What Are Toxins? A Detox Definition You Can Understand

Detox diets are nothing new, but over the past few years they’ve surged into an uncontrollable fad. From juice cleanses to pills and powders, the detox definition has grown so much that it has warped into something almost completely unrecognizable. Ads and celebrities are constantly touting the latest detox method that, “really works!” Even exercise regimes are getting on board with “sweating out the toxins.” However, most of these options never address what toxins are and why they’re harmful to your system. Without a thorough understanding of the toxin definition, how can you really measure whether a detox is helpful or harmful? Or if it’s doing anything at all? So before you waste your money on a fad, let’s take it down to the nuts and bolts and answer the question, “what are toxins?” and define what “detoxing” really means.

What are toxins?

The language surrounding what toxins are is purposely vague. The Merriam-Webster toxin definition states:

“A toxin is a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”

Simply put, a toxin is harmful matter. The reason for this ambiguous language is due to the many types of toxins, all with different and potentially detrimental effects. For the purpose of clarity and consistency in our detox articles, we break down toxins into three categories: internal toxins, external toxins, and toxic behaviors.

Internal Toxins

The human body is an amazing place. It’s self-defending, self-repairing and self-poisoning. We naturally produce internal toxins simply by functioning. However, our bodies also have automatic processes in place to rid our bodies of these natural toxins and prevent build up.

Our bodies are constantly burning energy in order to rebuild tissue and replace worn out, dying cells. Because of this overwhelming task, our bodies are also creating a fair amount of waste, or internal toxins, which we must break down, recycle and eliminate.

Where toxins become dangerous is when this waste accumulates. Because our bodies are always producing toxins, they never get a break to address the toxins that have built up. Instead, they’re tossed to the side, where they’ll sit and cause damage to surrounding organs and cells. Without help, these toxins clog your system and force your body to spend more energy to simply function. Things that may affect your internal toxin levels can be as basic as everyday medications. For example, proton pump inhibitors like antacids can slow digestion and lead to a reduced ability to absorb vitamins. Long-term use of Tylenol can prevent liver detoxification and is known to be one of the leading causes of liver failure.

Signs of built up internal toxins include:

  • Chronic infections such as chronic sinusitis or dysbiosis of the intestinal tract.
  • Allergic reactions, both immediate and delayed. The most common delayed sensitivities are to gluten, dairy, eggs and corn.
  • Elevated liver enzymes.

External toxins

If our bodies are such well-oiled machines then why are we so toxic? The simple answer is because our bodies aren’t the only toxin producers. External toxins are the toxins outside of our bodies that can be ingested or absorbed. If you only listen to your favorite celebrity health experts, you might think toxins are only in your food. With so much focus on GMO’s and high fructose corn syrup, the everyday products filled with toxins are overlooked. External toxins can be found in everything from your daily deodorant to even your drinking water. Examples include:

  • Environmental pollutants: Smoke, smog, debris, etc.
  • Heavy metals
  • Mercury: often found in fish
  • Lead: found in old paints, blinds and canned goods.
  • Aluminum: found in antiperspirant, deodorant, and antacids.
  • Mold: Inhaled during exposure to improperly ventilated rooms such as bathrooms or basements.
  • Poor air quality: Inhaled during exposure to rooms or buildings with poor ventilation or poorly maintained air filters. This can also lead to “Sick Building Syndrome,” in which building occupants experience a range of symptoms from migraines to respiratory problems, but no illness can be identified.
  • Contaminated food and water
  • Chemicals found in household cleaners or pet products.
  • Bisphenol A and Phthalates found in soft plastics.
  • UV radiation

Toxic Behaviors

As we said earlier, toxins come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While most view the toxin definition to only include physical elements, your actions and behaviors can also lead to increased toxins. For example, contact with harsh chemicals is obviously bad, but you probably don’t think twice about staying late at work to finish a project. These small behaviors add up and can lead to a significant change in your health.

