Many people use so-called detox diets to cleanse their bodies of toxins — or so they think.
Let’s get something straight: there’s only one real type of detox, which is the kind performed in hospitals in order to treat a person suffering from dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons. In any other context, ‘detox’ refers to unproven alternative medicine hacks like diets, supplements, or even colon irrigation meant to flush toxins out of your system.
Spoiler alert: these detox fads not only do nothing to remove toxins, but some are also extremely risky and may seriously backfire on you.
The pseudoscience of detoxing
The goal of a detox or body cleanse is to supposedly remove ‘toxic’ things that have accumulated in the body.
However, these supposed toxins are never named specifically by those who peddle detoxing. Instead, they’re generally referred to as “poisons”, “pollutants”, and “toxins”.
Not surprisingly, there is no consistent or specific definition of what a detox or body cleanse entails. These programs may involve a variety of approaches, such as:
- Exclusively consuming juice or some other liquid for days at a time;
- Eating a very restricted selection of foods;
- Using various dietary supplements or other commercial products;
- Cleansing the colon (lower intestinal tract) with enemas, laxatives, or colon hydrotherapy (also called “colonic irrigation” or “colonics”);
- Combining some of these or other approaches.
If you go online, you’ll find thousands of articles listing all sorts of detoxes. Some are relatively benign, such as the “carrot juice cleanse”, but others are downright esoteric; for instance, the Master Cleanse detox permits no food, which it replaces with tea and lemonade made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Here’s an excerpt from the highly popular 1976 book The Master Cleanse, authored by the Stanley Burroughs, the original developer of the diet.
“The cleanse starts with a herbal laxative tea both morning and evening. If this is not sufficient to clean out the intestinal tract, he advises a salt-water wash. These stops are necessary to remove the toxins loosened by the lemon juice cleanse.”
“I was then to drink between six and twelve glasses of lemonade, which consisted of lemon and maple syrup in proper proportions, with a small amount of cayenne added to wash out the mucus loosened by the cleanse.”
The book promises readers that it will help them correct all sorts of disorders — in fact, just about any disease!
“For the novice and the advanced student alike, cleansing is basis for elimination of every kind of disease. The purpose of this book is to simplify the cause and the correction of all disorders, regardless of the name or names. As we eliminate and correct one disease, we correct them all, for every disease is corrected by the same process of cleansing and building positive good health,” an introductory chapter from Burroughs’ book reads.
There is no scientific evidence that the diet removes any toxins. The only thing that it achieves is weight loss but that’s, of course, to be expected when a person stops eating food. In fact, using this diet can harm you in the long run because it robs the body of important nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals. According to the Harvard Medical School, the laxative component of the diet can lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss as well as impaired bowel function. Other side effects may include fatigue, nausea, and dizziness over the short-term, and loss of muscle mass and a heightened risk of heart attack in the long-run.
Most other popular body cleanses make similar promises and follow more or less the same low-calorie, nutrient-poor diets.
Why detoxing doesn’t work
If you’re looking to lose weight, a detox diet can help you with this goal in the immediate future. The problem is that most people gain all of that lost weight back after returning to their usual dietary routine. On the other hand, if your goal is to detox your body, save yourself the money and effort — it doesn’t work!
Your body is an expert at getting rid of toxins and there are no foods or gimmicks that will speed up this process, which is working perfectly fine already. A lot of people fall for detoxing because they live unhealthy lifestyles, eating a lot of processed foods and not exercising. They see detoxing is a quick fix that will wash away all the unhealthy dirtiness lurking inside them — a much-needed reset so that we might feel refreshed and anew.
But the truth is that toxins don’t build up in your liver, kidneys, or any other part of your body, and you’re not going to get rid of them with the latest detox wonder. If you understand basic biology, it’s very clear that diets that promise ‘cleansing the liver of toxins’ are simply ludicrous.
The liver is an essential organ which is responsible for producing bile for digesting food, storing glucose for energy, metabolizing proteins and fats, and breaking down toxins you might ingest.
Out of the hundreds of functions your liver performs, ensuring toxins are safely removed from your blood is one of its most critical jobs. Your body is exposed to potentially toxic chemicals (they’re only toxic if their concentration in the blood passes a certain threshold) when coming into contact with certain environmental pollutants such as pesticides, but also as a result of normal digestion. For instance, when we digest protein, ammonia is released as a byproduct, which is quickly converted with urea, then eliminated through urine. Any wastes your liver cannot use are converted and either carried out by bile into your small intestine or carried by the blood to your kidneys.
The liver detoxifies harmful substances in two main steps. First, it uses enzymes and oxygen to burn substances so they are more water soluble, making it easier for the body to eliminate them. In the second step, particularly processed toxins are combined with sulfur or amino acids in order to remove them through bile or urine. No detox ingredient can do this job.
