BBC – Scientists dismiss ‘detox myth’
“There is no evidence that products widely promoted to help the body “detox” work, scientists warn.
The researchers warned that, at worst, some detox diets could have dangerous consequences and, at best, they were a waste of money.”
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The detox myth
January is the time to cleanse your body but, Ben Goldacre asks, do quick-fix kits work?
Saturday 8 January 2005
First of all, you’ve got to wonder what a toxin is. Are they the products of everyday metabolism that your body gets rid of all the time? Or the intermediate stages of molecules being broken down in your liver? According to the Boots detox kit, “pollutants, exhaust fumes, alcohol, smoke and pesticides are all everyday parts of 21st-century life, and are all capable of contributing to the toxic buildup in our bodies.”
They can “reduce your body’s ability to digest food and eliminate waste”. There’s certainly no evidence I’m aware of that eating a slightly unusual diet for a few days and munching on some vitamins speeds up the degradation and expulsion of any of the things these products claim to help you get rid of. And it’s not really possible to imagine what experiment you could do to measure whether they were having an effect on real people, although if you came up with one, I’d be happy to try to do it.
And that’s part of the problem. Instead of finding real-world, in vivo evidence, from living human beings, the rationale for the detox industry relies on the same trick as the nutrition industry: taking an experimental result from a laboratory situation, and pretending that the results are somehow as meaningful as a real world study showing an improvement in health of a group of people. Or, alternatively, poring over biochemistry textbooks to find a chemical that plays a role in a metabolic pathway that seems to do some good, and then suggesting that if you have more of that chemical in your diet, it will help the metabolic process to run more smoothly. For example, as the Boots detox kit says: “Glutathione is one of these – a naturally occurring substance, it helps mop up toxins in your liver.” In my opinion this is all dangerously close to claiming that you need to eat supplements to live healthily and avoid a state of ill-health which is, after all, forbidden in the marketing regulations for products sold as food supplements. Because after all, what is detox, if not a new clinical treatment looking for a condition? Regardless, the most credible claim is that the nutrients in detox packs will keep all of your organs working at peak performance during your detox health drive, to help them do their job properly, with one of those jobs being to get rid of “toxins”. The one thing that’s not entirely clear, though, just like eating healthy food on a detox regime, is why that wouldn’t be a good idea all the time.
But the strangest claim, most often made for the herbal detox packs, is that they will promote diuresis, and make you pass more urine. The idea, presumably, is that we will then pass more toxins out in our wee. I have a beautifully complex and finely tuned system in my body to regulate fluid balance, and I have absolutely no intention of stopping it from working properly. If I wanted to pass more urine, I’d drink more water.
Even so, the detox diet is certainly a lucrative market. Even Carol Vorderman has knocked out a perfectly sensible healthy cookbook – filled with nice glossy pictures and recipes – and called it Carol Vorderman’s Detox For Life. In it, the famous media science boffin makes sweeping authoritative statements such as “after all, it takes three months to fully detox, regenerate new blood cells, body tissues and new skin cells”. Which sounds good, until you stop to wonder: where did she pluck three months from, and what did she measure to know it was three months, rather than one, or five?
But the real craziness starts with the theatrical detox processes. Aqua Detox, for example, is in almost every gym in London and it’s been covered glowingly by some newspapers. Rory Bremner was so impressed, he bought himself one (and they’re over £1,000 to buy). You put your feet in a bath containing warm water and a solution of organic salts, and they pass a gentle electrical current that resonates with your bioenergetic field, so they say. The clear, colourless water goes first tea-coloured, then properly brown with a surface of brown sludge. This brown, we’re told, is caused by the toxins coming out of your body through the pores in the soles of your feet. The method was discovered by ancient Chinese scientists.
And if we really want to turn up the science, then let’s imagine that an iron electrode in a saltwater bath with a current passing across it will break down to create brown rust in water. Which is, in fact, exactly what happens, because I went along with another scientist and took brown Aqua Detox water samples, sent them to a lab, and found they were full of huge amounts of iron; and when we set up an identical salt bath, with electrodes but no feet in it, that water went brown in just the same way. This is being published shortly in a peer-reviewed academic journal: which is more than you can say for most of the detox science.
