The idea of using what we eat to ‘detox’ has a long history, often linked to religious practices, across many different countries and cultures. It can involve fasting, purging, using laxatives, emetics and or enemas, or ‘remedies’ that are supposed to ‘cleanse’ the body of whatever the ‘detoxer” believes needs to be eliminated. Generally they are a delusion.
These days, the idea of ‘detoxing’ is often promoted by celebrities and influencers seeking to sell pointless and expensive products to a gullible public. Sadly, despite a total lack of evidence for their effectiveness, and quite a lot of evidence about risks that can be associated with detox diets and products, people are still falling for the myth. Young women between the ages of 15 and 29 are most at risk of falling for the idea of ‘cleaning the blood’, ‘resting internal organs’, or ‘detoxing for weight loss’.
Don’t rush your gut
Although detox diets are not directly linked with eating disorders, they can trigger excessive use of laxative products, which are often misused by individuals seeking to lose weight, or to feel ‘clean’. Overusing laxatives messes up all sorts of things. It can lead to dehydration, which can result in headaches, confusion, fatigue and feeling dizzy.
Excessive laxative use also disrupts the microbiome by speeding up how long it takes for food to go through the digestion and absorption processes. This means there is less time for effective fermentation of dietary fibres in the gut (and so fewer beneficial chemicals being produced). And less time for us to absorb nutrients from food passing through our digestive system.
Don’t flush the good stuff
Some detox diets require very little food input, but extremely high levels of fluid consumption, either as water, or herbal teas which can distort our electrolyte balance. Electrolytes are the minerals sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium which work to regulate our body functions, including making sure our heart beats as it should, and our muscles work properly.
Extended periods of very high fluid intakes can reduce their concentrations, leading to confusion, headaches, muscle weakness and cramps, extreme fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and even heart failure.
On top of all of this, detox diets generally have a low-calorie intake, which is why they enable weight loss. But that low calorie intake means the diets can also lack the range of nutrients we need to maintain health. And once the person going through detox resumes normal eating, any weight that may have been lost is rapidly regained.
The big lie
But the really big lie about all of this is the idea that anyone would ever need any kind of detox diet or product. Because our bodies already have the best possible built-in detoxification organs in our digestive system: the liver and kidneys. Everything that enters the bloodstream from our food and drink, and even some of what we breathe in, gets processed by these amazing organs, and toxic substances eliminated. The water-soluble stuff gets pushed out through sweat and urine, while the fat-soluble stuff (along with the more solid components of our diet) heads for the exit as poo.
As blood passes through the liver, specialist cells called macrophages (which are part of our immune system) eat bacteria, viruses, dead cells, general debris and even tumour cells. Toxic substances like alcohol, caffeine, food additives, toxic by-products from the breakdown of foods, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals like herbicides and pesticides that make their way into the food chain, are pushed through a series of chemical processes that detoxify them.
Detox in two phases
There are two phases to this detoxification.
The first phase (imaginatively called Phase I) relies on a group of enzymes called the cytochrome P450 enzymes. These act on all toxins, changing their structure so they can be eliminated, or further processed. Substances that can be made water soluble are sent to the kidneys for further filtering, and then passed out of the body in sweat and urine.
But not all toxins can be made water soluble. Substances that need further processing are called intermediate forms, and these are often more toxic than the original material. Because these intermediate forms are highly toxic, it is important that they get picked up and detoxified as quickly as possible. Luckily, the liver has another trick up its sleeve in the form of (yep, you guessed it), Phase II.
Phase II uses a range of different chemicals to change the intermediate substances into forms that can be eliminated from the body. They are dumped into bile, a liquid which is made in the liver and stored in the gall bladder. The digestive system uses bile to break up fat from our diet so it can be absorbed (the fat, not the bile) and it also acts as a laxative. When mixed with the contents of our gut it turns everything brown….
The constant processing of toxic substances is hard work. The liver needs nutrients that will not only protect it against the damaging effect of the intermediate forms, but also supply the processes that keep the two Phases ticking over. Unfortunately, many of those nutrients are in short supply in the average British diet; intakes of vitamin, C, B2, B12, folic acid, choline, magnesium and zinc are all far too low in a large percentage of the population.
Keep your liver happy!
To keep your liver happy, keep it well supplied with the things it needs to do its job. Eat foods containing herbs and spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, garlic, oregano, and rosemary. They all contain high levels of antioxidants that can protect the liver. So do brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, onions, red grapes (and red wine!), chocolate, apples, berries, coffee, and green tea (although remember, everything in moderation).
Eat a diet that includes a wide range of fruit and vegetables, some healthy protein, and a minimum of processed foods. Get enough sleep. Drink enough water. Do some exercise. And laugh regularly – because sometimes the stuff you want to detox from go far beyond what your liver can do!
T C Callis’ articles are very well researched, and always come with a wealth of references. If you are interested in following up anything in the article, don’t hesitate to contact us at Kent Bylines for more information.