Detoxing is huge news at the moment – today, a Google search for ‘detox’ alone brought up over 76 million hits. So there is much excitement (and billions being made) out there by alternative therapists who are offering to ‘cleanse’ your body and detox you of all sorts of nasty chemicals and ‘toxins’ – but does the human body even need help detoxing?!
Approaches to detoxing can include colonic irrigation, homeopathic remedies, teas or use of electromagnetic devices. And then there are of course a whole suite of detox diets – often celebrity-endorsed and involving copious amounts of green juices and exotic, expensive Amazonian berries, exclusive herbs or mysterious root extracts. It is the efficacy of these which are going to be addressed in this article.
So, if your definition of ‘detoxing’ is a few days or weeks of easing off chocolate or alcohol, cutting back on processed foods and doing a bit more exercise in the interests of improving your health, then by all means – go for your life. Doing so will improve your intestinal microbiome, blood glucose levels and give your liver and gastrointestinal system some ‘breathing space’ to adjust, especially after a period of over-indulging.(1-3) However, undertaking such temporary ‘detoxing’ unfortunately barely begins to make up for long-term dietary abuse (sorry!). You’re far better off aiming for long-term lifestyle and dietary improvements for optimal health and nutrition.
So, lets discuss detoxing in the context of ‘toxins’.
By definition, toxins are small molecules, peptides or proteins that, though medically useful in some cases – may in sufficient doses potentially contribute to the development of disease through contact with or via absorption of body tissues. Most toxins that cause issues in humans are actually of bacterial origin, including those which cause tetanus, toxic shock, cholera or Botulinum neurotoxins – the toxins responsible for the potentially fatal food poisoning disease botulism (possible culprits – raw honey, poorly canned food).(4, 5) No amount of green blends, juices, herbs, superfoods or celebrity ‘detoxing’ program is going to remotely deal with such toxins. Needless to say, if you are suffering toxicity from any of these – please go see your doctor immediately and I also strongly encourage you to take preventative steps by accessing the wide range of potentially life-saving vaccines available.
On the other hand, toxins can be found in our environment, including heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates, VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), dioxins or asbestos and these should certainly be minimised through product choices and optimising your living or working environments.(6-10) High levels or over-exposure of environmental toxins in humans has been linked to increased cancer risk, endocrine disorders, skin issues, liver damage, headaches and a host of other adverse medical consequences.(6, 10) Toxins can even be found lurking naturally in our food supply – whoever would have suspected the humble, unassuming broccoli of containing the potentially deadly mitochondrial toxin cyanide?!(11) However, don’t panic and clear out your vegetable drawer of this wonderful vegetable – there are no reports of anyone who has managed to achieve cyanide poisoning by munching their way through daily mountains of raw broccoli. In fact, in small amounts, this cyanide in broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables) has actually be shown to be beneficial for some enzyme functions in the liver.
So, toxicity hugely depends on the toxin itself, the dosage and the human body’s ability to do with it. Anything is toxic in the right amount – even oxygen or water. The mode of exposure as well as the gender, genetics, age, general health and nutritional status of the exposed individual will all affect whether accumulation of a toxin occurs and whether that will cause health issues.(12) It is more than worthwhile noting that symptoms of toxicity from heavy metals or pesticides do not include generally feeling a little blergh or getting a few extra pimples. They can involve heart palpitations, breathing difficulties and loss of muscular control – so if you have these – again, we highly suggest you get yourself off to your hospital for immediate treatment (possibly involving dimercaprol chelation and atropine but certainly not involving ‘Ultra-slimming, Quick-cleanse lemon-coconut-detox’).
Our body’s detoxification organs work 24/7 and include the liver, kidneys, skin, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and lymphatic system.(7, 12) These are constantly breaking down toxins into other forms which we can then excrete via urine, faeces, sweat or via our respiratory system. Most of the time, for the vast majority of us, our body can handle the typical toxin load and accumulation will not result. Therefore, the best way to ensure that this natural detoxification system is working at optimal levels, is to provide your body with optimal nutrition to support the function of these organs.
Most detox diets or juice cleanses are low in proteins or amino acids, fibre, probiotics and ‘good fats’ – unfortunately, these are many of the key nutrients that our organs need to be fully functional. This can lead to impaired organ function and actually allow more toxins to accumulate causing many adverse and potentially dangerous side effects.(12, 13) Additionally, those detoxes that involve high volumes of juices can cause dangerous blood sugar swings which could also be potentially very dangerous for diabetics.(14, 15) Also, what many people may not realise – the manufacture of these products is very unregulated and there is no true review or control over the inclusion or quantity of many of the ingredients which result in a range of unintended interactions with medications and adverse, potentially dangerous side effects.
