03.Do we really need to detox?
Many of the kits (see Detox kits reviewed) refer to the large number of toxins — from cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and pesticides to caffeine, alcohol and medicinal drugs — that our bodies are exposed to in today’s world (see What’s a toxin? below, for more). They talk of how toxins accumulate in the body, and of the extra burden this places on the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms. And they point the finger at this toxic overload as being behind a host of ills including constipation, bloating, flatulence, poor digestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, lack of energy and fatigue.
The kits claim that their detox products “stimulate your body’s natural detoxifying functions”, “improve the functioning of your digestive system”, “work like an intestinal broom”, “flush away potentially harmful toxins from your system” and generally give your body a “spring clean” to provide relief from these problems, improve your general health and wellbeing and leave you feeling revitalised.
So do we really need to detox?
The short answer is ‘no’. As many of the kits themselves point out, our bodies are well-equipped with self-cleansing mechanisms, and detoxification occurs on a continual basis in the body — the lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, skin and immune system all play a part in effectively removing or eliminating toxins.
Symptoms like bloating and fatigue may be an indication of an unhealthy lifestyle, or a lack of vital nutrients because of poor eating habits — not of toxic build-up. For example, constipation, bloating and flatulence can all result from a lack of fibre.
And claims that physical side effects of the detox programs like coated tongue, bad breath, fatigue and various aches and pains are evidence that your body is getting rid of toxins just aren’t sustainable. HILDE HEMMES’ HERBALS, for example, claims that body odour as a side effect of its program “is a good sign as it is the result of toxic elimination”. In fact this and nail-polish-remover-smelling breath are both symptoms of your body burning fat while you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet (as is recommended by HILDA HEMMES in particular). You can lose a similar amount of body fat by following any calorie-restricted diet, but a more balanced, less extreme one won’t have these side effects.
The bottom line is that no studies have shown that a detox regimen increases the elimination of toxins.
- We can all benefit from improving our diet and lifestyle — eating more fruit, vegies and whole grains and less fat, cutting back on junk foods, and only having caffeine and alcohol in moderation.
- If ‘detoxing’ gets people thinking about their lifestyle, and springboards them into making positive long-term changes, OK. But the detox fad may encourage the idea that you can pollute your body as much as you like all year and then undo the damage in days — a theory that’s very in tune with today’s quick-fix mentality, but which unfortunately doesn’t work.
- You’re better off saving your money and making small but sustainable diet and lifestyle changes that will benefit your health in the long term.
What’s a toxin?
Dictionaries define a toxin as a poison produced by an organism, which causes disease. But detox kits cast the net wider to encompass any substance with the potential to harm your body. When the kits mention toxins, they’re mainly referring to those they categorise as environmental — alcohol, caffeine, medicinal and recreational drugs, cigarette smoke, heavy metals, exhaust fumes, pollution, ‘chemicals’, preservatives and pesticides, to name a few — which we’re exposed to in the air and through our diets. A couple of kits also mention free radicals — internal chemical by-products that can damage our body’s cells if more are produced than are neutralised by the body’s antioxidants.