Detoxes: Fad or legit?

It seems everyone’s on a detox for the New Year. But why? Do we all need to clear out the toxins that have accumulated in our bodies over the past year? If you have eaten too many chocolates, does your body really need a detox?

The best part about detoxes these days is that it’s pretty simple. We just need to drink a few expensive juices, take some pills that give us diarrhoea and voilà, no more toxins. If this seems a bit fluffy to you, you are right. Commonly marketed detoxes or cleanses are fads that rob you of your money and have absolutely no scientific evidence to say they work.

These cleanses or detoxes usually claim to help you have more energy, lose weight and treat diseases/health issues that result from a toxic build up of chemicals in your body. Cleanses and detox diets often involve strict food limitations, usually allowing only fruit and vegetable juice, or other drinks. Many cleanses are supposedly aimed at specific body parts, whether it’s a liver cleanse or a colon cleanse. They are supposedly designed to help these organ systems remove toxic chemicals from your body that accumulate as a result of exposure to pesticides, pollutants, food additives, processed foods or simply from inadequate flushing of metabolic waste.

The premises on which these cleanses are built are straight out wrong and here is why.

The body rarely needs cleansing.

The human body is remarkably resilient and robust. The liver, kidneys, gut, lungs, and several other organs are constantly working to remove harmful substances and excrete waste products from metabolism. They do a great job at it too. Our organs responsible for detoxification and waste removal need certain nutrients from our food to work optimally, therefore, simply eating a well balanced diet and living a healthy lifestyle (e.g. lots of sleep, exercise, managing stress levels and decreasing smoking and alcohol) allows these organs to work as they should and makes your body more robust. They don’t need any help from a fad diet.

Moreover, “a 2009 investigation found that not a single company behind 15 commercial cleanses could name the toxins targeted by their treatment, agree on the definition of the word ‘detox’, or even supply evidence that their products work.” –

If the body actually required a toxin to be removed, you would have to know what the chemical structure it was, so you could measure its accumulation and develop something to aid in its removal.

The human body does accumulate low levels of toxicants, this is true. However, an over the counter fad detox will have no effect on the removal or excretion of these toxicants.

Genuine toxicity and a build up of waste are health conditions that require diet and lifestyle changes, as well as medical intervention. 

When a substance really is noxious, a “detox diet” won’t help. Acute toxicity would likely constitute a medical emergency, whereas chronic toxicity is best addressed by a well-fed body/good lifestyle habits — not a body weakened by a severely hypo-caloric diet. The liver, kidneys, gut, skin, lungs, and other organs toil around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete the waste products of metabolism; don’t hinder their work!

Feeling lethargic and having some skin issues does not necessarily mean you have a toxin build up. It may actually mean that your diet and lifestyle is actually just poor.

Furthermore, many detoxes claim to help your detox organs flush out toxins, however if your detoxification organs were severely under-functioning, you would be very sick and no juice fast could help this.

Moreover, sometimes our detox organs such as our liver, kidneys, gut and skin can be compromised in their optimal function due to poor diet and lifestyle choices, which can then lead to suboptimal waste removal from the body. This can exacerbate and cause multiple health issues. Therefore, simply aiming for good, consistent, diet and lifestyle habits can help to support and decrease the load on these organ systems.

Why do some people feel great on these cleanses?

“Since most cleanses involves caloric restriction, temporary weight loss often results. This is a result of glycogen loss from the liver and muscles, not fat loss. Under caloric restriction, the body’s glycogen stores can easily be depleted in 24-48 hours, resulting in a weight loss of several pounds (both from the glycogen burnt, and the water weight associated with glycogen storage). Once a regular eating schedule is resumed, however, the glycogen and water come rushing back” –

Furthermore, most people eat poorly. A cleanse usually involves consuming fruit and vegetable juices, which will of course make people feel and look better as they are eating more nutrient dense/whole foods and removing all the other unhealthy foods in their diet. Detoxes may also have some kind of placebo effect at play and we know that the placebo effect can be extremely strong, as I have written about here.

What is even worse is that people go on these detoxes, and then go back to eating the same way that they were eating before, making absolutely no changes to their diet and lifestyle habits to ensure sustainable, long term heath.

Wrap up.

Any diet promising a quick fix is always too good to be true. Good health takes time, consistency and dedication. Focus on long-term, sustainable diet and lifestyle habits. Evidence based herbal and nutritional supplementation can support sub optimal functioning of detox organs, however these should be used under the guidance of a qualified health professional.