Detox: the first step to optimal health or a scam designed to make a quick buck off gullible consumers desperate for an answer? Stroll through the supplement aisle at any health-food store and you’ll see every imaginable kind of detox product promising radiant new worlds of wellness, but for every new miracle there’s an army of critics condemning it as nothing but a fad.
So where’s the truth? As usual, it’s somewhere in between. On the one hand, it’s true that most “cleanse diets” are scams, and that your body has a built-in mechanism for detoxifying itself. On the other hand, it’s important not to dismiss the whole idea of environmental toxins just because juice fasting doesn’t help.
What Is Detox?
Medically speaking, detox is just the removal of a dangerous substance from the body. For example, say you have a person addicted to morphine. That person is physically dependent on the drug. The first step in treatment is a detox to get any remaining morphine out of the patient’s system, and teach their body how to function without the drug.
The same goes for alcohol, other drugs, lead, accidental poison ingestion, overdoses of a particular vitamin or mineral, botulinum toxin, even food toxins…if you can identify a specific toxin and evidence that it’s actually dangerous, that’s not what this article is about.
But most “detox diets” aren’t targeted to any particular substance or recognizable set of symptoms. They aren’t marketed to people with heroin addictions; they’re marketed to people who feel guilty about what they ate over the weekend. Usually they don’t specify any particular toxins at all; they just throw around the word “toxin,” give a laundry list of incredibly vague symptoms that could be anything, and let your holiday-weekend guilt fill in the blanks and get out the credit card.
Usually, these toxins are supposed to be accumulating in your colon (although sometimes they’re in your skin, or hair, or some other random body part), and you’re supposed to “cleanse” them with…dandelion greens? Cilantro? Laxatives?
There are two big problems with this approach:
- Most of the “toxins” that detox diets supposedly “cleanse” you of either don’t exist, or are nonissues because your body is completely capable of dealing with them on its own. "Too much food" is not a toxin, regardless of how guilty you might feel about it.
- On the other hand, if you really do need a detox, these "detox diets" won't help.
Your Body’s Built-In Detox Mechanisms
The good news, much-publicized by detox skeptics, is that your body has a very effective detox mechanism: your liver.
A healthy liver receives all the blood that flows away from the stomach and intestines. Then it sorts through and picks out the good stuff to keep and the bad stuff to excrete. You can see this at work in the case of alcohol. Alcohol is a drug like any other drug, and has the potential to cause some serious damage if it hangs out in your bloodstream for too long, so it gets sent to the liver, where it’s metabolized and ultimately excreted.
The same goes for other poisons or toxins. If necessary, they’re first transformed from fat-soluble (lipophilic) forms into water-soluble forms that can be easily excreted. Then they’re passed out of the liver into urine or feces, and flushed down the toilet where they won’t do you any harm.
Your kidneys also help by filtering out more waste products from the blood and passing them into the urine. And the myth of the “autointoxication” from the colon deserves to die a quick and painful death. There’s no evidence that toxins get stuck in your colon, start putrefying in there, and need to be “cleansed” away with any kind of special diet or therapy. That’s just scare tactics. If they accumulate in your body at all, toxins accumulate in the liver and the fat cells, not the colon.
Your liver and kidneys are very good at detox: that's their job. This doesn't make toxins healthy to eat: if you can avoid causing stress to your body, avoid it. A huge part of Paleo is avoiding food toxins. But toxins are not a problem you are totally defenseless against!
Does Your Liver Need Help With Detox?
Knowing that the liver – not the colon – is the main detox organ, any kind of “detox diet” would have to somehow improve liver function. And you can certainly do that with diet – just not with fasting and raw kale. The full article on eating for a healthy liver outlines some strategies for keeping your liver happy. To put it very briefly:
- Eat a moderate-carb diet, without going off to either extreme.
- Limit fructose intake.
- Limit Omega-6 fats and increase Omega-3 fats.
- Eat plenty of choline (one of the B vitamins).
Now take a look at how common detox strategies stack up against that liver health to-do list:
- Water fasting: on the plus side, you can’t get any fructose or Omega-6 fats if you’re not eating any food. On the minus side, you won’t get any of the nutrients you need, either. That’s not a great trade-off.
- Juice fasting, or various juice-based “cleanses” (e.g. the Master Cleanse): you’ll be getting calories almost exclusively from carbohydrates, with a large proportion of calories from fructose. And even if you eat a lot of fruit, you won’t get a lot of choline, since it’s mostly found in animal foods.
- Fruit-based diets: for some reason most “detox diets” revolve around fruit. The same problems apply to fruit-based or raw vegan diet cleanses as to juice fasting: too much fructose, not enough protein, not enough choline, and too many calories from carbs.
So much for food-based detoxes. But what about other detox strategies, like chelation, salt baths, or special detox massages? Take a look at some of the most popular:
Colon cleansing: this typically involves eating some kind of pill or supplement that gives you very impressive bowel movements. This is uncomfortable and potentially dehydrating, and it does absolutely nothing for your liver. As explained above, there is no evidence of any kind that toxins accumulate in the colon, or that they need to be “cleansed” or “flushed out.” You cannot help your body “detox” by taking harsh drugs that work on an organ completely unrelated to your detoxification system! Taking a huge megadose of fiber and laxatives is not the way to better health.
Chelation agents: these are chemicals that bind to heavy metals and help your body eliminate them. And they’re wonderful – if you have a diagnosable, detectable case of heavy metal poisoning. If you’re wondering whether you do or you don’t: you don’t. If you did, you’d be in the hospital talking to a doctor. No controlled studies have ever demonstrated the usefulness of chelation agents for “detox” outside of hospital-level heavy metal toxicity.
Detox supplements or herbs: on top of the laxatives or “colon cleansers” discussed above, these can range from megadoses of ordinary cooking spices to mysterious “proprietary blends” with unknown ingredients. A common ingredient is milk thistle – which has never shown benefits in any controlled studies. They’re generally low-quality supplements and not worth your money.
Sweat therapy: for the most part, toxins are filtered from the liver into bile, where they pass through the gallbladder and exit via feces or urine. There’s a very minimal amount of evidence that small amounts of toxins appear in sweat, but the study linked is full of hedges about “crude experimental techniques” and precautions like “sweat concentrations measured in research settings are not well validated.” Also, compared to the liver, sweat is a very, very minor detox pathway: less than 1% of all toxins are filtered through sweat. You’d be much better off focusing on liver health.
Still not convinced? Take a look at the detox dossier, compiled by a group of young professional scientists. They examined 15 common “detox” products, from shampoo to juices to foot pads. All the products failed to explain what “toxins” they were combating or how their product worked, and there was no evidence of usefulness for any of them.
The bottom line: most products labeled as “detoxifying” or “detox” are garbage. They don’t help your liver (which is the real detox superstar of your body) do its job, so it’s no surprise that they don’t work. The real way to help yourself detox is to support your liver with adequate nutrition.
Fasts and cleanses might be tempting answers to post-overeating guilt, but you can accomplish the same thing for free by drinking some ginger tea and getting rid of the whole concept of “punishing” yourself for eating something “bad.” Overeating doesn’t make you contaminated and in need of a “cleanse;” it makes you a normal person who sometimes makes less-than-perfect decisions and does not need to go to any extremes to “atone” for them.
“But What About…”
A lot of “detox diets” and other products are scammy nonsense, but that doesn’t mean that all kinds of environmental toxins are totally harmless. If there’s still a “But what about…” in your mind, you might want to come back next week for Detox, Part 2.