Purging the Detox Myth

We are now just over a week into the new year, how are those resolutions going? If like me you felt bad for (at least) a week’s worth of pigging out over the holiday season, then maybe you’ve been on a detox? They are a quick easy way to get healthy right? Yeah about that…

Most people think of a detox as some form of cleanse that removes various toxins from the body, usually after a period of excessive eating and drinking. While not completely incorrect, the use, or misuse, of the word nowadays is the result of very clever marketing. The correct definition of a detox is a medical procedure that removes dangerous and often life-threatening levels of drugs, alcohol and poisons from the body carried out by a trained medical professional in a hospital or clinic. Not quite the same as drinking some carrot juice then. What we’re doing is more of a ‘cleanse’.

The idea of cleansing the body isn’t new, but the way we do it has changed dramatically. Go back 100 years and we were using therapeutic vomiting, blood-letting and a process known as ‘smuding’ where smoke from burning sage is waved around the energy field of a person to destroy negative energy. These days it’s all intestinal cleaning, foot sponges which supposedly draw out toxins and coffee enemas (yes you read that correctly). The question is does detoxing (or cleansing) really do anything?

Let’s take a simple example: a master cleanse diet favoured by a number of Hollywood celebrities. Begin the day with a litre of warm salt water, consume 2 litres of a concoction of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper throughout the day and finish with 250ml of laxative in the evening. Do this for 10 days and you will gain energy, lose weight and relieve symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis. Except you probably won’t. There are no data on this diet in the medical literature and similar studies on fasts and extremely low-calorie diets actually result in rapid weight gain following their completion. You will of course lose weight during the diet as you are only consuming 600 calories a day, but this is mostly due to fluid loss. Furthermore, the diet is lacking in protein, fatty acids and other essential nutrients, with the daily laxative regime likely to cause dehydration. Just this week doctors in the UK issued a health warning about the potential harms of undertaking a radical new year detox, highlighting the example of a 47-year-old woman admitted to intensive care following a detox diet of herbal remedies and water, that left her with dangerously low levels of salt in her body.

A search of medical literature using the words ‘detox’ and ‘clinical trial’ returns nothing. Quite simply there is no credible evidence to demonstrate that detox kits do anything at all. Perhaps most importantly they have not been shown to offer any of the supposed health benefits claimed by manufacturers and promoters. This may seem a little doom and gloom for the new year, but don’t worry, your body has got you covered. The human body is the best detoxing solution available and here’s how it works.

Let’s pretend I’m one of these mysterious ‘toxins’ trying to enter your body, cleverly concealed in your favourite alcoholic beverage. First up, I pass through the stomach and into the intestines, where I am confronted with lymph nodes called Peyer’s patches. These guys screen out parasites and other foreign substances before they are absorbed into the blood along with nutrients. Well, what if I disguise myself as a nutrient? Now I’m in the blood and ready to do some damage. But what’s this? An army of cells and molecules sent by the immune system are here to fight me off. They are specifically designed to recognise foreign substances and eliminate them from the body, making me target number one. Okay, well, suppose I somehow survive the onslaught from the army of cells, things must surely start to look up? Afraid not. The blood is passed through the liver where proteins called metallothioneins act to neutralise harmful metals and enzymes process drugs. The job of the liver is basically to break down anything that can cause harm to your body, which is bad news for me as a ‘toxin’. If by some miracle there is anything left of me after the liver has worked its magic then I will enter into the kidneys. These are the body’s natural filtration system and remove any waste substances that remain. I think it’s safe to say I’m done for…

If after all of that you still think the so-called ‘toxins’ have a chance, then by all means please do try that coffee enema, but if it were up to me I’d trust my body. The best new year detox plan is simply to concentrate on giving your body what it needs to do its job. That means a healthy diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep. It might be less exciting than that Colon Detox Pro yoga session you had planned, but it also might actually work…

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Do antioxidants really keep you young?

As part of the Naked Scientists Mythconception series, I question my choice of new year resolution as I investigates the science behind the infamous ‘free-radicals’ and their sworn enemy, the all-conquering antioxidants…

Tom – We’re now well into the new year – how are those resolutions going? If, like me, you’ve decided to eat more healthily, maybe you’ve been stuffing yourself with antioxidants. They’re good for you… right? And they attack free radicals, those naughty things flying around in your body causing damage to your cells and making you age faster. At least that’s what we’re told by the so-called ‘health experts’. Let’s see what science has to say on the subject…

The story begins in 1945, when the wife of chemist Denham Harman suggested that he read an article in Ladies Home Journal entitled “Tomorrow you may be younger.” This sparked his interest in the process of aging and a few years later whilst working at the University of California, Berkeley, he proposed that ageing is caused by reactive molecules that build up in the body as by-products of your body’s natural processes and lead to cellular damage. These are what he called “free radicals.” Harman himself described his discovery as ‘a thought out of the blue.’

Scientists began to rally around the theory of free radical ageing and that antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene were able to neutralise them. The antioxidant boom occurred in the 1990’s with the word entering into the public domain and supplements being added to foods and taken as tablets. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s, however, that scientists began testing the theory and they encountered some interesting results. Two separate studies compared mice, which were genetically engineered to overproduce either free radicals or antioxidants, with normal mice and they saw no change in the life span in each case. Further studies in humans found antioxidant supplements negate the health promoting effects of exercise and may even lead to a higher chance of death.

The increase in life expectancy which is often attributed to antioxidants is, in fact, likely to be a by-product of a generally healthier lifestyle. People that take antioxidant supplements tend to be more health conscious in general and as a result, are likely to live longer.

The bottom line is that scientists are still unsure of the exact roles of free radicals and antioxidants in the body and more studies are required. Most researchers do agree, however, that free radicals cause cellular damage but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases is seems to be a normal part of the body’s reaction to stress. We are certainly not being oxidised and therefore do not require antioxidants to save us from impending doom as the health experts would like us to believe.

Nonetheless, the global antioxidant market was worth 2.1 billion dollars in 2013 and is expected to continue to grow by a further billion by 2020. I’ll leave you with a quote from Professor David Gems from University College London, which sums it all up quite nicely – “It’s a massive racket. The reason the notion of oxidation and ageing hangs around is because it is perpetuated by people making money out of it.”

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

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