Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve been bombarded with messages, tweets, Facebook posts, and promises of detox diets and cleanses. If 2014 was the year of the detox, then 2015 is the year of the myth-busting.
If you’re of the mindset that a glass of water with fresh lemon juice will ‘kick start’ your metabolism, or ‘flush your liver & kidneys’ then you’ll likely be very disappointed.
Will The Real Detox Please Stand Up?
Working in addiction treatment at Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, or ‘CAM-H’, I’ve come to appreciate the role of detox in the Medical Withdrawal Unit where I work as a dietitian. Those struggling with addictions and physical dependence to both illicit drugs and medications, as well as, alcohol come to the detox unit for the medical management of the potential life-threatening symptoms of substance withdrawal (opiates, alcohol, benzos). Symptoms include anxiety, heart palpitations & tachycardia [elevated heart rate], muscle pain, extreme sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, hallucinations, psychosis, dehydration, tremours and more. [don’t get me started on these so-called ‘sugar detoxes’ etc].
This is very different than the ever so popular detoxing that you hear about from celebrities, trainers, the ubiquitous ‘health or wellness’ coach, your hair stylist, or the stranger on public transit drinking his or her emerald green smoothie from a mason jar. The ideas for detoxing and cleanses are seemingly endless and go beyond simple juicing ranging from truths, half-truths to the down right bizarre such as:
- Drink lemon juice & water to cleanse the liver, ‘strengthen’ liver enzymes, and boost fat burning
- Drink 6-10 glasses of water a day…[more on that myth here and here]
- Practice deep breathing – this apparently oxygenates your cells and allows the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins
- Eat some coconut for its anti-fungal/bacterial/viral properties
- Take a bath with aluminum-free baking powder & Epsom salts to pull toxins out of your body through your skin
- Get a good vacuum to get rid of the pollutants in your home
- Eat more fiber [OK, I’ll give them that one, more to follow]
- Ditch caffeine , alcohol & cigarettes
- Dry brushing, the act of taking a brush and brushing your dry skin to stimulate the lymphatic system to remove toxins. Note it must be in the direction towards your torso for proper drainage. Check out the video.
The reality is, you’ve been detoxing from the day you were born and will continue to do so until the day you die. If fact, you’re doing it right now. You cannot, not be detoxing.
What’s my beef with this? How detoxing & cleanses are portrayed in popular culture.
The very notion that toxins are accumulating and being stored in your body never to be released unless you go on a cleanse defies biology, all known facts on physiology & anatomy and is suffering a drought of evidence to support it. The idea that you can purge your system, and cells, in one fell swoop, whether that’s a 3-day kick start program or a 7 or 10 day cleanse for the aficionado, has its appeal though. The idea that you can wash away your dietary sins is as old as time and has its roots in puritanical religious thought. Have you ‘over indulged’ with food, booze, drugs or otherwise? No problem, a carrot, beet, ginger and kale juice fast will cleanse you of your sins and nourish your cells from within; wiping the slate clean is as close as your vegetable crisper.
The Hijacking Of A Truth, The Rest Is History
Detoxification is a real thing. It’s been part of us long before there were goji berry powders, coffee enemas, juice extractors and detox yoga. The body has a sophisticated means of eliminating the immeasurable chemicals and pollutants we’re exposed to everyday as well as the metabolic waste that needs to be eliminated too, but how?
In a nutshell, the liver is the main organ of detoxification. It takes everything we throw at it and through the seemingly magical process of biochemistry, converts these unwanted guests into different forms that are then suitable for elimination; primarily through the poop and urine. It’s true, we get rid of some stuff through our sweat glands and lungs but most of it leaves the body every time we pee and go number 2 [the liver piggybacks some of the toxins on to bile, when we eat, bile is released to aid with digestion and the toxins go along for the ride. When we get lots of fiber, the fiber acts like a sponge and binds to the bile taking the toxins with it; so yes, fiber aids helps with detoxification in this way].
Like many things, this inherent physiological function has been co-opted and highly exaggerated leading to the concept that cleanses and detoxes are a must to rid our bodies of the evil within.
The un-newsworthy fact is that toxins enter our body, are dealt with by the liver (i.e. converted to less harmful compounds) and leave soon after; they don’t hang around ‘bio-accumulating’ and clogging your metabolism like a backed up septic tank or sewer system.
The burden of proof is on those who say otherwise.
Eating For Detoxification
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t matter what you eat, drink or put into your body because it does, big time. The liver needs dozens and dozens and dozens of nutrients for it to be in tip top shape and for those biochemical reactions that take care of detoxification to work. The liver also needs antioxidants to protect itself from the very act of detoxifying. These include vitamins & minerals such as C, E, B complex, magnesium, zinc, manganese, selenium, sulphur and amino acids like cysteine, glycine, taurine and glutamine, glutathione and innumerable phytonutrients found in plant foods to name but a few.
It’s true, a diet based on crap will take its toll over the long run on liver health and function but can a cleanse or elixir do anything that a nutrient-dense diet can’t? The answer is no.
It begs the question: are we really detoxing/cleansing or nourishing? Unless someone can prove to me otherwise, there is no one single food, powder, pill or juice that will ramp up, or increase the rate of, what the liver is designed to do anymore than a nutritious diet based on whole foods [yes both plant and animal], along with appropriate supplementation when needed, can do. When people go on ‘detoxes’ they automatically eliminate the crap and eat more wholesome foods, you do the math. You can’t excrete more toxins in any clinically meaningful way but you can support and nourish the liver with the necessary nutrients it needs while not overburdening it with excessive alcohol, drugs or unwarranted medications.
The best ‘detox’ diet you can choose is a healthy diet based on wholesome, nutrient-dense foods.