Nutrition Detoxing & Body Cleansing

Detoxes are one of the most common nutrition interventions touted all over social media. While there have been criticisms, there have also been several sites that have promoted cleansing and detoxing for better health; so, what does the science say? In this article, we will examine the many claimed benefits and determine if there is any validity to these claims, as well as why.

What is a nutrition detox, body cleanse?

A nutrition detox or cleanse (we will use the terms interchangeably here) has several different definitions, but it shares a common theme in that it is a “flushing” from one “broken” systemic, bodily state to better, more healthful systemic state. This method can be used, reportedly, for flushing vaccines, flushing metals, flushing toxins, weight loss, flushing artificial substances, healing, among many other benefits. The idea is to pump the body full of “natural”, usually, fruits and vegetables or water via, again usually, juices and other such drinks for a number of days or weeks. So, a person feels bad, they juice some vegetables, fruit, or a combination of the two, and drinks, in combination with food or in isolation, this liquid for a matter of time; by the end of this set time, their system will have been “rebooted” or “bettered” in some way. This definition will exclude drug detoxing.

What toxins impact us?

In terms of general toxins coming from metals, chemicals, and other such bodily poisons, there is some evidence that certain toxins can store within the body’s adipose tissue (fat)[1]. With over 80,000 chemicals used by the western world, and an additional 2000 chemicals introduced per year, it might come across as alarming and indicate the body is constantly under duress [1]. However, most of these chemicals are either regulated or completely banned.

In the case of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), these pollutants can be stored within the human fat layer and can persist for quite some time if exposed [1][2]. These persistent organic pollutants are, although now banned, still found in older pesticides, paints, coolants, and the like, contributing to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases [1].

Other examples can even be attributed directly to nutrition such as excess iodine can lead to thyroid issues, or even metals like mercury, aluminum, and lead found in certain animals consumed. The bottom line is that there are various forms in which certain poisons can enter the body from exposure to consumption; this might offer some reasoning for why detoxing may be beneficial to help clear our system from these pollutants.

So, with these examples in mind, it seems clear that certain toxins can have an impact on the human body.

Do detoxes work - scientific review?

Alright, this is a multifaceted answer.

While some studies have shown, definitively, that nutritional detoxes do, indeed, work; these studies are not reliable in that they failed in several key aspects to control for a variety of factors that would heavily influence the results garnered [1][3][4]. This means, that these studies cannot be trusted and no definitive conclusions can be made based off the supplied analysis.

Now, that said, if we come to understand a  bit more about the mechanisms responsible for regulating the body’s functionality and “naturally cleansing” ability, we may be able to make sense of some of this information we will be discussing.

There are several organs that naturally detox the body when necessary; these consist of the liver, kidneys, skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal system [1][5]. Depending on the poisonous agent (metal, toxin, pollutant, whatever), the body goes through a series of steps to decrease the potency or rid itself of said agent. In some cases, the poisonous agent is converted, endogenously (within the body), to an inert version; or, in other cases, it is excreted via the urinary system or fecal system [1][5]. Another mechanism by which the body releases toxic substances is by binding to it and changing its conformation via a process called chelation [6].

These organs are the major player in detoxing the body, although the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal systems also offer detoxing functionality - depending on the toxin. 

Now that we understand most of the basic mechanisms involved in “cleansing” the bodily system, we can make more sense of if nutritional detoxes do have an impact.

Most studies examining nutrition detoxes in improving health via the elimination of metals, toxins, and the like are often flawed, from minor issues like the studies being performed on animals and not on humans, which can be useful to a point, all the way to simply having no comparison group; in this second issue, this means that you could claim anything, then measure it, look for positive values that fulfill your claim, and then assume the results are due to your intervention – there is no control to compare [1][7]. So, although there are a few studies, as mentioned before, that have examined nutrition cleansing, none of them are strong indicators that detoxing truly works. However, there may be some bright spots.

Do detoxes work - Physiological review?

