We’ve all heard about detoxing. The “back to school” season signals the end of summer — and the end of BBQs and beach gatherings where we may have overindulged. It’s common to feel the urge to “cleanse” the body of built-up toxins, and to start fresh in the Fall with better habits. But what we don’t hear enough about are the risks associated with detoxing. Detoxing your body and rapidly losing weight may sound appealing, but let’s examine the science.
What exactly is a detox?
A detox is a form of a restrictive eating — typically, a liquid diet — that may or may not include the intake of additional supplements. They are usually marketed to promote weight loss, increase energy and improve overall health.
What the science says
Yes, our bodies do accumulate toxins, but there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that detoxes are able to remove harmful toxins from our bodies. Our organs work around the clock to detoxify our body all day and night. In fact, if our bodies didn’t do such a good job at removing toxins, we wouldn’t live very long. Consider this:
- Our lungs constantly breathe in oxygen and breathe out excess carbon dioxide, removing this waste product from circulation
- Our liver metabolizes alcohol, hormones, medications and environmental toxins
- Our kidneys act as a filter, reabsorbing what we need back into the blood and excreting anything we don’t need, like waste or toxins, into urine
- Our skin allows the release of sweat, which is mostly composed of water but also contains some waste products and possibly heavy metals
- Our gut makes daily decisions regarding what to absorb into circulation and what to excrete
If you really think about it, our bodies are naturally detoxing all day long. There is also no scientific data supporting the long-term effectiveness of detoxing, whether it be for weight loss or improved health.
Mental and physical drawbacks
The mental and physical drawbacks of detoxing are interconnected. Many people find eliminating solid foods mentally and physically draining, and when combined with the added stressors associated with going back to work and/ or school during the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, this can be taxing on our mental health.
Detoxing can also harm our relationship with food since an overly-restrictive diet can lead to binging, which may result in negative food associations and feelings of guilt or shame.
Furthermore, restricting calorie intake may lead to increases in production of our stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is linked to weight gain, which makes any weight loss experienced in the short term difficult to sustain.
Ultimately, if you’re feeling mentally or physically depleted, the detox is not living up to its claim of making you feel better and increasing your energy.
Why do we keep hearing that detoxes are helpful?
Detoxing often feels successful at first because you will start to notice changes rapidly when you stop eating solid food. You may experience some weight loss with a detox, but this is due to a loss of water from breaking down carbohydrate stores, not just from a reduction in calorie intake. This type of weight loss is not sustainable, unless you are planning to continue the detox forever, which is not recommended.
During a detox, you’re also removing many processed and sugary foods from your diet, which may contribute to feeling better, but you can also receive this benefit while consuming solid foods.
Lastly, there may be some placebo effect. Your brain and your body are so intricately connected that sometimes when you are expecting certain results, your body can generate them without any active treatment.
Are detoxes unsafe?
There is potential for harmful side effects from detoxes and it should be noted that no commercial detox programs have been tested for safety and efficacy.
Restrictive diets also come with mental and physical health risks including a slowed metabolism, which makes it harder to manage your weight long-term. Other side effects from detoxes may include muscle loss, nutritional deficiencies, fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, irritability, cramps, hair loss, nausea and constipation.
If you decide to go ahead with a detox, it’s advisable to consult with a registered dietitian, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition.
Optimize your natural detox pathways
If you want your organs to do their best work, you cannot deprive them of the nutrients they need to function optimally. Instead, help enhance your natural detox pathways by following these tips:
- Include cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower in your diet as well as berries, artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks and green tea. These foods contain nutrients that can regulate our liver’s detoxification and antioxidant activity.
- Consume plenty of fibre from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Fibre acts both directly (by binding bile and its associated toxins to facilitate their excretion) and indirectly (by feeding our gut bacteria, many of which go on to produce by-products that can act on the liver and kidneys to enhance their ability to excrete toxins).
- Drink plenty of water, as this will help the kidneys excrete urine and daily toxins.
- Consume adequate lean protein, which is critical to maintaining optimum levels of glutathione, the body’s master detoxification enzyme!
- Sweat multiple times each week!
- Decrease your exposure to known contaminants and toxins (smoke, pollution, pesticides in foods, alcohol, illicit drugs, heavy metals and mercury, to name a few).
The bottom line
Having a healthy relationship with food is essential for personal health. We encourage you to consult a Registered Dietitian to help you start, or continue, to optimize your health through food and to navigate any detox programs you may be considering.