Practices that are supposed to cleanse or detoxify the body of harmful substances existed millennia before modern alternative medicine began to promote them. Our ancestors, however, lacked basic medical knowledge about how the body handles harmful substances. The detox rationale forms the foundation for perfectly sensible diet plans and baseless alternative medicine alike. Based on current scientific knowledge and evidence, however, is there any merit to this concept?
Detox or detoxification is simply the removal of toxic substances from the body. Examples of toxins include ammonium, alcohol, and most of the components of cigarette smoke. The liver is able to detoxify the blood by converting such substances into less harmful forms, or by excreting them into the gut. The kidneys are also a site of detoxification, as any molecules small enough to pass through the kidney‘s filter will enter the urine if not specifically reabsorbed.
In the case of organ failure or ingestion of poisons, medical detoxification may be necessary. This includes dialysis (blood filtration) and the administration of antidotes. Detoxification may also refer to the withdrawal period for an addictive substance, in which case it has nothing to do with actually removing toxins from the body, but rather the cessation of intake.
In the context of alternative medicine or health fads, detox does not refer to any of the above. In most cases, detox refers the concept that there are all kinds of toxins floating around in our bodies, substances that build up as a result of our environment. The exact nature of these toxins is often only vaguely alluded to, but proponents will tell you that they are bad and that certain diets and practices can remove them. So, is detox a legitimate concept that has been misappropriated by alternative medicine, or is it a waste of time?
The idea of detox has a fundamental flaw in that the body is already extremely efficient at ridding itself of harmful chemicals. This is partly down to the way in which the kidneys function: for the most part the kidneys don’t actively throw out unnecessary molecules. Rather, everything that passes the kidney’s filter will be excreted in the urine by default unless reabsorbed. Molecules (including those too large to enter the kidney tubules) may also be removed by the liver. If these systems were not already perfectly effective at clearing commonly encountered toxins from your blood, you would be in serious trouble. Indeed, these systems are effective enough that they become a problem in pharmacology, as drugs must often be given in much higher doses than would otherwise be necessary on account of their swift removal from the blood.
There are situations in which these systems could be impaired, overwhelmed or damaged (excessive alcohol consumption, for example). However, for the average individual not dying of liver or kidney failure, there’s really no reason to believe that any kind of detox treatment would be necessary.
To be completely fair, there are some chemicals that do take considerable time for the body to remove, such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. However, these substances are rarely found in today’s commercial products.
You have heard why detox is probably unnecessary, but perhaps you don’t want to take the chance. You are worried that toxic chemicals have accumulated in your body over years of exposure, and you want to get rid of them. So let’s put everything that has been said aside for a moment to ask the question: ‘what are detox therapies and is there any evidence that they help remove toxins from the body?’ Here are some of the most common approaches to detoxification:
Some more outlandish methods include:
Some of the above undoubtedly have health benefits, while others are just plain bizarre. However, they all have one thing in common: there’s little to no evidence that they help eliminate toxic compounds from the body. Some of them are actively harmful. Some detox products are even designed to deliberately mislead the buyer into thinking they work, such as foot pads that release sticky substances when dampened with sweat.
Cutting down your consumption of substances that can be considered toxins (such as alcohol) will reduce the concentration of said toxin in the blood, but no one needs an 800 word article to tell them that. Besides, so long as you aren’t drinking too much of it, some studies suggest alcohol may even be beneficial despite being toxic in higher doses.
In summary, while some detox practices may be healthy, the idea of detox itself is not. There’s no solid evidence that detox is necessary and no solid evidence that it works. At its best, detox is simply a relabelling of healthy practices that may motivate people to make healthy lifestyle choices. At worst, it is a term used by alternative medicine proponents to mislead people into buying useless products.
Do detox diets offer any health benefits?: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/detox-diets/faq-20058040
Do Detox Diets and Cleanses Really Work?: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cytochrome_P450
Debunking detox: https://senseaboutscience.org/activities/debunking-detox/
Is colon cleansing a good way to eliminate toxins from your body?: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/colon-cleansing/faq-20058435
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