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Body Detoxing: Facts and Myths

  • Synopsis: Published: 2008-01-01 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-13) - Our bodies have their own detox mechanism as the gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body - Sense About Science.

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Quote: "The detox fad - or fads, as there are many methods - is an example of the capacity of people to believe in (and pay for) magic despite the lack of any sound evidence."

Scientists say: drop "detox": have a glass of tap water and get an early night...

Every January, the health and lifestyle sectors invent ever more products and practices designed to purify, detoxify and restore ourselves. These industries are now worth tens of millions. The New Year's message to the public from some of the UK's leading scientists and clinicians is: "save your money: have a glass of tap water, a turkey salad and a good night's sleep!"

Our bodies have their own 'detox' mechanisms. The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body. When harmful chemicals do enter the body, the liver acts as an extraordinary chemical factory, usually combining them with its own chemicals to make a water soluble compound that can be excreted by the kidneys. The body thus detoxifies itself. The body is re-hydrated with ordinary tap water. It is refreshed with a good night's sleep.

These processes do not occur more effectively as a result of taking "detox" tablets, wearing "detox" socks, having a "detox" body wrap, eating Nettle Root extract, drinking herbal infusions or "oxygenated" water, following a special "detox" diet, or using any of the other products and rituals that are promoted. They waste money and sow confusion about how our bodies, nutrition and chemistry actually work.

This summary of scientists' views of detox is drawn from an initiative organized by Sense About Science to encourage chemical scientists to explain their concerns to the growing lifestyle industry (see Note 2 below).

Comments from scientists and clinicians:

"Our bodies are very good at eliminating all the nasties that we might ingest over the festive season. There is a popular notion that we can speed up the elimination process by drinking fancy bottled water or sipping herbal teas, but this is just nonsense. In fact, many of the detox diets and supplements really aren't that good for you, nor have they been properly tested. These alternative remedies are currently being looked at by chemists on account of the toxic natural chemicals they contain, and 2006 may well see many of the current claims about chemicals and health being exposed as little more than urban myths." - Dr John Emsley, Chemical Scientist, Popular Science Writer

"Whether or not people believe the biblical story of the virgin birth, there are plenty of other popular myths that are swallowed with religious fervour over Christmas. Amongst these is the idea that in some way the body accumulates noxious chemicals during everyday life, and that they need to be expunged by some mysterious process of detoxification, often once a year after Christmas excess. The detox fad - or fads, as there are many methods - is an example of the capacity of people to believe in (and pay for) magic despite the lack of any sound evidence. This is a trend that should worry us all." - Professor Martin Wiseman, Visiting Professor of Human Nutrition, University of Southampton

"Detox diets and products may not do harm, except, perhaps, to your wallet, but neither do they do you much good. Your natural bodily functions are effective at clearing out harmful substances and there is little you can do to enhance these. Patience and a proper diet are more valuable than detox products and supplements." - Dr Paul Illing, Chartered Scientist, Registered Toxicologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry

"One of the most poisonous chemicals that many people will encounter this time of year is alcohol. However, even if you drink an almost lethal dose of alcohol (which I don't recommend) your liver will clear it in 36 hours without any assistance from detox tablets. As a pathologist, I am frustrated by the claims made at this time of year that a detox diet will somehow improve your liver function. The only thing you can do to help your liver after a period of indulgence is to stop drinking alcohol and drink water to re-hydrate." - Professor Sir Colin Berry, Professor Emeritus of Pathology, Queen Mary, London

"'Detox' is a meaningless term that is used all the time. And because it hasn't been defined, it's impossible to say if it's worked or if it hasn't." - Ursula Arens, Registered Dietitian, British Dietetic Association

"Ordinary tap water is as good as it gets. Much is made of the benefits of natural water but all water needs to be processed so that we can drink it. There is also no convincing evidence of any beneficial effects from consuming low or high mineral content bottled waters." - Kevin Prior, Water and Waste Water Chemical Scientist

"If you party to excess it is more than likely that you won't be feeling your best. The cure? A good night's sleep, your normal diet and plenty of water. Immoderation can only be repaid by moderation. Special detox diets and products are not going to do anything to hasten this process. Chemical scientists get fed up with debunking all these detox claims that come out in January." - Professor John Henry, Clinical Toxicologist, St Mary's Hospital, London

"Hmmm - where to start about detox

The concept of 'detox' is a marketing myth rather than a physiological entity. The idea that an avalanche of vitamins, minerals, and laxatives taken over a 2 to 7 day period can have a long-lasting benefit for the body is also a marketing myth. So are there any benefits of the detox concept? Well, the only one I can think of is to remove the 'tyranny of food choice' and perhaps get you back on the straight and narrow. But the bottom line? I hate detox as a marketing concept which is of little or no benefit to the body for the short term it is used, and for the enduring myths that then make people ambivalent towards foods in their diet - so wheat is out (as a grain indigenous to the UK), but rye or quinoa is in ...dairy is out, soya is in (which in reality means that those on a dairy free diet without suitable substitution end up with such a low dietary calcium intake that they are at serious risk of developing osteoporosis)." - Dr Catherine Collins, Chief Dietitian, St George's Hospital Medical School, London

"On detox the Romans got it right: Mundus vult decipi - the world wants to be deceived - better translated as 'There's a sucker born every minute'. The only thing that loses weight on a detox diet is your wallet." - Dr John Hoskins, Environmental Toxicologist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry

"The body is reasonably resilient. However, if you have indulged too much, help your body to get recover in the simplest way. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Flush your system through with plenty of water. You don't need expensive remedies for getting back from somewhere you should not have been in the first place. Try not to go there again." - Dr Derek Lohman, Research Chemist

"The body's own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile. They have to be, as the natural environment that we evolved in is hostile. It is remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven 'detox' diets, which could well do more harm than good." - Professor Alan Boobis OBE, Toxicologist, Division of Medicine, Imperial College London

Notes:

1. Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust (registered charity no. 1101114) that works to ensure evidence is central to public discussions about science and medicine.

2. Chemical scientists' criticism of the detox industry is part of a 16-page report from a working group and wider consultation, to be published on 26 January 2006. The report challenges six major misconceptions about chemicals that pervade the lifestyle market and commentary (the latter having grown exponentially in the last decade, through internet, product & retailers' literature, men's/women's/family health, and food commentary) . The full report will be launched at a meeting at the end of January between chemical scientists and lifestyle commentators - the first of its kind - aimed at addressing the growing disconnection between the two.

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, said, "We were surprised to find such strength of feeling about the detox industry among scientists. The criticisms were unanimous across our working group, and were echoed by other scientists and clinicians that we consulted about our forthcoming lifestyle and chemicals report. So we encouraged scientists to present these views early in the New Year, when interest in detox is at its height, in advance of the report publication later in the month."

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