For some, a detox means giving up booze for a few weeks in January. For others, it means colonic irrigation, supplements, super healthy food and/or juices and saying 'no' to meat, dairy, wheat, sugar and caffeine and other substances considered 'toxins'.
The problem with 'detox' is that the word is used to cover a wide array of both products and diets - from 'detox' shampoos and teabags to weekend juice fasts and two-week detox plans.
Although sceptics dismiss detox as a 'fad', various forms of detox have been practiced for centuries by many cultures around the world. The Ayurvedic medicine system, for instance, advocates a detox once or twice a year. Far from being a quick fix it lasts between 7-21 days and as well as a special diet it involves colonics, massage, meditation and yoga.
Those who promote detox diets and products claim that cleansing your body of toxins and helping your 'organs of elimination' to function properly will bring increased energy, vitality and improved overall health.
So is it worth it? And if so, what type of detox should you go for?
The orthodox view
Dieticians, doctors and scientists (including the Food Standard Agency's chief scientist, Andrew Wadge) generally consider the idea of detox diets and supplements a waste of time and money and argue that we can rely on our liver to keep ourselves toxin-free.
‘Detox has no meaning outside the clinical treatment room for drug addiction or poisioning,' says Sense About Science, a lobby group that promotes the interests of chemical and pharmaceutical companies, on its website.
In January 2009, it produced a report which reviewed 15 products including a detox brush from Boots, V Water Detox and a 'Crystal Spring Detox patch' (designed to be stuck to the foot where the manufacturer claims it draws toxins out of the body). The report found little, and in most cases no evidence to back up the detox claims.
What's more, it said that the concept of detox is wrong: 'the human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through the liver, kidneys, and colon,' it authors wrote. They added that ‘most chemicals do not accumulate in the body.'
The scientists' message is: drop 'detox' and have a glass of water, eat a balanced diet and get an early night.
It's true that there are products out there whose claims are exaggerated, potentially misleading or not backed up.
But this does not mean that the whole idea and practice of a detox should be dismissed.
Nor does it mean that we can keep accumulating chemicals in the body and expect our eliminatory organs (lungs, liver, kidneys, colon and skin) to get rid of them all.
The toxins within
We live in a world surrounded by synthetic man-made compounds, found in everything from cleaning products to pesticides, which can make their way into our food, water, air and our bodies (this is particularly the case for fat-soluble toxins). Wherever you live you are likely to be carrying a wide range of chemicals that shouldn't be there and there are studies to prove it (such as the WWF Europe-wide family bloodtesting survey in 2005).
Sources of internal pollution include toxins from what we ingest, inhale and absorb through the skin as well as the toxins produced by the body which are by-products of its own metabolism.
The body is in fact detoxing 24/7. It has natural physiological detox actions of its own, such as sweating or urinating. But if the body takes in more toxins than it can detoxify or lacks the nutrients it needs to function properly or if there is a block in the system (like constipation) then it cannot cope and develops symptoms. Short term this isn't a problem but what happens if this is longterm?
Symptoms of toxicity
Insomnia, mood changes, depression, fatigue, recurrent infections, bad breath, bloating, constipation, poor immune system, back ache and frequent colds are just some of the many symptoms of toxicity listed by the The Hale Clinic, a centre for complimentary medicine which runs detoxification programmes in London. Many symptoms, it says, can be alleviated by detoxification.
Whilst there is a lack of scientific evidence for detoxification diets (because they have not been subjected to a formal study) that is not to say they lack merit.
Campaigning practioner Dr Briffa writes on his blog that over the years, he has witnessed countless glowing first-hand reports of the well-being improvements that such diets [designed to deal with toxicity] so-often seem to induce.
Detox for the future
Detoxing now may also help avoid health issues in the future. The Alliance for Natural Health (ANA), in a defence of detox argues that disorders and diseases (including cancers) of our eliminatory organs are on the rise, suggesting our bodies are having difficulty coping with the chemical load to which they are exposed. Around 80 per cent of cancers are thought to originate from environmental causes (diet, tobacco, alcohol, infectious agents, medical agents, occupational exposures.)
The ANA maintains that the need for detoxification support is well established, as is the ability of various amino acids, herbs and phytonutrients (key supplements in some detox diets) to enhance the body's natural detoxification mechanisms.
In spite of orthodox medicine's generally sceptical view of detox there is a growing acceptance of nutritional medicine. In the context of preventing cancer there are, for instance, some medical practioners and oncologists who advocate a healthy diet (such as 'the anti-cancer diet') that is strikingly similar to that of a detox diet. Eating mostly foods of plant origin and avoiding alcohol and processed meat are amongst the recommendations in a 2007 expert report on diet and cancer.
The best detox diets
The idea of a detox is to reduce your exposure to toxins and to cleanse and eliminate them from your body. It need not be extreme or austere. Moderate detox diets usually emphasise nutritious foods that are easily assimilated by the body (particularly fruit and vegetables), plenty of clean water and often supplements to assist the cleansing of the liver, kidney and colon. Meat, dairy, wheat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol are either limited or banned.
In addition, good detox diets advise you to:
• Eat organic
• Cook your own food from fresh ingredients and avoid processed or ready made food
• When you can, eat foods raw and include fresh fruit and veg juices. Lightly steaming vegetables preserves much of the nutritional value
• Read every label before you buy. Avoid preservatives and artificial flavourings and colourants
• Don't eat your food in a rush. Chew properly - saliva contains digestive enzymes
• Be moderate in everything you do - don't overeat
• Drink filtered tap water
• Get some (gentle) exercise
• Daily dry body brushing to boost circulation and remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.
• Recognise the other sources of toxicity you may be exposed to in everyday products such as chemical air fresheners, cleaning products and cosmetics. Replace these products with those made from natural ingredients.
• Slow down, rest and de-stress. Try a simple daily meditation. A good guide for beginners is ‘Sui', a Meditation & Relaxation CD and step-by-step booket.
• There are no quick fixes. The aim is to develop long-term changes in your lifestyle and get rid of bad habits. Don't fall into the yo-yo diet trap: after the detox, don't go on a 'retox' binge. As Theresa Hale, of the Hale clinic says: ‘There's an element of "I'll eat this food then detox to get rid of it" in our culture. It's really not the right solution. You've really got to change your lifestyle.'
For longlasting 'even remarkable' results the program you follow has to be at least between seven to ten days, says Margo Marrone pharmacist and founder of The Organic Pharmacy. 'Short detoxes don't give the body enough time for the good work to start properly, meaning that your system gets confused.'
Are supplements really necessary?
Many detox programs incorporate supplements. 'During the detox process your body will need support from a number of nutrients and herbs,' says Margo Marrone. The Organic Pharmacy's 10 day detox includes gut cleansing natural remedies such as psyllium husk, linseed and clay (which has a long tradition as a detoxifier); herbal tinctures to support the liver and kidney and 'an abundant supply of antioxidants, vitamins and essential fatty acids', designed to 'enhance the process of cleansing and improve your body's ability to repair itself where toxins may have caused damage.'
What about juice detoxes?
A juice detox is considered an extreme form of detoxification because no solid food is allowed - only raw vegetable and fruit juice, water (and supplements). Fans of juice detoxes argue that it allows the gut to rest resulting in a deeper level of detoxifcation. Consult a qualified health professional before trying a juice fast.
Detoxes are not for everyone
Don't detox if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, and if you are taking medication or you have a medical condition such as type 1 diabetes - or have any other concerns - check with your doctor first.
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