Words and phrases can have more than one meaning, sometimes very different ones. For instance, natural. Among its many definitions, it can mean something not crafted by people (a plant, an animal) or a product with no artificial ingredients (organic food, herbal medicine). Of course, natural doesn’t necessarily mean good for you.

Then there’s detox, short for detoxification. It has one meaning in terms of consuming natural food to remove toxins and promote general good health. It also has another in regards to beginning treatment for substance use disorders such as alcoholism and drug addiction.

It is vital that you know which one you want or need before you seek help.

What Is Detoxification?

Detox—detoxification—is both slang for a cleansing of unspecified toxins in the body for improved health and abstaining from or forcing out intoxicants (alcohol, opioids, other drugs) from the body prior to enrollment in a substance use disorder (SUD) or addiction rehabilitation program. They are not the same thing.

Detoxification became general practice for individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) after the 1971 Uniform Alcoholism and Intoxication Treatment Act recommended that it was better for people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) to receive treatment instead of criminal prosecution. That way, they could “lead normal lives as productive members of society.”

Later, other substances of abuse found their own advocates. The opioid crisis has intensified these efforts.

What Does Detox Do?

How detox works is you stop using or consuming a toxic substance that is causing you health problems, whether fatty foods, products containing lead, or addictive substances such as alcohol or opioids. Then, your body’s liver, kidneys, digestive system, skin, and lungs eliminate the remaining toxins, returning your body to its pretoxin state. If the body is healthy, it usually just takes time.

Some people believe that you can speed the process along, aggressively removing the toxins with an extreme diet: natural supplements, proprietary tonics, or juicing food for easier digestion.

What Is a Full Body Detox?

In the popular sense, a full body detox or cleanse is a means to rid your body of “toxins”—impurities and chemicals and pollution—to be healthier, and to live longer and happier.

This type of detox is something the body is already equipped to do without any help, so long as you are healthy, drinking enough water and healthy fluids, and eating healthy food. In reality, it’s a diet. Typically it involves juicing fruits and vegetables, cutting out toxic substances (coffee, nicotine, alcohol, and sugar), and exercising.

If you replace processed foods, sugar, meat, and wheat with fruits and vegetables, you will lose weight, have more energy, and feel happier, but you don’t have to juice anything. You can eat fruits and vegetables whole. The fiber in whole foods is good for you. Juicing foods or purchasing expensive prepared juices full of nutritional supplements is unnecessary.

Misconceptions About Detoxing

In a healthy body, detox is a natural process that doesn’t require special assistance. You will have fewer toxins in your body if you stop consuming them, but there’s little evidence that detox diets speed up the process. If you put fewer toxins in your body, you will store fewer of them.

Some common misconceptions about detoxing include:

  • Using detox procedures won’t speed the elimination of toxins from the body. These so-called toxins aren’t named, and there’s no evidence any toxins leave the body more quickly because of detox.
  • Detox diets don’t help you lose weight. Sure, if you stop eating sugars, fatty foods, and carbohydrates, you probably will lose weight, but you’re shedding calories, not toxins. If you use laxatives and diuretics, you may lose weight in the short term, but that’s because you’ll be going to the bathroom a lot. You might end up dangerously dehydrated.
  • Activated charcoal doesn’t filter out alcohol. Charcoal is used for purification or filtration in industrial processes. Some have touted it as a way to detox and prevent or ease hangovers or even drunkenness. Unfortunately, one of the toxins charcoal can’t filter out is alcohol. It may prevent the absorption of other substances, but they could be nutrients you need.

Colon Cleansing and Colonic Irrigation

Another aspect of a full body detox involves emptying the colon of built-up stool and bacteria, either through a laxative-rich elixir (colon cleansing) or by flushing gallons of water through it (colonic irrigation).

