We all overindulge from time to time, be it with food or alcohol. We loathe the consequent sluggishness and brain fog. So, what could be more appealing, than the idea of undoing all these wrongs with a quick detox? We have been sold the idea, that we have and continue to accumulate ‘toxins’. Nobody can really pinpoint what exact toxin we so badly need to get rid of, but it needs to go – and quickly.
Detox – The Buzzword of the Decade
The first time I heard the word ‘detox’ was in Medical School when I learned about detox programmes. These medically supervised treatments were designed to help those with life-threatening alcohol and drug addictions.
Fast forward a few years and the word ‘detox’ pops up everywhere. ”10 SIGNS YOUR BODY IS SCREAMING FOR A DETOX” – and similar histrionic headlines, vie to grab our attention. Like ‘superfoods’ – another clever marketing invention – it has been massively hijacked by avaricious individuals and companies. There are now hundreds of detox diets, body wraps, teas, shakes, and juices, often aggressively advertised after known periods of overindulgence – such as Christmas. There are hundreds of books purporting the benefits of DIY juicing. Shampoos and soaps carry detox claims on their packaging, and detox salt baths promise to effectively leech these toxins out of our bodies.
A toxin is any poisonous substance produced by bacteria, animals, or plants.
Detox retreats have also mushroomed out of nowhere, selling us the idea of a ‘total body cleanse’ – a week away, somewhere remote, eating virtually nothing, but priced as much as a small car. One gets the impression that our bodies are crammed full of dangerous toxins that need to be removed, on a regular basis, for us to function optimally. Is there any legitimacy to these claims, or is this another case of hysterical pseudo-science? Do we really need to pop a tube up our back passage to ‘cleanse’ us of nasties that lurk deep within?
These ‘detoxes’ claim to rid the body of poisonous substances that we have ingested or inhaled. For the sake of clarity, let us define the word toxin – a term bandied-about but so rarely defined. A toxin is any poisonous substance produced by bacteria, animals, or plants. This means that a toxin is a biologically produced poison. The word toxin, has therefore been misused by many, to refer to any substance alleged to cause ill health – be it environmental pollution, synthetic chemicals in cosmetics or even artificial sweeteners. These should be referred to as toxicants or poisons because they are not directly of biological origin.
Semantics aside, should we be helping our bodies remove these toxins? In short, no. ‘Detoxes’- commercially packaged poison removers – are indeed just hysterical nonsense.
Healthy bodies are perfectly adapted to dealing with any toxins we may ingest or inhale. Our liver, kidneys, gut, lungs, immune system and skin are constantly protecting us from dangerous intruders. We have exquisite, built-in mechanisms to detoxify and remove waste and toxins. If an infection overwhelms our body’s defenses, then we will get very ill, and to survive, we will need medication, like antibiotics. Ergo, an antibiotic can be argued to be a useful detoxifier.
Many detoxes call for an elimination of dairy, often vilified for causing ‘excessive mucus’. The truth is that there is little evidence that dairy increases mucous production. Furthermore, mucus has an essential protective function, preventing invasion by pathogens. Other detoxes recommend a ‘water only fast’ – not realising that excessive water intake can be dangerous and lead to seizures.
A healthy liver is perfectly able to handle toxins without the need for a cleanse, herb or tincture.
The detoxes that I am referring to in this article are all the bogus, unregulated products, that are relentlessly marketed to the uninformed public. In a healthy body, the aforementioned organs efficiently and effectively deal with any ‘toxins’ and render them harmless until they are excreted normally. The liver is one of our most important organs. It works hard to filter and detoxify the blood. It is also involved in metabolising nutrients and medicines. It is, therefore, the organ that is primarily targeted by these industries. ‘Liver cleanses’ are plentiful and popular. The truth is that a healthy liver is perfectly able to handle toxins without the need for a cleanse, herb or tincture.
Many of these cleanses are promoted as weight loss products, yet not backed by any reliable evidence. If your liver had been damaged by excessive alcohol or infections, ‘liver cleanses’ will not reverse this damage. Avoiding alcohol and treating the infection will.
