The only thing a detox will cleanse is your wallet

Don't fall for the meaningless buzzword

Detoxing (or body cleansing) is a health movement supposedly designed to rid your body of the nasty toxins that are everywhere. Various products exist that claim to remove the dreaded toxins from your body. Naturopaths are people who will provide detox diets to simultaneously get rid of toxins and money. “Following a simple detoxifying diet for a week will help your body to rid itself of accumulated toxins, rebalance itself and run more efficiently,” according to naturopath Kate Troup in the Daily Mail. Don’t read too much into that quote. A naturopath is someone who works with homeopathy, acupuncture, and detoxing, so they get paid for contributing next to nothing.

What is detox?

Defining detox is actually a big problem. The first issue is that there is such a thing as real detoxification. For example, when someone goes into a detox program to aid alcoholism recovery. As with many pseudosciences and alternative medicines, nonsense detoxification piggybacks on the real thing to seem more legit.

The other issue is that naturopaths and companies selling detoxifying products all define detoxification whatever way they want. In 2009 Voice of Young Science (VoYS), a part of the wonderful Sense about Science charity, published a report looking at the claims made by several detoxification manufacturers. They looked at diet supplements, gadgets, and even hair straighteners that claimed to detox various parts of your body. No two companies defined it the same way. The toothbrush that detoxes your teeth? It brushes your teeth. The hair straighteners that detox your hair? They straighten your hair. For many manufacturers, “detox” has become a marketing buzzword with no real meaning.

There is a more accepted definition when we’re talking about naturopaths and detox diets. Our bodies apparently accumulate toxins because of our horrible diets and behaviours. A detox diet is comprised of lovely, clean, natural foods that help our bodies remove the toxins thus keeping us healthy. It’s a nice picture but obviously absurd for many reasons including biology. What does a detox diet look like? Well some involve fasting. Others only allow natural foods (sadly no supernatural foods included) and others restrict the entire diet to a specific thing like nuts. And there’s a whole market for people who want to put things up their bum to clean out their bodies. What a time to be alive.

The reality

It’s a scam. It’s difficult to decide where to begin when discussing the efficacy of detoxing. The general idea is that it cleans toxins from your body. By using detox products and diets, your organs will be free of chemicals that could keep them unhealthy. Fortunately they won’t really be free of chemicals because everything is made of chemicals. Beware the marketing tactic of being against chemicals.

What exactly are the toxins that we should be worried about? Nobody knows. They’re just toxins. And they’re really bad. The advantage of not defining what these poisonous chemicals are is that pesky scientists can’t measure them. If we could measure the toxins, we could easily test detox treatments to see if they reduce the number of toxins.

Of course it’s true that nasty things get into our bodies all the time but we have specialised organs that naturally detox our bodies anyway. The kidneys, the liver, even our skin work hard to keep us safe. They do a damn good job, which shouldn’t be surprising after so many millions of years of evolution. If they didn’t do the job, we would die. If your organs aren’t keeping your insides clean you don’t need a detox diet, you need to be hospitalised.

Detox tools (the techniques, not the people)

We’ve already mentioned diets, supplements, and hair straighteners that will apparently clean your body of unidentifiable toxins that your organs are somehow incapable of handling. There is no limit to the tools that can be sold as detoxing. There are teas, spa days, massages, face masks, and yoga classes that will finally cleanse your body in ways your rubbish organs wish they could. Some of these products do nothing out of the ordinary, relying on the placebo effect and recommendations from outspoken medical experts like Gwyneth Paltrow. Others use dishonest tactics to keep people coming back. There are detoxing foot pads that turn brown when the material reacts with sweat, but the manufacturers claim the colour change is the mystery toxins leaving your body.

One of the most absurd tools to detox your body is colonic irrigation. Apparently our faeces get stuck in our intestines sometimes and solidify into dangerous plaques allowing toxins to be reabsorbed into the body. The way to deal with this is to stick a hose up your bum and wash out the entire intestine with water. Sometimes the water contains herbs or coffee because why not? If it’s good enough for Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio then it’s surely good enough for us mere mortals, right? The solidified poo plaques share an interesting property with the toxins: they don’t exist.

Legitimate detox?

Detoxification is a real thing when the medical word is used properly. If the alcohol we drank remained in our bodies we would be in big trouble. Fortunately our liver takes the alcohol and breaks it down into acetaldehyde before breaking it down further into water and carbon dioxide. The acetaldehyde is quite nasty and can damage the liver, but it’s broken down so quickly it’s not a problem. Serious alcoholism can put so much stress on the liver that it can’t process acetaldehyde fast enough, meaning there’s more time to damage liver cells before it’s removed.

Recovery from alcoholism and liver damage doesn’t involve fasting, magic hair straighteners, or eating nothing but beans. It requires cutting down on alcohol so the liver has time to recover. Your liver is at its best when you do have a bit of alcohol now and then rather than none, so drinking in moderation is always recommended.

Most of us don’t suffer from extreme alcoholism but your liver deals with molecules that aren’t great for you all the time and deals with them accordingly. Detox believers describe the liver as a filter of sorts that catches toxins. Like all filters they can get clogged up, so once in a while we need a cleanse to keep them running. This isn’t how the liver works. It doesn’t catch and store toxins, it constantly breaks them down and safely transports them to the urine to be removed by the body. The liver is literally self-cleaning. No celebrity diet improves the process.

The idea that our organs need this periodic cleansing comes from traditions hundreds of years ago when we thought diseases were caused by toxic buildup inside our bodies. We’ve known this to be untrue for over a hundred years but that doesn’t stop the charlatans naturopaths from lining their pockets.

Safety

Nonsense detox products and services don’t just risk your wallet; they also risk your health. As with homeopathy, even the most seemingly innocent alternative medicines can kill because of their very nature as alternatives to medical treatments. Any treatment that’s an alternative to medicine has the potential to result in an alternative to health. If you have serious problems with your intestines, you need a doctor. Sticking coffee up your rear end will not cure any disease. Indeed, it will probably makes things worse. Firing an espresso up your bum can cause septicemia, rectal perforation and even death.

It’s not just a cappuccino up the keister that can be harmful; the detox diets can be dangerous too as some don’t give your body all the nutrients it needs to function properly. A famous example is Dawn Page, who was put on The Amazing Hydration Diet by her nutritionist Barbara Nash. She drank obscene amounts of water and more or less cut salt from her diet altogether. Sadly lots of water plus no salt equals hyponatraemia. She soon began vomiting as her body tried to fight what was happening. Instead of sending her to a doctor, the nutritionist said vomiting was normal for this detox diet and urged her to continue. Page then had a seizure that damaged parts of the brain involved in speech and memory.

Any medical professional would have seen Page’s problems coming but people who peddle detox diets are rarely medically trained. According to medical professionals and scientists, the ultimate diet to keep your body healthy is a balanced one. Eat your fruit and veg, get some protein, consume fat and salts in moderation. If you stop eating entirely then you might feel proud of the squeaky clean organs you hope to possess but at the end of the day you’re starving yourself for no reason.

If you fall for the detox buzzword on product packaging and naturopath leaflets then you’re not cleansing your body; you’re cleansing your wallet and perhaps putting your health at risk in the process.


Main image © iStock/kawizen