In case my title didn’t quite get you on my level re: detoxification diets, let me make it extra clear – there is not one iota of scientific evidence that they work.
There’s a bit of a mess to clear up here because there are just so many different detoxifying products being hawked out there, none of which do what they are said to. It may be confusing how this is allowed, since it’s illegal to use false advertising and all – and actually the government has taken steps to sue a number of companies that sell detox products for exactly that reason. They’re just a little behind the trend, as regulatory enforcement often is.
You may have seen infomercials or other ads trying to convince you that you can detox your blood, or your liver, or your fat cells, or your colon from all the nasty chemicals in there – but only with whatever they’re selling. Or you may just have heard that the newest cleanse (you can only eat celery and lemons for a week!) is just what you need to get your body back in tip top shape. Or maybe you should wear toxin-pulling pads on the bottom of your feet. Or colon cleanses! And on, and on…
Lets start at the beginning – what does “detox” mean?
If you hear the word detox in a medical context, usually it refers to someone who is going through supervised withdrawal from some addictive substance, like drugs or alcohol. But that’s pretty clearly not what we’re talking about here. In the past dozen years or so, we’ve started to hear about detoxifying our bodies in more of a proactively healthful way. It’s changed from something that happens to us (withdrawal) to something we should be actively trying to do. By detoxifying ourselves, we can lose weight, gain energy and get rid of all sorts of different ‘toxins’ that have built up in our systems. The pitch is this: “Feel bad? If you detox, you’ll feel better!”
Side note: the word ‘toxin’ technically refers to any poisonous substance that is generated through a biological method, but in the buzzword-y world of detox diets, it can include anything unhealthful inside you – and in fact it often does only refer to some nebulous ‘bad’ substances you must have in you.
The thing is though, that if we really had so much toxic whatever floating around in our bodies, it would make us sick. In fact, there are loads of syndromes that can and do occur if you’re actually exposed to toxins (mercury poisoning, arsenic poisoning, asbestos poisoning, etc.), whether biological or otherwise, and most of the time they are not subtle. The fact is, if you have been exposed to real toxic matter, there is not much of anything you can eat or drink or shoot up your butt that is going to help you (although consuming activated charcoal can help if you’ve recently eaten something poisonous – but still go to the emergency room!). Chelation therapy helps to filter the blood of some heavy metals, but a lot of environmental toxins do their damage and either stay forever, or get filtered out by the body’s very own detox system – your organs.
The reason why we can live in a world filled with toxins, swirling around us (and in us) all the time and not constantly be dying is that our organs, primarily our liver, kidneys, and intestines, are always working to remove toxins from our bodies. It is believed that the liver does over 500 things – including producing proteins and enzymes that metabolize harmful metals, chemicals and drugs, so that you can excrete them. It also deals with the If your liver fails, you are no longer able to adequately get rid of all the actual toxins in your body, and you die (that is somewhat simplified, obviously).
Our kidneys are constantly filtering your blood, removing the toxins that your own body produces, like urea and lactic acid, so that you can pee them out. You can live without kidneys, but you have to spend tens of hours every week on dialysis in order to make sure that the toxins in your blood get filtered out. Without dialysis, the toxins in your blood will build up and kill you.
For some reason, a lot of detox fad products/diets focus on the intestines, telling you that if you just drink enough juice, all the nasty gunk in your digestive tract will be flushed away. Well, unless you have a diagnosable intestinal problem, all that proto-fecal matter in there is actually good for you because it give a place for your intestinal flora to live. According to Dr. Michael Gershon,
“The colon houses many of the microbes that call us home. They are our friends and keep us safe. When we upset our microbes — as with antibiotics — bad bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile [the bacteria behind infectious diarrhea], can move in and cause disease.”
Intensive cleanses and colonics actually disturb our intestinal ecosystems, and there is no evidence that colon cleanses are helpful in any way, and there can be some really horrendous side effects – including, in the worst cases, death.
The fundamental thing is that if you actually needed to detox, you would be sick. This is not to say that there aren’t harmful toxins in our environment, or that our bodies can handle exposure to any chemicals at any level – far from it. But the fact is, that reducing your calorie intake, or eliminating certain foods from your diet is not a way to remove toxins from your body – just a way to remove calories or certain foods from your body. That can be problematic, if, for instance, you get low on some of the micronutrients your body needs to function, or if your fasting begins to suppress your ability to naturally detoxify (which can actually happen). Even drinking tons of water, often suggested as an easy way to detox, can actually hurt more than it helps.
The final question: Why do some people feel good after detoxing?
There is actually a relatively straightforward answer for this. We modern people don’t take great care of our bodies. There is so much junk food out there, that we just can’t help ourselves – except, perhaps, while we’re on a special diet that makes us cut out tons of the processed crap we usually eat. After a week of cleaner eating, you’ll feel better.
But if you really want to make sure that your body is as toxin-free as it can be, then here’s what the medical literature suggests you do: Eat healthy, drink plenty of water, get regular exercise, sleep enough every night, and get regular checkups.
Your body will handle the rest.