Does detoxing really work?
Detox: the term is everywhere. But what exactly does it mean? When we cut through the buzz and the fad hipster diets – quinoa and paprika smoothie anyone? – detoxing actually sounds like a fairly sensible concept. The act of removing toxic substances from our bodies can only be a good thing, right? Well sure. But how you go about this has a great bearing on the results you are likely to achieve.
The problem with any “diet” or “lifestyle fad” that fast gains popularity is that deciphering the real science from the non-science (or “nonsense”) is not all that easy.
So we looked into the concept of detoxing to determine which of the claims – weight loss, improved mental health, better digestion, increased energy levels – have any merit:
Common types of detox
The term detox doesn’t refer to a particular diet; rather, it is more of an eating regime designed with the intention of encouraging the body to expel the toxins within. There are, of course, many ways in which people try to do this – just as there are many reasons behind their doing so.
Some choose to detox after a sustained period of unhealthy living, post-holiday time, or following a vacation where far too much alcohol was consumed, for example. Others do so as a means to lose weight in the short term. We would even venture to guess that some even do so to appear on trend – following the latest fad publicised by Madonna or Beyoncé, for instance.
Indeed, the type of detox one follows depends very much on the intended outcome. So let’s take a look at a few of the more popular detox plans (and let’s be clear this is just a sample, as there are far too many out there to cover all of them) and what they claim to deliver.
Juicing: Far and away the most popular type of detox diet – as anyone with an Instagram account can attest – Juicing is essentially a way to pack your diet full of vitamins and minerals by replacing some or all of your solid food intake with, for the most part, specially blended fruit and vegetable juices. Many juice detoxes – of which there are hundreds – claim that the diet aids weight loss, improves the immune system, and boosts brain health. Juicing can take many forms, with the more extreme involving only juicing (that is, taking in no other form of food) for a fixed number of days (usually no more than a week); while others can be longer term – up to a month or more – and usually involve the combining of the juice regimen with lighter eating.
Gut (or colon) cleansing is based on the theory that undigested foods such as meat and vegetable matter contribute to mucus build-up in the colon, which in turn produces toxins. When these toxins are not eliminated, the theory goes that they re-enter the bloodstream through the wall of the gut, “poisoning” the body in the process. Once again, there are many different types of colon cleanses, though they typically involve the consumption of water, fibre, herbal teas and supplements to flush the colon clean. Some also choose to undertake colonic irrigation to achieve the desired effect. As well as aiding digestion, gut cleansing is said to offer many of the same benefits of juicing – boosting the immune system, improving mental health, and aiding weight loss.
As our livers play a vital role in eliminating toxins from our bodies, it stands to reason that detox dieters would focus their efforts here. The thinking behind liver cleansing is that this key organ can become overloaded or even blocked up with waste products if not cleansed on a regular basis. Liver detoxing therefore tends to incorporate a diet rich in foods full of healthy fats – such as salmon, avocados, and olive oil – along with plenty of vegetables and poultry to “flush” the liver of harmful waste products. Some of the more extreme liver cleansing detoxes suggest adding medications or supplements such as magnesium, ginger, and milk thistle which can aid with liver function.
Also known as the “Lemonade Diet”, the Master Cleanse is one of the most controversial – and potentially harmful – detoxes that’s currently in vogue. The Master Cleanse is a liquid-only diet consisting of only three “foods”: Over a ten-day period, the “cleanser” is instructed to drink four cups of salt water in the morning and a herbal laxative at night, along with six to 12 glasses of a lemonade-type drink (made up of fresh lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water) throughout the day. Unsurprisingly given its alarmingly low-calorie intake, the biggest claim made by this particular diet is weight loss. It's not one that I recommend to my clients.
Does it work?
This really depends first and foremost on the type of detox you are referring to, and secondly on how we gauge effectiveness. For example, does the Master Cleanse work in aiding weight loss? Of course! With such a low nutritional intake, you’ll almost certainly lose weight. However, you’ll also likely be losing vital nutrients and muscle mass if you keep at it too long. What’s more, any weight loss is only going to be temporary if you go back to a way of eating that led to you carrying too many pounds in the first place.
And what about the “detoxing” side of things? After all, the name implies what this is supposed to be all about, so does this actually help to eliminate toxins from the body? Before answering that, we should point out that the liver and the colon already do a rather excellent job of detoxing our bodies. The colon, for example, is able to detoxify waste food; and the mucus membranes throughout the gut are already a solid defence against harmful matter re-entering the bloodstream. What’s more, one of the liver’s primary functions is to of course neutralise toxins.
So the question is really about whether detoxing can aid with these functions. And it seems that the “responsible” detoxing plans can. Some liver cleanse detoxes, for example, indeed appear to aid liver function, and because this particular type of cleanse is rich in all sorts of healthy foods such as fish, fruit, veg, and healthy fats, there is no risky reduction in food intake as the body continues to get those vital nutrients it needs (in other words, here you are basically eating what I would call a very healthy and complete diet anyway, which is what good nutrition should always be about).
And as mentioned above, supplements are often added to detox diets to help with the effects. The one I already listed, milk thistle, is for instance shown to have some pretty powerful effects in promoting the growth of liver cells, fighting oxidation, and potentially blocking toxins from entering the membrane (that said, supplements must always be taken with great care and never without doing thorough research and preferably consulting your physician first).
As for juicing, what must be put into perspective here is that yes, it is a great way to guarantee we get a good burst of vitamins, but the main health benefits of only juicing come out of what is not eaten. That is, because most of us are eating too many grains, sugars, and processed foods, by switching to a juice-only diet for a few days we give ourselves a break from that. But we also give our bodies a break from countless vital food sources that we need for healthy functioning. So my final word on juicing? Add it to a healthy, Paleo-type diet, but don’t go full juice.
Should you detox?
Er, not really. Nutrition-wise, one message should be communicated above all others: There are goods way of eating, and then there is everything else. And if you do the “everything else”, which most people reading this probably do, then you need to start by eliminating all those bad foods before even considering the “add ons” such as detoxing or fasting or etc.
Essentially, if you wish to eat foods that promote liver or gut health, terrific. But this must happen alongside a healthy balanced diet. In other words, take the positive elements of the detox ethos and apply them to an already healthy nutritional lifestyle. Because, truly, the best way to prevent damage to our bodies as a result of toxins is to avoid bad foods in the first place. If you wish to avoid toxicity in the gut – or leaky gut syndrome – then avoid the sugars, the grains, and the processed foods that are the likely cause of that damage.
We can keep it all very simple by just sticking to a healthy balanced diet of natural foods such as meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, and healthy oils, is everything the body requires, and this way of eating eliminates the need to cleanse or detox the vital organs.
Consistent eating all year round – not just post-holiday or after that binge weekend – would solve about 90 percent of the health issues many countries are battling with today. We all just need to remember the following three words when it comes to our health: Prevention, prevention, and prevention.
The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International.