The word “detox” carries both positive and negative connotations. On one hand, it signifies renewal—the power to cleanse and reboot your body even after lots of, say, holiday punch and pecan pie. On the other hand, many detoxes make bogus promises that are too good to be true (“Lose 10 pounds in three days!”). Here’s the verdict: When detoxing is done in a healthy way, you can actually make upward strides toward greater health. In fact, your body begins changing for the better in just a few days. We talked with the experts to get a play-by-play of what goes on inside, from head to toe, when you detox.
But first, it’s important to know what kind of detox we’re talking about here. Although juice cleanses and teas do big business in January, many experts shy away from these liquid-only diets and recommend a clean-eating detox that involves real, solid food. There are many ways to approach this, but overall, this type of detox cleanse generally works to remove some of the biggest causes of inflammation in our body while simultaneously nourishing the body. Most clean-eating detoxes have you cut out processed, fatty foods along with the “Big Five”—wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol and caffeine—and instead focus on lean proteins, fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
So what happens to your body when you detox by eating clean?
The modern Western diet of processed foods, excess sugar and dairy can wreak havoc on the bacteria balance in your gut, leading to a range of symptoms. “The gut is often inflamed by the foods and substances we eat, such as artificial sweeteners, preservatives and hydrogenated oils,” says Vincent Pedre, MD, internist, functional medicine certified practitioner and author of Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. “During a cleanse, the body has time to turn off the fire in the gut and rebalance the gut microbiomes.” After just a week of a clean-eating detox, you’ll likely notice an improvement in digestion issues—from a decrease in bloating and gas to an increase in healthy bowel movements. While simply eliminating the “Big Five” will lower stress on your gut and provide nourishment, you may need to help repopulate your gut with good bacteria by popping a probiotic. Getting your gut in order can lead to a range of improvements from your mood and sleep to your digestion, skin and allergies.
The liver’s function is to detox your body, but sometimes it needs help, too. “The issue is that when we’re constantly under stress or our toxin intake is higher than our body can keep up with, we end up storing toxins and creating both fat and inflammation,” explains Elson Haas, MD, founder of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin and author of Ultimate Immunity. During a detox, the liver finally gets the chance to more effectively do its job, like turning toxins into substances the body can excrete, according to Kaila Nguyen, a naturopathic doctor at the Origin Health Center in Oakland, Calif. “With the right herbs and vitamins, the detox process can even help to burn up the fat in the liver to help it function better.” In her practice, Nguyen relies on a range of herbs including dandelion root and milk thistle seed, as well as choline, methionine and B vitamins. Your liver will start saying thank you within a week of a detox diet, says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a nutritional expert and author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health.
Once your body starts flushing out toxins, your skin may actually look worse before it looks better. “There may be an initial detox with rashes and hives,” says Dean, “but that will clear, and the skin tone and color will improve over time.” The skin can excrete the toxins such as DDT, lead and cadmium that normally like to reside in the skin, says Nguyen. Within two weeks, though, you’ll begin to see skin improvements. Oil production will lower, acne will begin to disappear and you’ll start to notice clearer, brighter skin, says Pedre.
Your brain is likely to see a number of improvements on a detox diet, but not in the first day or two. “The most common symptom showing withdrawal from these foods and substances is typically a headache behind the eyes or pressing into the temples,” says Pedre. “This is often accompanied by mental fog, which may last for a couple of days.” But hang in there. It gets better by day three. By then, “you’ll start feeling a little clearer and lighter. Your energy will pick up and your symptoms will diminish,” says Haas. By the end of the first week, you can expect a decrease in headaches and an improvement in mental clarity, memory, concentration and focus. This brain boost is due in large part to balancing your gut, explains Pedre. “There is a direct relationship between gut health and the brain.”
In general, people don’t like depriving themselves, so eliminating our morning mocha or afternoon candy binge can be a mood buster. “Sugar is much more emotional for people to give up,” Haas explains. “It’s a comfort food and reward food.” The key, says Haas, is to maintain a positive attitude and give yourself kudos for beginning a healthy habit. The first few days might be more of an emotional bummer, but within a few days and definitely by the first week, you’ll notice a change for the positive. And by week two you’ll see improvements in your sleep, energy and how your clothes fit.
Remember, a detox doesn’t have to be forever. “Think of a clean-eating diet as a vacation for your body,” Haas says. “When you go on a vacation, you sleep better, feel better and come back with a whole better attitude and energy. That’s what can happen with a detox. It allows your liver to clean up the junk. It allows your fat to dump toxins.” In other words, a detox is a reset, which allows your body to better handle stress, break down food and keep you energized for the year ahead.
- After a week of forgoing alcohol, caffeine, grains, sugars and dairy, you can experience nausea, headaches, fatigue and even fever—all signs that yeast is starting to die off in your body. To mitigate these symptoms, Dean recommends increasing your fluid intake along with the addition of sea salt and magnesium citrate powder to help your body detox the yeast toxins and avoid some of the die-off.