“Detox” is a buzzy term in the wellness world, with celebrities and influencers peddling special detox products all over the place. Some of this is questionable, but as ancestral health expert Chris Kresser explained to us, detoxing is essential to your body’s ability to function, and more important today than ever. Kresser — who is also an acupuncturist, bestselling author, and functional medicine practitioner — sat down with WellBe to discuss the benefits of detoxing and the best way to detox, including a deep dive on sauna detox and infrared sauna health benefits.
What Is Ancestral Health Anyway?
You’ve probably heard of the Paleo diet at this point, but did you know that it’s part of a larger wellness philosophy called ancestral health? As Kresser explains, ancestral health emerged from evolutionary biology, out of the idea that all beings evolved in a particular environment and thus adapted to survive in that environment. That means that when a creature is moved into an environment for which it’s not adapted, it fails to thrive and may even die. “It turns out, the same thing is true for humans,” Kresser says.
Humans evolved in an environment and with a lifestyle that looks very different from our world today. They lived outside, took 10 to 15 thousand steps a day, engaged in intense physical activity, lived in rhythm with nature’s light and dark cycles, had small and close-knit communities, and ate primarily meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. “That’s all very much part of our genetic heritage as human beings,” says Kresser. “Not surprisingly, all of those factors are what make us healthy and well because that’s the environment that we evolved in”
This presents a problem when you consider our modern industrialized world. Today, most of us have sedentary jobs, we eat processed foods, we connect with millions of people on social media but have lost our close-knit communities, and we stay up late staring at screens. According to Kresser, this “tremendous mismatch” can have major implications for your health.
Fortunately, Kresser says, you don’t need to “eschew modern life, wear a loincloth, and live in a cave.” There are small lifestyle changes you can make that will bring you more into closer alignment with what our genes and biology are programmed for. And many of these small changes have as their primary goal to remove toxins from your body, aka detox.
The Benefits of Detoxing
There’s some controversy around the idea of detoxing, with critics calling into question the notion that people need to detox at all. As the argument goes, our bodies are equipped with an innate ability to detox, and so there are no real benefits of detoxing on top of that. Kresser says that the first part of this argument is true, but the second misses the mark.
“Absolutely, our bodies do perform detoxification on their own. That was also part of our natural evolutionary heritage,” he says. This natural detox ability evolved so that if we accidentally ingested something rotten or toxic, we had mechanisms to remove those toxins from our body. The body’s natural detox systems involve the liver, the gallbladder, the digestive tract, the kidneys, and the skin, and toxins leave our system through feces, urine, and sweat.
“The problem is that, although we do have natural detox capacity, that capacity evolved during a time when the toxic burden was far, far lower,” says Kresser. Our ancestors weren’t exposed to the huge amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, industrial chemicals, and indoor molds that we face today. “We didn’t have the massive toxic burden that we have today, and so our natural detox mechanisms did not evolve to deal with the toxic burden that we’re currently facing,” he explains.
Beyond the toxic burden, there are also lifestyle factors that further compromise our body’s natural ability to detox. These go back to the misalignment between how we evolved and how we live today and include our lack of exposure to natural light, physical inactivity, and reliance on processed foods. Then there’s the chronic stress of modern life, which puts your body on high alert and prevents it from performing less seemingly urgent processes like detoxing, not to mention the epidemic of chronic diseases, many of which impact the organs involved in detoxing.
“So when you put all of that together, it leads to the unfortunate conclusion that a lot of us are probably not detoxing in an optimal way,” says Kresser. Thus, he explains, the benefits of detoxing could be significant for most of us, as our systems need additional support to process the toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Of course, species continue to evolve, and so our natural detox systems may strengthen to handle a greater toxic load. However, evolution doesn’t move as quickly as industrialization, and so there’s no way for our physiology to keep up with the growing toxic burden we’re experiencing. All of that means that there are real benefits of detoxing above and beyond your body’s natural abilities.
The Best Way to Detox
So now that we’ve covered why you should detox, you probably want to know the best way to detox. According to Kresser, the best way to detox actually comes down to four lifestyle pillars:
Diet and nutrition: He explains that many of our detox systems depend on different nutrients that we get through our diet. Because many of us have shifted away from nutrient-dense foods and toward processed, nutrient-poor foods, those systems aren’t getting the nutrients they need to function properly (plus, those processed foods add additional stress on the detox system with “anti-nutrients” like sugar). To remedy this, Kresser recommends the Paleo diet, or at least eating whole, minimally processed foods.
Physical activity: Moving around helps your body function optimally and keeps your digestive system moving, which is essential for detoxing.
Stress management: Chronic stress not only damages your body long-term, but it also prevents your detox systems from functioning properly. Managing your stress through things like meditation, mindfulness, or tapping can help.
Proper sleep: Getting adequate sleep gives your body the ability to rest, restore, repair, and detox.
Kresser explains that none of these pillars is more important than any other and that you must pay attention to all four if you want your body to detox effectively. For instance, he might work with a client who has perfected their diet and exercise, but sleeps fewer than six hours a night and doesn’t do anything to manage their stress. “That’s just kind of shooting yourself in the foot because you can do those other two things really well if that will help, but if you’re not paying any attention to stress management and sleep, you’re going to really unwind a lot of the gains that you make from paying so much attention to physical activity and diet,” he says. “I always tell people to try to identify the weakest link in that chain and put their energy there first.”
In other words, there’s no one “best way to detox.” As with many lifestyle-based paths to wellness, a holistic approach is the most effective approach.
