The world of health is often confusing and full of misinformation. Our blog has put a lot of effort into citing real sources and looking at actual evidence for the claims we make, and we rely on folks like you to let us know if something we say isn't correct.
One claim we see made across the internet is that sweating can help you detox your body. There's a lot to unpack with this statement, though, so we decided to dedicate a full post to the topic. To start, we need to look at the concept of detoxing in the first place.
What is Detoxing?
Detoxing is the idea that toxins build up in your body and that you should take actions to help your body get rid of them. That's the core concept, anyway; there are a lot of different variations online, depending on where you look. Generally, these variations fall into three or four categories.
- True Believers. Your body is helpless on its own and relies entirely on you to make decisions to help it work. If you don't detox, you'll build up poisons in your body until you suffer significant consequences.
- Moderates. Your body is a mechanism that has evolved to take care of itself, though it struggles against modern pressures like microplastics and chemicals not present in nature. It doesn't hurt to help it along, but it can reasonably take care of itself.
- Scientists. Your body has natural processes that work more or less the same regardless of the decisions you make. Detoxing and cleanses don't do much of anything, so it's better to avoid taking in toxins in the first place.
- Skeptics. Detoxing does nothing; your body handles it all, and really, are those heavy metals all that bad?
You can see a spectrum forming here. We're somewhere in the moderate category; we recognize that science has proven and disproven many things, but there's also a ton we still don't know, which is why so many new medications, new technologies, and new studies are looking at holistic health, traditional medicine, and herbal remedies. There's truth in history.
Our worldview, at least when it comes to detoxing, looks a little like this:
- Your body has natural processes that filter and remove chemicals, toxins, and heavy metals from your body.
- Injury or disease can prevent these systems from working at peak capacity.
- Changes in dietary and physical habits, as well as certain supplements and medications, can help your body filter out toxins more effectively. (Some can also hurt your ability to do so.)
- Your best bet is to attack any problem from as many angles as possible. In terms of detoxing, that means both removing environmental and dietary toxins from your life, as well as helping your body remove what you can't avoid.
We've mentioned a few times that your body has natural systems to help remove toxins. What are those systems?
How Your Body Removes Toxins
The truth is, virtually every system in your body plays a role in removing toxins, but a few are more important than others.
Toxins enter your body through a few different mechanisms.
- Food and drink. Heavy metals, microplastics, chemicals, and other toxins are present in just about everything we eat and drink, whether in trace amounts or in high amounts, depending on the food item.
- Breathing. Clean air is important; living in a city exposes you to more environmental toxins than living in the countryside, for example.
- Skin absorption. Your skin is a barrier against environmental contamination, but some chemicals can make it through that barrier. This is one reason why you should wear gloves when using cleaning products, for example.
These are the main entry points for most toxins. So, how does your body deal with them?
It all stars with your blood.
When toxins enter your body, whether it's through your digestion, your breathing, or your skin, they make their way to your blood along with the various nutrients and oxygen that your lungs and digestive system provide. Blood is pumped throughout your body, but three of the main organs it passes through are your intestines, kidneys, and liver.
Many toxins in the foods you eat are ignored by your digestive system and funneled through your intestines and right out through feces. That's the primary point of feces, after all; getting rid of the things your body can't digest and doesn't want. That accounts for the majority of the toxins that enter your body.
Anything that makes it to your bloodstream then passes through your liver. Your liver uses enzymes and chemical reactions to bind, transform, break down, or eliminate toxins. Some can be converted into harmless substances that are then excreted. Others are bound to other compounds you excrete and removed that way. Others make it back into your blood; after all, your liver isn't perfect.
After your liver, your blood is filtered by your kidneys. Your kidneys pull out anything that's not meant to be there – and excess amounts of things like protein, potassium, and calcium that are – and tosses them into your urine. Once again, that swiftly exits your body.
That's how the vast majority of toxins exit your body, but it's not all. There are other systems at play, like your lymphatic system and your skin.
Does Sweat Get Rid of Toxins?
You've probably heard that among all the different ways your body gets rid of toxins, one of them is sweat. Indeed, tests that have been run on sweat and have found toxins in it.
"The body does appear to sweat out toxic materials — heavy metals and bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, for instance, have been detected in sweat." – The New York Times.
The same goes for your breath, as well. The thing is, is this really meaningful? After all, if you sweat out toxins, that would make your sweat toxic, which would probably be common knowledge, right? Well, let's turn back to the New York Times, because the quote above isn't all they have to say.
"The concentration of metals detected in sweat are extremely low. Sweat is 99 percent water. The liver and kidneys remove far more toxins than sweat glands." – NYT.
