Cleansing: Detox for the body–Myths and Dangers

Consumers are bombarded with claims that our bodies absorb a wide variety of toxins each day, resulting in stress, poor health and even disease. Dietary cleanses (e.g. Dr. Mehmet Oz's 3-Day Detox Cleanse; Master Cleanse) and other detox treatments have been promoted to rid the body of these supposed toxins, thereby restoring health, energy and balance.

There are numerous detox treatments available but most advocate extremely low-calorie, liquid diets (only fresh vegetable and fruit juices and water) for a few days to several weeks. Is there any scientific support for detox or is this a nutrition pitch that we shouldn't catch?

Detox

The term "detox" certainly sounds scientific. In this case, however, a valid medical term is being misused and co-opted to make worthless detox/cleansing treatments appear legitimate. This deceptive marketing can mislead consumers into thinking that detox is backed by science. In the medical setting, real detoxification refers to treatment for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons (e.g. heavy metals) and is provided in the hospital. Use of the term to promote popular detox/cleansing treatments is just a sleazy marketing strategy.

Toxins

The alleged purpose of detox/cleansing treatments is to remove harmful "toxins" that the body cannot remove on its own. So what exactly are these toxins? A shared feature of detox treatments is the inability to name the specific toxins that their treatment will remove. It is very telling that these so-called "toxins" haven't even been identified. Detox/cleansing treatments also do not offer a mechanism to explain how they supposedly remove these toxins.

Similar to "detox," the term "toxin" sounds scientific enough to be believable. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a true toxin is defined as: "A poisonous substance, especially a protein, that is produced by living cells or organisms and is capable of causing disease when introduced into the body tissues but is often also capable of inducing neutralizing antibodies or antitoxins." In short, toxins are biologically produced poisons such as scorpion and pit viper venom. Just as detox/cleansing treatments misuse the term "detox," these programs don't even use the correct definition of "toxin."

Does the body need help?

Detox/cleansing proponents claim that the body cannot remove harmful substances by itself. This is categorically false – the body's intrinsic detoxification system is remarkably sophisticated and versatile. The liver is incredibly efficient at getting rid of noxious substances – it contains enzymes which convert toxic substances into less harmful ones. These are then dissolved in water and removed in the urine. The kidneys eliminate many toxic substances that are soluble in water. They reabsorb essential chemicals and excrete unwanted chemicals in the urine within a few hours to prevent them from accumulating. The gastrointestinal tract is a harsh environment and prevents many harmful bacteria from entering the body. The colon is responsible for expelling unwanted solid matter from the body.

Since we already have a wonderful detoxification system, the claim that we are accumulating vast quantities of dangerous "toxins" is ridiculous and demonstrates a profound ignorance of human physiology and metabolism.

Is "detox" dangerous?

Can detox diets be harmful? It is unlikely that healthy individuals will experience any long term adverse effects from a brief (< 3 days) detox regimen. However, severely restricting food intake makes it very difficult to obtain all the nutrients required for optimum health.

Even brief detox diets can cause unpleasant side effects such as decreased energy, lightheadedness, headaches and nausea. Following an extreme detox diet for a long period of time can actually harm the organs that really do have detoxification functions.

Detox diets can interfere with blood sugar regulation and cause electrolyte (sodium and potassium) imbalances. They are not recommended for people with diabetes, heart disease, liver or kidney disease or other chronic medical conditions. Pregnant and nursing women should also avoid detox diets.

Like most fad diets, detox cleanses are not an effective way to lose body fat. People who cleanse for several days may drop pounds, but this is primarily due to water loss. Longer detox diets can cause loss of muscle mass. Once people complete the detox, they resume their usual diet and regain the weight. Following a detox for long periods can slow the metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain weight loss.

Detox supplements can have dangerous side effects. Many of the supplements that are marketed for detox and cleansing are laxatives and diuretics. Potent herbal laxatives such as cascara, senna, buckthorn and aloe induce defecation. They can cause dehydration, electrolyte depletion and dependence if abused. Herbal diuretics such as uva ursa, dandelion, buchu, and horse chestnut increase urination. Massive fluid losses can upset the body's delicate fluid and electrolyte balance and cause dehydration.

Detox reality check

The popularity of detox is fueled by the desire for a "quick health fix." Detox cleanses seem especially attractive after periods of overindulgence during weekends, holidays and vacations. The idea that a week-long detox can immediately and effectively improve health is very appealing. Unfortunately, this gives the false impression that poor lifestyle choices can be instantly remedied by following a detox diet. The health implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be "cleansed" away.

Detox/cleansing treatments distract people from the reality of how the body works and what is needed to keep it healthy. Detox regimens are counterproductive by taking money and time away from proven behaviors that promote health – increasing physical activity, improving dietary quality and consuming alcohol in moderation.

The notions of "detox" and "toxin" have no basis in reality. There is no evidence that toxins accumulate in the body or that any "detox" program "cleanses toxins" from the body. The human body has developed a remarkably complex and sophisticated intrinsic detoxification system and doesn't need any help removing waste products. Any product containing the words "detox" or "cleanse" is only truly effective at cleansing your wallet of money.

References

Kyle Hill. The Great "Detox" Deception. July 10, 2012. http://sciencebasedlife.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/the-great-detox-deception/

Scott Gavura. The Detox Scam: How to spot it, and how to avoid it. January 2, 2014 http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-detox-scam-how-to-spot-it-and-how-to-avoid-it/

Susan Moores. Experts warn of detox diet dangers. May 18, 2007. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18595886/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/experts-warn-detox-diet-dangers/#.U6D8P9Dn-Ah
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