Though lots of fruits and vegetables are undoubtedly good for you, pulverising kilograms of raw fruits and vegetables over several days or weeks may actually stress organs which suddenly have to deal with a huge quantity of oxalates, nitrates and ironically your exposure to pesticides could increase during such a ‘detox’. The headaches commonly reported during detoxes, have nothing to do with the clearance of any toxins, but more to do with energy restriction, electrolyte imbalances, possible withdrawal from caffeine and potentially also nitrate overload (as nitrates promote vasodilation).(16) Also, there are compounds called goitrogens in raw green vegetables which if consumed in great quantities can also negatively affect thyroid function in some susceptible people.(17) None of this is usually a problem for fruit and vegetables consumed within a normal, healthy dietary context – but can become significant problems when over-consumed in a detox or juice ‘cleansing’ context.
Therefore, in conclusion – no, there is no scientific basis or consistent, reputable clinical evidence that nutritional ‘detoxing’ is required or effective in removing ‘toxins’ from the body.(12, 13) If you’re feeling generally unwell or run down – it is far more likely to be due to poor diet, fatigue, stress or a general virus or infection.
Other reasons people may want to go on a ‘detox’ diet, has nothing to do with ridding their bodies of toxins, but has more to do with the weight loss that some celebrity experienced while doing it. Restricting calories significantly (as is usually the case on a detox diet), will cause a very rapid ‘weight’ loss of around 2-3kg within the first few days or week which seems fantastic on paper. However, hold back your excitement as most of this is merely the 500g or so of glycogen in your muscles and 1.5kg of associated water which your body has had to use up in the absence of sufficient caloric intake. It will come straight back as soon as you start eating normally again.
Detoxes can lead to disordered eating and will only contribute to the mindframe of yo-yo dieting – there is nothing logical about the idea of taking a ‘week’s holiday’ from long-term poor lifestyle and imbalanced dietary intake. Additionally, if you continue detox diets for more than a few days, you risk the development of micronutrient deficiencies and you will also start to lose muscle mass which is detrimental to long-term weight loss. Life Nutrition is able to show you much better strategies to enhance your health, maximise your natural detoxing abilities and lose weight safely and keep it off.
Please do not resort to celebrity detox diets or purchase expensive magic herbs and restrict dietary groups to cleanse your liver and colon – the only thing that will be detoxed and lightened is your wallet.
- Corfe BM, Harden CJ, Bull M, Garaiova I. The multifactorial interplay of diet, the microbiome and appetite control: current knowledge and future challenges. Proc Nutr Soc. 2015;74(3):235-44.
- David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, Gootenberg DB, Button JE, Wolfe BE, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature. 2014;505(7484):559-63.
- Schaubeck M, Haller D. Reciprocal interaction of diet and microbiome in inflammatory bowel diseases. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2015;31(6):464-70.
- Fujinaga Y. Transport of bacterial toxins into target cells: pathways followed by cholera toxin and botulinum progenitor toxin. J Biochem. 2006;140(2):155-60.
- Grover SS, Negi SS, Singh S, Ray K. Significance of circulating toxin and antitoxin in unimmunized tetanus cases of neonates and infants. Biologicals. 2012;40(4):262-5.
- Kim HS, Kim YJ, Seo YR. An Overview of Carcinogenic Heavy Metal: Molecular Toxicity Mechanism and Prevention. J Cancer Prev. 2015;20(4):232-40.
- Lin X, Gu Y, Zhou Q, Mao G, Zou B, Zhao J. Combined toxicity of heavy metal mixtures in liver cells. J Appl Toxicol. 2016.
- Manoukian A, Buiron D, Temime-Roussel B, Wortham H, Quivet E. Measurements of VOC/SVOC emission factors from burning incenses in an environmental test chamber: influence of temperature, relative humidity, and air exchange rate. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2016;23(7):6300-11.
- Tchounwou PB, Yedjou CG, Patlolla AK, Sutton DJ. Heavy metal toxicity and the environment. EXS. 2012;101:133-64.
- Yoshida T, Ogawa M, Goto H, Ohshita A, Kurose N, Yokosawa F, et al. [Clinical findings of the patients with sick building syndrome and the results of environmental measurement]. Sangyo Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2011;53(2):25-32.
- Tanii H, Takayasu T, Higashi T, Leng S, Saijoh K. Allylnitrile: generation from cruciferous vegetables and behavioral effects on mice of repeated exposure. Food Chem Toxicol. 2004;42(3):453-8.
- Klein AV, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015;28(6):675-86.
- Ernst E. Alternative detox. Br Med Bull. 2012;101:33-8.
- Murphy R, Thornley S, de Zoysa J, Stamp LK, Dalbeth N, Merriman TR. Sugar Sweetened Beverage Consumption among Adults with Gout or Type 2 Diabetes. PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0125543.
- Xi B, Li S, Liu Z, Tian H, Yin X, Huai P, et al. Intake of fruit juice and incidence of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2014;9(3):e93471.
- Nossaman VE, Nossaman BD, Kadowitz PJ. Nitrates and nitrites in the treatment of ischemic cardiac disease. Cardiol Rev. 2010;18(4):190-7.
- Cho YA, Kim J. Dietary Factors Affecting Thyroid Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis. Nutr Cancer. 2015;67(5):811-7.