‘Detox’ – it’s a term loosely thrown around in the health space. Perhaps you may have heard it along with juice cleanses, detox teas, colonics and the like. But are they good for you? And will they give you the results you want? Let’s delve deeper, discover what a ‘detox’ really means, and look at what the science says.
The Short Answer
Those colourful, expensive juice bottles look healthy don’t they? And if all the hollywood stars and trend-obsessed influencers do detoxes then surely a detox must be good for you, right?!
Well the short answer is – maybe. But if at all, very minimally. It ultimately depends on the nature of the detox. And beware the risks.
As the now infamous article in The Guardian in 2015 states “Detoxing – the idea of being able to flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go – is a scam. It’s a psuedo-medical concept designed to sell you things …”
Detox – what does it actually mean?
There’s no universal definition of what ‘detox’ or ‘cleansing’ really means. In medical terms, detoxification is the act of the removal of toxic waste materials in the body. This occurs everyday as a protective mechanism from toxins. Toxins are small molecules, peptides, or proteins capable of causing disease that we either ingest or inhale. The various organs in the body, such as the liver, kidneys, and skin break down the toxins and are excreted when you sweat and when you use the toilet. Hence, the body detoxes itself without the need for commonly advertised ‘detox’ gimmicks.
It is also worth pointing out that almost everything is toxic at some level. That means that in reality it isn’t so easy to say something is “toxic” or “non-toxic.” So, what is really toxic for the body? And in what amount? Here’s two examples of what I mean. Overconsumption of Vitamin A can lead to problems like headaches, drowsiness and more. But in relatively low amounts Vitamin A is essential to our health, and especially our vision. Phytochemicals that are found naturally in plants can be toxic to the liver, kidney and intenstine if taken in high doses. In normal doses though, they are celebrated for their anti-cancer and health-protecting properties. So, in relatively small amounts, many toxins can not only be processed easily by the body, but are actually good for us. Things are not as black and white as many would lead us to believe.
The main point, though, is that the body “cleanses” itself. So the idea of effectively detoxing your body through some other way is a myth.
So why do people want to detox?
Many people feel that their lifestyle isn’t as balanced and healthy as it should be. It is true that the over consumption of alcohol, smoke, sugar, smog, medications and chemicals could lead to higher levels of toxins in the body. This leads to a lowering of your body’s natural self-defense mechanisms, and a higher potential risk of disease. So, the theory of giving the body a break and having a health reboot is a good one.
Others embark on a detox plan with the aim of losing weight.
In our experience though, many people also detox out of some guilt-ridden logic. They fall for the marketing hype without understanding that the best way to “detox” the body is to ramp up your natural detoxification systems and NOT to bypass them altogether as you do when you’re on a detox diet.
So when we hear a friend feeling proud of herself for going on a ‘detox’ right before Chinese New Year or a wedding, we cringe a little inside. Actually, a lot.
The lesson here – beware of many marketing ‘detox’ gimmicks that promise ‘quick and easy’ weight loss, or a ‘total body reset’. Here’s what really happens.
Does a ‘quick and easy’ detox exist?
Detoxing to lose body fat doesn’t work. When you go on a juice cleanse, what happens is that the initial weight loss you experience is from water weight and intestinal bulk. The weight that you have ‘lost’ will come back when you resume your regular eating habits. And if you adopt a prolonged approach you’ll start to lose muscle mass which is essential for improved metabolic functioning and a healthy bone density. Read our free guide on how to get toned for more on this.
In a study by the University of Colorado, subjects who undertook a 3 day commercial detox plan were seen to have improvements in the gut microbiome (the good bacteria in the gut). However, the levels returned to their previous state after 10 days. This illustrates that the effects of the ‘detoxing’ was only temporary.
Then there is colonic irrigation (or now often rebranded to “colonic hydrotherapy”) where proponents argue that plaques can lurk and get trapped in your colon leading to unhealthy build up of toxins. In response tens of litres of filtered water are used to flush the colon. There is no scientific proof to this as a review of 20 studies by medics at Georgetown University School of Medicine reported. And let’s not forget the risk of a perforated bowel!
