As our weather changes from -27 degrees to freezing rain and snowmageddon the next day, it is only natural to want to stay indoors, move less, and eat more. “Detoxing” is a common term thrown around on the internet, especially during the winter months. But what does detoxing actually mean? Below I dive into these details, and whether it’s even necessary.

“Cleanse” vs. “Detox”

The terms “cleanse” and “detox” are often used interchangeably, but they have two distinct meanings.

A cleanse uses supplements or pills that typically promote direct action on the bowel, usually leading to quicker transit time and diarrhea. The weight loss industry touts that cleanse programs will decrease bloating and promote weight loss, which may very well be true when someone is restricted to a liquid-only diet for a prolonged period of time. In my practice, I do not promote cleanses as I prefer to address the root cause of a person’s weight gain or detoxification issues (more on this below).

Detox, also known as detoxification, is the physiological removal of toxins or waste products from our tissues. Our bodies detoxify 24/7 primarily through the liver, kidneys, intestines, lymphatic system, and lungs.

The liver, for example, undergoes phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification to eliminate and breakdown toxins from the body. Toxins are found everywhere, from food to drugs to environmental pollutants. Health Canada’s report on Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals tested 231 chemicals and metabolites and found all to be in the blood and urine of most Canadians[1].

These compounds all get broken down by the liver. Theoretically, this should be a perfect process. But sometimes it isn’t.

When detoxification becomes impaired

Sometimes, detoxification pathways are impaired, often due to an underlying genetic predisposition. As the saying goes, “genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.

A significant percentage of the population have methylation defects and genetic polymorphisms that can directly impact one’s ability to detoxify xenobiotics. Xenobiotics are chemicals found but not produced by organisms in the environment [2]. These include herbicides, pesticides, carcinogens, drugs, environmental pollutants, etc.

Between 10 to 25 percent of the Caucasian population and up to 25 percent of the Latino population, for example, have genetic variants in the MTHFR gene, which can influence how we metabolize certain nutrients, such as folate (folic acid) and vitamin B12 [3, 4].

Further, studies suggests that chemically sensitive individuals are more likely to have genetic defects in glutathione (GST), a potent antioxidant in our bodies, and superoxide dismutase (SOD2), which quenches free radicals in the body [2,5].

When we have these so-called genetic polymorphisms, they are associated with a number of health issues:

  • Multiple chemical sensitivity (also known as idiopathic environmental intolerances)
  • Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Anxiety and depression
  • B-vitamin deficiencies
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Autism

While not everyone with polymorphisms experience health issues, evaluating one’s genetic blueprint can provide key information that may help explain symptoms.

Naturally supporting detoxification

In my practice, I focus on nutrients that support phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification in the liver as well as digestion optimization, as the gut plays a key role in detoxifying. This includes any or all of the following:

  1. Increase folate through diet. Foods high in folate include leafy green vegetables, lentils, broccoli, asparagus, and avocado. Note that folate is not the same as folic acid, which is a synthetic version of folate.
  2. Eat cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts all contain sulphur, a crucial nutrient used in phase 2 detoxification of the liver. The consumption of these types of vegetables is also associated with a reduced risk of developing various cancers including breast, prostate, lung, pancreatic and gastrointestinal, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and protection from neurodegenerative disease [6].
  3. Treating leaky gut and IBS. Digestive complaints are common in those who have MTHFR genetic mutations. Removing sugar, inflammatory foods, and eating a reduced gluten and dairy diet may be helpful in promoting better digestion. Incorporating bone broths and probiotic foods like kombucha, fermented unpasteurized sauerkraut, and kimchi will introduce “good” bacteria that can also help with digestion.
  4. As our skin is a major detoxification organ, exercise induced sweating appears to be a potential method for elimination of many toxic elements from the human body [7].
  5. Near-infrared saunas. Infrared saunas are different from traditional saunas in that they heat from the inside out and can penetrate deeper tissues. A meta-analysis that reviewed 24 studies found that individuals with a higher burden of toxins, specifically arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, would generally sweat amounts of toxins exceeding blood plasma or urine concentrations [8].

Following any detoxification intervention should be done with the supervision of a regulated health professional, such as a naturopathic doctor.

Are you interested in learning more about how naturopathic medicine can benefit your health? Book a free consult today with Dr. Vanier ND!

*See the full article on for a list of citations.

By: Dr. Dominique Vanier, ND, MEnvSc

Detoxing – Is it Necessary?