Such procedures also have their misconceptions, such as:

  • You don’t have 40 pounds of fecal matter in your colon. It’s more like a pound, and there’s no evidence it needs to be removed any more quickly than the body’s natural processes allow.
  • Colonics don’t help you lose significant weight. While you might lose a pound or two in the short term, the processes can produce unpleasant and dangerous side effects.
  • Colon-cleansing procedures don’t remove bacteria from the lining of the colon. It’s not necessary; the cells of the colon lining are shed and replaced every three days. Even if it was necessary, not all bacteria in the body is harmful. We need some for good health.

That doesn’t mean there are no benefits to full body detox, it’s just that they aren’t physical. They could be spiritual or psychological. Maybe it’s similar to the observer effect: because you are trying to do better, you feel better. Once a year isn’t harmful.

What studies there are about detox foods is based almost solely on animals. A healthy liver and kidney are much more important than overpriced juices and supplements.

What Is a Drug/Alcohol Detox?

Drug and alcohol detox is a serious medical process. It involves staying off drugs or booze and then learning to abstain. It’s far more dangerous and difficult because these substances rewire your brain so you can’t function without them.

You can detox naturally by tapering off the amount of alcohol or drugs you use, even stop using cold turkey, but that can be risky. Alcohol and drugs can be both psychologically and physically addictive.

If you stop using them, you may experience withdrawal symptoms: cold sweats, shaking hands, nausea and vomiting, and heart problems. You may feel like you’re going to die and start using again. These symptoms may persist for a month or longer.

In rare cases of severe addiction, especially to alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium), stopping cold turkey can be fatal. True Blood actor Nelsan Ellis died when he attempted to quit alcohol on his own, resulting in a blood infection, swollen liver, low blood pressure, and the failure of his heart and kidneys. It is vitally important that you obtain medical advice before attempting to detoxify at home and alone.

Drug or Alcohol Detoxification Methods

There are at least three types of detox for substance use disorder (SUD):

  • Natural. This is nonmedical detox, sometimes called the social model, during which you slowly taper off your substance use or simply stop without medical assistance. Fasting, exercise, and hydration (water, herbal supplements and teas, and juices) may be used.
  • Medical detoxification. Also called the medical model, it is sometimes similar to natural detox except that trained health care professionals are there as a backup to safely manage any life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing are monitored.

Medical detox also can include the use of painkillers and medication-assisted treatment or replacement drugs (methadone, buprenorphine) at least until withdrawal is complete and you’re ready for rehab treatment. Doctors sometimes prescribe the opioid antagonist naltrexone (Vivitrol) to prevent clients from getting high if they do relapse during treatment.

  • Rapid detoxification. Also known as anesthesia-assisted rapid opiate detoxification (AAROD) or ultrarapid opioid detoxification (UROD), rapid detox is a way to speed up the withdrawal period and limit it to three days or fewer. The process uses an opioid antagonist (naltrexone, naloxone) to counter the effects of any opioids still in the body and places the client under anesthesia for up to six hours during the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, the process is riskier than using buprenorphine, is equally painful, and is no more successful. The American Society of Addiction Medicine says the process is not recommended.

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What Is The Detox Process?

Once an individual decides or agrees to go into treatment for substance use disorder, the detox process begins. Detox isn’t the first step, however. There are three essential phases: evaluation, stabilization, and fostering. Among other things, they show the client that someone cares about them, their rehab, recovery, and health.

  • Evaluation. No two addictions are exactly the same and neither are people. To create an effective substance abuse treatment plan requires a careful assessment of the client’s substance use to determine if there are any co-occurring disorders (trauma, stress, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression) that could have led to or exacerbated the SUD. The evaluation allows the client and the staff to hit the ground running once detox is complete.
  • Stabilization. This step includes physical detox but also preparing the client—and those close to them, from family and friends to employers—for what will happen in rehab once detox is complete. A solid support system is an important part of long-term recovery.
  • Fostering the patient’s entry into treatment. It’s not enough for the client to agree to enter treatment, or even to start treatment. They must complete treatment. Detox alone is only a temporary solution. If people don’t learn to cope without alcohol or drugs, if they don’t address the issues that led to the substance abuse, and if they don’t have continuing support, relapse and the need for another detox are much more likely.

Sometimes a not-legally-binding treatment contract may be enough to keep people focused on real recovery, not a temporary respite.

