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Detox Your Life

By Julia Slone-Murphy | 4.23.07

Summer is well on the way. As days become warmer, clothes become smaller, and all of a sudden the blubber we piled up for winter is exposed. With the rising temperatures comes the inevitable media onslaught of ways to get in shape for the summer. One of the regular big shots in this barrage of unsolicited advice is the detox diet. There’s the raw food detox, the juice detox, the food exclusion or food restriction detox; the 24-hour, three-day, seven-day, 28-day, or whole-lifestyle-change detox. Is detoxing really as necessary as we are led to believe, or is it just an opportunity for the unscrupulous or unwitting to profit from the media-borne message that we are all sick, impure, or imperfect? Is there any redeeming value to those countless vegetable smoothie recipes, suggestions of ways to cram as much water as possible into our bodies, and all those supplements, treatments, and gadgets that promise to leave our bodies squeaky clean?

In a medical context, detoxification usually follows a hasty trip to the ER, having had an objectionable encounter with a snake, scorpion, jellyfish, several litres of vodka, a fistful of narcotics, or an acrimonious combination of the above. When drugs or alcohol are the problem, detoxification refers to a period of abstinence, either with or without the use of controlled doses of alternative drugs to reduce withdrawal symptoms. The “detox” we encounter in countless pages of spam and in women’s magazines is based on a similar logic of abstinence, whereby sources of “toxins” are excluded from the diet for a number of days, giving the body a chance to “cleanse” itself. Detox “boosters,” used in conjunction with abstinence, are intended to give the body a helping hand with the cleansing process, and range from drinking a cup of hot water with lemon to sleeping with detoxing pads attached to your feet.

We all want to feel healthy, appear attractive and be in good shape, and the idea of a quick-fix is always appealing, especially after a particularly hedonistic period. But despite all the other trendy diets out there, including those that claim to result in dramatic weight loss in just three or seven days, the detox diet seems to have a particularly strong hold over us. The difference between the detox diet and other diets is not that it is more effective in our quest to lose weight or achieve “glowing” skin. With the detox diet, it is the marketing surrounding the industry which is as good as seamless. And we are buying into it – the detox industry is now worth tens of £millions.

Outlandish statements abound: the front cover of The Fast-Track One-Day Detox Diet by Ann Louise Gittleman proclaims you can “safely lose up to 8 pounds overnight and keep them off for good,” and bestselling author and “leading expert on Eastern philosophy and medicine,” Daniel Reid, states in the preface to his book The Tao of Detox, that “common and deadly diseases such as Cancer and Diabetes are caused … by long term accumulation of toxins and acid wastes in the body.” He goes on, “clearly…the best way to cure and prevent cancer is to alkalize and oxygenate the blood and tissues, thereby eliminating the conditions in which cancer cells thrive.” But such powerful statements – with correspondingly straightforward solutions such as simply eating more goji berries (now available in a handy and delicious goji berry bar) – are difficult to dismiss. Those of us from biomedical backgrounds (who perhaps should know better) could be forgiven for considering the benefits of detoxing when encouraged by claims from respectable sources that simply sticking to a diet of raw fruits, vegetables, and seeds for just a few days will give “full-on first aid to vital organs – liver, kidneys, intestines, and skin,” and “rid your body of environmental toxins such as pesticide residues.” Even the Royal Society apparently promotes a “detox break” of herbal teas, fruit, and decaffeinated coffee at its meetings.

One of the pillars of detox marketing is, in fact, the use of scientific terminology. From short articles in free papers to thick books with detailed day-by-day plans, references to the detox diet are invariably peppered with scientific terms such as “immune depletion,” “pathogen,” and even simply “toxin.” Scientific-sounding blurbs can be found on anything from shampoos (“If you are using prescription drug medications, drug metabolites in the blood stream actually grow into the hair strand via the hair follicle”) to water (“French dermatologists have clinically proven that due to its characteristic mineral composition and neutral pH Evian® Spray Mineral Water supplies the vital moisture skin so desperately needs to remain soft, supple, healthy, and young looking”), and the title “Dr” is thrust liberally onto brand names to sell products – including Dr Stuart’s Teabags and the entire aforementioned Dr Gillian McKeith empire. This kind of marketing leads the lay public to believe that they are in the safe hands of doctors and research scientists, and gives the whole industry categorical credibility.

