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Can A Detox Benefit The Immune System? Here's What A Doctor Said

By Venus Ramos, MD

In this article:


Are you trying to ward off the flu, prevent catching a cold, and avoid other infections? You may not have considered it yet, but a detox is one of the best ways to support your immune system. 

Perhaps you have seen celebrities raving about their weight loss success from doing a trendy detox and wondered if it was worth trying it out yourself. However, a detox can bring you perks that go beyond your waistline or skin. 

While you may appreciate the effects on your physical appearance, a detox also has benefits like improved mood, energy, digestive health, and, yes, immune function. So doing a detox can be a wise choice if you’re looking for an immunity boost during cold and flu season.

‌‌‌‌Is A Detox Really Necessary?

Toxins can be lurking all around you. They may be in the food you eat, the air you breathe, the products you put on your skin, and the items you store in your kitchen cabinets. BPA, parabens, pesticides, air pollution – you’ve probably been warned about these toxic chemicals before. But if everyone is exposed to so many toxins, then why isn’t everybody sick?

The human body actually has its own systems to identify and eliminate toxins that you may be absorbing, ingesting, or inhaling. Your skin, lungs, liver, kidney, and lymphatic system all contribute to your body’s natural detoxification process. However, if you give the body too much of a toxic load, it is possible to overwhelm this process. 

Think about it like this. Imagine that you’re working on a computer and using several programs at the same time. You are typing up a spreadsheet, you have a video player running, and you’re doing internet research with several browser windows open, too. As you open up more software programs, you may notice that your computer is responding to you more slowly.

Just as your computer gets sluggish as you make it do more work, your body also gets sluggish as you make it do more detoxifying. Along those same lines, even if it has anti-virus software installed, your computer still needs maintenance to keep it performing well. So yes, even if it has its own detox system, your body can use a tune-up to function at peak performance levels.

‌‌‌‌How Do You Know When Your Detox System Is Overloaded?

Your body can handle exposure to many of the toxins that may come your way. Over time, however, as your body’s detox system feels the stress of managing repeated exposure, it can become too much of a burden. That’s when you may begin to notice some mild signs of toxicity. It may be a headache, sneezing, or general fatigue. 

Your symptoms may come and go, or they may be more persistent. Some may start to become very noticeable and even disruptive to your life. You might experience hives, joint pain, digestive problems, or even mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Because toxins can impair your immune function, you could also find that you’re catching colds more often.

‌‌‌‌How Does A Detox Benefit The Immune System?

A detox supports every organ system in your body in functioning at an optimal level. It rids your body of the excess toxins that may be slowing down your metabolism. While you may notice this effect as extra inches around your waist, your metabolism is responsible for a lot more than that. Your metabolism is the way you manage and regulate the energy for your body to function. Your immune system can’t work correctly when it doesn’t have that energy.

A key part of any detox is to support the proper function of the digestive system. You do not want to completely clean out the gastrointestinal tract because it’s important to maintain the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut. However, you do not want toxins hindering the digestion and absorption of the nutrients you consume. Your immune system needs these nutrients to operate and protect your body.

Your hormones also play a role in the regulation of your immune system. The balance of thyroid, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone affects immune function. If these hormones become imbalanced, they can disrupt immune system activity. That’s why chemicals that can throw off hormone balance are often called endocrine disruptors (because the hormonal system is also known as the endocrine system). So detoxing your body to eliminate such chemicals greatly benefits the immune system.

‌‌‌‌How Do You Do A Detox? Here Are 13 Easy Tips

There is so much advice out there about how to perform a detox. Juice cleanses, coffee enemas, the grapefruit diet, The Master Cleanse–these all seem pretty intense. Is it really necessary to go to these extremes?

