Busting the detoxing myth
There’s no such thing as ‘detoxing’ – in medical terms, it is regarded as nonsense. Diet and exercise are the only ways to get healthy but can any of the latest fad regimes also make a difference?
Whether it’s cucumbers splashing into water or models sitting smugly next to a pile of vegetables, it’s tough not to be sucked in by the detox industry. The idea that you can wash away your irrigation clinic, there’s something you should know: detoxing leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go – is a scam.
‘Let’s be clear,’ says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, ‘there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t.’ The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs and charlatans to toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.’
If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete, he says, you’d likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention. ‘The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak,’ he says. ‘There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.’ Much of the sales patter revolves around ‘toxins’: poisonous substances that you are. If they were named they could be measured before and your eye, try to focus on these toxins and they scamper from view. In 2009, a network of scientists assembled by the UK charity Sense About Science contacted the manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets that claimed to detoxify. The products ranged from dietary supplements to smoothies and shampoos. When the scientists asked for evidence behind the claims, not one of
Yet, inexplicably, the shelves of health food stores are still packed with products bearing the word ‘detox’. You can buy detoxifying tablets, tea bags, face masks, bath salts, shampoos, body gels and even hair straighteners. Yoga, luxury retreats and massages will also all erroneously and you’ll probably lose weight, but that’s nothing to do with toxins, it’s because you’ve starved yourself for a week.
Then there’s colonic irrigation. Its proponents will tell you that plaques of impacted poo can lurk in your colon for your system. Pay them a small fee, though, and they’ll insert a hose up your bottom and wash them all away. Unfortunately for them, no doctor has ever seen one of these mythical plaques, and many warn against having the procedure done, saying that it can perforate your bowel.
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. Detoxing foot pads turn brown overnight with what manufacturers claim is toxic sludge drawn from your body. This sludge is nothing of the sort – a substance in the pads turns brown when it mixes with water from your sweat.
‘It’s a scandal,’ fumes Edzard. ‘It’s criminal exploitation of the gullible man on the street and it sort of keys into something that we all would love to have – a simple remedy that frees us of our sins, so to speak. It’s nice to think that it could exist but unfortunately it doesn’t.’
That the concept of vague might be why it has evaded public suspicion. When most of us utter the word detox, it’s usually when we’re bleary eyed and stumbling out of the wrong end of a heavy weekend. Surely a detox from alcohol is a good thing? ‘It’s alcohol days as part of your lifestyle,’ says dietitian Catherine Collins. ‘It’ll probably give you a chance to reassess your drinking habits. But the idea that your liver somehow needs to be “cleansed” is ridiculous.’
substance that damages liver cells. It is then almost immediately converted into carbon dioxide and water, which the body gets rid of. Drinking too much can overwhelm these enzymes and the acetaldehyde buildup will lead to liver damage. Moderate and occasional drinking, though, might have a protective effect. This adage also applies in an unexpected place – to broccoli, the ‘superfood’ champ. It does help the liver out but it is no hero. Broccoli, as with all brassicas – sprouts, cabbages – contains cyanide. Eating it provides a tiny bit of poison that, like alcohol, primes the enzymes in your liver to deal better with any other poisons.
Catherine guffaws at the notion of superfoods. ‘Most people think that you should restrict or pay particular attention to certain food groups, but this is not the case. The ultimate lifestyle “detox” is not smoking, exercising and enjoying a healthy balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet.’
Imagine a Mediterranean diet – a red chequered table wholegrain cereals, nuts and fruits. All these foods provide vitamins and minerals the body needs to function perfectly.
So why, then, with such a feast available on doctor’s orders, do we feel the need to punish ourselves to be healthy? gyms popped up, and from there we’ve had the proliferation of the beauty and diet industry with people becoming more aware of certain food groups and so on. The detox industry is – and there’s a lot of money in it.’
Peter Ayton, a professor of psychology at City University we’re susceptible to such gimmicks because we live in a world with so much information that we’re happy to defer responsibility to others who might understand things better. ‘To understand even shampoo you need to have a PhD in biochemistry,’ he says, ‘but a lot of people don’t have that. If it seems reasonable and plausible and invokes a familiar concept, like detoxing, then we’re happy to go with it.’
Many of our consumer decisions, he adds, are made in ignorance and supposition, which is rarely challenged or informed. ‘People assume that the world is carefully regulated and that there are benign institutions guarding them from idea, surreptitiously. So if people see somebody with apparently the right credentials, they think they’re listening to a respectable medic and trust their advice.’
Edzard is less forgiving: ‘Ask trading standards what they’re doing about it. Anyone who says, “I have a detox a crook. And it shouldn’t be left to scientists and charities to go after crooks.’
IF TOXINS DID BUILD UP IN A WAY YOUR BODY COULDN’T EXCRETE, you’d likely be dead or in need of SERIOUS MEDICAL INTERVENTION