So does detox work? If it helps us realise that having a healthy lifestyle all the time is an attainable goal, then yes. But if it makes us think healthy living is like purgatory, something to be ventured into very occasionally, and with much trepidation and forward planning, then the answer is clearly no. And is it an intellectually dishonest scam? Probably. Although it might be gentler to think of it as a voluntary, self-administered tax on scientific illiteracy and decadence.
Detox diets are a waste of time and money, say scientists
May. 02, 2007
For many people, following a detoxification diet is a ritual form of spring cleansing. It’s a way to recharge, rejuvenate and renew the body after a winter of overindulging.
Supporters say a seven- to 30-day regimen of fresh fruit and vegetables, brown rice, shakes, herbal laxatives, antioxidants and plenty of water can remedy their ills – including excess pounds, general fatigue, dull skin and poor digestion.
Detox diets, or cleanses, are tempting to try. Their numerous claims – burn fat, boost energy, reduce bloating, improve skin, banish cravings, resist disease, enhance wellbeing, increase mental clarity – can entice those wanting a fast track to feeling and looking better. Even Beyoncé Knowles credited a detox diet with helping her shed 22 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls.
While these may sound like compelling reasons to follow a detox diet, medical experts question their health claims. Some even say they’re dangerous and should be avoided by certain people.
Although detox diets are often promoted for weight loss, slimming down is not their underlying premise. Advocates of these diets contend our bodies become overloaded with toxic substances in foods and the environment.
Toxins from pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticide residues, chemical contaminants, alcohol and caffeine are thought to build up in the body and create imbalances that can lead to weight gain, headaches, fatigue, nausea, even diseases such as arthritis and cancer.
The basic idea of a detoxification diet is to give up temporarily certain foods that contain toxins while consuming fibre, nutrients, antioxidants and herbal extracts that aid in the body’s natural detoxification processes.
The diets vary widely and can last for as few as four days to as long as one month. Many involve some version of a liquid diet – giving up solid food for a few days and then gradually reintroducing certain foods.
Detox diets usually include organic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, water, herbal teas and vitamin and mineral supplements. Red meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, wheat, sugar, processed foods, fried foods, caffeine and alcohol are typically avoided.
Some programs involve replacing one or two meals with a high-protein, vitamin-rich shake.
Most cleansing diets also include detoxification “boosters” in the form of herbal laxatives, probiotics (to replace healthy bacteria in the gut), nutrients and antioxidants.
Such detoxification supplements are designed to aid the liver, kidneys and intestines in ridding the body of toxins.
Popular ingredients include milk thistle (thought to enhance liver regeneration and promote liver detoxification), magnesium (a laxative in high doses) and dandelion root (a diuretic).
Is it worthwhile to “cleanse” your body once or twice a year? Do detox diets offer health benefits?
In my opinion, the answer depends on what your ultimate goal is.
There’s no evidence that detoxification diets speed the removal of toxins from the body or that the elimination of toxins will make you healthier. Medical experts believe the healthy human body is well equipped to deal with toxins.
Our skin, lungs, kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract are efficient at removing or neutralizing toxic substances within hours of consumption.
That’s not to say adhering to a detox diet won’t make you feel better.
In general, people report improved energy, clearer skin, regular bowel movements, improved digestion and increased mental alertness.
Critics argue, however, that these effects are due to dietary modifications rather than the elimination of toxins.
Many people who report feeling healthier and more energetic start a detox diet after coming off an unhealthy diet high in sugar and processed foods that may lack nutrients.
Detox diets can help break a poor diet by encouraging eating habits such as consuming more fruits and vegetables and less caffeine and alcohol, drinking more water, and eating less junk and processed food.
Detox diets are not without side effects.
During the first few days, it’s common to experience headaches, hunger, fatigue and irritability.
Some people report diarrhea (usually caused by laxative supplements), which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
If continued for a longer time, detox diets can cause deficiencies of nutrients, especially protein. Many detox plans limit or completely omit animal protein.
Another side effect is weight loss. The majority of weight you’ll lose is water, which is typically gained back when the diet ends.
If you stay on the diet too long, you run the risk of losing muscle mass, which slows down metabolism, making it harder to keep the weight off or to lose weight later.
Following a detox diet, even for a short time, is not safe for everyone.
These programs are not recommended for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), eating disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, lowered immunity, kidney disease, liver disease or addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and growing teenagers also should not follow a detox diet.
If you are recovering from an illness or injury, detox diets are not appropriate.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV’s Canada AM every Wednesday.