Exposing yourself to stressful situations on a regular basis can be as detrimental as taking Tylenol everyday. While it’s normal to feel stressed every now and then, excessive stress can lead to an unhealthy diet and overeating, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and lethargy. The American Psychological Association’s 2015 annual “Stress in America” report suggests a strong correlation between stress and chronic illness. According to the report, “Money and work remain the top two sources of very/somewhat significant stress, but this year, for the first time, family responsibilities emerged as the third most common stressor (54 percent).”

Key takeaways from the report:

  • The majority of adults report having at least one chronic illness (67 percent).
  • More than 10 percent of adults report having a mental health-related diagnosis (13 percent for anxiety disorder and 16 percent for depression).
  • About two in five adults report overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress.

Since a leisurely spa day isn’t always possible, it’s important to identify the stressors in your life and create a plan to handle them. The solution may be as simple as 20 minutes of quiet time to decompress when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Additional Toxic Behaviors:

  • Overeating or an unhealthy diet
  • Excessive use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Smoking
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of self-control

What is a detox?

Now that we’ve covered the full toxin definition, hopefully the idea of a detox should be a little clearer. The Merriam-Webster detox definition is pretty straightforward:

“Detox: to remove a poisonous or harmful substance.”

As stated earlier, your body has natural processes in place to remove waste and toxins. So, what’s the point of a “detox diet?” Let’s start with how your body works.

Your body has two main organs that are responsible for detoxing your entire body - the liver and the kidneys. These organs act like filters to separate the toxins from other useful nutrients.

The Liver

The liver uses a two-step process and is your body’s first wave of defense against toxins. First, “phase 1” enzymes transform fat-soluble toxins into an intermediate toxin. Intermediate toxins are actually more hazardous to our bodies as they’re in an unstable form. Next, “phase 2” enzymes convert the hazardous intermediate toxin into a water-soluble toxin so that it can be pushed along and ultimately excreted.

Because the liver disposes of toxins in two separate phases there is the potential for imbalance. To best illustrate why this can cause problems, think of your liver as a toy factory with two connected conveyor belts – the first for assembling the toys, the second for packaging the toys. If the first conveyor belt is assembling the toys faster than the second conveyor belt can package them, then there’s going to be trouble. In the case of your liver, instead of a build up of toys between the conveyor belts, it’s the highly concentrated intermediate toxin, which can react and damage DNA.

The Kidneys & Gastrointestinal tract

After the liver creates the new water-soluble toxin, it pushes the toxin on to the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. This is where things get complicated, so we’ll revert to the previous analogy. The liver factory has packaged the toys into a form (water soluble toxin) that meets all of the requirements for the post office to ship (the right form for excretion). The post office puts the package onto a truck and sends it out on the road (the gastrointestinal tract). If everything goes smoothly, the package will be delivered and the toy is no longer the company’s property (the toxin is carried out through urination).

However, if along the way, the truck encounters multiple storms (the billions of unhealthy bacteria that exist in your digestive tract) things may go wrong. The package may get damaged along the way (the ratio of healthy to unhealthy bacteria is off) and have to be returned to the factory for repackaging. This damage occurs when unhealthy bacteria transform the water-soluble toxin into a state that can be reabsorbed by your body. The toxin must then travel through the liver all over again in order to be repackaged.


Though as we said before, the body is an amazing place. When the liver and kidneys get overwhelmed, they call in for reinforcement from your backup detox organs, including your large intestine, lungs, bladder and skin. Since detox isn’t the primary function for these organs, your body must divert extra energy for them to handle the added responsibility. However, too much added work can cause stress and lead to reduced effectiveness and allow toxins to build up over time, damaging cells and tissue. This can result in symptoms such as skin irritations, cysts, benign tumors, asthma, or arthritis.

Detox Diets

The purpose of a detox program is to support your liver and kidney functions in order to prevent any sort of imbalance or buildup. While some workouts may boast that they’ll help you “sweat out the toxins,” the most effective way is to start from the inside out. Certain foods and even clays break down more effectively than others and contain enzymes that bind to toxins and carry them through your digestive tract, easing the burden on your liver and kidneys.

Learn more about the most effective natural detox foods and start cleansing your body, today.

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