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When I began my career a decade ago as a health counselor, I landed a job working for an internationally well-known detox pioneer (she’s even been on Oprah!). After about a year of helping clients detox the raw foods way, I realized that many of them were on a detox merry-go-round—never truly grounding themselves in a better relationship to food, or self. I too drank the green Kool-Aid, and eventually fell into disordered eating—doing anything for that next detox high. I learned early on in my work that detoxification is a powerful healing practice, but you must know the facts. 

Unfortunately, the word “detox” has turned into a bankrupt word, as the many interpretations and the lack of credible sources are causing more confusion than clarity. So, what is “detoxification” and, how can we implement this healing practice while still holding space for compassionate self-care? 

What is a detox diet?

Detoxification diet protocols use food as medicine to reduce inflammation, support a healthy microbiome, reduce the body's toxic burden, combat food addictions, balance hormones, and improve nutrient absorption pathways and liver function. Detoxification diets exist to improve the efficiency of our natural detoxification process. Popular definitions of detoxing usually include some version of fasting, juicing, or eating a restricted diet of green leafy vegetables (and greens powders!). Many cultures and religion practice abstaining from all or some foods and drinks, and fasting is a form of detoxification. Ramadan fasting is part of the five pillars of the Islam creed. Yom Kippur fasting is the holiest of all Jewish holidays, and refraining from meat during Lent is a form of fasting in the Catholic religion.

From Juicing to Medical Foods

In the 1940’s, raw foods diet advocate, Dr. Ann Wigamore, nicknamed “the wheatgrass lady,” encouraged the use of juicing to rid the body of toxins as an alternative treatment for cancer. Conventional medicine refers to detoxification as simply understanding the way drugs are metabolized and eliminated from the body, not giving much attention to how food/nutrients (including lack of) affect the detoxification efficiency in the human body.

However, in 1980, the founder of Functional Medicine, Dr. Jeffery Bland (conventionally trained in both biology and chemistry), began to scientifically investigate how nutrients influence the body’s detoxification pathways. And in 1995, he co-published a peer-reviewed journal article studying the effectiveness of using a controlled diet with supplements (medical food) to address chronic symptoms.

The literature continues to grow with the help of Functional Nutritionist, Deanna Minich, Ph. D. Her published research has advanced the credibility of using nutritional detoxification in the medical field. Her new book, Whole Detox, brings a much-needed holistic perspective to detox—integrating western evidence-based medicine with eastern healing arts philosophy, allowing for compassion and the whole-self to be part of a detoxification protocol. The academic research has caught up to what many religions and alternative healers intuitively knew all along, so what are some evidence-based detox protocols?

Detox Practices from a Functional Medicine Perspective

The Basic Detox Diet

Reduce or remove unhealthful substances (alcohol, caffeine, unhealthy fats, sugar, environmental toxins, food triggers, and emotional and mental stressors) while replenishing and restoring the detoxification pathways by adding in high amounts of phytonutrients, hydration, fats, and proteins for 10-21 days. It is not calorie specific and is encouraged for most body constitutions as an annual self-care practice.

The Ketogenic Food Plan

An advanced lifestyle food plan that switches metabolism of glucose to metabolism ketones enhancing the growth of new neuronal pathways. It is a diet that consists of low carbs and high fats. Those who have diabetes or blood sugar imbalances should stabilize before attempting the ketone approach.

Intermediate Fasting or Calorie Restriction

The practice of narrowing the window of time you consume food (six to eight hours). Commonly used for improving mood/energy and memory loss, and helpful for those who are not interested or able to implement a full ketogenic plan.

It is important to note that detoxification diets are an advanced therapeutic intervention for using food as medicine. People who have established habits of using high amounts of phytonutrients (eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables) and enzyme-rich foods in their everyday food plan, have identified food triggers, and have overcome any tendencies towards disordered eating are candidates for a healthy detox food plan. In some cases, elimination diets are part of a detoxification protocol. It is important to work with a professional, such as a functional medicine practitioner to help determine the healthiest approach for your unique goals, lifestyle, and body constitution.