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?

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words DARA MO­HAM­MADI

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.’


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