The start of a new year means many are being inundated with ads for detox programs and cleanses to help with eating during the year-end holidays. Television commercials and online ads would have them believe that improvement lies in lemon water, apple cider vinegar, and green juices. These alluring promises may reel in the unsuspecting, but the truth is, thanks to the liver, kidneys, intestines, and skin, the body runs its detoxification processes all day, every day, and the best way to help these happen efficiently and effectively is to provide the body with the nutrients essential to these critical functions.

Foods & nutrients for detoxification

There’s nothing wrong with consuming goji or açai berries if someone enjoys them, but there’s nothing particularly magical about these mysteriously dubbed “superfruits” either. Plant foods from the cruciferous and allium families, such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes, garlic, onions, and shallots, provide sulfur, which is crucial for sulfation via sulfotransferase enzymes in phase II detoxification. Eggs are also rich sources of sulfur.

Something else that plays a critical role in the biotransformation and detoxification of harmful compounds is glutathione. Glutathione is often called the body’s “master antioxidant.” It’s a tripeptide—a molecule made up of 3 amino acids: cysteine, glycine, and glutamate.

Crucial kidneys

Detox isn’t all about the liver. The kidneys are the liver’s assistants in detoxification and elimination. The liver converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble compounds that are more easily excreted via the urine, which is where the kidneys come into play. According to a publication from Harvard Medical School, “The fact that urine tests are used to screen for drugs and toxins is a testament to the kidneys’ remarkable efficiency in filtering out waste substances and moving them out of the body.”

The kidneys are small but very hardworking organs. They typically constitute less than 0.5% of total body mass, but they receive 20-25% of resting cardiac output. The entire plasma volume (about 3 liters) is filtered 60 times a day; assuming a healthy filtration rate, the kidneys filter about 150 quarts of blood daily!

According to the National Kidney Foundation, “frequent dehydration, even if it’s mild, may lead to permanent kidney damage.” Staying adequately hydrated helps support healthy kidney function, and therefore, detoxification and elimination, but this doesn’t mean people should guzzle water all day. Just because we need some water doesn’t mean more is better. It’s a myth that we should all be drinking at least 8 glasses of water a day. In general, it’s okay to use thirst as a guide, and coffee and tea count even though they’re diuretics. The Mayo Clinic points out that foods with a high water content, like lettuce and cucumber, also contribute to total water intake.

Don’t forget sleep!

Something that doesn’t get much attention—if any—with regard to detoxification is sleep. The body’s detoxification processes happen all the time, day and night, but some are upregulated during sleep. Sleep, or something close to it, is universal among animals from fruit flies to humans. No one is exactly sure why this need for sleep exists, but among the many possibilities is that sleep is prime time for the brain to do housecleaning. Perhaps the brain has an easier time doing this when we’re not awake and giving our attention to a hundred different things, ruminating about the past, present, and future.

It was discovered only recently that the brain has a special housecleaning system, called the glymphatic system, and it’s active mainly during sleep. For example, one of the things known to be cleared during sleep is beta-amyloid, the potentially harmful proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. It was shown in rats that beta-amyloid is cleared twice as effectively during sleep than during wakefulness.

Patients should be made aware of the importance of good quality and quantity of sleep if they’re implementing a detox program—and even if they’re not!

Leaving aside temporary detoxes as atonement for perceived dietary indiscretions, there are situations that do call for a genuine medical detoxification protocol. The accumulation of heavy metals and other toxic compounds in the body can cause a wide range of debilitating physical and psychological symptoms. People are exposed to these compounds through various means, such as chronic, long-term exposure through their professions or hobbies. (Think carpenters, painters, firefighters, metalworkers, mechanics, farmworkers, beauticians and hairdressers, etc.) Exposure to harmful substances may also happen when people live or work in water-damaged buildings, where the indoor air may contain pathological mold and bacteria. This induces harm to multiple organ systems, now referred to as “sick building syndrome.”

To support healthy detoxification, be it for more extensive therapeutics or basic support, patients should keep doing (or start doing!) what they already know to be good for overall health: eat a nutrient-rich whole foods diet, get adequate sleep, stay hydrated, and engage in regular physical activity.