Science, pseudoscience, & media literacy

Do You Need to Detox/Cleanse?

Does your body need detoxing/cleansing?  Or is your liver already on top of it?

Detox diets and cleanses are quite popular these days, especially if you’re of the Goop-y persuasion. And while they might seem to make sense on an intuitive level, from a science perspective, is there anything to actually back that up?

The “toxins”

Commercial detox products tend to refer vaguely to “toxins” without actually specifying what those toxins are or the mechanism by which their detox product would help in removing them. There’s also no evidence showing that these undefined toxins are present in particular amounts.

Proponents of these types of detoxes often dichotomize chemicals/compounds are either fully good or fully bad. Yet all of us are exposed to a wide variety of chemical substances, both natural and synthetic, that range from harmful and helpful, often depending on dose/amount.

I’ll pause here for a detour to a bit of a side rant. Sometimes the word “chemical” is used as though it’s a 4-letter word. But what is a chemical, exactly? Wikipedia describes a chemical substance as “a form of matter having constant chemical composition and characteristic properties.” Good old water, H20, is a chemical. Oxygen (O2) is a chemical. Salt (NaCl) that you sprinkle on your food is a chemical. Chemical is not a bad word. Okay, end of rant.

How the body deals with toxic substances

The body has many ways of getting rid of things that it doesn’t want. The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin, and lungs can all join the party. Sometimes removal is a multi-pronged approach; for example, the liver may change the form of a compound to something that the kidneys are then able to excrete.

Bioaccumulation can occur when the body stores a substance in areas from which it’s harder to get rid of things. Whether this occurs depends on the characteristics of the individual substance, like whether it’s water or fat-soluble.

Detoxes

There’s a wide range of different detox approaches, including fasting, selectively eating only certain types of food, and selectively avoiding certain foods. Non-dietary approaches include chelation therapy, use of saunas, ear candling, and colon cleanses.

While certain compounds have been shown to help remove harmful metals in animal studies, it’s unclear if that’s relevant to humans at the amounts that we’re typically exposed to. Research in humans just doesn’t seem to have happened.

Yet detoxes sound like a good idea if you don’t think about any of the nuts and bolts. That reasonableness on an intuitive level has made companies in the alternative health industry some serious dollars. Because who needs proof something works if your mind a) thinks it should work, and b) wants it to work. With generally low levels of scientific literacy, pseudoscience may even be more palatable to the general populace than actual science.

Pronounceability ≠ toxicity

“If you can’t say it, don’t eat it” was advice given by In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan in an interview with NPR. In Defense of Food made some very good points, but this particular bit of advice feeds into the idea of indiscriminately dichotomizing substances as good or bad.

I remember reading something quite a while back (I don’t recall the source) claiming that the inclusion of cyanacobalamin was a problem because it was along name that was hard to pronounce. The author had failed to look up cyanacobalamin’s more pronounceable name, vitamin B12.

Quack quack

Dr. Edzard Ernst, director of complementary medicine at University of Exeter and Plymouth has challenged the validity of alternative detox (as opposed to medical detox, e.g. from alcohol). He argued that for alternative detox hasn’t addressed basic scientific questions like what exactly the “toxins’ are, how they’re quantified, and it’s determined what patients require detox treatment. He pointed out that it would be very easy to demonstrate the effectiveness of this kind of detox if it did actually work; one would need to simply test the levels of the toxin in question, administer the detox, and then retest. If it works, why isn’t there already mountains of evidence?

Ernst also blasted a “detox tincture” made by Prince Charles’ company Duchy Originals (not to be confused with the perhaps more apt douchy originals). In an article published on Quackwatch, he wrote that “Prince Charles and his advisors seem to ignore science and prefer to rely on ‘make believe’ and superstition.”

If Prince Charles and Gwyneth Paltrow are proclaiming the health benefits of something that the head of a complementary medicine department at a major university is saying is quacky, I’m taking the quacky side.

There’s more on pseudoscience on the Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience page.

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24 thoughts on “Do You Need to Detox/Cleanse?”

    1. There have been some studies that have shown some benefit from probiotics in depression. I think the idea is that gut flora can impact inflammation, which in turn affects the brain, and that whole system isn’t very well understood yet by science. From what I’ve read, it sounds like cleanses can have a negative impact on gut bacteria.

  1. I also get annoyed when people use “chemical” as an all-purpose scare word.

    I think my Mum has “detox tea” somewhere. I don’t think I assumed it was anything other than vaguely soothing, and certainly not anything scientific.

    I seem to recall that Duchy Original biscuits used to be nice, although I haven’t had one for years…

  2. We worry that many cleanses and fastings can fuck up your electrolytes and other things bodies work hard to balance.

    The hardest things for us are to eat when we’re hungry and drink enough water because we don’t always notice our body’s signals. We have little concern that we have too many toxins in our body.

    1. I suspect that for quite a few people, working on getting more in touch with the body’s signals is going to be far more useful than cleanses and that kind of thing.

  3. The body is able to regulate all those things on its own. Off course when you drink litres of cola and eat only fast food, you’ll notice a difference when you ‘cleanse’.
    But if it is all worth the hype, I don’t think so.
    Everything in moderation seems to work for me.

    1. I agree, moderation works well. And reducing highly processed, nutrient-sparse food and drinks would probably make the body much happier than some weird fad cleanse.

  4. Yeah, I have a friend who’s always telling me not to eat foods with unpronounceable ingredients. I get what he’s saying, and I’d love to be a “clean” eater, but it seems to be the world we live in that everything’s heavily produced. I’ve never detoxed, but I did spend a year off of gluten. I have mild gluten ataxia, which hasn’t been diagnosed (I can tell because if I eat too much bread, yikes), so I’ve learned to simply monitor the situation and not eat way too much bread at any given time. But the whole concept of detoxing seems like…. I don’t know….. unnecessary, unless you’re trying to go off something, like caffeine or gluten or something addictive.

    1. The problem with the unpronounceable thing is that pronounceability isn’t an effective way to judge how “clean” a food is. There are plenty of non-processed food options out there, but they take more effort to prepare than processed foods.

      1. Good point!! I think you’re right!! Oh my gosh, you could do a whole series of blog posts about food labeling ingredients!! 😮

  5. I wonder if people think they have toxins in their system because of so many artificial foods? Certified if you are eating whole foods, why detox? Seems counterintuitive. 🧐

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