Detox in question: body cleansing or brainwashing?

5 min read

Detox practices have been spoken about for a couple of decades. They are everywhere in popular culture promoting a claimed healthy way of life, and almost every non-scientific magazine has once written about it as a weight loss strategy. Promises of purification leads many people to think of detox after the festive season or even as a New Year’s resolution. But what is wrong with this tendency for cleansing?

Roots of detox

Throughout history there were many practices when human beings have been trying to rid their bodies of perceived toxins. Originally the word "detox" referred to a medical procedure that rids the body of dangerous, often life-threatening levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons. Medical detoxification is only possible in hospitals or clinics under doctors’ supervision. (1) 

Nowadays the word “detox” is associated with a popular DIY-practice of different kinds of diet, sometimes even a period of fasting, and other cleansing programs. Detox diets claim to facilitate toxin elimination and weight loss, thereby promoting health and well‐being. (2) 

Variety of detoxing programs

At the forefront of detox programs there are diets based on different food practices. Some of them are aimed specifically to lose weight, others promoting a way to reset and restart digestive systems. Elimination of different products, low-calorie diets or periodical fastings are supposed to give a rest to some organs and health to the whole body in general. 

Juice cleansing
Juice cleansing, when all the food through the day is changed for cold-pressed, organic, raw and unpasteurized juices, does not lose its popularity since it was first presented by Norman W. Walker and Jay Kordich in the late 1930’s. Juice detox gives our digestive systems a “break” (3) and multi-billion dollar income for the industry.
Intestinal cleansing
The aim of an intestinal cleansing is to eradicate parasites and expel fecal matter that allegedly accumulates and adheres to the intestinal walls. (1) For a long time this procedure was a medical treatment but now numerous kits are marketed for this purpose, including laxative tea, enemas and herbal supplements.
Nasal irrigation & Foot detox
Some of detox programs look odd like a nasal irrigation to rid the nose of environmental irritants, bacteria, and viruses, or foot detox when a special type of adhesive pad worn on the bottoms of the feet during sleep to let toxins drawn out of the body through the soles of the feet. (1) 

Promised results are impressive: detoxification diets and practices could rest your organs, stimulate the liver to get rid of toxins, improve body liquids circulation and provide your body with healthy nutrients. These diets are also claimed to help with various health problems, including obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, bloating, and chronic fatigue. (4). 

With the rising pressure of news about deteriorating ecological situation and its influence on our health, the glory light of detox diets seems great, but why are there still so many debates between scientists?

A detox day keeps the doctor away?

The main problem with evaluation of “detoxification” programs is that there have been only a small number of studies on it in people. A few clinical studies have shown that commercial detox diets enhance liver detoxification and eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the body, others show positive results on weight and fat loss, insulin resistance, and blood pressure but all of them have no comparison with a low quality of studies themselves and a lack of evaluation by other experts to ensure results’ quality. (2) Some programs may be dangerous without constant medical control. 

In spite of looking juicy, juice detox received many worries from doctors. In 2013, researchers analysed the health data of 100,000 people collected between 1986 and 2009 and found that with the fibre removed, fruit juice’s fructose is absorbed more quickly which leads to increasing risks of developing type 2 diabetes. (5) One of the latest research shows that diets high in fibre have been linked to a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes, and it's recommended adults consume 30g per day. (6) It’s also recommended by the World Health Organisation that adults have no more than 30g of added sugar, the equivalent of 150ml of fruit juice, per day. (7) 

There is no medical evidence for the intestinal cleansing procedure as a whole. Any procedure carries a risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, impaired bowel function, and disruption of intestinal flora. (1) Colon cleansing procedures may have side effects, some of which can be serious. Harmful effects are more likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease. (8) 

A 2015 review concluded that there was no compelling research to support the use of detox diets for weight management or eliminating toxins from the body. (8) Moreover, there have been no studies on long-term effects of “detoxification” programs.

The bottom line

What is slipping out of sight when headlines are full of detox calls is that the human body is greatly equipped with a detoxification system of its own and can defend itself very well against most environmental insults. (1)  

Dubious practices of detox changed the meaning of original medical detoxification drastically. It is vital to remember that detox diets in modern sense are not real detoxification procedures. And even if several aspects of “detox” diets may aid your health (e.g. avoiding environmental toxins, exercising, eating nutritious food, drinking water, limiting stress, and relaxing) there is still a risk of exacerbations and side effects. (4) Some programs and practices can be unsafe, not sufficiently studied and falsely advertised.

Healthy body can defend itself, all it needs is a balanced diet. Make a conscious choice and incorporate only best and safe from “detox” practices – like constantly drinking enough water. There is no doubt that sustained healthy habits are of greater long-term value than the quick fixes offered by commercial “detox” diets.