We have already discussed the physiology a bit, but we need to understand how the body operates in a fully healthy state, how that compares to a “sick” or “polluted” state, and how cleanses might be of some use.

So, when the body is running at full capacity with all of its regulation systems functioning optimally or near optimally, the body is receiving several things from the conscious “us”.

Weight Loss

First, the body is receiving energy from the calories we intake in food and drink. If we under consume, the body decreases in size and feeds on stored caloric tissues like fat (and others). If we consume just enough, we stay within a small range of weight and do not gain or lose tissue, within detectable levels. Finally, if we over consume, we gain calorically rich tissue like fat (and others). This is simple thermodynamics and it happens 100% of the time. However, if we over consume for a while and we gain a lot of calorically rich tissue, the body becomes burdened by this extra weight and the numerous extra physiological processes (increased blood pressure, increased cholesterol, increased blood sugar levels, etc.) that need to occur to maintain this overgrown body. So, in this case, a cleanse limited to drinking water (fasting), or vegetable and fruit juices, will lead to a reversal of this bodily burden.

Why?

Well, again, this is pure thermodynamics. If you consume 2000 calories for a long period of time, yet your body only needs 1700 calories to continue its day to day functions, then it will store this extra energy as calorically rich tissue. However, to consume 2000 calories, you likely ate a lot of food and drink. So, naturally, if you limit yourself to just drinking water and/or drinking juice throughout the day, the chances of you over consuming suddenly drop sharply; with water only, there is no chance of you over consuming as water has no calories to offer and with vegetable and fruit juice, the calories are so low, it would take incredibly high quantities, day after day, to reach your normal 2000 calorie intake to further gain weight.

 

So, a cleanse does lead to weight loss – yes, it works, although no studies have specifically focused on this aspect, it is sensible to believe cleanses lead to weight loss. However, that weight loss will only remain so long as the person is able to stick to the exact same change in the long term. No, you cannot cut out all food and drink vegetable juice only for 10 days, lose weight, and then slowly reintroduce food with the vegetable juice and expect to continue losing weight, in the long term. The severity of the change needs to remain, as much as the change itself. Is the cleanse doing something on a physiological level to “heal” the body and allow it to drop fat? Absolutely not – the same results would be had if a person simply lowered their food intake below 1700 calories (in this instance). All in all, a cleanse will work for this function, but not for the reasons touted by these commercial gurus.

Flushing Toxins

Again, let us begin by understanding the body’s normal state, then its pathological state, and if and why a cleanse may offer a benefit.

First, let us describe the efficient, healthy state of the body when it relates to toxins and metals and the like. Various degrees of toxicity and varying amount of toxicity are key to understanding the difference between a healthy body and a non-healthy body. The majority of people have, at least on some level, some exposure to various metalloids and toxic substances from acute exposure to chronic exposure [1][8]. This is true and the scientific evaluations of these toxins and their impact on overall health, from acute illness to chronic illness, have concluded that there is an acceptable exposure that varies from toxin to toxin [1][8]. This means that the body can be put in contact with something like mercury and although large doses of mercury have hazardous health implications, small levels of mercury show no signs of deleterious effects. So, a “healthy” body is not one devoid of toxins, but one acceptably exposed to toxins. If this is an acceptable definition for you? That is up to you, you are not obligated to accept this definition; however, this does not automatically justify the impact of detoxing and cleansing as a proven method for better health via the release of toxins from the body.


Why?

First off, there are certain nutrients that have been shown to have a slight beneficial impact on detoxing the body through the aforementioned process of chelation (binding to the toxin in a way that allows the body to rid itself of it)[1][9]. Some of these nutrients, like coriander, malic acid, citric acid, chlorella, among a few others, may have some benefit in this regard by binding to various metals and other toxic substances to then be released from the system [1][10][11]. So, if a cleansing program offers comparable dosage of proven, natural substances, then it is possible for a cleansing program to work. However, there are still a few factors to consider.

