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Is Detoxing Really a Myth?

02/19/2015 10:58am ET | Updated April 19, 2015
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The Guardian released an article entitled: You can't detox your body. It's a myth. So how do you get healthy? In the article, the author says that:

"...detoxing -- the idea that you can flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go -- is a scam. It's a pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things."

So is this true? Can you really not detox your body? As you go into the New Year, during which detox diets and claims are sure to surround you, it's important to know the truth about detoxing, and in this article, you're going to discover whether detoxing is really a myth.

What Are Toxins?

It's important to begin with an understanding of what toxins actually are. No matter how "clean" you live your life, just about everybody shows some evidence of a buildup of toxins. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, they found some pretty shocking results.

On average, the CDC's report found 212 chemicals in people's blood or urine, 75 of which had never before been measured in the U.S. population. The chemicals included:

  • Acrylamide (formed when foods are baked or fried at high temperatures, and as a byproduct of cigarette smoke)
  • Arsenic, found in many home-building products
  • Environmental phenols, including bisphenol A (found in plastics, food packaging and epoxy resins) and triclosan (used as an antibacterial agent in personal care products such as toothpaste and hand soap)
  • Perchlorate, used in airplane fuel, explosives and fireworks
  • Perfluorinated chemicals, used to create non-stick cookware
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used in fire retardants found in consumer products such as mattresses
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC's), found in paints, air fresheners, cleaning products, cosmetics, upholstery fabrics, carpets, dry-cleaned clothing, wood preservatives, and paint strippers

When you put all these together, these chemicals represent can potentially present a toxic burden to the human body, and (as the CDC has found) can accumulate in your body's blood, urine and tissue -- possibly one reason why the plastic-based versions of these chemicals are sometimes referred to as "obesogens," due to the suggestion that they may somehow accumulate in fat tissue. While your body does actually have detoxification organs (your liver and kidney) that can process many of these chemicals and toxins, they can potentially cause medical problems if your liver and kidneys are not functioning properly or are overburdened with a poor diet.

How You Detox

While the kidneys are indeed important for acting as a filtration mechanism for your blood and removing wastes and excess water from the body, it's the liver that has an incredibly important job when it comes to detoxification. Along with filtering your blood to remove toxins, your liver uses a two-phase process to break down chemicals and toxins. During phase 1, toxins are neutralized and broken into smaller fragments. Then, in phase 2 they are bound to other molecules, creating a new non-toxic molecule that can be excreted in your bile, urine or stool.

But order for this liver detoxification to work properly, your body must have adequate nutrients. If not, the phase 1 and phase 2 processes may not work adequately, which can leave toxic substances to build up in your body. There are specific nutrients that support both pathways. For example:

Phase 1:
  • B-Vitamins (B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid)
  • Flavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables
  • Foods rich in vitamins A, C and E (eg, carrots, oranges, wheat germ, almonds)
  • Glutathione, found in avocado, watermelon, asparagus, walnuts, fresh fruits and veggies, and the nutrients n-acetylcysteine, cysteine and methionine.
  • Branched chain amino acids, found in animal protein (dairy products, red meat, eggs and whey protein)
  • Phospholipids, found in eggs, lean meats, organ meats, fish and soybeans
Phase 2:
  • Indole-3-carbinol, found in cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Limonene, found in oranges, tangerines, caraway seeds and dill seeds
  • Glutathione, found in avocado, watermelon, asparagus, walnuts, fresh fruits and veggies.
  • Fish oil
  • Amino acids from protein

Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of these nutrients for supporting proper liver detox pathways.

How Detoxing Products Work

The first claim in the article from The Guardian is based on a quote from Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University. He says

"...there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn't. The respectable one is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you're supposed to have accumulated."

The article goes on to explain that when it comes to products that range from dietary supplements to smoothies and shampoos, not one of the manufacturers can actually define what they meant by detoxification, or name the toxins these products are supposed to remove.

However, just because a manufacturer of -- say -- spirulina powder (a popular green powder found in the detox section of many health foods stores) can't say how it works, doesn't mean there isn't scientific evidence for it's potential to remove toxins from the body.

For example, cyanobacteria is a specific type of bacteria found in spirulina that is an accumulator (also known as a "biosorbent") of heavy minerals. It does this via a process called ion-exchange binding,, and can significantly reduce heavy metal toxicity in tissue. 100 micrograms (a very small amount) of spirulina hexane extract has been shown to remove over 85% of arsenic in tissue. At a does of 250-500 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, spirulina has been shown to prevent metal toxicity from occurring in pregnant rats' offspring when the mothers were given fluoride, and it has also been noted to reduce lead accumulation in brain tissue, protect against heavy metal cadmium buildup, and attenuate mercury accumulation in the testes.

