Hurray, it’s January, detox month! And with detox month, comes detox bashing. “Load of rubbish” say many. How can the body rid itself of ‘toxins’ by drinking green gunge, fruit smoothies, or necking maple syrup and lemon juice for days on end?

However, some individuals say they feel better after going on the above ‘detox’ diets. They say their hair shines, their skin problems clear up, they feel more energetic. So what’s going on? Firstly, let’s look at the science. The liver takes all the ‘rubbish’ that has come into the body, say alcohol, caffeine, cigarette smoke, certain foods, traffic fumes - to name a few - and makes them safe to be used in the body. If they still are not safe, they are packaged to be excreted, either by urine, faeces, sweat, or breath. I always think of the liver as a bodily version of Kew Recycling Centre where we sometimes take household rubbish, You drive around bagging up all the metal, the plastic, the toxic batteries, the paper, and depositing it in allotted areas, ready to recycled for use elsewhere, or be disposed of altogether. So how about the liver, what does that need to work well?

1) Lots of protein

Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds. The liver is the largest internal organ in the body and it needs loads of enzymes to do it's job. Protein builds amino acids which in turn make enzymes.

2) Lots of minerals and vitamins

Think of the liver guzzling up lots of magnesium, a big bunch of B vitamins, and vitamin C in it's work. Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, B vitamins are often in meat, vitamin C in citrus fruits and red peppers. It also needs the mineral manganese. Interestingly this is found in maple syrup.

3) Lots of fibre and water

After everything’s been bagged up by your liver, you need strong, daily, bowel movements, and to be peeing regularly. For this you need lots of fibre and water in your diet. When the liver is working optimally and you are having regular stool movements, it is likely you will feel more energetic. Your skin and hair are also likely to look good. When the liver is maxed out working on overload, you are likely to feel sluggish. This is because lots of the rubbish is not leaving the body efficiently. A sluggish bowel can lead to spent hormones going back into circulation, so your hormones become unbalanced. Imagine what your skin might look like if your hormones are out of balance. Personally, I would not condone days of fruit smoothies or maple syrup because they contain a lot of the sugar fructose which is actually hard work for the liver and can be the cause of fatty liver.

A sluggish bowel can lead to spent hormones going back into circulation, so your hormones become unbalanced.

You may lose a bit of weight over these days because your diet is so meagre, but you will deplete your body and your liver of important nutrients such as protein.  You are likely to regain weight very quickly afterwards. Now let’s go back to those folk at the beginning of our story who say they feel better after their detoxes. The citrus fruits, maple syrup (sugar aside) and green magnesium-rich gunge may contain scatterings of liver-friendly elements. However, the lack of protein in my view is a problem. My bet for why they feel better, is that they are leaving certain things out of the diet, rather than putting in. Who wouldn't feel better for a few days off alcohol? Also notice when you're having vegetables and fruits for days on end, there is no gluten (the protein in wheat), or dairy in there. Thirty per cent of Northern Europeans have a gene which means they may find gluten problematic and if you’re one of them, your gut may become hyper permeable (‘leaky gut’). If this happens, undigested proteins may find their way into your bloodstream and arrive at the liver, which is a burden. So what's the solution to all this? Do have some green gunge if you wish, don't overload on sugary fruits especially in high quantities in fruit smoothies, and limit maple syrup to a teaspoon now and again. But do have quality protein with each meal e.g. eggs from free range hens, and fish low in mercury and other toxins (generally middle-sized fish from the middle of the ocean, not the surface or the seabed). Interestingly, Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent, but much-criticised ‘detox’ makes a certain amount of sense to me. However, the ‘hallucinogenic’ Master Cleanse juice diet she talks about doing in the past, doesn’t work for me at all. Most importantly, treat your liver to a little holiday from alcohol, caffeine, cigarette smoke - and if you suspect a problem - wheat and dairy too. Then monitor your energy levels, your skin and hair. And whatever you do, don’t call it a detox. Done properly, as described, you are focusing on supporting the detoxification and biotransformation pathways of your liver.