Ask Gerda: All Your Detox Questions
Ask Gerda: All Your Detox Questions
Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. And our wellness routines thank her for this. (Yours will, too. Send us your own questions for Gerda: [email protected].)
Our bodies have to deal with a multitude of toxic compounds from the air, water, food, and personal- and home-care products. And we often barrage ourselves with additional substances that are toxic to us: alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Sometimes our built-in detoxification processes can cope and we get away with this. Other times our bodies suffer—in what can be surprising ways.
January is a good time to help our bodies catch up with detoxification—to give our detox organs a chance to rest and recover. It’s a good time to think about removing environmental toxins where you can and to figure out whether particular foods cause problems for you.
To help you focus on clean, easy-on-your-body foods for a few days, goop recommends following the elimination diet outlined in Alejandro Junger’s Clean Program. (Dr. Junger has created a new seven-day kit, outlined in his book Clean 7, and he has a twenty-one-day kit, described in his book Clean.) Our version of his basic elimination diet contains no caffeine, alcohol, dairy, gluten, corn, nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes), soy, refined sugar, shellfish, white rice, or eggs. Our food editor, Caitlin O’Malley, has created fabulous recipes that follow this plan for a five-day detox. (She’s tweaked the plan slightly for plant-based meals that are must-trys for vegans, and she’s also created a separate three-day vegan detox.)
Caitlin’s food plan and recipes take out a lot of the guesswork, and they make detoxing more enjoyable. But I know a lot of questions remain. Let’s get into the big ones.
What absolutely has to be cut out if I want to be serious about detoxing?
Alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs. Sure, our bodies can detoxify small amounts of these, but the intention is to give the detox organs—the liver, skin, lungs, and gut—a chance to catch up and recover.
Why do detox programs cut out gluten? And dairy products?
Gluten is particularly hard to digest, and it’s not uncommon for people to feel better when they cut out wheat, barley, and rye, even if they don’t have celiac disease. And it’s not just gluten—other proteins in grains can cause inflammation in the intestine.
Inflammation results in a leaky gut wall that allows toxic molecules to pass into the body. Because science and medicine around this problem is in its infancy, people frequently aren’t aware that intolerances to grains or other foods could be responsible for issues they’ve been dealing with, such as migraines, arthritis, congestion, gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Dairy products contain lactose, a sugar that most people don’t digest very well. But even if you aren’t intolerant of lactose, you can still be intolerant of dairy products for poorly understood reasons.
Why are so many other foods cut out?
We’ve eliminated many of the common foods that people are allergic to—this includes soy, shellfish, and eggs. Even without an allergic reaction, many people are intolerant of these foods and of corn.
Refined sugar and white rice provide empty calories: Vitamins and minerals are removed when sugar cane and whole-grain rice are processed. They also provide an undesirable sugar rush—a spike in blood sugar—since they are digested so quickly, yielding glucose.
Nightshades are more complicated—some, but not all, elimination diets exclude these plants, including tomato, potato, eggplant, and peppers. Allergies to nightshades have been reported, and eggplant and tomato can contain histamine, which causes inflammation and allergy symptoms.
A comprehensive elimination diet would exclude even more kinds of foods. Figuring out which foods you may be intolerant of is time-consuming and difficult without guidance. The detox diets recommended at goop are a good place to start, but if you suspect you react badly to any foods on the menus, eliminate them as well.
You may feel worse at first, but if you feel better than usual by day five and think that the detox diet may have helped deal with a chronic issue, you may want to add back foods one at a time for three days each to see which ones bother you.
How should I be feeling on a detox? Should I feel crappy?
Withdrawing from caffeine and alcohol isn’t always easy, and you may feel bad withdrawing from some foods as well. This should go away in a few days, and you may decide to do without these things permanently.
I don’t really understand what inflammation is all about. What does inflammation do, especially in the gut?
Inflammation is a necessary part of our immune system’s response to foreign invaders—it refers to white blood cells leaving blood vessels and entering tissues. Once inside tissue such as in the intestine, white blood cells produce chemicals that help fight invaders but are also irritating to the intestinal cells. When we talk about inflammation, we are usually referring to situations when the immune system goes overboard and produces excessive amounts of these irritating chemicals. This is a problem when it damages the lining of the intestine: You want the cell layer that lines the intestine to remain intact because it is the barrier that keeps environmental toxins out of the body, including common toxins that gut bacteria make and that are in many foods.
Back to square one: What does detox mean, and how does it work?
Environmental toxins that our bodies have to deal with include natural plant components, drugs, pesticides, phthalates, PCBs, dioxane, and particulates and nitrogen oxides in the air. Most of these create reactive oxygen species (ROS)—which include free radicals, peroxide, and superoxide—that damage cells, collagen, and DNA, contributing to inflammation and aging.
The liver is our major detox organ—it transforms substances that are toxic to us into water-soluble derivatives that can be excreted in the urine. Alternatively, some substances that are toxic to the body are put into bile to be excreted in the feces. The lungs and skin are also important for detoxification, particularly in the case of air pollution.
Is it important to eat organic foods?
If and when you can swing it, organic is great, both for our health and the health of farmworkers and the planet. Include organic foods as much as possible in your detox program and in your usual diet. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list highlights produce that tends to have the most pesticides.
