Detoxes and Cleanses: What Dancers Need to Know
by Kristin Koskinen, RDN, LDN, LD, CD
Looking for a fresh start? Want to reboot your system after some much-needed time off? Cleanses and detox programs (I'll use the terms interchangeably) proclaim they'll clean the slate. Cleanses promise to leave you with increased energy, glowing skin, and a slimmer waistline. They guarantee they'll reset your metabolism in a week, remove toxins, and leave you with clear skin and lasting weight loss by drinking juices, teas, and water. As appealing as it may be to try a cleanse as a quick fix, it's essential to understand how detoxification really works. Are these programs a good idea for dancers and other athletes? Let's look at the science of detoxing so that you can make informed decisions.
The Science of Detox: An Exceptionally Brief Overview
Let's talk about how your body actually detoxes itself. The term "cleanse" suggests that certain juices, pills, or potions act as cleaning agents to "detoxify" anything harmful or hazardous that's in your body. That's a misconception. Instead, the body has to break down and repackage toxins from the environment and everyday metabolic waste products so that they can be safely shuttled out in the form of poo, urine, sweat, and CO2. It's a multi-step process that involves multiple organs.
Conveniently, your body comes equipped with your liver, kidneys, gut, lungs, and skin which all play a role in metabolizing and excreting toxins. The biochemistry behind it is complicated, but I'll break it down to the need-to-knows, and then we'll talk about how you can support the process.
The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It takes up toxic substances and converts them into harmless substances, and makes sure they are released from the body. The conversion of toxins to harmless substances is complicated and requires an array of nutrients to get the job done, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, flavonoids, and fiber.
The kidneys act as a filtration system for the body, removing waste, toxins, and excess water from the blood. Drinking plenty of fluids supports this process.
Your lungs allow you to exhale carbon dioxide, and sweating has been shown to excrete urea and trace metals, including lead.1
Detox: Behind the Scenes
Cleanses and detoxes often include a period of fasting followed by a diet limited to juices, teas, water, or a combination of any of these elements. Sometimes supplements are sold to support the program; sometimes powders and supplements ARE the program.
Fasting limits any additional toxins from food additives, dyes, and alcohol which can be a plus. Still, it doesn't address environmental toxins like pollutants, household chemicals, and pesticides. In addition to those items easily identified as toxins, your body produces many toxins as part of daily living. Those self-made toxins include the byproducts of metabolism and even hormones. It's also important to note that you begin to use your fat stores for energy when fasting. Sounds great, right? Well, if you're trying to detoxify your body, the breakdown of fat also releases toxins stored in fat cells. Here's where the biochemistry of how detox truly works comes into play.
The liver is the hub of detoxification. It uses a series of enzymes and pathways dependent on adequate vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and protein. These detoxification pathways happen in two phases, conveniently named Phase I and Phase II. The first phase requires vitamins, minerals, flavonoids (natural plant compounds), branched-chain amino acids, phospholipids. These pathways convert hormones, chemicals, and toxins into a water-soluble form that can be safely excreted by the intestines, kidneys, and skin. If you're fasting, you won't have these nutrients available. What will happen is you may release more toxins from fat stores being broken down for energy than your liver can transform and excrete safely.
Protein Isn't Just for Muscles
Let's say you skip the fast and go straight to the juice or other liquid cleanse. The good thing is that juices made from an abundance of fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and antioxidants. In addition, they provide plenty of fluid to flush out the toxins that have been released, repackaged, and prepared for excretion. But, unfortunately, that's not enough for the liver to complete either phase of detoxification because juices won't provide adequate protein or fiber to complete the job.
First, you need to understand Phase I and Phase II require different amino acids to complete their tasks. Amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins you get in food, and you can get them from both plant and animal sources. Plants richest in proteins tend to be legumes and grains, which aren't typical components of a juice cleanse. Amino acids are used as part of the pathways to convert toxins to metabolites that can be safely excreted. They are also necessary for the hard-working enzymes required for detoxification.
Move It on Out
Fiber plays three key roles. First, insoluble fiber from whole plant foods supports regular bowel movements, which is the final process of removing many of those toxins. A lack of fiber can lead to constipation. While all that stool is hanging out in your large intestine, your body may reabsorb some of the waste it was so careful to repackage and deliver to the colon for export.
Next, we can look at fiber and its role in blood sugar regulation. Fiber, fat, and protein all help to slow the process of carbohydrate digestion and absorption. The result is a slower, more modulated release of carbohydrates into the blood, which translates to more stable blood sugars. When you remove fiber from the plant, as you do with juice, you essentially take the brakes off the energy release. Since liquids are faster to consume and easy to digest and absorb, it's common to see blood sugar spikes and drops. Not only is this bad for training, but it also has a negative impact on mood and well-being.
But Wait, There's More!
Additionally, fibers from various plant foods, including legumes and grains, support the friendly bacteria in your gut. An imbalance in your bacterial flora may lead to increased intestinal permeability (loss of integrity of the gastrointestinal tract) and subsequent increased toxic load. Evidence suggests that beneficial microorganisms may decrease your endogenous toxic load. That is, it may support reducing the toxins produced within your own body.
Think of your nutrition plan as a rock wall. It's intended to be built out of stones, and the stones are foods that provide you with the nutrients you need to live, train, recover, and thrive. If for some reason, there's a gap in your wall due to increased demands or needs your diet can't meet, then you can fill in those holes with supplements. However, as you may see in many cleanses or detox programs, the wall isn't intended to be built of supplements and punctuated with food sources. Supplements can be a great benefit, but you can't out-supplement a fundamentally inadequate diet.
Extensive fasting or restrictive diets limited to fruit or vegetable juice or water can lead to nutritional deficiencies, slower metabolism, and adverse health consequences, including disordered eating and eating disorders. Dancers and other athletes have increased nutrient demands required for training and recovery. A cleanse will cut into your nutrient stores and set you up for a fall, perhaps even a literal one. If you're restricting food groups or food in general, chances are you're going to come up short on meeting your nutrition needs. The result? Fatigue and increased risk of injury, including stress fractures and lower leg injuries common in dancers. And just in case you missed it earlier, cleanses, detoxes, and any other form of restrictive diet can be a gateway to an eating disorder.
DIY: How to Support Biologic Detox
We've gone over the basics of how the body detoxifies the abundance of chemicals and toxins it encounters daily. But, if commercial cleanses and detoxes aren't the answer, is there a way to support your body's detoxification process? Indeed there is.
- Eat a wide variety of whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, sea vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, and legumes. These are sources of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber to support Phase I and Phase II of detox and elimination.
- Drink plenty of water to support elimination via urine, feces, sweat, and exhalation. Aim for 1/2 oz per pound of body weight as a starting point for rest days and increase to meet your training and performance needs. To make it simple, divide your body weight by two, and you've got your rough starting point for ounces of water intake.
- Eat a balanced diet that includes adequate protein. Needs vary, but most dancers need between 1.5 and 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Eat enough. Too many dancers wrongly assume that less is more when it comes to food intake. Cutting food groups or restricting how much you eat can lead to a calorie deficit that compromises your natural detox process as well as your health.
- Sulfur is essential for producing glutathione, a powerful antioxidant. Therefore, make sure you eat sulfur-rich proteins such as beef, fish, and poultry, as well as alliums (garlic, onions) and cruciferous vegetables.
Fortunately, you can support your body's detoxification processes and nourish yourself for training and performance by eating a whole-food diet. If you need help to make sure you're meeting your needs, work with a qualified registered dietitian who specializes in working with dancers.
1.Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi:10.1155/2012/184745