As the holiday season winds down, you may start to consider some kind of detox regimen. Take a walk through any pharmacy or natural health store and you’ll find no shortage of products that will allegedly help you: from clarifying shampoo, to detoxifying teas and juices, and, at the more extreme end, supplements, enemas, and even colon cleanses.
But before you succumb to this incredibly persistent and appealing notion, you should know that the idea of using some product to "detox" is gobbledygook.
Recreational "detox" is an ancient idea that has been "consigned to the dustbin of medical history"
We were kicked out of Eden because, almost as soon as we were created, we ate a toxic apple. Since then, perhaps to atone for this original sin, many of us have fallen prey to the idea that we can somehow get rid of nasty — usually nebulously defined — toxins in our bodies to be purer, cleaner, and lighter.
In ancient Egypt, physicians thought that toxic substances could be produced in people’s bodies (particularly within the feces) and that these toxins were the cause of disease and needed to be expelled. This idea — called "auto-intoxication" — persisted, according to the medical journal the Lancet, and even microbiologists believed in it through the last century.
Microorganisms, lurking in the gut because their progress was retarded by intestinal stasis, were causing putrefaction and generating odious toxins. The root cause was often constipation.
Andre Combe's Intestinal auto-intoxication (Rebman, London) was a bible for those who believed in this sort of thing. "Intestinal auto-intoxication is the toxaemia caused by qualitative or quantitative alterations in normal digestion", Combe insisted. "By normal digestion we do not mean only that described by physiologists, but the more complete and complicated digestion which takes place in every normal man [sic] … besides the digestion by the enzymes of the stomach and intestines, there occurs in every man a digestion brought about by the action of the microbes which live and thrive in the digestive tract."
By the early 1900s, however, our understanding of physiology evolved, and scientists sent auto-intoxification "to the dustbin of medical history," according to the Lancet. But this hasn’t stopped clever marketers from selling the idea that we can be, somehow, less toxic by using special products. (This is different from the medical definition of actual life-saving detox from overdose or addiction — more on this later).
"The idea of detox gives credit to a principle that is ridiculous and exploits people in many ways, not least of which is financial," said Dr. Edzard Ernst, an expert on the science of alternative medicine and emeritus professor at Exeter University.
"The body doesn’t need any help detoxifying. There’s no known methods for healthy people to help the body get rid of unwanted stuff any better than it already does."
People who claim they are helping you detox almost never define their enemy
As we all pursue a purer, toxin-free state, what’s incredible is that most of us don’t even know which toxic enemy we are running from.
In 2007, the science advocacy group Sense About Science contacted the manufacturers of 15 "detox" products. When pressed, not a single detox peddler contacted could come up with a definition of what they meant by detox, or define their devilish toxin.
"We concluded that ‘detox’ as used in product marketing is a myth. Many of the claims about how the body works were wrong and some were even dangerous," they said.
The author of this Lancet article tried to figure out, through an informal analysis of detox diet books, what toxins were being targeted and what harm to health they posed. "Not one of the books provided any answers," he concluded.
Our bodies "detox" naturally, every day
Science-based medicine has long rejected the concept of a detox, as you will have gathered by now, unless it is being used to refer to situations where someone is poisoned or, say, weaned off a heroin addiction.
This is mostly because we now know, through a range of organ systems — from the liver, to the kidney, the skin, the gut, and lungs — our bodies have evolved to do a pretty damn fine job of getting rid of harmful stuff by themselves.
Anyone who has nursed a hangover knows this to be true: you feel ghastly but, sure enough with a bit of time, your organ systems go to work to get rid of all the over-indulgences that made you feel terrible. Your liver has enzymes that transform toxic substances like alcohol into more benign ones that you then excrete in bile or through the kidneys. Your kidneys, among other detoxifying functions, get rid of unwanted chemicals and waste through urination.
In the absence of disease, these processes happen automatically, every second we live, and we don’t need outside help to get them going. No supplement, tea, or diet has been proven to somehow do the job instead or enhance these systems, said Dr. Ernst.
"Alcohol is obviously a toxin. But [even alcohol] and most food stuffs are broken down into some or many compounds which might be mildly toxic unless we have a liver to take care of it, we have a kidney to excrete it, et cetera."
There's nothing you can buy that will help that process along, he emphasized. Not even dramatic colon cleanses. "These empty your guts," said Dr. Ernst, "and it's quite dangerous since it may deplete your electrolytes to dangerously low levels. Perforations of the guts have been reported. Deaths have been reported. And it does precisely nothing except for taking some excrement out of your body which would normally be excreted."
How to get back to health after a period of indulgence
After a period of overindulgence, like the holidays, there are a few things that can boost your immediate sense of well being, and maybe even improve your long-term health outcomes: get a good night's sleep, limit your alcohol intake, do some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. Unfortunately, these things don't come in a magic pill form, and usually require a level of commitment that lasts for longer than a one-week detox cleanse.