The Truth about Detoxes
What is a detox?
Human beings have been trying to rid their bodies of toxins since the beginning of time. For centuries Native Americans have used various forms of ritual cleansing and purification, such as sweat lodges. And practices like bloodletting, enemas, and fasting were considered legitimate medical therapies up until the early 20th century.
The short-hand “detox” comes from the word “detoxification,” which up until recently referred to a medical procedure that rids the body of dangerous, often life-threatening, levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, detoxification describes "the process of allowing the body to rid itself of a drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal." These types of detoxifications usually take place in a hospital or clinic setting.
Today, when you hear the word detox, you most likely think of the recent do-it-yourself “detoxes” that have become an instant craze amongst people looking to remove toxins from their body or to lose weight. A popular form of detox is referred to as a “detox-diet.” You may have also heard the terms “cleanse” or “flush” to refer to the same thing.
There are no detox products available by prescription. Rather, they are sold in retail stores, at spas, over the Internet, and by direct mail. Many are advertised as useful for detoxifying specific organs or systems, while others are portrayed as "whole body" cleansers.
Detox programs may involve a variety of approaches, such as:
- Consuming only juices or other liquids for several days
- 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
Over the last few years, detoxes have been promoted on countless websites and endorsed by a number of celebrities. But what is the scientific evidence behind this popular craze?
Science behind detoxes
A “toxin” refers to any poison produced through biological processes. There are both natural toxins, like the nicotine found in tobacco, and manmade toxins, like ozone and nitrogen dioxide air pollutants.
Your body can accumulate both types of toxins, when you ingest food and water and when you breathe.
However, there isn’t any convincing evidence that detox or cleansing programs actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health. In fact, in most cases, our bodies are able to rid themselves of these toxins.
The liver is not only made to regulate, synthesize, store and secrete many important proteins and nutrients, but also to purify, transform and clear toxic or unneeded substances. In fact, the liver turns potentially harmful chemicals into water-soluble chemicals that can be sweated or excreted from the body.
Many detoxification products claim to "cleanse" the liver, but in healthy individuals, the liver is not a place where toxins are even stored.
Not only are detoxes not necessary, but they might also be causing more harm than good.
Many detox products on the market actually contain illegal, potentially harmful ingredients, are marketed using false claims that they can treat serious diseases; or (in the case of medical devices used for colon cleansing) are marketed for unapproved uses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several companies for these reasons.
There are other risk factors that come with detoxes as well. For instance, juice cleanses which have become a popular form of detox, have the potential to cause illness due to lack of pasteurizing or treating the juice to kill harmful bacteria. These potential illnesses can be serious in children, elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems.
Not to mention, drinking large quantities of juice may be risky for people with kidney disease, as some juices are high in oxalate - which can worsen kidney problems.
Detoxification programs often include laxatives as well, which can cause diarrhea severe enough to lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
And fasting can cause headaches, fainting, weakness, dehydration, and hunger pangs.
Then there’s the fact that diets severely restricting calories or the types of food you eat may not provide all the nutrients you need and likely won’t lead to lasting weight loss. In fact, if detoxes result in weight loss, it is most likely due to the limited calorie intake, which of course cannot be maintained.
How to Cleanse the Right Way
Because our bodies are already made to flush out toxins on their own, detoxing doesn’t require you to make extreme diet choices.
Cleansing can be as easy as eating foods that improve stomach health and drinking water to aid the digestion process.
Here are some helpful tips to cleanse your body in a natural and healthy way.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods: Stick to fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean protein. And on the flip side, try to avoid processed, fried and sugary foods.
- Drink better: Skip that alcoholic beverage and switch to water to help your kidneys flush out toxins.
- Stay active: Sweating helps detox because it improves circulation throughout the body…so go workout and get your sweat on!
- Eat smaller portions: Big meals lead to bloating, which causes your digestive system to overwork itself. Try eating smaller amounts…and take your time doing it. Avoid scarfing your food down quickly.
- Treat your skin well: Exfoliating your skin can boost circulation and promote new cell growth. Try bathing in Epsom salt. It will help your body absorb minerals like magnesium.
- Sleep well: Sufficient rest is essential to reducing stress and inflammation – helping your body to function its best.
“‘Detoxes’ and ‘Cleanses.’” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 24 Sept. 2017, nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-cleanses.
Harvard Health Publishing. “The Dubious Practice of Detox.” Harvard Health, May 2008, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-dubious-practice-of-detox.
Palermo , Elizabeth. “Detox Diets & Cleansing: Facts & Fallacies.” LiveScience, 9 Feb. 2015, www.livescience.com/34845-detox-cleansing-facts-fallacies.html.
“This Is The Best Way to Detox Your Body.” Health.com, 22 Aug. 2017, www.health.com/weight-loss/how-to-detox.