A second preaching of detox is that we are constantly being assailed by life-sapping toxins. Allegations are cast abundantly that we suffer an “overwhelming” build-up of toxins from air, food, water, and everything from cleaning products to the flame retardants on computers, leading to “fatigue, anxiety, and even illness.” There is of course some truth to this - there's carcinogenic benzene in our gasoline, lead in our paint, mercury in our tuna, and hormones in our drinking water. But we are encouraged to search for the presence of toxins in everything we encounter – one website illustrates our health as a boat “floating in a sea of toxins,” which contaminate every aspect of our lives, and include not only chemical, biological, and electromagnetic toxins, but “emotional” toxins as well. According to this particularly encouraging website, everyone, whether aware of it or not, is exposed to “trauma or abuse that occurred as a child or as an adult, or unhappy relationships with a relative, a spouse, a ‘significant other,’ a boss, co-worker, or even a neighbour.” Just reading such traumatising words should be enough to send many people reaching for a bottle of vodka, but the media can work wonders with scare tactics such as these, if they assure us they can be rectified.

Enter the third attraction of detox: the idea of purification. The “purification” of blood and tissues is, according to detox advocates, not only possible, but essential, and it is this simplicity of a route to health and longevity that is so alluring. However, what seems to have been neglected in such mass promotion of three-day diets is that the liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin have evolved to readily metabolise and excrete all toxins we encounter in everyday life, from those we ingest, to others we are faced with day to day which no amount of dieting will reduce. Eliminating all sources of toxins altogether is not only virtually impossible, but also comes with the dangers of avoiding entire food groups at a time, and slamming your body with a massive drop in calorie intake and often nutrients. For instance, meat is almost always portrayed as damaging (one website claims that meat “encourages the body to retain toxins in an effort to process them”) and is forbidden in detox diets, but despite the media furor, there is no supporting evidence that a moderate amount of meat included in a varied, balanced diet has any harmful effects. Ironically, cutting out meat with a view to achieving a more effectual detox may do more harm than good, because the liver requires protein to function efficiently. Which is good news. What better hangover cure is there than digging into freshly grilled sausages or a big juicy steak ...

The fourth selling point of detox diets is the quick fix solution. Although there are a number of plans that recommend an entire lifestyle change, the major appeal of detox is the idea that you can achieve most if not all of the advocated systemic purification, and body (and mind) detoxification, in three to seven days. Following this short period, it is perfectly acceptable to go back to your old (unhealthy and damaging) lifestyle, and as long as you keep up regular cycles of detoxification, you will stay in tip-top condition. If things don’t work out as advertised, people rarely blame the product, and rather put the blame on themselves – and they try another, and another. Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the mass endorsement of detox dieting is that it promotes cycles of bingeing and purging rather than encouraging permanent reflection about the foods we eat, the amount and type of exercise we take, the amount of stress in our lives, and the amount of sleep we get.

The fifth, and final rule of detox dieting is the constant battle between things “natural” and “artificial.” “Chemicals” are bad for you, and “extracts” are good. The importance of sticking to organic food, for example, is emphasised in every detox diet. Celebrities are really getting their teeth into this one – from celebrity nutritionists and chefs like Dr Gillian McKeith and Jamie Oliver appearing on every channel and in every bookshop holding forth about the benefits of eating organic, “the way food should be, healthy, tasty, and grown with nature,” to more dubious advocates such as Elle Macpherson and Melinda Messenger, asking publicly “Why should I allow my body or my children to be filled with man-made chemicals, when I don’t know what the health effects of these substances will be? … I feel happy that I can feed my family food that avoids unnecessary pesticides and harmful food additives.” These celebrities and their admiring followers seem unaware that pesticides are a necessary, very tightly regulated, and extensively researched element of agriculture, and it is virtually impossible to avoid them entirely, with residues inevitably appearing on organic as well as conventional produce. Even “artificially” preparing certain foods – i.e. cooking – apparently causes alterations that will harm our bodies. Shazzie, another bestselling author and “pioneer of the raw food revolution,” claims that “cooking causes major chemical changes to food and then the food contains new and unrecognisable chemicals. Your body doesn’t recognise them and treats them as toxins. It creates an immune response, and produces many white blood cells to go and disarm the invaders. Ultimately, your immunity really suffers because it’s made so many attacks on the ‘food’ you’ve eaten, and so becomes depleted.” What seems to have been forgotten in the public parade of these sensational statements is that just because something occurs naturally, it does not automatically mean it is nutritious; indulging in an incorrectly-prepared dish of fugu or picking and eating the wrong kind of mushroom would both result in an urgent call for a real detox …

