, MD
Medical Director of Vital Plan
As the country slowly emerges from the pandemic and hope is in the air, our bodies may not exactly be in top shape to take on the coming spring. Over the past year, many people coped with the stress and loneliness of the pandemic by relying heavily on sugary foods, carbs, alcohol, sedentary screen time, irregular sleeping, Netflix binging, you name it. Though these types of quarantine habits may have provided some short-term stress relief, they may have put your body’s detox systems under siege. Your body’s detox system could use some relief too before it leads to other problems.
“It’s usually not just one thing that inhibits your body’s ability to get rid of toxins, but rather a combination of several,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan. For example, stress, being sedentary, eating excess carbs, and other lifestyle factors common during the pandemic can compromise your microbiome and lead to leaky gut syndrome. This condition allows toxins and undesirable food components to cross into your bloodstream (aka leaky gut) instead of being eliminated, which in turn can overwhelm the immune system and cause systemic inflammation.
Not eating adequate fruits and veggies, drinking enough water, or exercising regularly, or simply being sick or having a compromised immune system — any of these can also slow down or clog your lymphatic system. This network of channels running throughout your body picks up toxins and cellular debris and brings them to lymph nodes, where they’re processed and disposed of. But when lymphatic fluid isn’t flowing or the system isn’t working as it should, toxins can build up and make trouble.
Your liver, kidneys, skin (via sweat), and other organs also play a role in regularly detoxifying your system. All of them are susceptible to the same unhealthy habits mentioned above. And when they get overloaded, detoxification slows, which can compromise your immune system, trigger inflammation, slow down circulation, or cause hormonal imbalances.
And so, many people coming out of the pandemic feeling run down (or worse) and resolving to hit the refresh button may turn to extreme programs that promise to jumpstart the body’s detoxing powers. Most of these plans last only a few weeks and focus primarily on food — or, more accurately, a lack thereof. (Ahem, juice fasts.)
But regardless of their popularity, short-term, highly restrictive detox diets or cleanses aren’t going to do much for you in the long term. One review in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics reports that there’s very little evidence that commercial detox diets are effective or even necessary. Some can even do damage. For instance, extreme detoxing can lead to nutritional deficiencies that impair immune function or dangerously-low blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
That doesn’t mean you should check “detox” off your to-do list. Life happens, and despite your best efforts, you may not be doing enough to stop the inflow of toxins and/or encourage their disposal. How to know?
“It’s tricky,” says Dr. Rawls. You could feel okay, pretty good even, while your systems are actually struggling. “Your body will always try to compensate for whatever you’re doing or what it’s experiencing — it does what it has to do to keep you going,” Dr. Rawls says. “But it will get weighed down, and sooner or later, there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back.” It could be a virus that should manifest as simple sniffles that flattens you for days, for example, or a minor gut microbiome imbalance that throws your GI system entirely out of whack.
The key to restoring healthy detox functions before it has significant ramifications is paying close attention to the subtle signals your body sends about your health. Any of the symptoms below should be a wake-up call that it’s time to take action.
1. Lasting Fatigue
Being tired after a few busy days or late nights is one thing, but consistently lacking the energy and motivation to do what you want is another. Sleep is the obvious first place to look. “If you need caffeine to get going every morning, you’re probably not getting enough sleep, or the sleep you’re getting isn’t high quality, restorative rest, ” says Dr. Rawls. “Either can make it harder for your body to detoxify.”
Lingering fatigue might also be a red flag that your detox systems are already worn down from an influx of chemicals from food (i.e., pesticides or artificial additives) or environmental toxins (i.e., cleaning solutions or air pollution), and your body is burning excess energy to try to keep up. Unfortunately for a lot of people, constant fatigue is just par for the course. “It’s the number one symptom people tend to put up with or ignore,” Dr. Rawls says.
2. Brain Fog
Occasionally forgetting names or important to-dos is common, especially when you’re stressed and your brain is overloaded with too much information. But brain fog is different.
“It feels like everyone around you is functioning at full speed and you’re in slow motion, wading through a fog,” Dr. Rawls says. “You miss things or don’t understand them clearly. Your mental functions seem slower, and as a result, you can only focus on what’s in front of you and what’s needed to survive.”
Too much sugar and a sluggish lymphatic system can trigger cloudy or slow brain function. Brain fog is also a common symptom of a leaky gut. That’s because when toxins and food proteins you may be sensitive to or intolerant of cross the gut-blood barrier, they can travel to places in the body they don’t belong — including the brain. “Accumulation of toxins slows neurological functions and allows microbes present in the brain to flourish,” Dr. Rawls says.
