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The truth about detox

Summer is the time of year when we generally try to take a healthier approach to life. For some, this is when it is time to 'clear out' their body and shed some pounds by embarking on a detoxification programme, whether diet or product based.

While there are various diets, books and products on the market promoting detox -- including the detox diet plan, the cleansing diet, the lemon detox diet, the Master Cleanse (which Beyonce used) and the lemonade diet -- do we know what they do to our body and, more importantly, if they can achieve their intended purpose of ridding our body of harmful toxins?

The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) have devised some guidelines on body detoxing, so with their help we will try to demystify detoxification and provide you with the facts. Then you can decide for yourself whether it is worth undertaking a summer detox programme.

While each detox has a different approach, some requiring taking a detoxifying agent, according to the INDI, there are some detox-diet commonalities: "Detox diets usually involve the avoidance of foods or food groups, including wheat, dairy and alcohol as well as all processed foods in general. They usually have one thing in common; they are restrictive and difficult to stick to for any length of time. They can be endurance tests of will power and self denial!"

Many people who endorse detox diets believe that our bodies are constantly under attack from environmental pollutants and toxins such as cigarette smoke, pesticides and food additives. Other toxins are produced by the body during normal functions, such as ammonia which is produced during the breakdown of protein. However, according to the INDI, claims that dextox diets cleanse the colon and enhance circulation which clears toxic substances from our systems, remain unproven. "There is no evidence that our bodies are unable to get rid of the waste products our bodies produce and come in contact with."

Furthermore, the INDI note that although detox diets often recommend the use of 'detoxification aids' in the form of herbal supplements such as milk thistle or pro- and prebiotics, it has yet to be proven that they work.

"Milk thistle is thought to enhance liver regeneration and increase its detoxification function. The jury is still out as to whether this is the case; there is simply not yet enough evidence. Pro- and or prebiotics are usually specifically aimed at improving gut and immune health. They also help to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by protecting from damage by various toxins."

Sense About Science (SAS), a charitable trust that aims to provide the public with the truth about purportedly scientific and medical claims, says that a glass of tap water and an early night are the best 'detox' remedies.

"Our bodies have their own 'detox' mechanisms. The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body. When harmful chemicals do enter the body, the liver acts as an extraordinary chemical factory, usually combining them with its own chemicals to make a water soluble compound that can be excreted by the kidneys. The body thus detoxifies itself."

So what about companies selling detox products? An investigation conducted by the Voice of Young Science (VOYS) network found that 'detox' has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning. They found that no two companies seem to use the same definition of 'detox' and that little, and in most cases no evidence was offered to back up the detox claims.

So if this is the case, who, if anyone should detox? Experts believe that some detox diets are okay as a short-term health kick-start, but that following them for any length of time could lead to nutritional deficiencies. However, if you generally lead a healthy lifestyle and eat a balanced diet then there is no need to detox.

The INDI can also explain the benefits people may feel following a detox diet. If you notice that your headaches have subsided, this could be attributed to hydration; drinking more water and less caffeine and alcohol means you are likely to be fully hydrated.

And clearer skin? Again, experts say this can also be as a result of drinking more water. Also, eating increased amounts of antioxidant-packed fruit and vegetables will give your skin a healthy glow.

Losing weight is also one of the supposed benefits of a detox regime. According to the INDI this is due to a reduced calorie intake and increased activity levels. The bad news is that once the detox is over you will more than likely put the weight back on, and more besides.

If your bloated tummy begins to feel flatter then this could be as a result of increased fibre consumption. Fibre helps your bowel function more effectively, which reduces bloating.

Although there are some positives to detox diets they may not out-weigh the negative effects. Following a strict detox diet for a prolonged period of time can lead to nutritional deficiencies as a result of avoiding certain food groups, such as dairy. Reduced calcium intake can lead to osteoporosis. Some of the side effects can also be unpleasant, namely tiredness, light-headedness and feelings of nausea from the reduction of calories.

If you feel you must detox then there are some guidelines that the INDI recommend. "Look for one that includes all the food groups. Don't follow a detox diet for more than a week. Use it as a kick-start or stepping-stone to making more long-term lifestyle changes -- that way you can feel great and have fabulous skin all year round. If you exercise regularly and follow a healthy balanced diet most of the time there is no need to get bitten by the detox bug."