Detox: Fact vs Fiction
Approximately 10 Minutes Reading Time
Brief Article Overview
- The notion of “detoxification” assumed that our bodies are full of toxicants which it can’t naturally process and excrete, thereby accumulating and theoretically causing a myriad of health problems.
- As an area of research, the identification of toxicants and the use of functional nutrition is complex and fairly new.
- There are compounds which the World Health Organisation have identified as being problematic to human health. These compounds are Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (known as PBT’s).
- There is little, limited evidence to support the use of natural plant extracts to remove certain PBT’s.
- Preliminary research suggests “functional nutrition” can mitigate the potentially harmful effects of PBT’s, primarily because of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
- More worthwhile diet and lifestyle changes should precede the use of commercial products for detoxification.
What is a Detox?
There are many weird and wonderfully creative products and protocols on the market at the moment which fall under the term of Detoxification (you may have seen them bombard your social media feed recently!). All claiming to rid your body of toxicants, which are portrayed as the root cause of a myriad of diseases, disorders and dysfunctions.
Although the details of each Detox protocol vary widely, they all seem to follow a general pattern:
- Reduce exposure to potentially harmful toxicants by removing or avoiding them altogether (think teetotalism, fasting or elimination diets).
- Take specific supplements (teas, juices, powders, gels, pills, probiotics etc) which theoretically aid the body in processing or nullifying potentially harmful toxicants.
- Induce or accelerate natural bodily excretion using various methods; sauna, steam room (skin/sweat), laxatives, enemas, colonic irrigations (faeces) or diuretics (urine).
The whole notion of commercial Detoxification is pretty broad and vague. It’s an umbrella term, which covers a large variety of products and protocols. As an area of research, therefore, it’s hard to pin down, confusing to interpret and difficult to navigate. So before investing time and money into any commercial detox product, let’s try to understand the subject a bit better.
The Aims of this Investigation
- Specify which toxicants may be a cause for concern in the context of general human health.
- Identify how functional nutrition can aid the body in the detoxification process.
- Create a diet and lifestyle checklist, which should be addressed before contemplating a detox intervention.
The Body’s Detoxification Systems
We tend to forget that over millions of years of evolution, the body has equipped itself with multiple levels of defence against potentially harmful substances, such as pathogens, bacteria, viruses, particles etc. These are listed below:
Which Toxicants, Exactly?
Despite our body’s sophisticated defences, it is well established that exposure to certain chemicals, either through lifestyle habits or as byproducts of industrial processes, are having adverse effects on human health. The accumulation of these chemicals has been shown to cause an array of dysfunctions including inflammation, oxidative stress (1&2), which may contribute to obesity (3&4) and metabolic syndrome (5), increasing the risk of diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease (6,7&8).
To put it into context, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that environmental factors constitute 25-33% of the global disease burden (9).
The detection and regulation of these chemicals, however, is a relatively new area of research and the number of compounds which need to be processed is overwhelmingly large. As an example, since just 2007 the European Chemicals Agency (10) has registered 22,000 new and unique substances to its database, that’s about 1,700 compounds a year! To determine the concentration addition, toxicity equivalency factors, effect summation, and independent actions of each chemical compound are a seriously time-consuming task.
Long story short, there are a lot of unknowns, but what do we know? Well, in 2004, the WHO organised a convention in Stockholm, where a panel of experts identified which registered substances have substantial evidence for being problematic to human health (11). These substances are required to fulfil three specific criteria:
- Persistent – regular and consistent exposure to humans from the environment, diet or lifestyle choices.
- Bioaccumulative – accumulates in living organisms and passes through the food chain. Suggesting the body is unable to break-down, detoxify or excrete out through normal processes.
- Toxic – damaging and disruptive to body cells and their function.
Hence these chemicals will be known as PBT’s.
Commonly Encountered PBT’s
Note: this is not an extensive list of all chemical compounds (there are hundreds), just a brief overview of the big players and their sources:
Nutrition – Helping or Hindering?
