Do Detox Diets Really Work?

By Connor Young on

“Hey Team Ample! I’m curious about detoxing. Are detox diets real? What ‘toxins’ should I watch out for?”

Great questions. Detoxing is one of those topics that skirts the line between good science and fancy marketing. While there are a few legitimate ways to get rid of toxins, a lot of the detox diets we’ve seen make questionable claims. That said, toxins are a real thing, your body does detox, and there are a few genuine ways to detoxify your body.  Let’s talk about them.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What is a toxin?
  • How your body detoxes
  • Example: how you detox mercury
  • Detox methods that really work

What is a toxin?

We’d say a toxin is anything that can cause damage to your body when you ingest it.

The trouble with that definition is that it’s so vague; it could refer to anything from excess sugar to arsenic. Most cleanses or detoxes don’t give specifics on what toxins they’re mobilizing, or how the detox does it - they just claim that the cleanse will “flush toxins from the body.” It’s an attractive idea, but we’re not quite sold on it.

If you’re considering a cleanse or detox, we suggest approaching it with open-minded skepticism. Look for specifics - what “toxins” are you getting rid of? If the cleanse just references vague “toxins” or “pollutants,” we’d say that’s a red flag. If it does mention specifics, ask yourself: how do you know you’ve built up those toxins? And is there good evidence that the cleanse or detox you’re thinking about will remove them?

We encourage you to be skeptical because a lot of the detox promises we see are misleading, and while most of them aren’t actively dangerous, something like a 7-day juice cleanse may actually set you back more than it helps you. On top of that, odds are you’re already detoxing just fine. Your body comes with an excellent built-in detox system.


How your body detoxes

You come into contact with toxins every day. We all do - in food, air, water, and so on.

That sounds scary at first, but in most cases, you’re well-equipped to handle it. Environmental toxins are a part of everyday life, and your body deals with them in a few different ways:

  • All toxins go through your liver first (though there may be a couple odd exceptions). Your liver is like a security check for your blood - it watches for unusual compounds, pulls them out, transforms them into harmless substances if it can, and then sends them off for excretion. Your liver is home to enzymes that can deactivate many kinds of toxins; it handles everything from alcohol to mercury. From your liver, most toxins go one of two places:
  • Water-soluble toxins get picked up by your kidneys. Your kidneys act like a powerful filtration system. They sift through 25% of your circulating blood every minute, catching toxins that dissolve in water and sending them to your bladder, so you eventually pee them out. Your liver and kidneys work together. Your liver knows your kidneys are good at catching water-soluble waste; Oftentimes it will take stubborn toxins, change them into a water-soluble form, and then send them to your kidneys for removal. Your kidneys also handle waste byproducts from muscle and protein metabolism.
  • Fat-soluble toxins end up in your digestive tract, and eventually you excrete them alongside food waste.
  • Your lymphatic system mobilizes toxins and cellular waste and funnels them through your lymph nodes, where lymphocytes pull them out for excretion.

Example: how you detox mercury

Mercury detoxing is a prime example of how good your body is at getting rid of toxins - even heavy metals.

You immediately excrete more than 90% of any mercury you ingest from food [1]. Nearly all of the remaining mercury ends up in your liver, where your liver packages it with a powerful antioxidant called glutathione to make the mercury nonreactive [2]. Bile then carries the nonreactive mercury to your digestive tract and you excrete it.

Or, in the case of methylmercury (the type you get from seafood), your liver will either bind the mercury to selenium and send it to your digestive tract, or package it in with your hair or nails, where it can leave your body without doing any harm.

Finally, the mercury that gets by your liver and kidneys has a half-life of about 60 days at the longest, meaning half of the small amount of mercury you absorb will degrade two months after you absorb it.

Your body has several lines of defense against mercury. Unless you’re breathing in elemental mercury (say, from a coal fire) or eating tuna ten times a week, or your liver or kidneys are damaged, you should be able to detox the mercury that daily life throws at you. The same is true of most toxins.

In other words, if you’re reasonably healthy, you probably don’t need to do any kind of detox.

It’s worth noting that one major exception is mercury amalgam fillings. If you have amalgam fillings, there’s a good chance that they’ll leach mercury into your system. Talk to a dentist or doctor if you have mercury amalgams; you have options for dealing with them and getting the mercury out of your system in a hospital setting.


