“Hidden Dangers of Detox Diets” was the title of a mass email message I recently received. Intrigued, I opened it up and it led to an article that discouraged anyone from attempting such a “dangerous” activity. “There is no scientifically proven reason to put yourself on a detox diet,” says Christine M. Palumbo, Registered Dietician, “as these so-called toxins do not accumulate in our GI tracts.” “Mother Nature provides her own detoxification methods, and they work very well.” The article goes on to warn about possible detrimental effects from detoxification such as dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, dependency on herbal laxatives and perforation of the bowel from colonics. The take-home message was that detox diets are not only a waste of time but “downright dangerous”.
Interesting. The author does point out potential risks associated with many detox programs, and people do need to be cautious when taking certain herbs, doing a fast, or undertaking colonic therapy. But there are inherent risks to many therapies, be they conventional or complementary. That doesn’t make them “a waste of time”. They can be very beneficial when properly prescribed, and there are many health care practitioners (such as naturopathic doctors) who are trained in leading people through a detox that is right for them. By focusing on the risks, leaving out the benefits, and then quoting a medical expert who says detox diets are not “scientifically-proven”, the author disregards decades of research and clinical experience.
But as with any therapy, I think it is worthwhile to examine why we undertake detox diets and take a look at the risks and benefits they present.
Those “so-called” toxins
A toxin is defined as any compound that has a detrimental effect on cell function or structure. These include heavy metals, such as lead or mercury, chemical toxicants including solvents, drugs, alcohol, and pesticides, and microbial compounds from bacteria and yeast in the gut. The body eliminates toxins either by directly neutralizing them or by excreting them in the urine or feces (and to a lesser degree from the mucous membranes, lungs and skin). The liver plays a key role in breaking down a wide range of toxins, and sending them to the kidney to be excreted in the urine or the intestines to be expelled as stool. So if, as the article states, “Mother Nature provides her own detoxification methods” why do we need to do detoxification diets?
It’s true, the body is normally efficient at detoxification on its own. But the issue is one of excess: we are exposed to more toxins than ever in our modern world and this exposure can be too much for our systems to handle. Once the detoxification system is overburdened, toxins that the body is unable to eliminate build up in the tissues, typically in fat cells and bone. The effects of toxicity are well-documented and range from mild to severe.
Heavy metals can accumulate within the brain, kidneys and immune system where they can disrupt normal function. Early signs of exposure are headaches, fatigue, muscle pains, constipation, etc. Exposure to chemical toxicants can cause psychological and neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression and mental confusion. Chronic chemical exposure can increase the rate of cancers and respiratory tract allergies. The intestinal buildup of waste products from unhealthy bacteria, yeast, or other micro-organisms in the gut can be absorbed and have been implicated in a wide variety of diseases including chronic fatigue, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, psoriasis, allergies, and asthma..
So all this toxic exposure may be too much for our systems to handle. And unfortunately, many of us consume unhealthy diets that lack the fibre and whole foods necessary for efficient detoxification, further compounding the problem. Furthermore, excessive intake of refined and processed foods, sugar, fatty and rich foods, increase the burden on our liver and gastrointestinal tracts. Throw in the health effects of a stressful job and it’s a wonder we are able to digest or metabolize anything! Enter … the Detox Diet So we know what toxins are, what causes toxicity and why our systems can get overwhelmed. We know that toxins can cause damage and that they need to be detoxified in order to be eliminated. We know if they don’t get eliminated as they should, they can accumulate or will cause problems. So what do we do about it? Following are the main components of a detox diet:
a) Toxin Reduction: Any good detox diet involves reducing the intake of toxins to give the liver and other organs of elimination a break. This means avoiding chemicals from food or other sources, including refined food, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. A focus on whole foods such as fruits and vegetables and the elimination of common allergens such as wheat and dairy can relieve congestion in our digestive system as well.
b) Extra support to the liver: Our body handles toxins either by neutralizing, transforming, or eliminating them. This detoxification process is heavily nutrient-dependent, fueled by vitamins, minerals and other food components. It is important to provide these nutrients during a detox to improve the process. I often recommend herbs and supplements to provide nourishment to the liver, kidney, lungs, etc. For heavy metal toxicity, chelators can bind to the metals and help your body rid itself of the toxins.
c) Sufficient toxin elimination – As toxins are mobilized in our systems, it is essential that they are eliminated efficiently. Constipation can cause the toxins to get reabsorbed into your system, basically reversing all your hard work. Fibre and lots of water are essential. And although I don’t ever recommend laxative herbs on an ongoing basis because of the risk of developing a bowel dependency, botanicals with a cleansing or laxative action can be used in the short term. Colonic hydrotherapy is an option (but of course only when performed by a qualified therapist). Saunas can assist toxin removal through the skin.
A key to proper detoxification is to individualize your program. As a naturopathic doctor, I look at a patient’s general health, energy level, and current lifestyle in order to set up the right program. Dr. Elson Haas (a medical doctor) is a strong proponent of detoxification and has written several books on the topic. He identifies different levels of detoxification: from making simple dietary changes and reducing drug and alcohol intake to eating a raw food diet, or fasting. Fasting – eating no solid food for a period of time – is the most intense cleanse and needs to be undertaken with caution. Short-term juice fasts can be a great experience and a healthy undertaking. However, prolonged fasting is not something I recommend as it may weaken muscles and other organs because essential nutrients required for healthy detoxification are lacking.
The bottom line… properly supervised detoxification from time to time can be a great part of a healthy lifestyle for almost anyone. For some, it’s essential. Who can argue about the benefits of reducing unhealthy foods and chemicals? Eating more fruits and vegetables? Drinking lots of water and having regular bowel movements? Yes, there are potential risks, but there are many benefits when done properly.