Granted, spirulina is one of the few molecules in existence that actually has a large body of evidence to support it's detoxifying activity, but other compounds such as dandelion extract, ginseng and zinc have also been clinically proven to reduce heavy metal buildup. And while heavy metals are only one form of a toxin that can accumulate in your tissues, there is no doubt that science has proven that these toxins can indeed be removed via the use of these specific "detox" compounds found in nature. So when the article in The Guardian "guffaws" at the ideas of superfoods such as spirulina, I would actually beg to differ.

Or take milk thistle extract, another popular detox or cleansing supplement. While the article in The Guardian would have you to believe there is no value whatsoever in consuming this type of nutrient, studies show that milk thistle actually protects and promotes the growth of liver cells, fights oxidation (a process that damages cells), and actually blocks toxins from entering the cell membrane.

Silymarins, a group of antioxidants extracted from the seeds of milk thistle, have antioxidant properties several times greater than that of vitamins C and E, with silybin as one silymarin that has been shown to be especially effective in promoting liver health. Milk thistle also helps to enhance detoxification by preventing the depletion of glutathione, which is necessary for phase 2 liver detoxification to be completed.

As you can see from the two simple examples of spirulina and milk thistle, things aren't quite as simple as painting with a broad brush and saying that detox supplements and diets simply don't work. While the detox evidence for -- say -- cayenne pepper and maple syrup juice really doesn't exist, evidence for other nutrients actually does exist.

Does The Colon Store Toxins?

The article in The Guardian then goes on to address colon cleanses, noting that:

"...proponents will tell you that mischievous plaques of impacted poo can lurk in your colon for months or years and pump disease-causing toxins back into your system. Pay them a small fee, though, and they'll insert a hose up your bottom and wash them all away."

And also:

"Some colon-cleansing tablets contain a polymerising agent that turns your faeces into something like a plastic, so that when a massive rubbery poo snake slithers into your toilet you can stare back at it and feel vindicated in your purchase."

When you think about it, the idea of toxins being somehow reabsorbed by your body as they sit in your colon actually makes some sense. After all, rectal suppositories are used to rapidly administer drugs -- so if drugs can enter your bloodstream from your colon, it's certainly possible that toxins could be entering too.

However, your colon is equipped with several natural mechanisms to keep toxins from building up. For example:

. I personally suspect that if colon cleansing or enemas have any effect in making you feel like you have more energy or have been "cleansed", it is more likely to do with an
, along with
, which can indeed improve digestion, have a laxative effect, relieve constipation and cause you to go to the bathroom. Sure, this could potentially make you feel better by allowing you to better digest your food, or to even pass some feces that may have built up over the past few days, but I'd have to agree with the article in
The Guardian
that there is no evidence that poo can simply sit inside you for years, slowly rotting and toxifying your body.

Should You Detox?

Ultimately, as the article in The Guardian alludes to, your body has it's own powerful methods of detoxification -- and can activate these methods without the use of fancy diets or fancy detox spa visits. These methods primarily come in the form of your liver and your kidneys.

For example, your liver prevents pathogens from passing into your bloodstream, processes environmental toxins for safe removal, and helps to rid your body of excess nitrogen that build up from the breakdown of proteins and amino acids.

Your kidneys filter blood, remove excess water, pass urea (which is a toxin that builds up as a byproduct of protein breakdown), and sends this all out of your body via your urine.

So if you eat foods that support your liver and kidneys, or avoid foods that stress your liver and kidneys, you're already detoxing every day -- and unless you've gone through something like a serious bout of alcoholism or heavy metal toxicity, you don't really need any fancy herbal blends or colonic cleanses.

For your liver, you can do things like avoid high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats from processed and packaged foods like canola oil and French fries, and instead eat those type of fats from fish, meat, seeds and nuts. You can avoid high amounts of fructose and sugar, limit alcohol, consume plenty of egg yolks (which contain choline that your liver uses to process fats), eat good, organic liver every now and then and pay attention to what kind of soaps and shampoos and household cleaners you're using.

For your kidneys, you can limit intake of high fructose corn syrup, drink plenty of water, limit alcohol intake, and -- if you are predisposed to renal issues -- limit excessive protein intake (e.g. more than 200g/day of protein).

As The Guardian article notes, many popular detox and cleansing diets probably feel beneficial because of what they eliminate, and not because of any magical ingredients. All that lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup, and fancy water is probably not doing much when it comes to cleansing and detoxifying, but all the processed fats, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, candy, soda, commercial meat and snack foods you're eliminating on a detox diet are giving your liver and kidneys a chance to step up and do their normal detoxification duties, since they're no longer overburdened with bad food and not enough micronutrients and minerals to support their normal function.