3. Digestive Problems
Your GI system plays a crucial role in disposing of toxins, so if it’s dealing with more than usual or isn’t able to get rid of them fast enough, its functions will be sluggish and irregular, Dr. Rawls says. Likewise, if unhealthy habits and toxins have messed with the balance of good bacteria in your gut, you’ll also experience digestive issues.
Watch for bloating, gas, or discomfort in your abdomen, as well as constipation, diarrhea, or both. Anything other than formed, regular stools and a calm tummy can mean your microbiome is struggling to maintain balance and that your system may not be effectively managing toxins or properly regulating your immune system, Dr. Rawls says.
4. Sugar Cravings
Consuming too much sugar or simple carbohydrates (processed cereal, muffins, white bread) sends insulin and blood glucose on a roller coaster that, over time, can supercharge your sweet tooth so you crave more and more. Likewise, a sugar-heavy diet can actually change how your brain registers the sweet stuff, dulling its response and triggering cravings.
The problem, of course, is that all that excess sugar sets off a domino effect that leads to inflammation and disease, plus sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria in your gut and makes your liver work overtime to deal with the excess. Bottom line: If you’re craving sweets, things have already gotten to a critical point — time to detox.
5. Achy or Stiff Joints and Muscles
Your body’s lymphatic fluid helps collect pathogens, toxins, and cellular waste from around your body and carries them to your lymph nodes, which break down and dispose of the “trash.” When it’s not working properly, lymphatic fluid doesn’t flow as easily and can build up, causing stiffness.
6. Any Other Unusual Symptoms
Pay attention to congestion, colds, or flu-like symptoms that persist beyond the normal time frame, frequent and unexplained headaches, skin problems such as breakouts, rashes, or puffiness, and anything else that seems odd about how you feel or how your body functions. Often, just feeling “off” is a sign that your systems may be overtaxed with toxins.
Get Started with These 5 Natural Ways to Detox
If you’ve decided you need to step up your detox game, remember to steer clear of extreme plans that promise fast and amazing results. If it sounds too good to be true, odds are it is.
Instead, try these simple tips to jumpstart healthy and detoxifying daily habits. They might seem small or insignificant, but if you make them a part of your everyday life, they’ll help support your body’s natural detoxification powers long-term and steal the appeal of over-the-top cleanses.
Try Detoxifying Herbs and Natural Remedies
Chlorella is at the top of the list, Dr. Rawls says. This freshwater green algae is rich in chlorophyll, a pigment with antioxidant properties that binds to toxins and helps usher them out of your system.
Aromatic bitters and bitter herbs are also a smart choice. They activate bitter receptors throughout your GI tract to aid digestion and support healthy blood glucose levels. Bitter herbs such as berberine, gentian, dandelion, and andrographis are also known to support healthy liver function, Dr. Rawls says.
Eat Fruits and Veggies More Than Anything Else
The high water content of fruits and vegetables helps flush out toxins, plus they contain antioxidants that tamp down inflammation. Produce is also packed with fiber, which feeds the good bacteria in your gut that helps strengthen the gut barrier and keep toxins from crossing the gut-blood barrier. Aim to load up at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal.
At the same time, be sure to limit grain-based carbohydrates and packaged foods. Instead, fill the second half of your plate with mostly whole sources of healthy fat and protein, like nuts, legumes, fish, and organic eggs.
Keep Your Body Moving
Exercise is one of the best detoxifying “medicines” for your body, Dr. Rawls says. It helps move along lymphatic fluid and the toxins it carries and strengthens your heart and vascular system. It’s also an effective way to diffuse stress, improve sleep, and sweat — long known as an efficient way to remove some toxins such as heavy metals from your body.
You don’t necessarily need to do intense workouts, although they won’t hurt (if you’re already accustomed to them). Start by simply going for a long, brisk walk every day, taking more activity breaks throughout the day, and trying gentle stretching practices such as yoga or qigong.
Step Up Your Sleep Hygiene
Do all you can to set yourself up for a night of quality sleep and at least 8 hours of shuteye. That means shutting off electronics at least an hour before bedtime, keeping the room cool and dark, and getting on a consistent sleep schedule where you turn in and wake up at the same time each night and morning.
Herbal or natural sleep aids can help in the short term. Try full-spectrum CBD oil (aka cannabidiol), magnesium, tart cherry (a natural source of melatonin) or calming herbs like bacopa, passionflower and motherwort as you get back on track with natural detoxifying habits.
“Ultimately, detoxing shouldn’t be painful or restrictive, nor a punishment for past behavior,” reminds Dr. Rawls. Instead, consider these habits part of a healthy lifestyle that will promote health benefits so you feel your best this spring and beyond!
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1. Klein AV and Kiat, H. “Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015 Dec;28(6):675-86.