First off, the studies examining the impact of these natural substances were performed, largely, on animals and therefore cannot be taken word for word to imply the same effect on humans. Secondly, if these results are to be taken seriously, the natural means of detoxing in a situation in which chelation is necessary is a still secondary to synthetic form of chelating agents that offer a far superior chelating ability to their natural counterparts [1].

So, overall, what is the situation?

Well, the body can be exposed to toxic materials and it can feel no worse than before, because the body is adaptable and can handle a certain level of stress without aid. If the body is exposed to a measurably high level of toxic agents, then this will rapidly turn into a clinical case and hospitalization will be required. So, in two situations (no toxic exposure and acceptable toxic exposure), we can use commercial cleansing and see little to no effect, because the body does not need it, and in the final situation (heavy toxic exposure), we would need clinical treatment (not offered by any commercial cleanse) to deal with noticeable toxicity levels. All in all, commercial cleanses offer no benefit, even on the smallest scale, when relating to toxicity.

Overall Health

Finally, we should cover the topic of overall health and address cleansing in that scope by, again, beginning to understand what a healthy body looks like, an unhealthy body, and how those can be bridged via cleansing.

First, the healthy body is a body that is offered the proper amount of macronutrients (caloric, necessary nutrients), as well as the proper levels of micronutrients (non-caloric, necessary nutrients). If that is accomplished, from a nutritional stand point, then the body will be at its best. However, since people are not perfect, the body is forgiving and can self-adjust day to day to offer a variable, yet still healthy functioning system. However, if the body is deficient in a macro or micro nutrient for a period of time (dependent on which nutrient in question), then adverse effects can present themselves. These adverse effects can present in episodes of dizziness, lack of energy, extreme hunger, sickness, among many other possible symptoms from minor to extreme. A cleanse can be beneficial in remedying these symptoms if that cleanse is made up of fruit and vegetable juices and foods.

Why?

Well, this is not specific to cleanses, but any nutrition intervention that introduces nutrients in a nutrient deficient state will result in positive health markers. So, be that through a juice cleanse or not, if that intervention is packed full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in a situation in which the person is deficient in some or all key nutrients, then they will see a significant change [13]. Is that specific to some “healing” powers of a cleanse/detox? No. It is general to anything packed with necessary nutrients (multivitamin, healthier eating habits, juices, etc.)[13]. Also, extra nutrients will not do the body any good and can be harmful, so overloading the system, depending on the nutrient in question, can lead to health issues, well [12].

Safety?

Likely the most alarming safety concern is the extremely low caloric intake related to detox diets, which is likely alright for most of the population, but in some cases, if a person is already low in weight; this can lead to more serious health complications as the body does not have enough nutrients to sustain itself. Also, some detoxes can require people to take diuretics which, if overdone, can lead to other issues related to dehydration for no benefit to the user [1].

In terms of nutrient overconsumption, while it is true that overconsumption of certain nutrients can have deleterious effects, these concerns are low as most detoxes are relatively short term. However, while certain nutrients increase substantially, sometimes beneficially as they address deficiencies, other nutrients are kicked to the curb. So, micronutrients may be consumed in high levels, but if a detox lasts for several weeks, fat and protein intake may be ignored, and this can lead to noticeable body wasting and has, in some rare cases, led to death [15].

A final major concern is the lack of regulation in the commercial cleanse world and while cleanses may tout a particular benefit of a nutrient included in the cleanse, aside from a lack of dosing, false claims, and pure ignorance, some cleanses have ingredients that are not what they are claimed to be – in one case, a man died trying to detox his liver due to false labeling of magnesium ingredient in a cleanse he had been doing [16].

