Detox diets have become more popular during the past several years. They all involve some sort of food restriction often paired with supplements and colon cleansing and promise to rid your body of health-damaging toxins that have supposedly built up in your system.
Doctors caution that these diets can be dangerous for some people and note that the scientific evidence behind them is nonexistent. However, you may be feeling symptoms that you believe are tied to toxic buildup. Should you try one of these diets, or is there a better way to flush toxins away? Read on to find out and make your own decision.
Initially, detoxification (detox) referred to the process of removing toxins from the body, typically because of substance abuse. The detox period allowed the body to process or metabolize drugs or alcohol and then clear them out so the individual could recover and be healthy again.
Today’s detox diets and cleanses, however, claim to eliminate not drugs and alcohol but a buildup of harmful toxins that have supposedly accumulated inside us through our exposure to the environment, foods, and beverages. These toxins may include heavy metals, synthetic chemicals, pollutants and more that can threaten our physical health and well-being.
Detox diets are generally short-term interventions involving a period of fasting, followed by a strict diet containing only certain prescripted items. What you can and can’t eat varies depending on the specific diet you’re following, but most involve a low-calorie plan that is intended to cleanse the body from the inside out to help protect you from the disease.
Some detoxes also include cleansing the colon (lower intestinal tract) via enemas, laxatives, diuretics or colonic irrigation. A sauna may also be suggested to push toxins out via sweat. Detox programs may be purchased and implemented at home, and/or you can obtain treatments at health centers or spas.
How Does a Detox Work?
The theory behind modern-day detoxes is that they help eliminate toxins from the body via the elimination of certain foods and food groups. By restricting these foods, you give your digestive system a break, the theory goes, allowing it to rest, heal and restore itself so that it can operate better in the future.
A typical detox diet includes the following steps:
- Short-term fast of one to three days
- Heavy intake of fluids, including fresh fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, water, and tea; some diets also prescribe salted water or lemon juice
- Restricting processed foods and foods believed to be high in contaminants, allergens, and heavy metals
- Elimination of all alcohol, caffeine-containing beverages, and refined sugar
- Short-term use of laxatives, colon cleanses (irrigation) and/or enemas
- Possible use of herbs and other supplements that are said to help support the detoxifying process
It is true that we come into contact with toxins every day and that the body does accumulate some of these toxins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found through various studies that there is widespread exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Phthalates, for example — a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible — was found to be widespread in the United States general population, with adult women having higher levels than men for those phthalates used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and other personal care products. Phthalates have been linked with hormone disruption, infertility, and developmental problems.
The CDC also found bisphenol-A (BPA) — a chemical used to manufacture polycarbonate plastics — to be widespread in the U.S. population. BPA has been linked to reproductive problems in animals, although it remains unclear how the chemical may affect human health.
These are just a couple of examples. We are exposed to more chemicals and other toxins today than we ever have been in the past, so it makes sense that people would be concerned.
The body does have its own detox system. The kidneys, liver, skin, digestive system and lungs continually detoxify regularly, taking waste products like toxins out of the body. The liver, in particular, renders toxic substances harmless and then ensures they’re flushed out of the body. That is its job.
The idea that we might be able to help the body get rid of more of these toxins is appealing, particularly since some chemicals like phthalates and BPA are harder for the body to remove but, so far, we have little evidence that a dietary detox paired with supplements and colon cleanses will do the trick.
What Are the Benefits of a Detox?
Proponents of detoxes say they provide the following benefits:
- Increased energy levels
- Improved digestion (relief from constipation)
- Better weight management (some advertise weight loss)
- Healthier, younger-looking skin (reduced acne and other issues)
- Shinier, healthier-looking hair
- Strengthened immune system
- Improved mood
- Resolved headaches and body aches
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved cognition and focus
- Delayed aging
The studies we have on detox diets so far fall far short of verifying their effectiveness. In a 2014 review, researchers found a handful of clinical studies showing that commercial detox diets could slightly enhance the liver’s ability to detox and eliminate organic pollutants from the body, but all of these studies had flawed methodologies and small sample sizes.
