If you’re having trouble losing weight and keeping it off…
If you’re battling hunger and cravings…
If you want to “reset” your system after a period of poor health habits…
Or if you generally just feel like crap…
You might find yourself seriously considering some sort of “detox diet.”
The yoga girl swears by a 3-day water cleanse. The smiley doctor guy says a juice diet can give you a shiny new liver. The raw food weirdo gushes about the wonders of eating everything uncooked. And don’t get me started about the Instagram “models” smugly posing with their green smoothies and kale chips.
The more you look, the more cleanses and detox programs you find, with each one apparently better than the last.
The problem, however, is all of them are missing the forest for the trees.
While it’s true your body is regularly exposed to a wide variety of toxic substances, and while some of them are particularly nasty and can accumulate in body fat, there’s no evidence that trendy “cleanses” and “detox diets” help mitigate the damage or rid the body of toxins.
That is, yes, your body has a certain amount of harmful chemicals deposited in its fat stores, but no, drinking a bunch of lemonade for a week isn’t going to do anything about it.
Now, before we get into the details and science of toxins and detoxification, I want to give you a bit of good news.
If you’re struggling to lose weight or prevent weight gain, your problems have nothing to do with toxins.
There are really only a handful of reasons you’re wrestling with your weight and the solutions are quite simple.
If your hunger and appetite feels out of control, you’re probably under-eating, eating the “wrong” types of foods, or over-exercising.
Many people wanting to lose weight fall into the trap of eating too little and exercising too much, and this is a recipe for metabolic disaster. Their hearts are in the right place but their strategies are doomed to fail.
Another common mistake people make is they eat too many foods that are high in calories but low in satiety (fullness). The worst are caloric beverages but there are plenty other “healthy” foods that fit the bill like butter, cream, and oils (and foods that contain high amounts of them), as well as foods with a lot of added sugar.
The reality is there’s no such thing as a “weight loss food,” but some foods are better for losing weight than others because of nutritional value, energy density, and satiety.
If you’re feeling guilty about bingeing or under-sleeping or over-stressing or any other unhealthy escapades, there are much better ways to feel better than doing a “cleanse.”
So you overate for a bit and gained some fat. Big deal. Get back on track an undo it.
So you slept too little and burned the candle at both ends for too long. Take some simple steps to improve your sleep hygiene and destress and your body will bounce back.
The point is a fad diet or cleanse isn’t a panacea. It might give you the fuzzy feeling that you’re “making amends” for your transgressions but it’s not doing anything special physiologically.
If you generally just feel crappy, it’s time to take a serious look at your lifestyle, not cut back on sugar and caffeine for a week.
Let’s face it: us Americans are fatter, sicker, and unhappier than ever and these trends are only getting worse and worse.
Some would say that the increasing prevalence of disease and poor physical and mental health is a carefully orchestrated attack; an unholy alliance between corrupt elements of medical associations, food and biotech giants, and regulatory agencies that all profit from our malaise in their own ways.
Others would say we’re just seeing the result of widespread ignorance of how to take care of our bodies coupled with bureaucratic dysfunction that lays us open to good old fashioned greed. If there are corners to cut for more profits, there are plenty of unscrupulous CEOs and marketers that won’t hesitate to exploit the “opportunities.”
Regardless of whether one or the other extremes are true, or if the truth is somewhere in the middle, we can bank on one fact: it takes many years for things—whether food additives or radiation or genetic modification of foods—to be scientifically proven as harmful and then eliminated through regulation.
For example, the health risks of polychlorinated biphenyls (chemicals once used in manufacturing a wide variety of products, from adhesives to surgical implants to electrical transformers) were first highlighted in research published in 1937.
Production continued for decades, however, with Monsanto successfully hiding the dangers of PCBs while dumping thousands of tons of them into streams and garbage dumps. PCBs weren’t banned in the United States until 1979 as carcinogenic and Monsanto had to pay out $700 million in damages for their crimes.
The insect spray DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) has a similar story.
It was used to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops during World War II and in 1944, Monsanto made it available as an agricultural insecticide. It wasn’t until the 1970s that developed countries starting banning it, with the United States and United Kingdom coming in last (1972 and 1984, respectively).
Why was it banned, you ask?
Well, it turns out that exposure to DDT increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, premature birth and miscarriage, Parkinson’s disease, and reduced fertility and thyroid function.