Aforementioned bioaccumulative toxicants tend to be fat-soluble (lipophilic), so foods high in fat could potentially increase your exposure (12). Generally, the risk of toxicant exposure in meat and dairy products is higher than vegetable matter. We are NOT advocating the boycott of meat and dairy products, however, as they provide crucial nutrients which can contribute to a healthy diet. It is important to be particularly mindful of the raising and processing of these foods when sourcing them.
Side note: Adipose tissue (body fat) absorbs toxicants, which temporarily protect the body, but can also increase chronic “body burden”, and is released in high doses when losing weight (13).
Conversely, nutrition can positively influence your body’s ability to deal with exposure to these toxicants. For example, risk of exposure may increase as a result of ingestion of certain dietary fats, whereas the ingestion of fruits and vegetables, rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients may mitigate this risk.
Functional Foods to the Rescue?
The foundation of the supplemental arm in detox protocols is the use of “functional foods”. They are often either plant extracts (ginseng, ginger, garlic, milk thistle, echinacea etc), which contain varying levels of bioactive compounds such as polyphenols, vitamins and minerals.
Certain chemical compounds have been shown to aid chelation of heavy metals. The caveat here is that they are mostly animal studies, in which there is a dosage dilemma. Small animals which are given high doses of heavy metals (hundreds of times higher per bodyweight than would be found in humans) and are prescribed massive amounts of the bioactive compound (20-40% of their entire calorie intake some cases!) make it difficult to translate to prescription in humans.
The small number of human studies have however shown promising uses of Selenium, Chlorella and Citrus Pectin in aiding the chelation of toxicants such as Dioxins (industrial pollutants), HCA’s & PHA’s (burnt meat), Cadmium, Mercury and Lead (heavy metals).
It seems that the main reason for increasing intake of functional foods as part of a detox protocol is their well-established roles as potent anti-inflammatories and antioxidants:
According to Patriello et al, on the use of functional nutrition to mitigate Persistent Organic Pollutant toxicity (16);
“(Functional) Nutrition can act as 1) a modulator of health risks associated with environmental exposure and toxicity of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and as 2) an environmentally sustainable tool to capture, sense and remediate POPs. We propose that nutrition, and in particular diet-derived bioactive compounds such as polyphenols, can protect against POP toxicity through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”
The Pre-Detox Checklist
Here’s a useful tip, any supplement or health product which promises the world and is accompanied by the phrase “as part of a healthy diet and regular exercise”, you should probably focus on that part first, before spending your hard-earned money. Remember these products should be used as a last resort to supplement any genuine deficiencies or imbalances you may have, not to try and make up for an unhealthy lifestyle.
Getting the fundamentals right will have a far greater effect on how well your bodily system’s function and your ability to lose body fat or improve body composition. So what are these fundamentals you should focus your time and money on before turning to Detox products?
The inconvenient truth is that there are no shortcuts when it comes to improving your health, fitness and body composition. If only we could provide a pill or powder which could turn our clients into super healthy athletes, our job would be a lot easier! We firmly believe that manipulating nutritional intake in terms of real food has a significantly larger effect on toxicant elimination than the use of any supplements or products. Have a look at our hierarchy of nutritional needs:
As stated by Klein et al (22), who wrote a review of the current evidence regarding detox diets:
“There is preliminary evidence to suggest that certain foods have detoxification properties, although the majority of these studies have been performed in animals. To the best of our knowledge, no randomised controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans. This is an area that deserves attention so that consumers can be informed of the potential benefits and risks of detox programmes.”
We can always advise best practice, but can’t stop anyone from following these regimes (as long as they aren’t harmful!). If you’re willing to part ways with your hard earned money, by all means give them a go! They will not likely do you any harm, and may reinforce / support the healthy lifestyle you’re searching for. As long as you understand these supplements cannot make up for poor lifestyle choices and habits. If you want to learn about the fundamentals of health and fitness we at Common Purpose are always happy to help!
Food for thought? If this has encouraged you to think about your health, fitness & wellbeing, why not click this link and fill out our enquiry form. We’d love to see how we can help you on your journey.
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.
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