It’s a lucrative season for the detox industry, as you could probably guess from any annual list of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. And while kick-starting the year by purging your system of impurities is appealing in theory — the perfect remedy for your poor diet and alcohol-soaked social life, and probably some of your more insidious emotional problems, too! — think twice before investing in a seven-day super cleanse or engaging in a series of colon hydrotherapy sessions.
We’ll say this as bluntly as possible: Detoxing is a scam whose sole purpose is emptying your pockets.
Or as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health so succinctly puts it, “There isn’t any convincing evidence that detox or cleansing programs actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health. Weight loss on a detox diet may be because these diets are often very low in calories.”
There’s also the fact that your body already comes well equipped with its own built-in detoxing mechanisms, better known as your liver and kidneys. These hefty organs constantly convert real bodily toxins (booze, pesticides and other nasty chemicals we tend to consume with our food) into waste for safe removal — your kidneys alone filter somewhere between 120 and 150 quarts of blood per day. If it were possible for toxins to build up in a way that your body couldn’t excrete, you’d likely be dead (or on a dialysis machine) by now.
The main problem when it comes to delving into the science of detoxing is that it’s sold on the premise of removing “toxins” from the body, but there’s no real evidence that these toxins actually exist. When a network of scientists contacted numerous manufacturers of products claiming to detoxify in 2009 — from dietary supplements to smoothies — they found that not a single company could define what they meant by detoxing, let alone name the toxins their products were meant to remove, leading the researchers to conclude that the word “detox” itself, as used in product marketing, “is a myth.”
It’s the same story we’ve encountered again and again in our own coverage of the rise of such regimens. The soup cleanse, for example, which we tried out last March, promised weight loss and improved gut health, but the results were null: “You probably lost some water weight from being on a low-sodium diet and not eating restaurant food, which decreases your water retention,” dietician David Weiss told us. “You also probably lost some muscle mass because your protein intake was way lower than normal. It’s likely that you lost some fat as well. However, when you start eating again, there’s a high likelihood you’ll immediately regain that weight.”
Or colonic irrigation, which we tried in November 2016, a process that promised to clear the colon of hard-to-pass excrement that would otherwise linger and pump disease-causing toxins into your system, but which in reality does more harm than good. As an analysis published in the Journal of Family Practice emphasizes, “There is a lack of evidence to back up supporters’ claims,” providing a lengthy and alarming list of side effects (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities, acute kidney insufficiency, pancreatitis, bowel perforation, heart failure and infection).
Or how about sweating out toxins at an Urban Sweat Lodge, as we tried last July? Despite the owner’s assurance that the sweat that leaves your body under such circumstances was “29 or 30 percent” toxins, the expert in human bodily secretions we contacted laughed the figure off as “hooey. They have a quantitative measurement, but they can’t tell you what they measured?” There was no argument at all, he believed, in favor of sweating out so-called toxins. “When you go to a sauna, you’re going to sweat eccrine sweat, mostly. You’ll lose a lot of water and salt, just like you would if you were exercising. So I don’t know what the rationale is for ‘toxins’ being removed.”
There’s plenty of stuff for the home market, too, like those detoxifying foot pads that turn brown overnight with what manufacturers claim are, of course, toxins. Researchers were quick to discover that the sludge really comes from a substance in the pads that turns brown when it mixes with water from your sweat.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health makes it clear that these foot pads are far from the only faux detoxifying product out there: “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several companies selling detox/cleansing products because they contained illegal, potentially harmful ingredients; were marketed using false claims that they could treat serious diseases; or (in the case of medical devices used for colon cleansing) were marketed for unapproved uses.”
We could go on and on with this, but you get the gist — it’s pretty safe to assume that, if something offers a detoxifying experience, it’s basically bullshit. Looks like we’ll have to try that whole “diet and exercise” thing after all.