Do detox plans work?


Short answer? No.

“But I feel better after a detox!” you might say.

Of course you do. You’ve avoided junk food and other unhealthy foods for several days or weeks. Your body is thrilled. This does not mean you’ve rid yourself of unwanted substances.

Detox claims

Various so-called “detox” products and diets claim to accomplish many different things (sometimes all at once), the most common of which tend to revolve around boosting the immune system, increasing energy, and/or promoting weight loss. The one claim they all have in common, as evidenced by the presence of the words “detox” and/or “cleanse” in their selected names, is that such diets or products will rid your body of some (or all) toxins that have accumulated in various tissues over the years.

The product being touted, be it a pill, shake, drink, diet, skin pad, or electronic contraption, is supposed to locate the silent killers in your body and escort them out via urine, faeces, or sweat. Together, these products and services amount to a multibillion dollar industry worldwide that dupes people into spending money that would be better spent on learning how to eat healthy, well rounded diets and engaging in more physical activities on a regular basis.

Dosage

We inhale, ingest, and absorb (through the skin) hundreds of different chemicals every day. Whether or not these chemicals are toxic to us depends on dosage, either at the time of exposure, or after years of accumulation in the body. I can’t stress this point enough: dosage is everything and any chemical, natural or man made, from ascorbic acid to zinc, can be toxic if enough of it is absorbed or accumulated. Heck, water can kill you if you drink too much at once.

It is very unlikely that any food item purchased in industrialized nations such as the US and Canada contains toxic doses of any chemical given that our food supply is fairly well controlled. Sure, there may be a mishap now and then, but this is the exception, not the rule. Thus, it is the slow accumulation of small amounts of unwanted chemicals in the body that detox and cleansing programs usually target, but fail to actually remove.

What happens to all the unwanted stuff we take in?

Except in cases of overdose (poisoning), harmful chemicals are usually blocked from harming the body by natural barriers such as the gastrointestinal (GI) system, lungs, and skin (1). Those which sometimes break through these barriers are excreted with the help of the liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system (more than half the tissue of which surrounds the digestive tract)(1). These systems work together to eliminate threats to the body and do a great job of it in the absence of disease – if cirrhosis is present, for example, the liver will have a hard time doing its job. Thus, unless you have been diagnosed with something which directly involves these systems, most substances that pose a threat to your health will be eliminated with or without any added help (1).

Although some of the chemicals commonly used to control pests in our food supply stick around the body for a while, they generally do so in insignificant doses, or for less time than it is necessary for them to cause significant harm. There are some exceptions, of course, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). You may have heard of POPs as the “dirty dozen”. These include DDT and other chemicals that were predominantly used in manufacturing of various items, as well as in food production (particularly as pesticides), a few decades ago when we didn’t know any better. Their use has been outlawed in most countries, with some limited use (such as the use of DDT to fight malaria) still allowed in certain circumstances. Although they are no longer in use today, they are still around in our environment, left over from their heyday. If present in your body, no diet, shake, pill, foot pad, foot bath, colon irrigation, or any other means of so-called “detoxification” method is going to help you rid yourself of them. You simply have to wait them out and hope they aren’t doing too much damage while they’re camping out in your body. Most will, eventually, surpass their respective points of half-life and begin to slowly disappear on their own before you do.

If you are concerned about the presence of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fumigants, hormonal growth promoters, anthelmintics (used to control internal parasites in farm animals), and antibiotics in your food, then, a change in mind-set is needed: rather than looking for ways to “cleanse” yourself of these things, look, instead, for ways to avoid exposure to them in the first place. If you smoke and agree that smoking is bad for your health, do you look for things that can help your lungs cope with your habit, or do you concentrate instead on ways to help yourself quit smoking?

Which foods contain the most unwanted substances?

Animal foods. If you’re veg*an, you have very little to worry about since the amount of unwanted chemicals you ingest by consuming non-organic, conventional plant foods pales in comparison to what you would be ingesting if you were eating animals.

Animals are higher on the food chain than plants and their products. The higher up the food chain we go, the higher the concentrations of unwanted substances we find. For instance, predatory fish (i.e. tuna, salmon, sword fish) have higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh than plant eaters (i.e. sardines). Such harmful substances accumulate primarily in muscle tissue and organs (some set up camp in fatty tissues). The less animals you eat, the less likely it is you will ingest and accumulate questionable chemicals in meaningful amounts. Of course, regardless of dietary choices, we must still breathe and live surrounded by plastics and other man made materials, so, resistance to exposure is… well… futile.

What about the sludge sticking to the inside of my intestines? Will diet or colonic irrigation get rid of that?

There is no sludge. I will happily state otherwise (and eat my husband’s hat) if anyone can show me footage from a colonoscopy that shows this sludge hanging out inside the colon or anywhere else in the GI tract for that matter.

How can I boost or stimulate my liver, kidneys, lymphatic system?

You can’t. You can avoid taxing them unnecessarily (for instance, don’t drink alcohol to excess), but you can’t “boost” them into performing beyond their limitations. If their performance is diminished, medical intervention is very likely needed, since this implies something is wrong (kidney disease, liver disease).

Bottom line

Don’t waste your money and don’t torture yourself with bad tasting concoctions or invasive and uncomfortable procedures. Your body “detoxes” itself just fine and the stuff it can’t get rid of on its own is not going to be removed by special diets, products, or visits to the local colonic irrigation shop. Avoid exposure within reason, eat less, or no animal products, and save the stress for things that truly are worth worrying about… like healthcare reform.

References

  1. Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy. MO: Saunders-Elsevier; 2008.
  2. Lasky T, Sun W, Kadry A, Hoffman MK. Mean total arsenic concentrations in chicken 1989 – 2000 and estimated exposures for consumers of chicken. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2004:112(1):18-21.
  3. Leeman WR, Van Den Berg KJ, Houben GF. Transfer of chemicals from feed to animal products: the use of transfer factors in risk assessment. Food Additives and Contaminants, 2007:24(1):1-13.
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