If it seems like you’re seeing the terms “detoxing” and “cleansing” everywhere these days, you’re right. In the past decade,there has been an explosion of products making detox claims, food and beverages in particular.1 And as healthy eating and natural living continued to take off in the mainstream, these terms became even more popular.
There’s one major issue here, though. Ask the average person what, exactly, it means to detox your body, and you’re going to get a lot of different answers. Some say it’s a matter of eating foods that help your body flush out toxins. Basically, the environment is full of toxins that get in our organs, keeping them from being effective and efficient.
A Quick Fix?
The truth is, detoxing is not that simple. There’s no official definition of a “detox” – and it’s not a quick solution. It could be argued that a proper detox (and even the name is a bit of a misnomer) is more about helping the body than overriding it.
That said, if you’re considering a cleanse or a detox, consult with a medical professional before beginning. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Motivation to Detox
To be clear, the original term for detox was applied to dangerous and life-threatening toxins from alcohol, poisons, or drugs. Generally, this type of “detox” was administered in hospitals, and involved drugs and therapies from professionals. This is not close to what detox is today.2 In order to understand the modern interpretation of the term “detox” you need to hear the real story about toxins.
What are toxins?
Well, according to a CDC study, toxins range from volatile organic compounds found in paints and household products, to acrylamide formed by foods that are fried or baked at high temperatures, and cigarette smoke. Simply put, they’re dangerous chemicals present in your body that AREN’T naturally occurring. And with so many toxins, it’s easy to see why people are concerned and view detoxification as a viable solution.3
Here’s the good news: Our body has mechanisms naturally designed to get rid of the toxins our body encounters on a daily basis: the kidneys and liver.4 The liver, in particular, is important, breaking down chemicals and toxins than binding them to other molecules to create non-toxic molecules that leave the body as waste. The connection between bodily waste and removal of toxins from the body is part of the reason why you see so much detox and cleanse talk about the colon.
Fact Vs. Fiction
Where things start to get murky is what happens when the natural functionality of the body to cleanse becomes overloaded. It is suggested by some sources that excess toxins in the body are related to a wide variety of ailments.5
But here’s the thing: scientific evidence is a bit iffy in this area.
This combination of proven facts and unproven, but plausible, assumptions is the basis of much of the detoxification trend today. After all, it SOUNDS so good and healthy, doesn’t it?
Part of the problem with detoxes and cleanses these days is the forms that they take. Most detox trends fall into one (or several) of the following categories:6
Eliminating solid foods in favor of juices or liquids over several days.
Putting large restrictions on your diet.
Using enemas, laxatives, or colonics to cleanse the colon.
It’s likely that if you ask your doctor whether you should implement any of these cleanses into your lifestyle, you’d be told no – which is why you should ALWAYS ask a doctor before beginning a “cleanse” or a “detox” in the first place.
Could They Be Harmful?
But why are “detoxes” so problematic? For one, extreme diets rarely achieve long-term results, because they are difficult to adhere to permanently.7 Another thing to consider is that we eat balanced diets for a reason. For example, solid foods, especially like the fiber you get in fruits and vegetables, helps you with your digestion.8
In fact, in some cases, irresponsible cleanses may actually work against their mission. Potential side effects of cleanses, particularly colon cleanses, include dehydration and diarrhea. One study showed that colon cleanses not only showed little positive effect on the body, but they could be potentially dangerous.9 In fact, a comprehensive review of detox diets showed that with regard to toxin elimination and weight management, detox diets had little impact.10
Positive Effects of Cleansing
At this point, you may be wondering about all the positive stories you hear about people who go through detox diets. Well, there are potential positive effects, but it’s generally not due to flushing out toxins like some believe. For example, detox diets generally phase out processed foods – which are full of solid fats and added sugar. The simple act of letting these go, especially if you eat a lot of these foods, may contribute to the “feeling better” that many people get from quick detox diets. In addition, weight loss at first may be due to shedding water weight. This is not a permanent weight loss solution.
Detoxing the Right Way
So, what should we be focusing on? One thing anyone concerned about the toxins in their body should be doing is focusing on their overall health. And that means eating a balanced diet and drinking plenty of water,12 For vegans, or people with food sensitivities, make sure to consult with a doctor or nutritionist to find substitutes for nutrients that may be difficult to find from your normal meal options. In addition, you may want to avoid alcohol, and consider foods with plenty of fiber to help gut and liver function. One thing to note is that while bodily waste is the primary way the body disposes of toxins, they can also be expelled through sweat. Consider getting more exercise to help the process along a bit.13
If you’re considering a detox, use caution, and always talk to your doctor before starting a new program. Not only does this mitigate the potential risk of cleanses gone wrong, but creates a better overall platform to help your diet, digestion, immune system, and more.
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