Toxic waste (of money): detoxes and cleanses

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Apparently we are all chock-full of toxins that need to be flushed out of our bodies; who knew? If we are to judge this claim based on the number of detox kits and programs available, I’d say this problem has hit epidemic proportions. Removing bad stuff from our bodies to feel better and prevent disease, and lose some weight to boot, what’s not to love with this diet trend.

Before we move on, we will need to get these horses to catch up with the cart. Our zealous, hyper health-conscious society simultaneously encourages fear over threats to our well being and aggressive, excessive measures to purge the ills and return to purity. The idea of a detox in the sense intended above is full of assumptions that are often glossed over by the marketers and not actively sought by the consumers. This fantastic article outlines the common myths around detox claims, I highly suggest you read it. To summarize briefly, despite the many claims promoted by these regimens, all fail to explicitly show key evidence for the need for the product. It is not demonstrated that our bodies are truly under attack and unable to cope with environmental exposures. There is no evidence or consensus of which, if any toxins are causing disease. There is no good or compelling evidence to show that these programs are effective in removing any toxins or treating any other illnesses we may have.

As is often said, the dose makes the poison. We encounter thousands of highly toxic substances every day, some naturally occurring, some a product of the human-made environment. Given this hellscape, we still manage to survive to see another day because most of these toxins are in such minute quantities that they pose no health risk, and our bodies are able to effectively eliminate them. The human body has excellent, built-in detoxification systems in the form of the liver and kidneys. These organs are not merely fleshy filters; they are able to convert toxins and waste products into safer forms and safely eliminate them from the body. The best part is that they are self-cleaning, no vitamin-and-cayenne-pepper-laced organ drain-o needed.

Similarly, the intestines (often claimed to harbor toxin-laden sludge) are, by their very nature, self-cleaning. Specific foods/herb mixes/protein shakes/etc. will not make these organs work better or clear more wastes from your system. As for the weight loss accompanied by, or at least touted by these cleanses, this is usually a result of:

  • a) following a very low-calorie diet for a week. Some provide as little as 500-600 calories a day, while 1200 kcal is often considered a bare minimum intake for adults.
  • b) water and muscle loss, particularly with programs involving laxative use.
  • c) removing most processed and restaurant foods from the diet.

When finishing the detox and returning to normal dietary patterns, the weight lost will more than likely return. No, this is not toxins reaccumulating, it is simply the body responding to weight loss and a return to higher calorie intake.

So how to respond to those who report feeling so much better after a cleanse. This is likely the placebo effect at play, often in combination with a more healthful diet. A person wanted to feel differently, so they made a change they believed would be beneficial, they expect positive results, and they are then more likely to report positive results regardless of the clinical outcome of the intervention.

The only times that person will truly experience a toxic overload of a particularly substance is a short period of high exposure, chemical dependency (as with opiates or alcohol), or if the liver or kidneys are failing. If this is the case, these detox kits remain useless and one should seek science-based medical advice immediately. This, though, is a rare occurrence and not one most healthy people should worry about.

Detoxes often make extraordinary and numerous claims, for which they provide little to no evidence. A cleanse product that may plausibly work would need to identify which toxins it removes (preferably explaining the process in a physiologically sound way) and provide good quality evidence to back up the claims. Seeing the dearth of such products at present, best to save your money and spend it on fruits, vegetables, and some stress relief strategies. Your liver and kidneys have got you covered.