What is Detox, How it Works, and How to Cleanse the Body

by | Dietary Supplement, Fitness, Health, Nutrition

Are you worried you may be wasting time and money on detox protocols that don’t work? Are you sick of getting scammed and paying for empty promises?

The internet is full of confusing information. But it’s actually pretty easy to avoid dishonest marketers and salespeople. Once you understand basic human biochemistry it will be hard for scammers to trick you.

Let’s see what science has to say about the most popular detox diets and supplements. Everything you need to know about detoxification is summarized in the first 2 sections of the article. The rest of the info is just a bonus for you science nerds out there.

What is Detox?

Detoxification (or simply detox) is a medical procedure that helps remove toxic substances from the body. A vital function usually carried out by the liver and kidneys.

People abusing alcohol, narcotics, or other addictive substances may need to undergo a period of detoxification. This type of detox helps the body return to homeostasis. That’s the normal functioning of vital bodily systems.

Detoxification is what happens during a withdrawal. The body cleanses itself during the period when the previously abused substances aren't allowed. It’s a passive process.

When a life-threatening amount of harmful substances have been ingested, you may undergo a proactive detoxification protocol. This usually means being treated with an antidote, neutralizer, or counteragent (e.g. activated charcoal). Sometimes the body can’t detox itself fast enough. That’s why it needs extra help.

The end result of both active and passive detox protocols is the neutralization and expelling of harmful substances.

What About the Buzzword?

What alternative medicine and homeopathy call “detox” has no clear (scientific) definition. Most popular detox diets and products are not backed up by medicine.

Despite that, a great number of people swear by those products. Claims range from rapid fat loss and improved health markers to general well-being.

“What Are Toxins and Where They Come From?”

You should ask this question to anyone trying to sell you a detox product.

If they can’t name any individual toxins (yes, actually list chemical compounds and elements) chances are they have no idea what they’re selling. Or maybe they have no financial interest in being honest with you.

Sometimes whole food groups can be defined as toxins. But to call sugar a “highly addictive toxin” is a bit of an overstatement [1]. In fact, very few foods are bad for your health. For more info check out our list of the most unhealthy foods.

When talking about toxins, we have to examine food and pollutants on a molecular level. For example, the chemical element cyanide can be considered a toxin. It’s highly reactive and affects normal cell functioning.

Funny enough, apples contain small amounts of cyanide. But that amount is so negligible that it has no effect on humans. Based on such facts we can conclude that:

  1. Toxins are chemical compounds or elements.
  2. Foods and drinks can contain toxins, but cannot be defined as toxins themselves.
  3. The amount of toxins present in food determines its level of toxicity.

Science has already cataloged the most common chemical elements. We also have a basic understanding of how they interact with the human body.

However, the word “toxin” in the context of alternative medicine is used loosely. Often having more than one meaning depending on who you’re talking to.

How Detox Product Manufacturers Define Toxins?

A few years ago a group of concerned citizens decided to examine different detox products. Their goal was to learn how each product works. A number of company representatives were interviewed. The researchers wanted to confirm if popular product claims have any scientific validity.

Here are a few quotes from the transcripts published online.

Note: A link to the complete research document can be found in the resource section [2]. The conclusions expressed here are based on our own interpretation of the data. Quotes from the research are in italics.

Garnier Clean Detox Anti-Dullness Foaming Gel (Makeup Cleanser)

Claims:

  • “Detoxifies by cleansing the skin's surface.”
  • “Eliminates impurities such as make-up and dirt from pollution, revealing your skin's natural radiance. Your skin feels fresher and looks clearer”

Brand representative: So toxins would mean something like sebum. If you’re prone to spotty, oily skin, that is a toxin for your skin in the sense that it’s causing your skin to break-out. So if your skin breaks out, that means you’ve got an overload of toxins, meaning superficial toxins.

Researcher’s comments: Garnier seems to define ‘detox’ as cleaning your skin and removing make-up, dirt, and oil which are not ‘toxins’. What they actually seem to be selling is a product designed for people with oily, spot-prone skin. Not “normal” skin as it advertises. This is exactly what other cleansers in Garnier's range do but the detox gel costs over £1 more.

Vitabiotics Detoxil 15 Day Detox Support (Dietary Supplement)

Claims:

  • “Helps the body cleanse itself of toxins and pollutants caused by the excesses of a busy life.”
  • “Safeguarding the diet with essential vitamins and minerals when you are on a detox diet or exercise regime.”
  • “Preserving those nutrients which are particularly depleted by alcohol intake and other toxins.”

