Whether it’s cucumbers splashing into water or models sitting smugly next to a pile of vegetables, it’s tough not to be sucked in by the detox industry. The idea that you can wash away your calorific sins is the perfect antidote to our fast-food lifestyles and alcohol-lubricated social lives. But before you dust off that juicer or take the first tentative steps towards a colonic irrigation clinic, there’s something you should know: detoxing – the idea that you can flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go – is a scam.
It should be noted that the detoxification described here is different from the practice used in substance abuse treatment. Detoxification in that context is "the process of allowing the body to rid itself of a drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This kind of supervised detoxification may prevent potentially life-threatening complications that might appear if the patient was left untreated.
Advocates of detox therapies start with the premise that the body accumulates toxins that can cause cancer and other diseases. Regularly cleansing oneself of such toxins is supposed to reduce the risk of disease and endows one with a feeling of good health, more radiant skin and having more energy. However, currently, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that any of these so-called cleanses really benefit a person's health. It’s a pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things. If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete them, you’d likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention.
We forget that the body is equipped with a detoxification system of its own. The body has kidneys, a liver, skin, intestines, immune system, even lungs that detoxity. There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.However, we are exposed to more toxins today than ever before. According to the Environmental Working Group there are over 7 million recognized chemicals in existence with very few tested for safety, not to mention modern changes in our food supply, water, medications, stress, etc. So yes, your body is engineered to cleanse itself…but your organs are multifunctional and were never designed to handle this many toxins on a daily basis and keep up with their other jobs like conjugating hormones, making blood, producing enzymes, digesting food, etc.
From what the research says and from what I understand, cleansing is not about “cleaning” your body, but rather adding back enough nutrients to power the biochemical pathways that convert toxins and hormones to a water-soluble form, that can then be excreted from your bowels or kidneys. Therefore, choosing a program that deeply re-nourishes your body with whole food nutrition will be a lot more effective than just taking an herbal cleansing supplement or doing a liquid fast. Thus, cleansing the right way, by optimizing your nutrition, can be a life-saver.
Which leads to a discussion of how detoxing can be downright dangerous. Juice cleanses are by far one of the most egregiously used and abused ways to try and detox. A prolonged juice cleanse can eliminate critical nutrients, like protein, which can lead to malnutrition. A juice fast over time could lead to an imbalance of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, that are vital for day-today bodily functions. Other detoxing practices are even more perilous. Colonic irrigation, for example, is not only unnecessary (except as preparation for surgery or endoscopy), but can lead to serious complications, including diarrhea, life-threatening blood infections (septicemia), and perforation of the intestinal wall.
And then there is the idea of a water cleanse. Drinking a lot more water than is necessary to stay hydrated and quench thirst can impair the ability of the kidneys to properly exchange electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride. That in turn can lead to potentially life-threating problems like cardiac arrhythmias. It might seem reasonable to assume that the more water you pour in to your body, the more bad stuff you flush out. But that's simply not the case. As long as you are producing light-yellow urine and don’t feel excessively thirsty, you are drinking all the water you need. (Note: elderly people often lose their thirst drive, so it’s important for them to remember to drink water or other fluid throughout the day. People with abnormal kidney function may also not be able to rely on thirst as an indicator of hydration.)
And I leave the best for laste - if your goal is to lose weight (particularly excess body fat) and keep it off, evidence suggests that a detox can actually thwart your efforts in the long-term. That’s in part because, while the severe calorie restriction that most detox plans entail may make you thinner temporarily, the weight you’ll lose is mainly water weight—not body fat weight, the loss of which is essential in order to maintain weight loss over time. Indeed, studies have shown time and again that both men and women who lose weight by fasting or dramatically reducing calorie intake routinely gain the weight back, and often end up even heavier.
So, what's the bottom line? The lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. Our kidneys and liver don’t need a detox treatment. If anyone suggests a detox or cleanse to you, remember that you’re hearing a marketing pitch for an imaginary condition. If you experience fatigue, pallor, unexplained weight gain or loss, changes in bowel function, or breathing difficulties that persist for days or weeks, visit your doctor instead of a detox spa.
- Palermo. E. 2015. Detox diets and cleansing: facts and fallacies.
- Harvard Health. 2008. The dubious practice of detox.
- NIH. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Detoxes and Cleanses.
- Mayo Clinic. Is Colon Cleansing a good way to eliminate toxins from you body?
- Cosgrove, B. 2015. The truth about detox diets. University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley Wellness.