Organic foods contain less pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but they still contain pollutants coming from the air and water. The only way to decrease exposure to pollutants is to reduce and regulate manufacturing plants, power generation, and conventional agriculture. Consume less and support organic where you can.
How many days should a cleanse last?
There are options. This January, goop has a five-day meal plan for omnivores and a three-day plan for vegans and vegetarians and anyone else who gravitates toward plant-based eating. (You can find many more clean eating plans and recipes on our detox hub.) Dr. Junger’s original plan is twenty-one days, but he has come up with a seven-day plan in Clean 7. Traditional elimination diets designed to address specific symptoms may last two to four weeks before symptoms resolve, and then require more time to add back and evaluate foods one at a time.
Is a detox program safe during pregnancy?
Pregnancy is not a time to be deprived of any nutritious foods that you like and that support your and your baby’s health. It is a perfect time to avoid substances that are toxic to the body, such as alcohol. Ask your doctor if there is any reason not to try eliminating gluten, dairy, and other foods if you are looking for a change. Many mothers try to avoid certain foods during pregnancy to prevent food allergies in their children, and this has not been shown to be effective.
Should someone who has struggled with eating disorders try a detox program?
Detox diets are not for weight control and are not about deprivation, but for someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, a strict plan might not be the best way to go. goop’s science and research team has put together some content on anorexia nervosa that may be useful, as may an article by the author Monica Berg, who suffered from anorexia. We love the peer-support network Eating Disorders Anonymous and the eating disorder program at UCSF.
Can I work out when I’m cleansing?
Of course! Be sure to stay hydrated and to take in enough calories and electrolytes. Vegetables are naturally high in potassium, magnesium, and calcium. For sodium, use salt in moderation as works best for you.
What if I’m hungry?
Prepare plenty of food ahead of time and you’ll be less likely to feel desperate and go for whatever’s in the cupboard. Cook double and triple recipes if that feels good to you. Find snack foods you like and stock up: nut butters, goop’s gorp, quinoa salad, hummus.
How can I make sure to get all the nutrients I need?
Plant foods contain numerous antioxidants, like lycopene and quercetin, that help detoxify ROS in the skin and liver.
Vitamin A from orange vegetables helps keep the skin and mucous membranes, our first defense, in good shape.
Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables quenches ROS, as does vitamin E, found in nuts and seeds.
Selenium is a part of an enzyme (glutathione peroxidase) that gets rid of ROS. It’s found in whole foods like fish, beans, and brown rice.
Zinc is a part of the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. Legumes and pumpkin seeds are two good sources of zinc.
Manganese, copper, and zinc help the enzyme SOD (superoxide dismutase) get rid of the damaging free radical superoxide. You’ll get these minerals from a whole-foods diet.
goop’s meal plans—and Dr. Junger’s—focus on nutrient-rich, unrefined foods. You’ll probably be getting more nutrients than usual because you’ll be cutting out empty calories from alcohol, white rice, white flour, and sugar. The extra vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in whole foods help power our body’s detox processes. Here are some of the nutrients found in whole foods that contribute to detox:
Supplements of resveratrol, niacinamide, fern extract, and silymarin help detoxify ROS in the skin and liver.
Glutathione is the body’s master detoxifier, and its levels can be optimized with plenty of vitamin C and with supplements of N-acetylcysteine and silymarin.
When you don’t eat well, or you just want insurance, a good multivitamin plus minerals can help ensure that you’re getting plenty of the detox-supporting nutrients listed above. Here are a few additional supplements that can help optimize detox:
I think of environmental toxins as coming from air and water pollution, cleaning products, cosmetics, and pesticides, more than from bread and coffee—why just focus on food?
Ingredients in cosmetics are regulated as if they do not enter the body, but skin is permeable to many chemicals. For more information, read our review of the documentary Toxic Beauty, scroll down to see beautiful clean cosmetics vetted by goop, and catch a screening of the film if you can. The Environmental Working Group can also point you to clean cosmetics and to greener, healthier cleaning products. The EWG is a nonprofit, science-based organization that is focused on protecting your health and the environment. They show you how your buying habits can do the same.
Eat less meat and more plant foods: Pollutants such as PCBs are found in higher and higher concentrations as you move up the food chain. And they accumulate in farmed fish, so look for wild seafood and vegetarian-fed meats.
Cut plastics out of your life. Chemicals leach out of plastic, especially when heated. BPA and BPS can be found in plastic bottles, the linings of cans, and toys.
Reduce intake of mercury by eating less swordfish and sushi-grade tuna—not because these fish are inherently dangerous but because coal-burning power plants are polluting water with mercury. Turn off lights, drive a hybrid, and lobby for scrubbers on power plants.
Dioxane is found in water and in cosmetics, shampoo, and lotion. Southeast Los Angeles is one of the hot spots for dioxane in water, according to the EWG. It is one of many likely carcinogens we are routinely exposed to at very low levels. Dioxane comes from manufacturing plants, so support regulation of industrial water and air pollution. And reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Trying to eliminate all the environmental toxins we’re exposed to could be overwhelming. The focus of goop’s annual detox is food and food intolerance. But you are right—here are a few suggestions for reducing exposure to some unwanted chemicals.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.