Brand representative: Stress leads to a lot of problems in the body. Firstly it affects your digestion, your general day to day routine things. It makes you feel more tired…It affects your immune system so you are more vulnerable to any kind of bacterial, fungal or viral infections[…] And these free radicals also make you age faster[…] Yes they have a damaging effect on your cells[…] you feel tired and a general loss of energy.

Researcher’s comments: So for Viatabiotics, detox seems to mean removing free radicals by supplying a tonic of nutrients to help the body. This effect has not been proven and those nutrients are found in your natural diet anyway.

4321 Shape Up and Detox (Dietary Supplement)

Claims:

  • “3 plants to drain off water and toxins”.
  • “Fennel: facilitating renal water elimination”
  • “Celery: eliminating accumulated toxins”
  • “Barley: to improve assimilative function in people suffering from digestive insufficiency.”
  • “2 plants to purify the body”.
  • “Chicory: increased elimination of toxins from the kidneys and liver”
  • “Maté: beneficial action on the kidneys.”

Brand Representative: The detox removes all types of toxins from the body, it all depends on how you eat, how your lifestyle is. For example, if you drink alcohol, that builds toxins in the body. Now the toxins get stored in the body as fatty deposits. So what happens is the Shape Up and Detox range, what they do is they actually help breakdown and remove those fatty deposits.

Researcher’s comments: They didn’t seem to understand their own claims, but offered to send their clinical trials on the product. The research they sent was a small unpublished study on weight loss which had no control group. The product sounds like a combination of laxatives and diuretics, both of which can be harmful and are unlikely to have a long term effect. I think it would be far better off (in terms of health and finances) to stick to the vegetables

Conclusions:

If you read the complete paper you notice that every detox company has its own definition of toxins. Explanations of how a specific detox product works also vary. Most answers given are vague. Sometimes even contradicting the official product claims.

Key takeaway: Most manufacturers can't give a clear definition of toxins. Nor they are able to justify the use of their products. However, that doesn’t mean toxins don’t exist.

Do You Need to Cleanse Your Body?

It depends on your definition of detox and body cleansing. There are indeed a number of chemical compounds and elements that can be harmful. Though that’s only the case when their concentrations in the body exceed certain values.

For example, when drinking beer one of the byproducts of alcohol metabolism is acetaldehyde. A compound responsible for your hangovers. Another harmful toxin often found in our bodies is ammonia. A byproduct of protein metabolism. These are examples of toxins we can handle quite well. At least most of the time.

There are complex bodily systems responsible for neutralizing and expelling harmful toxins. Organs like the liver, kidneys, lungs, and even our skin. All play a major role in the detoxification of the body. They work 24/7. No need of any conscious intervention on our part.

In other words, the body has a built-in detox system.

However, huge amounts of harmful substances can overwhelm the body’s capability to cleanse itself. This can lead to some serious complications, like alcohol poisoning for example.

Other toxins are so dangerous that even small amounts can be harmful. Asbestos (fire-resistant material used in construction) is a great example. If asbestos dust is inhaled, the microscopic fibrils cannot be expelled by the lungs. Exposure to that compound can increase your risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis [3].

When you’re exposed to highly-toxic compounds you need medical help. Not a “7-day juice cleanse”. The same applies to other life-threatening illnesses like cancer.

Key takeaway: Toxins exist and most have been cataloged. However, our bodies are well-adapted to deal with normal levels of toxins in our environment. When the body is overwhelmed by a sudden increase of harmful compounds we need to seek medical help.

What’s the Best Way to Detox?

Detox procedures are only needed when there’s a serious risk for your health. Most detoxification products are not supported by research and proven facts.

Our bodies are well-equipped to handle common pollutants and harmful substances. Let your liver and kidneys do their job. The best way to cleanse your body is to keep it healthy. A healthy body is a well-functioning detox machine.

Here are a few ways you can keep your detox organs healthy:

  • Maintaining low body fat levels.
  • Engage in regular sport and exercise
  • Minimize the consumption of highly processed foods.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol and tobacco products.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes.
  • Spend less time in front of the computer and phone.
  • Dedicate time to socializing with friends and family.
  • Engage in meditation and work on minimizing stress

Key takeaway: despite the clichés, a balanced diet and regular exercise are the best ways to keep your body healthy.

Still not convinced? Check out some of our client testimonials for real-life examples of people like you. Individuals who not only improved their health but also got rid of body fat they’ve been carrying for years. No fake promises. Complete transparency. A tried-and-tested system backed up by science.

How Do Detox Diets Work?

