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Detoxes and cleanses: Are they a science or a scam?


Detox and cleansing products claim to remove supposed harmful 'toxins' from the body that it cannot remove by itself.

Detox and cleansing products claim to remove supposed harmful 'toxins' from the body that it cannot remove by itself.

Detox and cleansing products claim to remove supposed harmful 'toxins' from the body that it cannot remove by itself.

The body is a weird but extremely efficient and wonderful place that is more than capable to carry out specific functions necessary for everyday living. This includes removing most potentially harmful chemicals that we face every day.

So why then does a multi-million euro detox industry exist? For the same reason that fad diets do. They promise a quick fix.

Detoxes and cleanses claim to remove 'toxins' from our body that have built up due to our hectic lifestyle - but is there any science to back up their claims? In a nutshell - no.

Detoxification and Toxins

The term 'detox' is a medical term that refers to the safe discontinuation from a substance, usually dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol or poisons, which usually takes between a few days and a few weeks to complete in a hospital setting.

So when you see the term 'detox' being used on the side of a box of dandelion teabags, it is being misused and is actually a very deceptive form of marketing. The use of this term for detox and cleansing products makes an unscientific product appear legitimate and backed by science. However, it is far from it.

Detox and cleansing products claim to remove supposed harmful 'toxins' from the body that it cannot remove by itself. But just what toxins are they referring to exactly? None of the detox treatments identify exactly what these so called toxins are, nor do they explain the mechanism by which they remove them.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a true toxin is "a poisonous substance, especially a protein, that is produced by living cells or organisms and is capable of causing disease when introduced into the body tissues but is often also capable of inducing neutralising antibodies or antitoxins".

In other words, toxins are biological poisons, just like scorpion and snake venom. Not only do these detox products misuse the term detox, they also misuse the word toxin as a marketing strategy.

The Body Has Its Own Detox System

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In a healthy individual, there is a perfectly eloquent detoxification system in the form of a liver, kidneys, digestive system, and even the skin.

These organs combined give rise to an incredibly sophisticated intrinsic detoxification process, which has the capacity to get rid of unnecessary substances without the need for external assistance to improve its function.

The liver is the big gun. It is loaded with enzymes and is extremely efficient at converting toxic substances into less harmful ones. These are then dissolved in water and excreted as urine via the kidneys. Unwanted chemical are usually passed from the body in the space of a few hours to stop them from building up.

The digestive system is another big player in keeping our body safe from unwanted substances. It is a harsh environment and not much can withstand its wrath. It is lined with mucus to prevent unwanted bacteria from entering the body. It propels content along its tract until eventually it expels unwanted matter in the form of faeces.

Our skin also acts as a protective barrier. Very few chemicals can penetrate the skin, so any products applied to the skin that claim to detox are a load of rubbish as they can't get into the body and will have no effect on our internal system whatsoever.

Unless you have consumed a dangerous level of substances such as alcohol or drugs, then our bodies do not need to be cleansed. In cases where overwhelming amounts of alcohol or drugs have been consumed then medical intervention is required, not a bag of dandelion tea.

What They Claim to Do But What They Actually Do

Detoxes and cleanses claim to rid the body of supposed toxins to restore health, energy and balance, to cleanse and sooth inflamed bowels, and some even claim to contain high levels of antioxidants to neutralise free- radicals in the body.

What these detox products don't tell us is that our body makes its own anti-oxidants from the food we consume in our everyday diet. We don't need an overload of antioxidants and any additional ones are removed by the kidneys.

Detox products can't and won't improve your liver and kidney function. Many of the products, which claim to flush the body of chemicals, contain diuretics in the form of dandelion. Diuretics increase the amount of excreted urine. This simply means that you lose water and some salt from the body. Funnily enough, dandelion in French translates to pissenlit!

Fluid loss from the body can upset the fluid and electrolyte balance, cause severe dehydration, cramping, and in the worst case even a coma.

For detox products that market themselves as weight loss aids, you will also notice they will have a disclaimer that says "should be taken as part of a healthy calorie-restricted diet". So is it the detox or the calorie restriction that causes the weight loss?

Also, during the detox, it will be water weight through dehydration and the contents of the bowel, that is lost and not any body fat.

When you slash your calorie intake, the first thing the body loses its stored energy in the form of glycogen. Glycogen binds to water in the body so when it is depleted, a lot of water is dispelled along with it. This is why there appears to be such a dramatic weight loss in the first week of a calorie restricted diet.

Another active ingredient in most cleanse products is senna, or some similar form of herbal laxative, which clears the bowel and is ultimately responsible for a lot of lost weight. If such products are abused, they can interfere with blood sugar regulation, cause electrolyte imbalances, and the user can even develop a dependence.

In the short term, detox diets will cause you to lose mostly water weight and bowel contents. However, if used in the long-term in the absence of a balanced diet, they will harm your health, cause loss of muscle mass, and even adversely affect your metabolic rate, resulting in weight gain once normal food intake resumes.

Enjoy A Healthy Balanced Lifestyle Instead

They say prevention is better than cure. So avoid extreme behaviours such as binging on processed food, alcohol, and cigarettes in the first place. Consume a healthy balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, some diary, and occasional treats that you enjoy from time to time.

Don't get sucked in by the desire for a "quick fix" after an indulgent weekend away partying. Instead, resume your balanced lifestyle by increasing physical activity, getting lots of sleep, improving quality of food intake, drinking more water and watch the body take care of itself all by itself.

Give the quick fixes and quackery science a miss. Chase your health and save yourself from cleansing out your wallet.

Karen Coghlan is a nutrition coach and personal trainer, visit her website www.thenutcoach.com or email karen@thenutcoach.com

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