5 myths about detoxification
Myth #1 - A detox diet will reset my system
It is pretty common to hear health-conscious people say “I’m doing a detox”. However there is no research showing that a ‘juice cleanse’, ‘detox diet’ or ‘liver flush’ is effective in removing toxins from the body. Claims that liquid diets can somehow push out toxins are unsubstantiated.
Interestingly, people often report feeling healthier and more energised after doing one of these detox diets. The true reason behind this feeling may actually come from caloric restriction, rather than from downing all that vegetable juice.
Restricting calories or intermittent fasting allows your digestive system to rest and is known to improve insulin sensitivity(1). Recent research has demonstrated that fasting may slow the aging process and provide a preventative effect for cancer. This is because it triggers autophagy (cell death) of damaged cells, which has been shown in a number of organs including the liver(2). With a growing body of evidence supporting the many benefits of caloric restriction, perhaps in the future instead of hearing “I’m doing a detox” we will hear “I’m doing a fast”.
Myth #2 - We need special products for detoxification
Special tonics, detox scrubs or cleansing teas are all cited as essential items you need to remove toxins from your body. Unfortunately this idea is not supported by the research(3). Detoxing is big business, and most of these products overlook the power of your own internal detoxification system, which is governed by the kidneys and liver.
Your kidneys contain about a million filtering units called nephrons, which filter your blood at an astounding rate of 7-8 litres per hour. This process takes place around-the-clock, all day, every day. Meanwhile the liver runs critical detoxification pathways. Phase I is our first line of defence against toxins that we may have ingested, while phase II neutralises by-products created in the first stage of detoxification(4). Phase III detoxification involves transport of the now water-soluble compounds from our cells(5).
Under normal circumstances your organs do a pretty good job of filtering and eliminating most toxins from your body. Supporting you body with a healthy diet and lifestyle means you should not need outside help to detoxify and remove harmful chemicals.
Some compromised people do carry a huge burden and would benefit from additional support in this area. Lab testing and guidance from a medical practitioner or health coach can assist with re-balancing hormones such as estrogen, reducing toxic by-products from gut infections or heavy metal detoxification including mercury.
Myth #3 - We should avoid all toxins and live clean and toxin-free
The internet is awash with info about toxin-free and chemical-free living, which is simply not possible if you plan to live, breathe, eat and drink. Instead we like to focus on reducing exposure to harmful chemicals in your diet and environment.
Some everyday swaps you can implement to reduce your toxicant exposure:
- Switching to stainless steel drinking bottles instead of using single use plastic bottles to reduce your bisphenol-A (BPA) exposure. (Also bear in mind that BPA-free plastics usually contain other forms of bisphenol which may be just as harmful).
- Filtering your water to reduce your exposure to fluoride and chlorine (we wrote more about this on our blog about hydration).
- Choose organic foods wherever possible to reduce pesticide exposure
Myth #4 - Toxins are all nasty synthetic products created in a lab
Often the things we think of as 'toxins' are not toxins at all. A toxin is a poisonous substance produced within living cells or organisms - toxins can include harmful bacteria, and often come from plant-based sources. Toxins found in vegetables include lectins found in potatoes and other nightshades, or oxalates found green leafy veg such as chard or spinach.
The BPA found in some plastics is a good example of a harmful chemical which is not actually a toxin, since it is made by a synthetic process rather than an organic one. Anything synthetic or human-made should technically be described as a harmful chemical or toxicant instead.
Myth #5 Colonic irrigation can remove non-specific toxins from the body
A systematic review of the published evidence on colonic irrigation found there was no research to support colonic cleansing(6). Unfortunately there are also risks involved in this process, including bowel perforation and infection.
Wondering what you can try instead? One complementary therapy that is showing solid evidence is sauna use. A recent study which spanned a 20 year period linked sauna use with longevity(7). However this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are sweating out toxins. While there is evidence that we can sweat out small amounts of heavy metals and BPA in our sweat, most toxins are excreted via the bowels or urinary tract.
So if it’s not the sweat, why is sauna use so good for us? The research has shown that frequent sauna use induces the production of heat shock proteins in your body, which prevent and repair damage in your cells (particularly after being exposed to toxicants). Heat stress from the sauna also stimulates blood flow to the muscles, skin and heart, and has been shown to increase endurance and provide neurological benefits(8).
How can I detox my body?
The good news is that you don’t need to perform a strict detox diet to support your body in removing toxins and harmful chemicals. Instead, the first step is to focus on reducing exposure or eliminating harmful chemicals where you can. For some people, fasting and sauna use may be worth further investigation (and always do this under the guidance of a health practitioner). Getting the basics right including great sleep, regular exercise and hydrating well will also greatly support your body’s natural detoxification process and contribute to your overall wellbeing.
If you are concerned about detoxification, we recommend diagnostic testing so you know what you are dealing with. We offer non-invasive testing for heavy metal toxicity, and can provide a liver detoxification profile to ensure your liver is functioning well. Get in touch on our health coaching page if you would like to find out more.
1. Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes
2. Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications
3. For more information on this also see the ‘Detox Dossier’ produced by UK charity Sense about Science.
4. Liver Detoxification Pathways
5. Emerging Roles of Nrf2 and Phase II Antioxidant Enzymes in Neuroprotection
6. Review | Published: 01 September 2009 Clinical Effects of Colonic Cleansing for General Health Promotion: A Systematic Review
7. Sauna use associated with reduced risk of cardiac, all-cause mortality
8. Dr Rhonda Patrick (YouTube) - How Sauna Use May Boost Longevity