Because the body has the natural capability to remove toxins, you can boost your immune health without having to rely on extreme detox measures. Oftentimes, it just takes making a few shifts in your lifestyle to reduce the toxic load your body has to manage. These steps will give you a good start:

  1. Get physically active. If you exercise to the point of perspiration, your body can expel toxins through your sweat pores. Additionally, physical activity powers the circulation of the lymphatic system. Not only does the lymphatic system transport toxins and waste for elimination from your body, but it also produces and carries immune cells to fight infections and other diseases. While your blood is pushed through your body by the pumping of your heart, lymph does not have such a pump and relies on your body’s movement.
  2. Eat a clean diet. Whenever possible, eat organic. Focus on consuming whole foods. Avoid inflammatory foods like those that are highly processed, contain refined sugar, or have artificial ingredients.
  3. Consume antioxidants. Vitamin Avitamin Cvitamin E, and selenium are good examples. Antioxidants are found in numerous food sources including nuts, berries, cocoabeans, and spinach. Green tea also has high levels of antioxidants. Just be careful about using it if you have a caffeine sensitivity. Should you have a medical condition, it is wise to consult your physician before drinking green tea.
  4. Include prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics are naturally occurring food components that the body is unable to digest. However, the gut’s friendly bacteria feed on prebiotics. So a diet rich in prebiotics helps maintain your digestive health, supporting the detoxification system in your gastrointestinal tract. You can find prebiotics in foods like oats, onions, raw garlic, artichokes, bananas, asparagus, and tomatoes.
  5. Choose organic if the food is one of the Dirty Dozen. Check the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website and note the Dirty Dozen list. The EWG updates this list every, ranking the pesticide contamination of 48 popular fruits and vegetables. 
  6. Drink sufficient amounts of water. Drinking water does more than just quench your thirst. It aids digestion, supports nutrient absorption, and helps the removal of waste products. As a general recommendation, the number of ounces of water you should drink is equal to half your body weight (in pounds). This number is just a guideline, however, because your body’s requirements vary depending on climate, illness, physical activity, and pregnancy status.
  7. Limit alcohol intake. When you drink too much alcohol, it can hinder liver function. The liver is one of the body’s most important organs in its detoxification system. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Of course, the less alcohol your drink, the better it is for your liver and your body’s detoxification system.
  8. Get adequate rest. Quality sleep allows your body to eliminate toxins that accumulate throughout the day. The National Sleep Foundation advises that healthy adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Ideally, that block of time occurs while it’s dark before the sun comes up. It’s also important to be consistent with your bedtime. Your most restorative sleep occurs in the earlier hours of your sleep time. When your bedtime fluctuates too much, your body has trouble adjusting and your sleep becomes less restorative. 
  9. Manage stress. As already mentioned, hormonal balance is an important part of detoxification and immune health. When the stress hormone cortisol remains elevated for too long a time, it can throw off that balance. Try stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, or breathwork. 
  10. Swap out your conventional cleaners and personal hygiene products for natural ones. You can reduce your potential exposure to toxic chemicals when you choose natural cleaning agents like vinegar and baking soda. Read the labels of the products you use in your home and opt for those with natural ingredients. 
  11. Check your personal hygiene products for harmful chemicals. Look for and avoid these common potential toxins: parabens, phthalates, polyethylene glycol, propylene glycol. Instead of antiperspirant, use an aluminum-free deodorant.
  12. Avoid plastic containers and non-stick coatings. BPA (bisphenol A) and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are endocrine disruptors commonly found in household products. 
  13. Use glass or stainless steel for water bottles and food storage. Instead of plastic wrap, use beeswax or parchment paper. Avoid canned food products as they are often lined with BPA or BPA substitutes. There are a few brands, however, that do not use BPA (or substitutes) in the lining of their cans. Do not put plastic in the freezer, dishwasher, or microwave because hot and cold temperatures can cause more chemicals to be released. Instead of non-stick pans, use stainless steel or cast-iron varieties.

References:

  1. Bereshchenko O, Bruscoli S and Riccardi C (2018) Glucocorticoids, Sex Hormones, and Immunity. Front. Immunol. 9:1332.
  2. Cummings JH, Macfarlane GT. Gastrointestinal effects of prebiotics. Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S145-51.
  3. Gorgogietas, V. A., Tsialtas, I., Sotiriou, N., Laschou, V. C., Karra, A. G., Leonidas, D. D., Chrousos, G. P., Protopapa, E., & Psarra, A. G. (2018). Potential interference of aluminum chlorohydrate with estrogen receptor signaling in breast cancer cells. Journal of molecular biochemistry, 7(1), 1–13.
  4. Zota, A. R., Singla, V., Adamkiewicz, G., Mitro, S. D., & Dodson, R. E. (2017). Reducing chemical exposures at home: opportunities for action. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 71(9), 937–940.

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