In both of these cases, it took several decades for dangerous chemicals to be conclusively proven as harmful and removed from the marketplace. How many lives were ruined and lost in the interim, though?
Keep that in mind when you hear about more recently approved substances like recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), an artificial growth hormone given to cows to increase milk production.
In 1993, the FDA approved the first rBST, developed by Monsanto at a cost of $300 million (genetic engineering is expensive), amid controversy dating back to the 80s and calls for additional research into its safety for both animals and humans.
Since then, we’ve learned that rBST causes a wide variety of health problems in cows, including lameness, reduced fertility, mastitis (infection of the udder), and injection site reactions.
It remains banned in the EU and Canada for these reasons and what this ultimately means for the people drinking the milk from these cows is a subject of continued scientific debate.
My point with sharing these things isn’t to scare you into thinking that deadly chemicals are everywhere and the FDA is trying to kill you.
I’m simply pointing out the fact that if we are going to be proactive about protecting our health, we can’t trust the mega-corporations to look out for us and we can’t wait for the government to tell us what is and isn’t harmful to our health. It just takes too long for conclusive scientific judgments to be formed and regulations to be created and enforced.
So, coming back on topic, I think it’s good that you want to “detoxify” your body.
You have good reason to care about the toxins you’re exposed to every day. I too err on the side of “playing it safe” when it comes to limiting intake of artificial ingredients and other chemicals.
I think we both just want to make good decisions now that will help us live a long, healthy, happy life that ends peacefully and naturally, not in an untimely, protracted, painful bout of disease and misery.
The problem, however, is the most important “good decisions” are the ones people avoid the most. You know…exercising regularly…eating a lot of nutritious foods…not smoking or drinking too much alcohol…minimizing drug and medication use…maintaining good sleep hygiene…managing stress levels…and so forth.
The “hard truth” is there are no shortcuts to vibrant health and longevity. You can’t undo the effects of a destructive lifestyle with pills, powders, cleanses, or other “weird tricks.” The only way out of the shit and into the sun is long-term habits.
If you want to feel and look great for the rest of your life, you need to commit to several things:
- Exercising your body several hours per week (resistance training is particularly important).
- Eating a lot of high-quality food with special emphasis on plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Not smoking.
- Consuming alcohol in moderation.
- Avoiding dependencies on drugs and medicines.
- Maintaining good sleep hygiene.
Sit still for the majority of your waking hours, eat like crap, smoke and drink regularly, down a handful of pills every day, undersleep…and no amount of detoxes will save you.
Alright. It’s time to stop taking advantage of my bully pulpit and get to the meat and potatoes of this article: what’s the real story with detoxes and why do they have so little support in the literature?
Let’s take a look.
- What Are "Toxins" and How Does the Body Process Them?
- Detox Diets and Weight Loss
- The Bottom Line on Cleanses and Detoxes
Table of Contents
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What Are “Toxins” and How Does the Body Process Them?
A toxin is a poisonous substance that you ingest or inhale. Most people think of just manmade chemicals as toxins but they abound in nature as well.
Caffeine and alcohol are toxins as are metabolic waste products produced by your cells. The atmosphere contains toxins like ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Natural sources of water contain a whole host of dangerous contaminants like arsenic, fluoride, mercury, and cyanide.
The point is your body is bombarded with toxins every day and if it didn’t have an effective way to dispose of them, you wouldn’t last very long.
Fortunately, our bodies are well equipped to defend our health against poisons that make their way into our systems.
The first line of defense is the liver, which is the largest organ in your body. Its job is multifaceted: it creates, stores, and controls the systemic levels of various proteins and nutrients vital to life, and it clears toxic or unwanted substances from the blood.
Many detox products claim to clean the liver out as if it were a dirty sponge but, ironically, it doesn’t store toxins (healthy livers don’t at least). Instead, it transforms harmful chemicals into molecules that can be ejected from the body through channels like sweat, urine, and feces.
Sure, there are molecules in nature that support liver health, like niacin, zinc, spirulina, N-acetyl L-cysteine, but they don’t “detox” it. They just help keep it working the way it should.
People make similar claims about “cleansing” your kidneys, but they’re equally misguided.
The kidneys have a similar role to the liver. They remove toxins and waste products from the blood, but they don’t store them.