No energy? Feeling tired and groggy? Irritable? Having a hard time falling asleep? Suffering from frequent migraines? Lack of focus and low productivity? Constantly feeling bloated?

Most of this should sound familiar. Many detox product ads start like that. Naturally, the product can solve all those problems. It will cleanse your body of all toxins causing these health issues. Unfortunately, such ads rarely go into the exact details of how the product works.

Let’s examine some of the problems highlighted above and how a detox plan may help.

Lack of Energy, Chronic Fatigue, and Weak Immune System

Possible Causes:

  • insufficient consumption of whole foods: low levels of certain vital nutrients
  • obesity: a myriad of health complications and diseases caused by excessive body fat
  • bad sleep & caffeine abuse: poor recovery, diminished physical and mental performance
  • low levels of vitamin D (usually due to limited sun exposure): this vitamin affects the immune system, mood, and even testosterone levels.
  • lack of or reduced physical activity: increased likeliness of weight gain, joint problems, and deterioration of bodily systems.
  • high or chronic stress: an overall drop in performance and well-being.

How Can a Detox Diet Help You?

  • Many detox diets, such as juice cleanses, are based on very low caloric intake. This leads to weight loss and has a positive health effect on overweight individuals.
    • Note: aggressive weight loss is not recommended for most people. It may lead to muscle loss and subsequent weight (mostly fat) regain.
  • Many cleansing diets recommend a high intake of plants. Foods that are naturally rich in minerals and vitamins. An increased intake can be beneficial for people suffering from certain nutritional deficiencies. All this affects the immune system and energy levels. Also, the increased fiber from plants can help with constipation and irregular bowel movement.
  • Most detox protocols limit or forbid alcohol and caffeine consumption. This can improve sleep quality and recovery. All leading to increased energy levels during the day.
  • Some improvement can be explained by the placebo effect. You may experience beneficial effects because of your strong belief in the product. The power of self-conviction shouldn’t be underestimated.

Detox Alternatives:

  • Balanced diet, rich in whole foods and healthy fats: providing the body with an abundance of vital nutrients to function optimally.
  • Controlled caloric deficit and maintaining low body fat levels: gradual changes in calories help achieve lasting fat loss and maintain muscle mass.
  •  
  • Good sleep hygiene: getting enough quality sleeps helps maximize energy levels and recovery.
  • Regular (and controlled) sun exposure: exact recommendations vary depending on different factors. If you don’t get any sun exposure you may consider supplementing vitamin D3 (2,500 to 5,000 UI is a safe bet for most people).
  • Sport or another type of physical activity: walks in the park, cycling, or weight training are all good options. Regular exercise has a notable effect on your overall work capacity and productivity.
  • Quality time with your friends and family: this will improve your general well-being and reduce the negative impact of different life stressors.

Key takeaways: most benefits of detox diets can be attributed to the increased consumption of vitamins, minerals, fiber. And also the decreased consumption of calories. However, if you’re already making healthy diet choices, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, there are no added benefits.

Does Your Body Need a “Break”?

Detox diets and products focus on the same nutrients already present in regular whole foods. Though they also limit or exclude certain substances. This is their biggest advantage.

Let’s say you’re leading a very unhealthy lifestyle. Limiting processed foods, alcohol, coffee, and tobacco will likely lead to health improvements. Starting a detox plan is actually a step in the right direction. It does show a willingness to lead a healthy lifestyle.

However, cleansing and detoxification offer no benefits for people already leading a healthy lifestyle. As mentioned already, our bodies are well equipped to handle everyday toxins.

In fact, your liver can handle pretty impressive amounts of harmful substances. It also recovers amazingly fast. Even after a night of heavy drinking. You really have to go out of your way before your “liver needs a break” [4].

Many people do experience liver problems. But that’s usually the result of years of making poor lifestyle choices. In those situations, a 10-day green smoothie cleanse is not going to cut it.

Undoing years of damage in just 2 weeks are still beyond the scope of any diet. Even if you’re working with the best doctors, nutritionists, and personal trainers.

Colon Cleansing: How to Improve Your Gut Health?

Proponents of colon cleansing claim that over time toxins, fecal matter, and other pollutants start building up in your large intestine.

If that was true, very few of us would have survived long after the first signs of such a serious malfunction of the digestive system. Millions of years of evolution have perfected the body’s ability to keep our bowels clean.

After food is ingested and nutrients absorbed, all indigestible byproducts of the human metabolism are quickly expelled out of the body. There are a number of systems and mechanisms in place that make the process extremely effective.