‘Wait, I have a friend who felt great after a detox/cleanse!’
We are not arguing that someone may feel great after a detox. But why is that the case? Is the lightness he/she feels just the loss of water and intestinal bulk that will come back? Is it the placebo effect? Or, is it because during the course of the ‘detox’, he or she may have opted for healthier wholefood options and transitioned temporarily away from a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle choices whilst being on the ‘detox’. Think about the effectiveness in the long run, as the science is pretty clear on this!
The good, bad and the ugly
Some detoxes will encourage you to eat more of beneficial nutritious foods, whilst at the same time cutting out things that are good to have a break from and to have in moderation – like caffeine, alcohol, gluten and diary. As proponents of clean eating we encourage this. And for some a ‘detox’ can be as much about the mental, emotional and spiritual, as much as the physical health side of a detox. Again, this is a good thing. Escaping the autopilot of our urban lifestyles of processed food, mental stress, busyness, devices and a lack of spiritual awareness can only be good. But make sure you don’t make the decision to ‘detox’ out of ignorance, guilt or under the influence of savvy marketers.
Detoxes often move you away from eating a balanced variety of food and lead you towards an overdose of certain food types eg. juices. As a result, you are not feeding your body with adequate amounts of important nutrients, especially protein, fibre and essential healthy fats. Instead you will likely be drinking A LOT of sugar and this can lead to negative side-effects like feeling weak, sluggish and dizzy, rather than anything beneficial.
In many cases your “cleansing diet” may ironically just be reducing the effectiveness of the body’s natural detoxing ability. Plus they’re often inconvenient. Ironically, in some cases, you may put more work into detoxing in the short term, compared to just improving your base nutrition.
Detox diets may cause major swings in blood sugar which can be dangerous for people with diabetes, and potentially risk for others. They can leave your body working overtime to deal with the nitrates from all the fruit and vegetable juice. And they can also be tough on your GI (gastro intenstinal) tract because they contain very little fibre which the body uses as a cleanser and in the absorption of nutrients. Just as importantly though, in our experience, many detoxes often swing the pendulum too far. They can create the cycle of restrictive eating and deprivation. For the same reason as we don’t like “cheat days’, we worry that for many people detoxes can reinforce an unhealthy dieter mentality. You don’t need to punish yourself to be healthy.
How to always be on a ‘detox’
The debunking of detox myths demonstrates that there are better ways to reset your body after a lot of indulgence. And, of course, better ways to be healthy. Our amazing body is a natural detoxing machine. This means that the best way is to support your body’s natural detoxing ability with how you live and eat. You don’t need to do anything radical.
So here’s some tips to cleansing your beautiful body, without the extremes.
1. Nourish your body with clean eating
Treat your body well to help it to maintain its regular detoxification system. Consuming a healthy diet and drinking adequate amounts of water is a simple way to achieve this.
2. Eat the Rainbow
Whilst not scientifically proven, the principle of eating a balance of different coloured foods is still a good one. It will help ensure you have a diet which is full of variety of essential nutrients. From leafy greens, to vibrantly coloured vegetables and fruits. Eat plenty of plant based foods and whole foods, and choose organic options where possible.
3. Stay Fit
Be active and move your body. Less body fat means less space for storage of potential harmful chemicals in your body and as you exercise and sweat you’ll be naturally detoxing!
4. Get out in Nature
Walking in sunshine and among nature is one of the best ways to detox your body, mind and soul. At the same time, if that can involve no electronic gadgets (a ‘digital detox’) then all the better we say.
5. Be aware of what you put on your skin
Our skin is our largest organ and absorbs a lot of harmful chemicals. In turn, your blood stream circulates these chemicals. If you want to reduce the burden of chemicals in your body, be conscious of the skin products you use.
Health isn’t only about physical wellness but emotional and mental wellness too. So take care of yourself overall. Get plenty of rest, cultivate happiness in your life and find ways to cope with stress. As you know, the mind and body are closely linked. So, give your body the best chance to do what it is designed to do – detoxify itself.