Do You Really Need to "Detox"?
Starting the new year with a "cleanse" sounds healthy - but the science says otherwise. Get the facts before you try this fad.
When the last strains of "Auld Lang Syne" have faded, the football bowl games have whistled to a close and the holiday decorations have been boxed away, New Year's resolutions begin in earnest. Increasingly, the trendy way to begin the year on a healthy note involves ridding the body of "toxins" - enduring a "detox diet" or drinking nothing but juice for several days to "cleanse." A Google search for "detox" retrieves 70 million hits. The designer-juice industry now tops $5 billion annually, growing 4-8% a year, with much of the appeal based on juice’s supposed cleansing benefits.
While there’s something to be said for starting the year with a clean slate, the "detox" fad needs a reality check. "First, your body already has a highly effective system for removing toxins, principally the liver and kidneys," explains Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, University Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at Tufts. "Second, diets and products that claim to detox the body do not identify what supposed toxins are being targeted."
BODY BASICS: From a medical standpoint, the term "detox" is meaningful only as it relates to a program designed to treat drug addiction - not at all what "detox" promoters in books, websites and popular magazine articles have in mind. A primer on the detox fad produced by the British group Sense About Science <www.senseaboutscience.org> explains: "Detox products claim to help you counteract a busy lifestyle by removing 'toxins' that have built up in your body. The human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through your liver, kidneys and colon. It isn’t possible to improve their function without medical assistance."
Enzymes in your liver naturally convert toxic substances into less harmful compounds. Alcohol, for example, is first converted into acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that can damage liver cells, but then almost immediately the acetaldehyde is in turn changed into harmless carbon dioxide and water. (The toxic nature of acetaldehyde is why alcohol can damage your liver if you drink too much and overwhelm the liver’s ability to convert it.)
Even healthy foods like broccoli and other brassica vegetables contain small amounts of toxic substances - in this case, cyanide. But these small amounts of poison actually encourage the enzymes in your liver to better detoxify other compounds.
Your kidneys, as Sense About Science puts it, "act as a sieve; any essential chemicals are reabsorbed and any unwanted chemicals are naturally excreted in your urine within a few hours to prevent them building up in your body."
Your stomach and colon are similarly efficient at extracting nutrients from food and passing waste material onward to be removed from your body. The notion that harmful substances somehow build up in the colon and need to be "cleansed" has no scientific foundation. Colon "hydrotherapy," "cleansing" or "irrigation" can actually lead to damage to the colon’s protective membrane or perforation of the bowel.
The lymphatic system, including the lymph nodes and spleen, also works to filter bacteria and viruses from your body. As Sense About Science notes, "The system circulates continuously. It isn’t possible to 'stimulate it' as detox products claim."
WHAT TOXINS?: Such claims, Dr. Rosenberg adds, lack the scientific and regulatory rigor of products sold as drugs. "Keep in mind that purveyors of 'dietary supplements' and other products sold under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) do not have to obtain FDA approval of safety and efficacy before marketing their products," he cautions, "as the law prevents the FDA from pre-marketing approval of these products as required for drugs." Such products and advertisements for them typically carry small-print disclaimers such as, "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
In 2009, a team of scientists recruited by Sense About Science investigated 15 popular "detox" products sold in mainstream supermarkets and pharmacies, including contacting the manufacturers. "Detox is marketed as the idea that modern living fills us with invisible nasties that our bodies can't cope with unless we buy the latest jargon-filled remedy," says participating biologist Harriet Ball. But she and her team found that "no two companies seem to use the same definition of 'detox.'" Moreover, little or no evidence was offered to back up the products’ claims. The investigation concluded that "detox," as used in product marketing, "is a myth and worryingly many of the claims about how the body works were wrong and in some cases the suggested remedies were potentially dangerous."
LOSING WITH LEMONADE?: Popular books touting detox plans are no better. The so-called "Lemonade Diet," for example, which originated with Stanley Burroughs’ book The Master Cleanser, is touted by celebrities such as Beyoncé and Jared Leto for its ability to jump-start weight loss, promote energy and (of course) rid the body of toxins. According to Burroughs, "Cleansing is the basis for elimination of every kind of disease.… As we eliminate and correct one disease, we correct them all, for every disease is corrected by the same process of cleansing and building positive good health." The diet involves 10 days consuming nothing but a lemonade-like beverage, a salt-water drink and an herbal laxative tea.
You’ll likely lose weight on such a regimen, since your calorie intake is drastically reduced to perhaps 1,000 calories a day. But you’ll probably put those pounds right back on, as with most drastic weight-loss diets.
There is no evidence that detox programs have any benefits beyond temporary weight loss - certainly not "healing" in cancer therapy, as one popular product suggests.