SUMMARY

There we have it. Detoxes (or cleanses, whichever you choose) can help a person lose weight, in the short term; once that person returns to their diet, they will regain the weight, however – so, long term, detox methods do not work. In terms of flushing toxins, while there are a few natural nutrients that can help as chelating agents in binding to toxic materials like metals, the synthetic forms created by the pharmaceutical industry are simply significantly more effective. On that same note, although toxicity is introduced to our body, the body is more than capable of dealing with them on its own, and if there might be a need for an actual detoxing protocol, a commercial detox would not help as this level of detox is pathological and would require emergency, clinical intervention. Finally, detoxes can help in terms of health if we look at it in a vacuum. Juice detoxing increases the nutrients (specifically micronutrients) flooding into the body, which is great, but at the expense, often, of protein and fats; this unhealthy shift from one extreme to another may not be an issue if said detox is only implemented for a few days, but beyond that, there may be health consequences. Most detoxes, although generally recognized as useless in the long term and often in the short term as well, are generally recognized as safe barring particular health conditions, honesty of the detox ingredients, and depending on the length of the detox.

Writer: Nicolas Verhoeven
This is educational material only and not meant to be prescripton, consult your physician before making any changes.

                                                                                                     Citations

[1] Klein, A. V., & Kiat, H. (2014). Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28(6), 675-686. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25522674


[2] Jones, K., & De Voogt, P. (1999). Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): state of the science.Environmental Pollution, 100(1-3), 209-221. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15093119

[3] Bland, J. S. (1995). a Medical Food-Supplemented Detoxification Program in the Management of Chronic Health Problems. Alternative Therapies In Health and Medicine, 1(5), 62-71. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9359760

[4] Macintosh, A. (2000). The effects of a short program of detoxification in disease-free individuals. Alternative Therapies for Health and Medicine, 6(4), 70-76. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10895516

[5] Grant, D. M. (1991). Detoxification Pathways in the Liver. Journal of Inherited Metabolic Disease, 14(4), 421-430. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1749210

[6] Flora, F. J. (2010). Chelation in Metal Intoxication. International Journal of Environtal Research and Public Health, 7(7), 2745-2788. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922724/

[7] Genuis, S. J. (2010). Elimination of persistent toxicants from the human body. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 30(1), 3-18. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20400489

[8] JOINT FAO/WHO EXPERT COMMITTEE ON FOOD ADDITIVES. (2010, February 25). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/foodsafety/chem/summary72_rev.pdf

[9] Husney, A. (2014, November 14). Chelation Therapy - Topic Overview. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/tc/chelation-therapy-topic-overview

[10] Aga, M., Iwaki, K., Ueda, Y., Ushio, S., Masaki, N., Fukuda, S., … Kurimoto, M. (2001). Preventive effect of Coriandrum sativum (Chinese parsley) on localized lead deposition in ICR mice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 77(2-3), 203-208. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11535365

[11] Domingo, J. L., Gómez, M., Llobet, J. M., & Corbella, J. (1988). Citric, malic and succinic acids as possible alternatives to deferoxamine in aluminum toxicity. Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology, 26(1-2), 67-79. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3385849

[12] Bendich, A. (1989). Safety of vitamin A. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49(2), 358-371. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2492745

[13] Shenkin, A. (2006). Micronutrients in health and disease. Postgrad Medical Journal, 82(971), 559-567. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2585731/

[14] Isner, J. M. (1979). Sudden, Unexpected Death in Avid Dieters Using the Liquid-Protein-Modified-Fast Diet. Circulation, 60(6), 1401-1412. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/circulationaha/60/6/1401.full.pdf

[15] Isner, J. M. (1979). Sudden, Unexpected Death in Avid Dieters Using the Liquid-Protein-Modified-Fast Diet. Circulation, 60(6), 1401-1412. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/circulationaha/60/6/1401.full.pdf

[16] Sánchez, B., Casalots-Casado, J., Quintana, S., Arroyo, A., Martín-Fumadó, C., & Galtés, I. (2012). Fatal manganese intoxication due to an error in the elaboration of Epsom salts for a liver cleansing diet. Forensic Science International, 223(1-3), e1-e4. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22884574

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