The first way I ever heard of the term detox was around drug and alcohol use. If you ever saw the movie Trainspotting, you saw a physical representation of drug withdrawal. (FYI- Ewan Macgregor is my number one celebrity crush.) The body becomes so physically dependent on alcohol and drugs, that it struggles to function without it. Turning back toward the drug certainly sounds better than going through the withdrawal process, though obviously, not as healthy.
But now we detox from everything and use the term for when we up and decide to not do something for a week. This usage entered my knowledge when I had a job where I was to push a $350 series of pills for detoxing from our normal day to day. It was a minor part of the job, but being the diligent student I am, I hit the books.
Why are we so concerned about detoxing?
The rise of cancer, food intolerances, allergies, autism, ADHD, and more certainly is overwhelming. There has to be something wrong and our environment is a good place to look. Certainly in areas where the air quality is bad, you will find more instances of asthma than areas with clean air. Cancer clusters arise near industrial plants. The food industry is introducing new chemicals to our food system. Genetically modified foods are new.
There has been a history of a chemical being introduced that we thought was safe and then turned out to not be. Look at the DDT being sprayed on children in the 40s. The intentions were good, but the aftermath wasn’t.
It’s understandable to be distrustful and concerned. This is our health that we are talking about.
How The Body Detoxes
Our body is actually very efficient at getting rid of undesired molecules. We focus on the liver and kidneys, as the liver helps to turn the toxin into something that the body can remove and the kidneys flush them out. But the skin, lungs, digestive, and lymphatic systems all have a role in detoxing.
All together they work to keep the body in check and all systems functioning. It’s like a constant malware scanning our body.
What is a Detox Supposed to Do?
There are more chemicals being used on a regular basis on our foods, for cleaning, in our clothes, in the air, etc. If we are exposed to massive amounts, our body will need to work harder to remove these foreign particles. There has to be a certain capacity that it can do on a daily basis, before it gets overwhelmed and can’t keep up. Just like a bathtub that is slow to drain, there will be a build up and eventual over flow when the tub just can’t hold any more water. A detox will unclog the system to boost it and allow for more clearing out of the extra toxins.
Does a detox actually work?
Great question! A google search gives you thousands of reasons why you should do a detox and buy their product. But what does science say?
The abstract for Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence by A. V. Klein and H. Kiat and published in 2014, says:
“Detox diets are popular dieting strategies that claim to facilitate toxin elimination and weight loss, thereby promoting health and well-being. The present review examines whether detox diets are necessary, what they involve, whether they are effective and whether they present any dangers. Although the detox industry is booming, there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets. A handful of clinical studies have shown that commercial detox diets enhance liver detoxification and eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the body, although these studies are hampered by flawed methodologies and small sample sizes. There is preliminary evidence to suggest that certain foods such as coriander, nori and olestra have detoxification properties, although the majority of these studies have been performed in animals. To the best of our knowledge, no randomised controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans. This is an area that deserves attention so that consumers can be informed of the potential benefits and risks of detox programmes.”
In the article, they do discuss Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are industrial chemicals that are fat soluble and are found in adipose tissue, and metals that are hard for the body to remove naturally. POPs can take years to breakdown and lead can linger in the body for decades. But we’ve been restricting the usage of POPs and heavy metals since the 70s. Mercury thermometers that were once the norm, have been replaced. If you watch HGTV, you most likely have seen an episode where lead or asbestos have needed to be removed and the protocols that are in place to do so.
What Klein and Kiat did find was “evidence that coriander, malic acid (found in grapes and wine), citric acid (found in citrus fruits), succinic acid (found in apples and blueberries), citrus pectin (found in the peel and pulp of citrus fruits) and Chlorella (a type of green algae) exhibit natural chelating properties, suggesting that they may be useful for the elimination of toxic metals.” These include aluminum, mercury, lead, cadmium, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzo-pdioxins, and polychlorinated dibenzofurans. But most have only been true in mice and rats.
Are there other herbs that can make a difference in how our body functions? Potentially. Eastern cultures have a long history of using herbs as part of the healing process.
How has my view of detoxes shifted?
I’m not 100% anti-cleanses or detoxing. I’ve done a few juice cleanses, the Clean Program a few times, and tried out the 90 day detox system that I was supposed to sell. If anything, I think what they did most, was bring the focus back into what I was putting in my body and giving me time to check in. Being mindful, acknowledging that I need to put in some work to be healthy, and mixing up my diet were huge advantages. The act of doing something to take care of myself was the priceless Mastercard moment.
I think most detoxes are aligned with the idea of fasting, which has a long history with many religions having some inclusion of fasting every year. Fasting has been shown to have some health benefits, but yo-yo dieting has also shown to mess with our metabolisms.
But I have also seen people who survive on detoxes where it, becomes an obsessive aspect of control for purity. They are already doing many things they should: eat organic foods, use more natural cleaning products, and exercise. My first few cleanses helped me feel good. Now they just give me motivation to mix up my meal routine.
In general, most detox programs offer you a quick fix for a series of pills and powders that do very little. As they are sold as supplements, you may not even be receiving what they are saying is included. The manufacturers prey on your insecurities and desires to convince you to buy their products. They care only about profit, not lasting results. If anything they hope that you see enough of a benefit to do the program again and again.
There is also a mix between an elimination diet and detoxing now, as many of the foods to avoid are similar with dairy and gluten being the top two. Elimination diets are designed to determine if there are any food sensitivities or allergies, not to purify our bodies leading to a different purpose and intention. Having seen someone with crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis be able to go off their meds by eliminating dairy, has demonstrated to me the huge benefits of an elimination diet.
Are there people who need detoxes due to heavy metals in their bodies? Completely. There could be a number of reasons why a detox diet can help individuals. But the majority of people don't.
What can we do to detox?
We are not powerless. The best way to eliminate toxins is to minimize the chemicals and toxins that you are exposed to.
- Eat whole foods that haven’t been processed or sprayed with pesticides. A wide variety of vegetables increases the amount of micronutrients that can be used to nourish the body.
- Move more. Not just exercise. The lymphatic system needs muscular involvement to work.
- Drink water to flush out the kidneys. Look at the water that you are drinking. I like having a container of water with a charcoal stick to reduce the chemicals. (Know that most bottled water is filtered tap water. I can spend $1.50 for the exact water that I get from my tap, because there is a bottling plant in my town. Alkalized water is water with sodium bicarbonate, i.e. baking soda.)
- Keep an eye on the ingredients you use on your skin. It's the largest organ of our body, yet we slather on chemicals with make up and body washes. The Environmental Working Group has a great system to rate products.
- Check out what you are using for cleaning products at home and maybe you can influence what is being used at work.
- Look at your community and what exposures there may be. Get involved on a local or national level to change regulations if you are concerned and feel driven. Know that not everyone can afford to eat organic, buy the more expensive natural products, or has access to clean drinking water. (Think of Flint, MI.) Influential and connected advocates are needed. You could be the next Erin Brockovich with a major celebrity winning an Oscar playing you.
Acknowledge that we can’t be 100% pure. You have to live in a controlled bubble for that to be the case. Trust that if you do a lot to take care of yourself, then your body can take care of what does that does slip in.
You have all that you need.
Want some more information? Check these out:
Vox: "Detox” products are a sham. Yes, all of them”
The Guardian: You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy?
The New York Times: Fancy Juice Doesn’t Cleanse the Body of Toxins
Girls Gone Strong: Detox Diets Demystified
Kate Hamm combines her 15+ years of experience in the fitness industry and high-end resort program development into sought after wellness adventures at AnamBliss. Visit www.anambliss.com for future retreat dates and locations.