The researchers did acknowledge some preliminary evidence suggesting that foods like coriander, nori, and olestra had detoxification properties, although most of those studies had been performed in animals, so it was unclear how the results would compare in humans.
In a later study, scientists acknowledged that detox diets could work for weight loss “because they lead to extremely low caloric intake for short periods of time,” but found that they all tended to lead to weight gain once a normal diet was resumed.
The diets themselves don’t have any scientific studies behind them, and none have been linked with eliminating certain toxins. None of the diets can claim to rid your body of lead, phthalates, BPA or any other specific toxin. Perhaps most importantly, we have no evidence so far that detox treatments have any useful medical effects.
Meanwhile, there are some safety concerns. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken action against several companies selling detoxing and cleansing products because of false advertising or because they contained illegal, potentially harmful ingredients.
Detoxification programs that include laxatives can cause diarrhea and may lead to dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. Colon cleansing or irrigation procedures can have side effects as well, including cramping, bloating, diarrhea and vomiting and, in some cases, tears in the rectum (perforations). The Mayo Clinic notes that some coffee enemas have been linked to several deaths.
5 Steps to Detox Safely
The evidence we have so far suggests we’re better off saving our money rather than spending it on expensive products and spa treatments that promise to detox the body. You can cleanse your system in a natural, safe way by following these tips.
1. Drink More Water
Recent research confirmed that most American employees don’t drink enough water daily. Specifically, the study found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed did not think they consumed enough to meet their health needs.
An earlier study by the CDC found that 43 percent of adults drank less than four cups of water per day. The standard recommendation is eight cups per day. Drinking enough water helps the body flush toxins and waste out of the system, so this is one of the healthiest choices we can make.
Paula Burke, a clinical dietitian at MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, told the Chicago Tribune that we’re better off hydrated, adding that water “helps our circulation, makes us feel better, helps rid our bodies of toxins and prevents constipation.”
Fiber is nature’s way of detoxifying your digestive system. Getting enough fiber in the diet makes it easier for the bowels to flush away waste. Without enough fiber, we are more vulnerable to constipation, which allows toxins to remain longer in our systems.
Fiber also helps eliminate old bile (the digestive aid secreted by the liver), trapping it in the gut so it can be eliminated. If we don’t get enough, the bile is repeatedly recirculated in the system, becoming more concentrated with toxins as it does so.
According to recent studies, Americans aren’t getting enough fiber. One 2016 study reported that only about 5 percent meet daily fiber recommendations. The American Heart Association recommends 21 to 25 grams per day for adult women and 30 to 38 grams per day for adult men. One cup of peas supplies nearly 9 grams of fiber.
3. Exercise More
Exercise contributes to the body’s natural detoxing process in a few ways. First, it promotes sweating, which can move toxins through the skin. Second, it improves circulation and, finally, it improves digestion, stimulating the bowels to push the waste along.
One recent study found that exercise detoxed harmful chemicals from the body tied to depression. Scientists discovered that during exercise, the muscles acted like the liver and kidneys in that they produced an enzyme that cleared out toxins linked to depression.
4. Eat a Healthy Diet
The fewer toxins you put into your body, the fewer you have to worry about eliminating. Avoid heavily processed foods that are filled with preservatives, dyes and other chemicals, and choose whole foods as much as possible.
In addition to plant foods in general, some specific foods and beverages that have been linked with a healthy liver:
- Coffee: It’s been found to help reduce the risk of fatty liver disease and chronic liver disease and may help reduce the risk of liver cancer.
- Oatmeal: It adds fiber to the diet and fights against inflammation. It’s been found in animal studies to help reduce fat in the liver.
- Green tea: It may also help reduce the risk of a fatty liver.
- Berries: These contain healthy antioxidants that protect all inner organs from damage.
- Prickly pear: Research suggests that compounds in this fruit may help protect the liver.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Experts recommend seven to eight hours a night for optimal health. Not only does sleep help your digestive and detox systems work as they should, but it’s also been connected to flushing toxins out of the brain.
In 2013, researchers reported that the spaces between brain cells increased during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that tended to build up during waking hours. Lead author Dr. Maiken Nedergaard noted that the restorative nature of sleep “appears to be the result of the active clearance of the byproducts of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.”
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