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Debate: Cleaning Your Body, the Truth About Detox Programmes

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 22 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Detox Cleansing Body Cleanse Natural

“Detox” is one of the buzzwords of our modern times and we are constantly being told of the benefits of “cleaning out” our bodies – the same way we would do a spring clean of our houses.

The need to detox?

It is believed that the increase in environmental pollutants, such as chemicals from pesticides, heavy metals in the water and waste gases in the air, together with the high percentage of heavily processed foods in most diets, not to mention the toxins that we introduce into our bodies ourselves through habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption – all this leads to a build-up of harmful toxins in our body. This ‘congestion’ in turn supposedly leads to lethargy and lack of energy, weight gain, digestive problems and skin problems, allergies and possibly even the onset of more serious disease.

Small wonder than that people are rushing to do “detox diets” in the belief that these programmes will ‘flush out’ these accumulated toxins. In fact, detox kits have grown exponentially in popularity in recent years. One nutrition retail chain in Canada has sold over $1.5 million worth of detox kits in the last 2 years alone!

Types of detox diets

A quick look in any pharmacy or health shop and you will be overwhelmed by the number of detox diets available, each claiming to be the answer to all your health woes. These range from the aggressive treatments which promise intestinal cleaning, through the use of high-fibre supplements containing herbs or enzymes, laxatives and even enemas – to diets that involve fasting and extremely low calorie intakes (e.g.. consuming nothing but water and lemon juice) which claim to cleanse the whole body. There are even detox regimes which promise to stimulate the outflow of toxins through the feet, either through a special adhesive pad worn on the bottoms of feet during sleep or via immersing your feet in an “ionic footbath”, which contains electrodes that supposedly draw toxins out using a low-voltage electric charge.

The detox debate

So what is the truth behind detox treatments? Surely so many celebrity endorsements and anecdotes from friends and family can’t be wrong? Or are they all really just the victims of an urban myth – and possibly even putting their health at risk?

The argument FOR detox

Detox programmes are certainly full of promises on delivering all kinds of results, from clearer, revitalised skin to increased energy levels and better digestion, as well as reduced disease. Certainly followers and supporters of detox regimes insist that they feel less bloated, have fewer headaches, improved energy levels and clearer skin after following a detox diet. It can also be helpful in encouraging people to make a “fresh start” and get them into the habit of a healthier way of eating. Many of the changes recommended by detox diets – such as consuming more fruit and vegetables, increasing your water intake, generally eating less overall and cutting out harmful substances like caffeine and nicotine – undoubtedly do have beneficial effects on health.

The argument AGAINST detox

The problem with detox diets – as with many other things – is when things are taken to the extreme, sometimes to dangerous levels. In fact, studies have shown that extremely low calorie intakes or fasting (very common elements of most detox diets) actually cause your metabolism to slow down and leads to weight increase after you return to normal eating. Furthermore, if you are following a very extreme detox diet which includes herbal extracts that have a laxative effect – especially for more than a few days – then this can be a severe drain on your energy and nutrient levels of your body, actually weakening your body further and leaving you more vulnerable to disease.

In fact, detox diets are seen as extremely dangerous for certain groups of people, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women, children and adolescents, people with kidney or liver problem, people with diabetes and heart disease and people with compromised immune systems and those taking ‘blood thinning’ medication.

Also worrying many health experts is the way many people use detox diets as a quick slimming solution. Not only is losing weight in such a fast and dramatic manner extremely harsh on your body, research has shown that this form of sudden forced weight loss actually causes the body’s metabolism to react by storing more calories – so that invariably, when the people return to their normal eating habits, they often gain back more weight than they had initially.

Another worry of medical experts is that many people will see the detox approach to health as a “quick fix” solution – meaning that they can eat and drink whatever they like and pour as many toxins as they wish into their bodies, since they can simply “reverse” things by detoxing for a week or two to ‘clean out the system’. This encourages a reckless, irresponsible attitude to health which does not promote long-term well-being in the least.

The verdict?

Ultimately, the most important argument AGAINST detox diets is that there is no scientific evidence or medical proof that they work. At best, they are a waste of money and time – and at worst, they are dangerous and could put your health at serious risk, if you try to follow an extreme regime.

In fact, the general consensus of the trained medical profession is that the human body has evolved to “detox naturally” – that is what the organs like your liver and kidneys are there for and even organs like the gastrointestinal tract has natural elimination of waste built into its normal functioning processes. So there is no need to go on a specific detox diet as your body is constantly cleansing itself all the time. In fact, if it didn’t, you would probably be dead – you certainly couldn’t go weeks or months with a poor lifestyle only to “clean it up” every so often with a drastic detox treatment. The positive changes experienced by many detox followers may be simply due to the healthier shift in their diets – it goes without saying that if you eat less food, you will feel less bloated; if you drink more and improve your hydration levels, your skin will look better and if you reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake, you will probably suffer fewer headaches.

If you really do want to make an attempt to “detox” and clean your body, there is no need to follow an extreme diet. You simply need to establish an on-going habit of eating more fruit and vegetables, in as whole form as possible, together with nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrain bread and cereals – and of reducing the amount of processed food you eat, as well as getting adequate amounts of water, exercise and sleep.

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