Ancestral Detox Methods: Herbs and Sauna Detox
Despite the body’s natural ability to detox, there’s evidence that our ancestors have actually been tapping into the benefits of detoxing for centuries if not millennia, using both herbal and sauna detox methods.
“It’s hard to say what our hunter-gatherers knew or our ancestors knew or didn’t know about detoxification,” says Kresser. “I certainly don’t think they conceived of it in the way that we talk about it scientifically.” Still, he says, herbs and botanicals have been used for their medicinal and detoxification properties for thousands of years. Some of the most common herbs used in ancient detoxification efforts include milk thistle and dandelion, both of which have been shown to support the liver (one of the primary organs involved in detoxification).
Then there’s detoxification through heat exposure or sauna detox. “There’s a long history of sauna use in Eastern European cultures, in Finland, in Russia,” says Kresser. “That’s been a part of their culture for quite a long time, so there was some awareness of how heat and sweat improved health, whether they thought about it as detoxification or not.”
As Kresser explains, sauna detox is so effective because the skin is one of the primary organs involved in detoxification, as well as the largest organ in the body, and it’s how sweat gets out. Because sweat is one of the three ways that toxins can leave the body, that means that a sauna detox can help accelerate your body’s natural detoxification properties.
Underscoring the notion that our ancestors’ lifestyles are key to optimal health today, Kresser sees these two ancient detox methods as particularly important and effective for reaping the benefits of detoxing. Besides the four pillars outlined above, he sees botanicals and sauna detox as the two best ways to boost your innate detox abilities.
Why A Sauna Detox Works Plus Infrared Sauna Health Benefits
Though the idea of a sauna detox has been around for a very long time, there’s been a recent boom in more modern saunas, particularly infrared saunas. So, besides helping you sweat out toxins, what are the actual infrared sauna health benefits? Let’s take them one at a time.
First, a sauna detox has what’s called a hormetic benefit. Hormetic stress is a stressor that, in manageable doses, leads to a positive adaptation in the body. For example, both exercise and fasting create stress in the body, and as the body works to respond to that stress, it has beneficial long-term effects. “If you think of lifting weights, doing bicep curls until you can’t lift that weight anymore, you’re breaking down muscle fibers when you do that,” says Kresser. “That’s stressful for the body, but then the body will respond by building that muscle backa little bit stronger than it was before, so it can deal with that burden or challenge the next time you lift weights. That’s a positive adaptation.” A sauna detox works in the same way.
There’s also the expression of heat shock proteins or proteins that are produced by cells in response to heat. These proteins, Kresser explains, play a prominent role in many different bodily processes, including our ability to detox. Of particular note is the NRF2 protein, which is both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, and the FOXO3 protein, which affects genes related to lifespan, repairs DNA and protects stem cells.
Then there are infrared sauna health benefits, which go above and beyond some of the benefits of traditional saunas (an infrared sauna, FYI, is a sauna that emits light to create radiant heat on the skin, as opposed to a sauna that’s heated from a single heat source). Infrared sauna health benefits come from what’s called photobiomodulation, which is the effect that certain wavelengths of light have on your physiology. Kresser explains that wavelengths in the infrared spectrum impact receptors called chromophores, which absorb light and then create a whole host of health benefits, including improved cell function and circulation, both of which are important for detoxification.
Because saunas have been around for so long, there’s a ton of research to back up the effectiveness of a sauna detox. Kresser highlighted one study out of Finland (where taking regular saunas is quite common) in which researchers found that taking a sauna three to five days a week was linked with a hugely lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death, and another showing that taking a sauna just twice weekly for three months decreased blood pressure. He also mentioned the myriad other benefits of sauna detox that research has found, including that it reduces oxidative stress, lowers cholesterol, improves endurance, and more.
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember About Detoxing & Saunas
Since chronic stress is one of the things that can impede your ability to detox, we don’t want to stress you out with trying to remember all of this! So here are the key takeaways you should remember about keeping your body healthy through detoxification:
Ancestral health is a wellness philosophy that evolved out of evolutionary biology. It centers around the idea that all living things, including humans, evolved to thrive in a specific environment, and when they are taken out of that environment, they can experience health issues or die.
Our ancestors’ evolution included the development of natural detoxification processes. These processes involve the liver, gallbladder, kidneys, digestive tract, and skin, with toxins leaving the body through urine, feces, and sweat.
Though we have these natural detox systems in place, our modern lifestyles and the toxic burden of life in an industrialized world mean that we are dealing with a level of toxins we are not evolutionarily prepared for. This is why there are significant benefits of detoxing, despite our innate ability to detox.
The best way to detox, according to Chris Kresser, is to focus on four lifestyle pillars: proper nutrition, physical activity, stress management, and adequate sleep. All of these pillars are equally important.
For additional detoxing techniques above and beyond those pillars, ancestral health looks to two ancient practices: herbs and saunas.
A sauna detox helps the body in a variety of ways. Firstly, it promotes sweat, and sweat is a primary way that toxins leave the body. Second, it has hormetic benefits, meaning the stress of the heat leads to positive adaptations in the body. Third, it activates certain proteins that support detoxification systems in the body.
Infrared saunas use radiant heat rather than a fixed heat source. Infrared sauna health benefits include photobiomodulation, or the positive health benefits that certain wavelengths of light have on the body.
A large body of research supports the benefits of doing a sauna detox. Regular sauna use has been associated with better cardiovascular health, improved endurance, lower cholesterol, lower oxidative stress, and more.