Another popular form is detox is the “colon cleanse” and like liver and kidney cleanses, it’s more or less quackery.
Colon cleansing has been with us for a very long time–at least as far back as ancient Egypt–as a way to rid the body of intestinal waste, which was thought to cause disease.
Such beliefs prevailed for thousands of years and, in the late 19th century, spawned an industry of spas where people could shoot all kinds of strange brews up their butts.
Science rained on the pool party in the 20th century, however, when theories about “autointoxication” were debunked. There’s no physiological mechanism for toxins to pass through the colon and into the blood and surgeons found no fecal accumulations that colonics purported to treat.
But old habits die hard and, thanks to the Internet, colonic hydrotherapy has found a new generation of supporters. Unfortunately, we now know more about “colonic irrigation” and research shows it’s downright dangerous.
The most common side effects are vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea, but there’s a risk of more serious complications such as kidney and liver failure, blood infections, and even death (from dysentery).
As if that weren’t bad enough, frequent colon cleansing can also cause bowel dysfunction and make you dependent on enemas.
So, you can rest easy and leave your colon unmolested, safe in the knowledge that it’s not full of “mucoid plaque” or other forms of toxic sludge that threaten your health.
If you’re having trouble with bowel movements, look into your fiber intake. Many people don’t get enough in their diets.
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Detox Diets and Weight Loss
The strongest selling point for many detox regimens is rapid weight loss. Some people would do just about anything short of amputation to lose 20+ pounds in a month.
Here’s the reality though…
A temporary “juice cleanse” or raw food diet or other form of restrictive eating usually entails taking in very few calories. This amounts to starvation dieting, which induces weight loss (of course), but comes with quite a few negative side effects.
First, most of the weight you initially lose when you eat very little is water and glycogen, not fat. This weight will return once you start eating normally again.
Second, severe calorie restriction also causes you to lose muscle, and the more severely you starve yourself, the more you lose. The goal is to lose fat, not muscle, and you simply can’t do this when severely restricting your calorie intake.
Third, the longer you starve your body, the worse and worse you feel. Your energy levels crash, you struggle with hunger, cravings, and depression, and more.
Don’t resort to such weight loss extremes. They’re completely unnecessary.
Do your body a favor and lose fat the right way instead: mild calorie restriction, high-protein dieting, plenty of nutritious foods, and moderate amounts of exercise (optimally including resistance training).
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The Bottom Line on Cleanses and Detoxes
Many people assume that consumer markets are far more regulated than they actually are.
For example, you might be surprised to learn that the supplement industry is completely unregulated. That is, companies can produce and sell anything and make any claims they want and need no approval from the FDA or anyone else. The worst of them may get caught and shut down one day, but don’t count on it.
Detox hucksters are well aware of this and take full advantage of it. They can’t cleanse your body but they sure can cleanse your wallets.
They make signs of needing a detox intentionally vague and expansive–fatigue, depression, trouble losing weight, food cravings, and so forth. Some colon cleanse supplements contain ingredients that “plasticize” your poo, giving you a rubbery reason to believe in your purchase. Detox foot pads aren’t sucking gunk out of your blood–your sweat is mixing with a substance and turning them brown.
Steer clear of all this type of nonsense no matter how sexy the marketing claims and you’ll be better for it.
Instead, opt for the only “detox” method supported by science: healthy living. And you won’t find that by swallowing a bottle of herbs or shooting a bag of coffee up your ass every day.
Eat nutritious foods, move your body, get enough rest, stop smoking, limit your alcohol use, and stay away from drugs as much as possible. There’s the real Master Cleanse.
What’s your take on detoxing your body? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Henry, R. R., Wiest-Kent, T. A., Scheaffer, L., Kolterman, O. G., & Olefsky, J. M. (1986). Metabolic consequences of very-low-calorie diet therapy in obese non-insulin-dependent diabetic and nondiabetic subjects. Diabetes, 35(2), 155–164. https://doi.org/10.2337/diab.35.2.155
- Aminah Alleyne Jones, MD, MPH Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS Aye Otubu, MD, M. (n.d.). The dangers of colon cleansing | MDedge Family Medicine. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://www.mdedge.com/familymedicine/article/64413/gastroenterology/dangers-colon-cleansing
- How does the liver work? (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279393/
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