How to really detox your cells

While you have several organs and systems that help you detox - kidneys, lymph, digestive tract - most detoxing happens in your liver. To improve your ability to handle toxins, your best bet is to keep your liver happy and healthy. You can do a few different things to support your liver:

  • Eat healthy fats. Omega-6 fatty acids can cause liver inflammation and impair liver enzymes [3], while omega-3s can prevent fatty liver and improve liver function [4,5]. Check out our simple guide to fats for a list of healthy fat sources.
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  • Load up on antioxidants and polyphenols. Antioxidants and polyphenols improve your body’s ability to handle environmental stressors [6]. Coffee is the main source of polyphenols in the Western world (decaf will do if you don’t like caffeine). Raw leafy greens and colorful vegetables are also excellent polyphenol and antioxidant sources. Eat your veggies!
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  • Get plenty of cysteine. Cysteine is an essential amino acid that you use to make glutathione, that super-strong antioxidant we talked about earlier. Glutathione binds to toxins and other damaging compounds (like inflammatory free radicals) and prevents them from damaging your cells. Chicken, beef, and eggs are all good sources of cysteine. If you’re vegetarian, opt for bell peppers, broccoli, and oats. No need to go overboard - just make sure you’re getting adequate protein. You can also take an N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) supplement. It seems to reliably increase glutathione, and even decreased lead accumulation in heavily exposed workers [7].
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  • Eat low-to-moderate carbs. A couple different studies have found that lower-carb diets are easier on the liver than high-carb ones [8,9]. That doesn’t mean you have to go full keto - people who dropped their carb intake from 60% of calories to 40% saw significantly better liver function [10]. Of course, we suggest choosing quality carb sources.
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  • Work out. The common argument for exercise and detox is that it makes you sweat out toxins, including heavy metals like arsenic and lead. Research suggests that while that’s technically true, the amount you sweat out is usually so tiny that it’s insignificant [11]. However, exercise does boost glutathione levels [12], which should make it easier for your liver to deactivate toxins. Exercise also pumps lymph through your lymphatic system, helping you mobilize and excrete cellular byproducts/waste.
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  • Burn fat. Some environmental toxins, called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), can hide away in stored body fat. POPs come from pesticides and some types of paint, and most of us accumulate them gradually over time [13]. The best way to get to POPs is by burning the fat that’s carrying them [14]. It liberates the toxins and allows your liver and kidneys to go to work on them. However, you should talk to a doctor if you think you have unusually high POP exposure (if you work with herbicides, for example) or if you have a lot of fat to lose. Rapid weight loss in obese people caused POPs to jump out of fat cells and relocate to not-so-great places, like organs and brain tissue [15].
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    What if you have heavy metal exposure?

    If you think you’ve been exposed to a specific toxin like a heavy metal (say, from mercury amalgam dental fillings), talk to a doctor. There are hospital-grade treatments that use chelating agents to get rid of excess heavy metals. Definitely don’t do this kind of thing on your own; you may end up knocking loose the heavy metals and relodging them somewhere more dangerous, like your brain.

    But barring specific poisoning, we’d say the best way to ease the burden of environmental toxins is to keep your liver in fighting shape. That means plenty of exercise and good nutrition.

    And if you like 3-day juice cleanses, go for it. It probably won’t hurt you, and you may even get some fasting benefits. We’re not convinced it’ll detox much of anything though, and it seems like a shame to miss out on all the sweet, sweet fiber in those fruits and veggies.

    What do you think about detoxing? Let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading!


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    1 comment


    • Great information! I knew there was something to that [wt. loss releasing chemicals from fat cells storage]. The body tries hard to protect itself from toxins…the liver is the 1st site used to sequester them. But there’s not much room there….so the next-best location is to store the toxins inside fat cells….which means, with tens of thousands of chemicals we’re all exposed to, and poor dietary choices, this has helped the general population get fatter. And, when obese people start losing that fat, can get sick [headaches, nausea, dizziness, lethargy, etc.] from the roving toxins suddenly re-released.
      It’s helpful for these, to use more of, and various kinds of, antioxidants in their diets, to help cope with the increased roving toxins, and to drink more water to help wash them out.
      Getting good fats in the diet is critically important, not only for general health, but, also to latch-onto and carry away, some of those toxins.
      Losing excess fat is critically important, for many reasons. Losing it sanely, is even more so. Ample really helps!

      Chi on

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