One such example is stomach growling (or rumbling). It usually happens when your digestive tract is doing housekeeping. Moving unabsorbed food towards your rear end. The sound we hear is caused by air moving through your intestines. It is not a sign of hunger.

Though it does usually happen when you haven’t eaten in a while. This is the perfect time when the body can flush out the remainings of your lunch. There’s no rush and the risk of losing any unabsorbed nutrients is small.

Trying to cleanse your colon with the help of various laxatives, herbs, or even enemas can be dangerous and lead to:

  • dehydration
  • loss of electrolytes
  • reduced “good” bacteria in your gut
  • increased risk of toxicity when high amounts of certain herbs are ingested
  • irritation of existing hemorrhoids
  • negative effects on people with existing kidney problems

A true colon cleansing procedure is rarely needed. It’s something that should only be done under medical supervision.

Provided you’re healthy and you get enough dietary fiber (around 30 to 40g a day) from food, colon cleansing offers no benefits [5]. It also doesn’t lead to any fat loss. The weight you lose after such procedures is mostly water and fecal matter.

Alkaline Diet: What It Is and How It Works

It’s a type of diet that (supposedly) protects you from cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. The effect is achieved by maintaining the acid-alkaline balance of your body. The diet requires you to limit foods that cause acid levels to raise.

Are these claims supported by science?

The pH scale was created to determine the acidity of liquids. pH 7 is considered neutral. Anything above 7 is acid, below 7 is considered basic. Alkaline compounds produce a basic solution when dissolved.

Our blood has a pH of around 7.4. That value stays within a very narrow range with fluctuations of no more than one decimal (0.1). Lifestyle and diet don’t affect blood acidity.

A lot of chemical reactions in the body are actually only possible if the pH stays within the normal values (around 7.35 to 7.45). Even small changes can have fatal consequences.

When we ingest food it has to be first dissolved by the stomach acids (pH of around 3). When it reaches the small intestine it’s neutralized. The pH of the digested matter changes to levels similar to the blood. In other words, nothing you eat will have any impact on your pH levels [6].

In fact, anything that can impact your pH level is going to kill you. The alkaline diet is based on pseudoscience and cannot be explained by the rules of human biochemistry.

Key takeaway: liver detox, colon cleansing, or diets based on the acidity of foods are not supported by science. They are at best a waste of your time and money.

Why Are Detoxification Diets Popular?

Human Laziness

It’s actually in our nature to be lazy. We all prefer the path of minimum effort. “One-week fruit juice cleanse” doesn’t sound that bad. Most of us can silence our unhealthy urges for that long.

The alternative – months of training with heavy weights, complete diet change, and eliminating a dozen destructive habits – now this doesn’t sound that sexy.

Refusal to Accept Reality

Food is full of additives and harmful chemicals, that’s why I look and feel this way!

This way of thinking keeps your precious ego intact. But it also prevents you from taking responsibility for our own actions. If you don’t own your decisions and accept the consequences life improvements become impossible.

It takes a lot of courage to say something like this:

“If I have to be honest, I’ve made a lot of poor decisions lately. I’ve neglected the people trying to show me where I screwed up. Now I suffer the consequences. My health has deteriorated. It will probably take months or even years to undo the damage I’ve done.”

Human Greed

It’s hard to recognize a scam product [7] from a legitimate supplement. A lot of people take advantage of that fact. Some of them may be genuinely misinformed, convinced their product actually works. Though most are aware their product is ineffective. Yet they have a huge financial incentive to hide certain facts from you [8].

It’s way easier to sell a “Detox Fit Tea” for $24.99, than convincing someone to dedicate a few hours a week to train. If you’re already making money exploiting human weakness, you’re likely to want to make more.

A lot of companies selling scam products reinvest back in marketing and sales. Most of the trending social media influencers are also being bombarded with sponsorship offers. It’s not uncommon for some to promote products purely for profit. Not because they believe those supplements and diets work.

A lot of the information online and on the TV is actually inaccurate. Most of the things that do work don’t sound as sexy. They make less money and get less exposure.

Pros and Cons of Detox?

You decide how to invest your own time and money. Science denies many of the detox claims. But this doesn’t mean starting a detox diet is not a step in the right direction.

In certain situations, detox protocols may actually help. Even if it’s purely a placebo effect. If there are no health risks and you feel a positive change, trying out unorthodox solutions may not be a bad idea after all.

The goal of this article is to highlight the facts. You can make an educated decision how to vote with your money.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our fitness and nutrition training. Don’t fall victim to diet fads or internet scammers ever again. 

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