Foods for Alcohol Detox

Even if you’re detoxing for health, not substance abuse, it’s a good idea to eliminate (or at least severely limit) alcohol consumption. Although most studies conclude that a drink (or sometimes two for men) is harmless, and maybe healthy, other studies say any amount of alcohol is toxic.

The most important part of a detox diet is to drink plenty of noncaffeinated fluids: water, juice, broth, ice pops, and gelatin. You should aim for the equivalent of about 16 eight-ounce glasses per day for men, 11 for women. Alcohol is dehydrating.

So is caffeine. Keep coffee and tea to a minimum.

Next, even though you may not feel like eating at first, or be able to keep it down if you do, you need to start eating solid food again as soon as possible. You need to replenish the fats and nutrients you probably lost due to alcohol.

It should be a balanced diet, not a fad one, that includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid wheat, dairy, and processed or artificial foods, as they are more difficult to digest and contain common allergens that can stimulate alcohol cravings.

Among the best foods for alcohol detox are:

  • Lean proteins. Eggs, lean red meats, poultry, fish, beans
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Complex carbohydrate grains. Brown and wild rice, oats, amaranth, millet, spelt, beans, and lentils
  • Vitamins. B1 (thiamine), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), B-12 (cobalamin); A (fish, milk, butter, carrots), D (fortified milk, salmon and other fatty fish); E (flaxseed, coconut, and other vegetable oils; almonds and other nuts; avocados); and K (leafy greens, olive oil)
  • Minerals. Calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc
  • Antioxidants. Dark chocolate, pecans, berries (blue-, straw-, rasp- and goji), kale, beets, artichokes, red cabbage, spinach, beans
  • Prebiotics. Garlic, onions, leeks; asparagus, seaweed, dandelion greens, elephant yams (konjac root); bananas and apples; barley, oats, wheat bran

It’s also important to engage in healthy behaviors. Exercise between 75 and 300 minutes per week. And try to sleep for at least seven hours nightly, nine if you can manage it.

The truth is, there is no magic cure for bad eating habits. If we ate more vegetables, avoided foods that are bad for us, got more exercise, drank more water instead of soft drinks and beer, and went to bed at a reasonable hour, we would all be healthier. That’s all there is to a true full body detox.

Detox for an alcohol use disorder is another matter. Your entire future may depend on whether or not you can detox and stay sober. Even the act of abstinence can have life-threatening risks. Don’t depend on fads. You need health care professionals and therapists with addiction training to safely detox and rehab.

Anyone claiming to have a proprietary tonic that will cure all your ills without the work is just selling snake oil.

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References

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  • vice.com – Detoxing is for Suckers
  • center4research.org – 6 Things You Need to Know About Juicing Your Veggies
  • runnersworld.com – Can Taking Activated Charcoal Help Your Hangover?
  • mayoclinic.org – Is colon cleansing a good way to eliminate toxins from your body?
  • livescience.com – Does Your Colon Need Cleaning? 5 Things You Should Know
  • mcgill.ca – You’re Full of Crap. Literally.
  • livescience.com – Colon Cleansing: 7 Myths Busted
  • us.experteer.com – The Impact of the Hawthorne Effect on Productivity at Work
  • healthline.com – Opiate Withdrawal: What It Is and How to Cope with It
  • npr.org – ‘True Blood’ Actor Nelsan Ellis Dies At 39
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  • cdc.gov – Deaths and Severe Adverse Events Associated with Anesthesia-Assisted Rapid Opioid Detoxification — New York City, 2012
  • archives.drugabuse.gov – Study Finds Withdrawal No Easier With Ultrarapid Opiate Detox
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  • vox.com – It’s time to rethink how much booze may be too much
  • huffpost.com – A Holistic Approach to Health in Early Recovery: Diet and Nutrition
  • livestrong.com – Recommended Diet for Alcohol Withdrawal
  • healthline.com – 12 Healthy Foods High in Antioxidants
  • healthline.com – The 19 Best Prebiotic Foods You Should Eat