Indeed, this information is verified throughout many different studies.
"For most pollutants, they're so low that they're essentially meaningless, says Pascal Imbeault, who led the new study. Imbeault is an exercise physiologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada who's studying pollutants that are stored in body fat. Known as persistent organic pollutants, these include pesticides, flame retardants, and now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are still found in the environment." – National Geographic.
So, what's the truth? It's kind of both.
Your sweat is, indeed, a real way that your body gets rid of toxins. However, it's not a meaningful amount of toxins; you probably take in just as much from the air you breathe while exercising as you get rid of through your sweat when doing that same activity. Probably more, actually.
"At most, Imbeault and his colleagues found, a typical person doing 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise a day could sweat a total of two liters a day—normal background perspiration included—and all that sweat would contain less than one-tenth of a nanogram of these pollutants." – NatGeo
There you have it; sweat isn't really that meaningful when it comes to getting rid of toxins. That said, sweat has other important roles, like getting rid of excess salt and serving to cool off an overheated body. These are important roles, and sweating is important; it's just not a primary mechanism your body uses to detox.
What does this mean? Basically, it means that hardcore exercise, sweat rooms, hot yoga, saunas, and other sweat-based treatments aren't a meaningful way to get rid of toxins.
How to Detox Safely
If you're worried about toxins like BPAs, PCBs, and heavy metals, you can certainly take action to help get rid of them. It's just not "spending time in a sauna." Here's what you can do.
First, try to minimize your intake of toxins. Get rid of lotions and skin creams that use dangerous ingredients. Eat foods that are lower in them, and try to get free-range, organic, and certified food products instead of farmed fish and other contaminated foods. Keep an eye out for FDA announcements about recalls due to contamination. Get more fresh air, and wear a filtering mask if the air quality index is too high.
This is probably the most important thing you can do to help your body detox; stop putting toxins in your body. This goes for "acceptable" toxins as well. If you drink or smoke, quit. Alcohol and the byproducts of burning tobacco are absolutely horrible for your body.
If you're concerned about daily levels of toxins and heavy metals, you can support your body's health to get rid of them, and do so in multiple ways.
- Eat a healthier diet to give your body more good fuel and less bad fuel.
- Exercise more, to stimulate growth and healing.
- Get plenty of sleep, again to stimulate healing.
- Take a liver and kidney support supplement, to help promote healthy function within those organs. Likewise, avoid anything that could damage them, like alcohol.
- Get a room or whole-house air filter to help remove contaminants from the environment around you.
Generally, the healthier you are and the fewer things you put into your body, the better your body will be at filtering out toxins. Remember, even some common over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs are dangerous and can hurt your liver. You have to be pretty careful with pharmaceuticals; they're effective, but that efficacy can be a double-edged sword. Painkillers are especially detrimental.
Another good idea is to get a checkup and blood test from your doctor. Blood tests and urine tests can check to see how well your kidneys and liver are filtering stuff out of your blood. If there are signs of poor function in those organs, it can be a sign that you need to make changes to your lifestyle or take medications to more strongly support your organ health.
In extreme cases of toxin exposure or heavy metal poisoning, there are additional medical treatments you might need. These can include:
- Dialysis, which filters your blood when your kidneys can't do it on their own.
- Organ transplants, which replace failing organs with healthier organs, if you're healthy enough to be eligible.
- Chelation therapy, which uses specific medications and compounds to bind heavy metals and toxins to remove them in bulk, but needs to be carefully managed to do so properly.
What doesn't help? Just sweating it out.
"Dr. Schwarcz compared it to someone sitting in a bathtub worrying about drowning. Removing a dropper-full of water from the tub will theoretically reduce the risk — because the chance of drowning is lower in less water — but getting rid of so little water will be effectively meaningless." – NYT.
You can do a lot to help your body when it comes to toxins, but sweating alone isn't going to do much of anything meaningful. That said, sweating as a byproduct of exercise is still good because exercise itself is good for you. The healthier you can make your body in general, the better it will be at removing toxins through every avenue it has available to it. Usually, you won't even need to consider medical treatment unless you've had an acute, high-level exposure or you have symptoms that might indicate liver or kidney disease or heavy metal poisoning.
Before we leave you, it's worth the moment it takes to remind you that we're not doctors or health scientists. We're laypeople who research these topics and report on them using the most authoritative sources available. It's possible that we've misinterpreted, misreported, or otherwise misunderstood a concept related to the detoxification process. If we've made a significant error and you have an authoritative source to back it up, please, let us know. And, as always, don't take our advice as medical advice; we want you to be healthy, but the specifics are between you and your doctor.