To support the cleansing process, or possibly as a last-ditch attempt to make a diet of raw vegetables and no condiments a little more stimulating, we are encouraged to garnish our diet with detoxing blends of teas, plant extracts, hot water with lemon and enough herbal supplements to get the police knocking on our doors. Possibly the most absurd dietary cleansing method you might come across is the gallbladder flush. Protocols are far from standardised, but are generally variations on the following theme: the participant fasts for three or four days, consuming nothing but the occasional acidic fruit. Following this, the instructions are to go to bed, drink a whole cup of olive oil, mixed with a squeeze of lemon juice…and wait. Those who get this far without heaving will find they need the bathroom very frequently over the next few days, periodically expelling “gall stones” – solid dark green blobs ranging in size from pea to golf-ball. For someone with any anatomical training, a moment’s thought on this will cast doubt on the odds of getting golf-ball sized stones through the cystic and common bile ducts. It is possible, though rare, for very small gallstones to pass into the duodenum, but generally they require surgery to be removed. In fact, the expelled products following one patient’s gallbladder flush were examined, and the blobs found simply to be soap stones, the unpleasant products of mixing a large amount of oil with gastric juices, saponified (literally made into soap) with the potassium in the lemon juice. This particular patient did indeed have gallstones, but they were cholesterol gallstones, consistent with over 80% of all cases, and were later removed by surgery.

Physical aids on a detox mission are possibly more numerous, varied, and farfetched than the diets themselves. One especially popular peculiarity is the phenomenon of detoxifying foot pads (yielding over 100,000 Google hits). Apparently the pads draw out the toxins in your body, through your feet, while you sleep. After a five-day course, “your body will be pure.” Taking a look at the ingredients of the pads, it becomes clear that it is little more than corn starch, vinegar (bamboo vinegar and wood vinegar to be precise), and tourmaline, a semi-precious stone whose “energy is known to improve circulation, relieve stress, increase mental alertness and strengthen the immune system.” Other rituals range from rather unpleasant colonic irrigations and bowel enemas, to much more appealing lymphatic massages and seaweed body wraps.

Detox plans are widely promoted as “practical, scientific and rational” guides to wellbeing, and celebrities such as Daniel Reid are regarded by many of those who have read their publications as an authority above those in Western medicine. Despite claims like “periodic detox is probably the single most effective preventative measure you can take to protect your life from the entire spectrum of disease and degenerative conditions; detox is the best cure for most of these conditions,” one reviewer of Reid’s The Tao of Detox implores that it “should be compulsory reading for every single health practitioner in the world!” Perhaps it should, if only to draw further attention to the inappropriate assertions made by such “authorities” that are so massively and improbably influential.

All the supposed benefits of detox can be achieved in a much safer and more enjoyable way, by maintaining a varied, balanced diet, drinking enough water, and simply having a good sleep. Perhaps it’s time to take a seat, kick off your vinegar foot-pads, ditch the cup of olive oil, and begin to enjoy mealtimes again.

References

Pawlowski S, Ternes T, Bonerz M, et al. 2003. Combined in situ and in vitro assessment of the estrogenic activity of sewage and surface water samples. Toxicol Sci. 75(1): 57-65.

Schwartz J, Levin R. 1991. The risk of lead toxicity in homes with lead paint hazard. Environ Res. 54(1): 1-7.

Sies CW, Brooker J. 1999. Could these be gallstones? Lancet 365(9468): 1388.

Storelli MM, Stuffler RG, Marcotrigiano GO. 2002. Total and methylmercury residues in tuna-fish from the Mediterranean sea. Food Addit Contam. 19(8): 715-20.

Wallace LA. 1996. Environmental exposure to benzene: an update. Environ Health Perspect. 104 Suppl 6: 1129-36.