Detox helps you lose fluids, not fat
Even the weight loss bit that detoxes are famous for is a smokescreen. Take the Lemon Detox Diet, for instance, which makes some amazing claims ranging from glowing skin to increased vitality. But it’s the promise that it will provide 3-6kg of weight loss in 10 days that gets most people sucked into lemon detox. That may be true — but you won’t be losing fat.
Like any crash diet, a detox diet will cause a person to initially lose a lot of weight. Diets containing minimal to no carbohydrates deplete liver and muscle tissue stores of glycogen — and with it, a person’s water weight. Muscle tissue can store 400 grams of glycogen whilst the liver stores 100 grams. What’s more, glycogen is stored with 3-4 parts water content. So, an extremely low or no carbohydrate diet can produce an immediate 2.5kg weight loss by depleting the 500 grams of available glycogen and the subsequent water stored with it.
Secondly, energy restrictions will cause the body to break down muscle into glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. So a severe dieter’s weight loss will be muscle tissue — not fat, which is often the goal.
A study published in 1976 followed participants who used one of three diets in a 10-day weight loss program. One diet consisted of no food whatsoever (akin to many detox diets), the second diet involved only 3,200kJ of energy (765 calories) with no carbohydrates allowed, and the third 3,200kJ of energy but carbs were allowed.
People who were part of the no food group lost a staggering 7.5kgs in only 10 days. The catch is that they lost only 2.4kg of fat — 61% of that hefty weight loss was actually water lost due to muscle and glycogen depletion. Once these people started eating (you know, so they don’t die), they rapidly put that water-weight back on. The no carbs group lost 4.7kg, while the carbs-allowed group lost 2.8kg. Both of these two groups, however, lost 1.7kgs of fat on average — the difference is represented by the water loss of the no-carbs group due to muscle and glycogen breakdown.
So liver cleanses don’t actually lead to weight loss — it’s just fluid loss.
If your body really built up toxins, you would have been dead a long time ago…
In 2009, a group of young British scientists — part of the pro-science charity Sense About Science — compiled the “Detox Dossier”, which is an investigation into “some of the many products, special diets, tonics and supplements which are widely promoted as being able to ‘detox’ you after the festive season.” The authors of the report felt the public was being duped by dodgy science claims such as detox so they contacted the manufacturers of 15 detox products. What did these producers mean by detox? None had any clue!
“Some products fell by the wayside as it became clear that the sellers were as confused as we were and unable to draw on anything but the marketing blurb, for example, Nicky Clarke cited confidentiality for
their Detox Salon Straighteners and referred us to “information on nano silver and its properties in the public domain,” the authors wrote in the introduction of the Detox Dossier.
The products analyzed by the Sense about Science ranged from smoothies to crystals but not one was able to actually prove any detox properties.
“In fact, no one we contacted was able to provide any evidence for their claims, or give a comprehensive definition of what they meant by ‘detox’. We concluded that ‘detox’ as used in product marketing is a myth. Many of the claims about how the body works were wrong and some were even dangerous.”
The dossier concluded that ‘detox’, as used in product marketing, is a myth. Worse of all, many of the claims marketed by these manufacturers were not only wrong but potentially dangerous to follow. In one particular example, Dawn Page, at the time a 52-year-old woman, suffered damage to her brain’s left hemisphere after she tried a detox in 2008.
“Appreciating and learning new things is difficult for her,” the woman’s husband told BBC News. “Her life is quite structured and to a large degree written down for her.”
People who use detox products face various risks that they should be aware of, such as:
- Ingesting potentially harmful ingredients for unapproved use;
- Exposure to harmful bacterial byproducts from unpasteurized juices;
- Health complications if the dieter has diabetes;
- Potential side effects following colon cleansing. These effects are most likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, kidney disease, or heart disease;
- Headaches, fainting, weakness, dehydration, and hunger pangs due to fasting.
There is not one credible scientific paper that endorses a detox product, diet, or remedy. These often expensive fads are basically a waste of people’s time and money.
A review recently published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics sums it up nicely:
“To the best of our knowledge, no rigorous clinical investigations of detox diets have been conducted. The handful of studies that have been published suffer from significant methodological limitations including small sample sizes, sampling bias, lack of control groups, reliance on self-report and qualitative rather than quantitative measurements.”
That being said, there seems to be evidence that some types of foods can improve liver health and function. A study that investigated Milk thistle’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties found that the plant can help reduce liver inflammation. Turmeric may also decrease certain pro-inflammatory molecules that contribute to the initiation, development, or worsening of liver diseases. These kinds of ingredients, however, do not detox — that’s the liver’s job; they just improve the liver’s functions if it is under stress.
There are over 100 different forms of liver disease but there is no evidence that any body cleanse protects the organ. The two biggest risk factors for liver disease are drinking alcohol excessively and having a family history of liver disease.
Ultimately, the best ‘detox’ is not smoking, exercising regularly and enjoying a healthy balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet.
Bottom line: ‘Detox’ has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning. Detox products are nothing more than a marketing ploy — another unregulated scam that’s out of control. Unless you have liver disease, your body is perfectly able to detox itself.
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