Is Detoxing Really a Thing?
I have gotten a lot of questions recently about detoxing, whether it’s through supplements, fasting, juicing, charcoal, eating only fruits and vegetables, or doing the Whole30 (sometimes used in the name of detoxing and sometimes not).
Spoiler alert: detoxing is not a thing.
The underlying idea is that somehow over time, “toxins” build up in the body. Some claim this is in the liver or the kidney; some claim it’s in the gut or the colon. You might be warned about all this “poision” in your body that supposedly accumulates over time and makes you slower, more sluggish, etc. At first glance it might sound convincing, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Here’s why…
Let’s get scientific.
If you’re not interested in hearing my anatomical arguments, skip down to “Purported Benefits of Detoxing” — no judgment.
Your body is constantly detoxing. You were created with a natural detoxification system, mainly involving your liver and kidneys. These organs are constantly working to get rid of unneeded chemicals and compounds that naturally build up from everyday life.
You might think that you need to periodically “clear out” a buildup of toxins, but this idea comes from a misinformed view of how the body detoxifies itself. Rather than trapping harmful substances like a filter so that they build up in the organs, the liver actually converts those harmful substances into other compounds that can then be safely eliminated. Think of your detoxification organs as more of a recycling plant where waste is made into something new.
Rather than trapping harmful substances like a filter so that they build up in the organs, the liver actually converts those harmful substances into other compounds that can then be safely eliminated.
A prime example is that of ammonia, or NH3. Ammonia is a byproduct of amino acid breakdown (also known as deamination), which is constantly happening as your body uses, creates, and recycles protein. Ammonia is extremely toxic to the body and brain, and a buildup can cause seizures, coma, and ultimately death.
To prevent ammonia from building up, the liver converts it into a much less poisonous compound called urea. Urea is then passed into the blood and eventually excreted by the kidneys. Thus, the liver never “holds on” to the ammonia; rather, it converts it into something else and ships it out.
The kidneys are similar to the liver in that they essentially choose what substances will be excreted in the urine and what will stay in the blood. This is the main way your body controls its hydration status. Other substances such as salts and urea are also filtered into the urine by the kidneys. However, the kidneys never actually retain any of the compounds being filtered — either they go in the urine or stay the blood. If your kidneys become unable to filter, potentially toxic substances will build up in your blood. However, this means you have kidney disease and require dialysis — essentially an artificial kidney outside your body to clean your blood for you. (Not fun to do for four hours, three times a week.)
So the normal, non-diseased body does not, in fact, have any sort of buildup of toxic substances, thus negating the need for any cleanse or detox.
Purported Benefits of Detoxing
Ok, no more science. Let’s get to the claims made about detoxing, the possible dangers, and my conclusions.
There hasn’t been much research done on detox diets to date. Most of the “evidence” is anecdotal, or based on people’s experiences. But let’s dive in to a couple of the supposed benefits.
- Weight loss. You have probably heard stories about people losing weight, feeling “lighter,” etc. when they are detoxing. This may be real, but it is not a good thing. Most detoxes involve significant caloric restriction, meaning that no matter what type of organic carrot/beet/spinach juice you’re drinking, your body is in starvation mode. Any weight loss that comes from detoxing is almost always temporary and can be met with rebound weight gain when you begin feeding your body normally again. Additionally, this process teaches your body to not trust you — after all, you just put it through three days of functioning on way less than it truly needs. Long-term, this does not set you up to be able to listen to your body’s hungry/full signals and your cravings, which is a super important part of living intuitively and healthfully.
- Energy boosts. This is hard to believe knowing that the body is in a negative energy balance. However, this experience is likely a remarkable survival mechanism our bodies use to give us euphoric-like energy to continue searching for food when we are in a starvation state.
- Better sleep, fewer headaches, improved thinking, shiny hair, etc. It is difficult to quantitatively measure these outcomes and there are many possible contributors, so there’s no way to know whether a detox is causing them. It’s possible that it does, but I would chalk a lot of it up to the good old placebo effect.
Dangers of Detoxing
On the flip side, there are several concerning side effects of detoxing. One, as I already mentioned, is rapid weight loss/putting the body in starvation mode. Others include:
- upset of the body’s electrolyte balance due to laxative use
- excessive diarrhea
- dangerously low blood sugars
- extreme fatigue
- weakening of the immune system
- muscle breakdown
- alterations in healthy gut bacteria populations
- vitamin deficiencies
- supplement overdose
The crazy thing is that some detox regimens will lead you to believe that some of these physical symptoms are good signs that your body is “flushing out” all the toxins! In truth, your body is suffering and sending you signals to please give it more energy, more balanced nutrition, and fewer unneeded supplements.
Detoxing can do physical harm to your body. It can also can harm your relationship with your body in teaching you to ignore hungry/full signals and “hey, your body is not well” signals.
A note on the Whole30
Although the Whole30 is not always used in a “detox” sense, I have gotten several questions about it and feel I should address it here. Personally I do not support the Whole30 for one reason: it’s unquestionably a diet. This diet is particularly restrictive, eliminating not only breads, almost all forms of sugar, and dairy, but other food groups such as beans, peanuts, and soy. The sheer restriction on this diet honestly blows my mind, especially because of the lack of evidence that any of these food groups are inherently “bad” for you.
I think the Whole30 is attractive to many people because it is viewed as an extreme challenge. It’s similar to running a marathon — you could achieve similar health benefits by training for a 5K, but some people just want to work towards a much more difficult goal. I get it, but the question I ask is: what does this 30-day stint do for you long-term?
The Whole30 is not sustainable (unless you build your life around it). If you do the Whole30 just to experience a different way of eating and then move on with your life, so be it. But I have experienced firsthand the way restrictive diets like this can catapult vulnerable people into eating disorders, where an obsession with health becomes extremely unhealthy and sometimes it takes years to repair the damage.
Detoxing and other diets of the sort are truly not necessary to be healthy. It is far more beneficial to sit down and ask yourself some questions like, “What rhythms set me up for success (i.e. adequate sleep, exercise, self-care)? How is my relationship with food and my body? How can I care for myself by eating food that is both physically and psychologically satisfying?”
In the end, your body has the answers you need if you will listen.
How can I connect with you?
I’m dedicated to helping others find freedom in eating in this world where restriction is everywhere. If you want some help diving into intuitive eating, I am now offering private nutrition counseling services! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.