Debunking detoxification: can food detox our bodies?

Detox diets and cleanses are everywhere! But, do we really need to detox? 

While we may think detox programs are essential to remove toxins, detoxification is constantly occurring in our liver, kidneys, skin, and gut. There are diet and lifestyle choices we can make to improve detoxification, but first we need to understand how our bodies naturally detoxify. 

What are toxins?

In recent years, toxin exposure has become a popular topic, especially for those looking for health enhancement and prevention of chronic disease.  In scientific terms, toxins are classed as endotoxins and exotoxins. 


Endotoxins are toxins produced within the body. Substances produced during various essential life processes can become toxic to the body in high concentrations and so the body has internal detoxification systems to remove these. Additional endotoxins can also be produced by bacteria inside your body if you are ill, and these also need to be neutralised and removed.


Exotoxins are toxins that are taken into our body, rather than produced in our body. These toxins can be purposefully consumed in the form of drugs (prescription, over the counter, or recreational), but can also be consumed accidentally. Food additives and pesticides, environmental pollution and household cleaning chemicals all contain toxins that need to be removed by our bodies. Toxins produced by bacteria can also be taken in, especially if spoiled food is eaten regularly.

How does detoxification in your body work?

How Does the Body Detoxify? 

The majority of detoxification takes place in the liver, but organs such as the intestine, brain, adrenal glands, and skin are also involved. Detoxification of most compounds occurs in two phases. 

Phase I Detoxification: 

During phase I detoxification, toxins are metabolised from their fat soluble form to water soluble forms. Without this step, toxins would be more likely to be stored in fat cells instead of being neutralised and removed from your body. The problem with the compounds created during phase 1 detoxification is that they increase oxidative stress. This is because toxins formed during this process are more toxic than the original toxins, and the process of creating the compounds results production of reactive molecules. 

Phase II Detoxification: 

Phase II detoxification is the phase of detoxification where the toxic, water-soluble compounds formed in phase I are transformed into less harmful products that your body can easily remove. The majority of these end products are transported to the gallbladder and kidneys and  eventually leave your body in urine and faeces. 

Phase III Detoxification: 

A third step of detoxification, called the antiporter system, removes toxins directly. Most of the phase III antiporters are found in the intestine cells where they pump some of the absorbed toxins back into your intestines. 

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How does your diet play a part in detoxification

How you eat can reduce toxin build up, enhance detoxification, improve toxin removal, and reduce oxidative damage caused during the detoxification process. This is achieved by reducing your toxin exposure from food, supporting detoxification processes, and enhancing toxin removal. 

You can follow these tips to optimise your nutrition and improve your health.


Reduce your exposure to toxins:

Wash your fruit and veg 

Reduce the amount of chemicals you eat by reducing your pesticide exposure. Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water and dry with a clean cloth, or paper towel before preparing them. It is even a good idea to do this if you will be peeling fruits and vegetables. 

Practice variety–eat the rainbow!

It also advised that you don’t just stick to one singular fruit or veg - eating a variety of fruit and vegetables will limit your exposure to any single pesticide. 

Buy local, organic fresh produce 

If you buy your fruit and veg from a local market, ask your farmer about his pesticide use. Remember that organic food is not necessarily pesticide free. The pesticides used in organic farming cannot be manmade, but this doesn’t mean they don’t contain naturally occurring toxins. 

Choose lean meat

Another good tip is to trim all visible fat off meat before cooking it. Any pesticides or chemicals eaten by animals will be in the fat, so trim as much as possible off. 

Limit smoked / chargrilled meat

Heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (HCA/PAH) are toxins that form within animal proteins when they are char-grilled or smoked. We should all be eating less smoked salmon, fewer seared steaks and less barbequed chicken, but those with certain genetic makeups may need to be even more careful.

Practice food safety

Bacterial endotoxins are formed in food that has been spoiled or gone ‘off’. Always store and prepare your food correctly and eat foods before they reach their best before dates. Good food safety practices go a long way in reducing toxin exposure.

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Support your body's detoxification ability:

Eat more cruciferous vegetables 

Specific compounds found in cruciferous vegetables called glucosinolate and sulforaphane, as well as polyphenols can enhance phase II detoxification. This effect is especially pronounced in those with a genetically reduced phase II detoxification ability. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and kale are all part of this group of vegetables, so try to eat them as often as possible to enhance detoxification. Similar detoxification improvement has been seen with allium vegetables, such as garlic and onion, and apacious vegetables such as parsley, carrots, and parsnips. 

Get your antioxidants 

The process of detoxification results in production of reactive molecules. These molecules can cause cell damage over time if not neutralised, and eating foods rich in antioxidants can help your body remove them. Vitamins A, C and E all have antioxidant functions. Include plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts in your diet to maximize these vitamins. 

Stock up on B-vitamins 

B-vitamins are required for phase I detoxification to occur. A deficiency in your B-vitamins will therefore affect your ability to detoxify. A balanced diet consisting of animal proteins, dark green vegetables, legumes and wholegrains will help to keep your B-vitamins in check.


Improve Toxin Removal:

Eat more fibre to improve gut health

Remember that one of the routes of elimination of toxins is the gut. Regular bowel movements are vital to remove toxins. Strategies such as eating enough fibre, staying hydrated, and regular exercise will support regular bowel movements. Remember that wholegrains, legumes, and fruit and vegetables are wonderful sources of fibre! 

Stay well hydrated

Many toxins are eliminated in the urine. Aim to drink at least 2-3 litres of fluid per day to maximize on hydration and urine production. 


Detoxification is happening every second of every day within your body. A variety of teas, spices and herbs are often used in detox programs–and while studies have shown some benefits, there is uncertainty as to the effectiveness of these detox ingredients and the dosage that would be required. Sip on teas and use spices to flavour your food by all means, but detox regimens might not be necessary. 

Following a consistent, balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, legumes and wholegrains, and using sensible strategies to reduce toxin exposure is probably more effective than that detox tea. 

Take the DNAfit test to find out if you need to up your antioxidant or vitamin B intake.

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