This brings me back to my ongoing frustration about the advent of reactive medicine, or reactive treatments – as opposed to prevention medicine. There are enormous resources dedicated to finding cures, once a disease has taken hold. Commercial detoxes sell well, not because they work, but because they do not tell you to change your lifestyle. They offer the irresistible idea, that you can eat or drink as much of anything as you want, and once you’re done – or feeling bloated or guilty, you can ‘undo the damage’. Simple.
We ought to be promoting preventive, not reactive medicine.
The ideology of preventive medicine is often perceived as unorthodox, even regressive. In my opinion, the smartest thing we can do to avoid disease or toxins for that matter is prevention. This is exactly why I chose to practice Lifestyle Medicine.
I recently discovered that in the UK, we are spending more per year, on treating obesity and diabetes, than on the fire service, judicial system, and police combined. Type 2 Diabetes, largely a lifestyle disease, costs the NHS 10 billion pounds a year. We now know that a poor diet is the single biggest contributor to chronic metabolic disease. Yet instead of being encouraged to adopt a real food diet and healthy lifestyle, we are being persuaded to detox.
Toxins – How they Get In
Toxins (as I will choose to call them, for the purposes of this article) can be classified as being introduced into the body via three main routes. Inhaled, ingested or applied.
Environmental pollution and cigarette smoke take centre stage here. The latter we can definitely do something about. Stop smoking. Environmental pollution is trickier to avoid, and we now know that inner cities have higher rates of respiratory disease. We can try to avoid chemical cleaning products and synthetic fragrances. Legislation also works by enforcing the reduction of particle pollution from vehicles and by banning certain environmental pollutants.
Our food and drink can either by the best form of medicine or the slowest form of poison. Avoiding processed food, excess sugars and artificial additives is a great start. As is trying to consume as much organic produce as possible. For example, sugar is a dose-dependent hepatotoxin (liver toxin) – as is alcohol. Our livers can happily handle a little of either, but too much and we’re in trouble. In fact, excess fructose can cause almost exact damage to the liver as excess alcohol – just without the buzz.
Many do not realise that much of what we place on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream. Consider the use of nicotine or hormone patches. Minerals like magnesium, are absorbed through the skin when we soak in an Epsom Salt bath.
Most soaps, shampoos, and lotions contain a vast array of chemicals. I do not claim to understand them all, but I would be very wary of applying vast quantities of them on my skin or hair. A good piece of advice is to try to get the best and most natural ingredients, in products that you have a lot of exposure to, such as body lotion and sunscreen.
Detox Done – Now What?
Most people do not have a healthy plan of action once a detox is over. If you drink clear soup for a week, you will lose weight. But this has naught to do with the detox. This is water loss from having mobilised glucose (glycogen) stores. Resume ‘normal’ eating and the weight piles back on. Following a colonic irrigation – assuming they managed not to puncture your intestines – you will eat as usual and the colon will soon be re-filled with waste. Then what?
Here’s my take. The best thing you can do for your liver and other organs is to stop consuming these ‘toxins’ in the first place, as described above. If you completely eliminate your exposure to these toxins, then there would be no need to detox. This is impossible in real life, but you should still do what you can. Avoid processed food, moderate your alcohol intake, drink enough water, get enough sleep, stop smoking and clean out the chemicals from your home.
Detoxing should not be promoted as an antidote to an unhealthy lifestyle.
Leave your liver and other organs well alone. They have never, and will never, need your assistance in doing the jobs that they are designed to do. They need you to stop making them work overtime, by paying attention to what you inhale, ingest or apply. These charlatan companies selling you ‘quick-fix’ detox products are preying on your fears. If you had accumulated enough toxins to overwhelm your built-in defenses, you would be dead.
It is true that some ingredients in ‘liver cleanses’, such as milk thistle and turmeric, have been shown to reduce liver inflammation and injury. But my point is that, while these herbs and spices are unlikely to cause harm, it seems to me much wiser to avoid causing the injury to the liver in the first place. Furthermore, they should not be promoted as an antidote to an unhealthy lifestyle.
Your body is exquisitely more effective at dealing with toxins than your green juice. The idea that your liver or indeed any of your organs need to be purged of impurities is a ridiculous, expensive scam. There is no known way, to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body, work better.