Toxin is a word that terrifies us. The idea of removing toxins using various therapies sounds refreshing and well worth trying. Unfortunately, detoxification therapies are nothing more than myths.
Detoxifying your body with foods and drinks is now a popular trend. We have become obsessed with the idea of a ‘detox’. ‘Green superfood detox’, ‘fast liver detox’, ‘nine natural detoxifying foods’, ‘detox roti’, ‘clean colon drinks’ — the detox ‘industry’ has invaded the wellness sector and is growing exponentially. Detox therapy advocates the belief that the body can be purged of alcohol, smoking, and drugs through specific treatments. However, the concept that you can cleanse your body after a party, festival, or binge-eating weekend is a myth in medical science. It’s a scam that’s tied up to our rational thinking.
There is an infinite number of detox foods, supplements and drinks available in the Indian market that claim to cleanse your body, remove toxins from your system, or help you lose weight. Detox products include herbs, juices, teas, and other dietary supplements promising to cleanse the colon and liver. Often these products are not regulated by a competent authority to assess safety and efficacy. Additionally, most detox products that claim to promote weight loss, fail to provide sound scientific evidence to support long-term benefits. Consequently, consuming these ‘magic’ elixirs, made from unregulated ingredients, poses a serious threat to health with limited to no benefit.
The body detoxes itself
We consume environmental toxins every day and our bodies also produce some toxins as a byproduct of digestion and metabolism. Specific physiological processes help remove these toxins from our body via the liver, lungs, kidneys, and the digestive system without requiring external ‘detoxification agents’.
Detox products primarily target liver cleansing. Protein is metabolised in the liver to produce ammonia, which can be toxic to the body if present in large amounts. By converting ammonia into urea, the liver releases it via urine from the body.
Similarly, kidneys also eliminate harmful toxins. The intestine destroys and eliminates foreign substances and pathogens, and the skin releases toxins via sweat. A healthy lifestyle can keep these organs performing optimally, eliminating the need for detox therapy and saving you a lot of time and money.
There is no medical evidence that confirms the benefits of detox diets, supplements or drinks. Detox therapies that target weight loss produce short-term results because they involve a low-calorie diet that supplements solid foods with liquids and juices. Once the diet is over and you resume normal eating, the weight is regained quickly.
A study on overweight Korean women assessed the efficacy of a lemon detox diet that allowed participants to drink a mixture of palm or maple syrup and lemon juice for seven days. While the results indicated significant weight loss, improved body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio, body fat percentage, improved insulin resistance, etc, it did not provide information about the results once the women started normal eating.
A severely calorie-restricted, juice diet can definitely lead to weight loss and improvements in crucial metabolic health markers, but any low-calorie weight loss diet would yield the same results. A critical review on detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management in 2015 reported no randomised control trials (the gold standard in research) that have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets on humans. A 2019 study where participants were fed herbal supplements of 1,350 mg/serving for four weeks, documented no beneficial effects on their body composition or digestive system.
All said and done, there is no way to benefit from lemon-ginger or cinnamon-honey water, green tea or cucumber-mint juices if your daily diet is packed with calories, sugar, trans-fats and other processed foods. A single food, drink, or supplement can’t be your medical miracle.
Detox therapies can be risky
The side effects of detox therapies include nutritional deficiencies, liver damage, overconsumption, etc. Long-term detox therapies are deficient in multiple micronutrients and proteins and may cause nutritional deficiency disorders such as anaemia, protein-energy malnutrition, muscle loss, heart palpitations, weak immune system, etc. Interestingly, most detox diets lack protein, a crucial nutrient to promote enzymatic reactions required for the body’s natural detox mechanism. Detox juices or cleanses lack dietary fibre — a critical component to ensure optimum function of the gut microbiota and digestive system.
Surprisingly, detox teas and supplements that aim to ‘cleanse’ the liver are often reported to fatally injure the organ. A 60-year-old woman reported acute liver failure from drinking liver detoxification tea for 14 days. The ingredient list of the tea contained six ingredients that were known to have hepatotoxic effects, according to the authors. Green tea extracts, a common ingredient in many detox supplements, have been found to elevate biomarkers such as alanine aminotransferase (ALT) or aspartate aminotransferase (AST) that are associated with increased risk of liver injury.
The bottom line is: You don’t need a detox product to cleanse your organs or full body. Such products are expensive, nutritionally deficient, contain hepatotoxic ingredients, and are not regulated for safe consumption. To keep your in-built detox system running smoothly, a whole-food-based balanced diet, combined with regular physical activity is necessary. Do not be duped by detox scams, follow the science.
Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), a certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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