There are many things in life that I am yet to figure out, lots of questions I am yet to find answers to and on top of that, sits one more perplexing than most…are we not past the dark ages where strange men in chariots sold towns miracle elixirs sworn to cure all diseases and remedy all conditions with a simple ‘trust me, it works’? It would seem not judging from the millions a number of companies are making by selling snake oil with marketing slogans enticing enough to convince the ignorant public its just what they need. Which brings us to the million-dollar question, does detox really work? The simple answer would be, not really and before you strap me to the chair and aim juice bottles at me, lets invoke oh mighty science and rational thinking.
Everything edible, drinkable or breathable is a possible toxin. The dose makes the poison. Basically, everything around us is a possible toxin, from the air we breathe to the water we drink. Even oxygen! Yes, the colorless odorless gas we require for our survival could paradoxically, kill us in certain concentration.
Years and years of evolution have equipped the human body with organs tasked with the responsibility of preventing toxin build up. These organs namely the liver, the kidneys, the lungs and the skin make up the excretory system. The liver through biotransformation makes possibly toxic substances water soluble to then be excreted in bile finding way out of the digestive system as stool. The alternative exit route for these toxins would be through the kidney and out as urine or through the skin as sweat. For gaseous waste products like carbon (IV) oxide the lungs would be their exit route. A healthy liver and a functioning pair of kidneys are able to sufficiently detox and rid the body of toxins and metabolic waste products.
However, it is possible to overwhelm these organs by ingesting way too high levels of toxins e.g. in cases of drug overdoes or high alcohol consumption. There are also certain substances such as heavy metals like mercury and lead that are not easily excreted by the kidneys and ingestion of seemingly low quantities could be lethal. In cases such as this, detoxification is needed and above all, lifesaving.
Clever marketers and salesmen have intercepted the term ‘detox’ using it interchangeably with ‘cleanse’ to pocket a few coins from the sale of products they claim to flush out toxins out of our bodies. What are these toxins you may ask? They are careful not to go into specifics but generally are food additives, prescription drugs, salt just to mention a few. These toxins supposedly accumulate in the body and cause the occasional headaches or bouts of fatigue we experience as we go about with our day. These detox treatment and diets help the body get rid of these said toxins leaving you healthier and full of energy. Some claim to cure hangovers, others could help you shed a few pounds or even cure disease. Are they necessary, and more importantly, are they safe?
Colon cleansing is a detox treatment trend gaining momentum fast. Of concern is what we see every so often from the pop-up ads on our screens promising that the brown contents in the one-liter bottle are not only much needed but will leave our colons squeaky clean and our insides feeling brand new. Coffee enemas are also sold with argument that tiny bits of poop remain stuck on the walls of our colons which if not removed will form a sludge branded – mucoid plaque. The existence of the said plaque has been challenged by gastroenterologists as it has never appeared in autopsy reports. These cleanses are not only unnecessary but also a health risk. All you need for a healthy colon is a diet rich in fiber and roughage.
There are a number of diet detox regimes going around with juice cleanses being popular among the millennials. Juice cleanses include consuming nothing but liquified fruits and vegetables for days or weeks. These drinks are packed with vitamins and nutrients needed by the body for cell growth and high-water content so of course your skin will glow especially if you were not keen on including fruits to your diet before. Some of these fruit components have been shown to reduce risk of getting some diseases in the long term, key word being in the long term. To rip maximum benefits off our fruits and vegetables, it is wise to incorporate them in our daily servings.
Dieting should be a lifestyle, not a one-time thing you do whenever you want to atone for excessive snacking or binge eating. These diet plans are calory restrictive often sending your body into starvation mode where your metabolism slows down and you might lose a pound or two but best believe, once you are off the diet plan you will gain back all the weight you lost. Like Tarzan swinging from branch to branch, you will yoyo through the weighing scales unless you get on a more sustainable diet plan. It is key to note that fruits juices will not ‘detox’ your body.
Some detox treatments include consuming large amounts of water on the daily. As much as 10 liters per day! In as much as water is key for the whole process of excretion, basic biology has us know any excess is excreted as urine. Staying ahead of your thirst center will just make your urine clearer. Primary polydipsia – drinking a lot of water- could lead to hyponatremia which is low sodium levels. This could lead to delirium, seizures or potentially, death.
Herbal detox kits are some peoples go to plan, reason being they are natural. Natural does not equal safe. Poop is natural by definition, but we do not go eating it. Arsenic is natural, but we know it is toxic. Herbs are drugs and like any drug they contain active constituents responsible for their action. They are however poorly regulated making their active constituents hard to quantify. Some like the valerian root contain diuretic compounds which increase water excretion by the kidneys. The weight loss experienced is just water loss and can be reversed by hydration. Uncontrolled use of diuretics can land one in the ER due to hyponatremia.
There is no rigorous scientific research, no compelling evidence to show that popular detox plans actually work. Steven novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University in his paper Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous gives 3 take home points;
- The notion of a ‘detox’ treatment is one such narrative. It is not based on our understanding of biology or medicine, and in fact runs contrary to it. Detox treatments are entirely unnecessary and should not be assumed benign
- We cannot simplistically hack our health and think that we can do better than the elaborate feedback systems that evolved to maintain physiology
- We should not assume that any intervention can’t hurt…All interventions should be considered in the context of risk vs benefit
The burden of proof falls on the claimant. Vague anecdote from paid marketers captioned ‘I’ve never felt this amazing!’ or ‘it works!’ should not be enough. So far, science says these detox plans are as effective as fairy dust and as Dr. Mike would say, listen to science he’s a pretty smart guy.
Don’t forget to check out our previous blog post – COVID-19 In Kenya, a year down the line if you haven’t already and leave a comment on your thoughts about the topic.
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