I haven’t forgotten that I owe you the second instalment of “Are You In Control”, but the word “detox” reared its ugly head so many times this weekend that I felt this would be a good way to start the year.
The “Detox” Myth
In early January, an untold number of people will target our wallets, and feelings of guilt after indulging over the festive season, in order to sell us their various versions of “detox”. Put simply, the idea is that days/weeks/years of drinking, smoking and eating badly have filled our bodies with “toxins”, and that these can be easily flushed out through various extreme regimens. This might include diets (often bordering on starvation), enemas, acupuncture, excessive exercise, homeopathy, or any number of pills and concoctions that people choose to put together. Even better, according to the detox “specialists”, the “build-up” of toxins that we have apparently accrued explains all of our various complaints and symptoms. However, most of this is nonsense and amounts to little more than an attempt to exploit us for financial gain.
A recent review looking at “alternative detox” methods came to a definitive conclusion: “there is only one possible conclusion… detox is biologically not plausible and clinically unproved.”
The reason for this boils down to two main facts:
- Our liver and kidneys exist almost exclusively to rid the body of toxins, and they are very, very good at it.
- We are exposed to so many “toxins” in our daily lives, that drinking nothing but lemon juice for 14 days just won’t make that much of a difference.
Juices – A perfect example of detox pseudoscience
On Sunday there was a large segment during a breakfast show in the UK on how to “detox” by surviving on a diet of juices for a few days, or even longer. Let me say now that I have no gripe with this particular “guru”. However, his promise of losing “5 pounds in 5 days” (though potentially true), is entirely unsustainable.
If you were to suddenly survive only on spinach and pear juice, this would constitute a rapid reduction in your calorie intake - you have been tricked into starving yourself. When this happens, the body starts to rely on its own energy stores. Though some of this will come from stored fat, the early stages of starvation will involve using up the energy that we have stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen. Glycogen is made up of thousands of glucose molecules, and is our way of safely locking up glucose for easy-access energy during exercise or starvation.
We each have 400-500g of glycogen, which is stored with a good amount of potassium and up to four times its weight in water. Five days is the perfect amount of time to use up 500g of glycogen, and pee out the 2kg of water stored with it. That’s 5 pounds right there. Perfect!
However, as I covered before, this glycogen (and the associated weight) will be instantly regained as soon as you eat a normal diet again, and you won’t have actually lost any fat in the process.
Of course, the proponents of any such regimen will show off their lithe bodies and describe their “journey” through a huge transformation, which inspires us to do the same. What you don’t see is the extra effort through exercise or other lifestyle changes they have made. It is true that if you switch from a junk food-based diet to a juice-based diet, you will certainly lose weight and, and probably improve your health in the short term. However, any quick fix offered up is never the whole story, and life-long improvement in fat loss and overall health won’t come from living on a liquid diet. Anyway, wouldn’t you prefer to eat your salad rather than drink it?
Your body is “detoxing” all the time
The body has evolved a robust pathway that is able to neutralise and excrete the infinite number of possible toxic compounds that we might come into contact with. This pathway involves 3 main “phases”.
Phase 1 – Modification. A toxin can be changed in a number of ways at the start of the process, mainly through a large system of enzymes (the cytochrome P450 system) in the liver.
Phase 2 – Conjugation. The real “detox” step. Substances that the body needs to excrete have other molecules stuck on to them. This stops any “toxic” effects, and targets the toxin for removal.
Phase 3 – Excretion. After final adjustments, the toxin is excreted via bile, through the intestines, or into the urine through the kidneys.
This system is capable of dealing with almost anything that we come into contact with incidentally. The “toxins” you ate or drank over Christmas are almost certainly out of your body already.
Of course, if you are in a business where you expose yourself to toxins regularly (dentists working with old mercury-based fillings, industrial workers exposed to chemicals or solvents, farmers working with pesticides), there is always a real risk of toxin-based illnesses that may need to be treated with medical “detox” regimens.
Clean up your act
Just because the body is good at dealing with the crap we expose it to, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a bit of a helping hand. For the majority of us there are some simple ways to keep the body functioning at maximum capacity as we enter the new year:
Reduce exposure to toxins: This may sound obvious, but we expose ourselves to unnecessary toxins every day, which are quite easily avoided:
- Stop smoking. Now. You know it’s bad for you.
- Reduce your intake of food/drinks stored in tins, bottles or plastic. They can contain a large number of chemicals (such as Phthalates and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)) that interfere with our hormones and increase the risk of many cancers.
- Clean up your food. The longer the list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce, the harder your liver will work to get rid of them.
- Finally, if you are exposed to any occupational toxins, make sure you do everything you can to minimise direct contact (such as using gloves or masks).
Boost Phase 1: This system usually works pretty well by itself. Interestingly, one of the best ways to increase the activity of your P450 enzymes is to drink alcohol, so your liver is probably already primed at this time of year! This isn’t an excuse to drink more.
Boost Phase 2: The way you “conjugate” toxins in your body varies according to your genes. However, one ubiquitous system involves using glutathione, an antioxidant that we produce ourselves. A few simple things have been shown to improve glutathione reserves:
- Eating broccoli and cabbage (thanks to a molecule called sulforaphane).
- Eating plenty of protein (something you don’t get in a juice-based diet).
- Drinking coffee or green tea.
- Supplementing with DHA, one of the Omega-3s found in fish oil (or eating more oily fish).
Some herbal remedies such as milk thistle have also been shown to increase glutathione, but there is a risk of overdoing it. There are increasing reports of many herbal “detox” remedies, including things like green tea extract, causing cases of hepatitis and liver failure.
You’re better off taking what you can from the diet naturally rather than taking pills: 2-6 cups of green tea or coffee (six large lattes from Starbucks is probably overkill), and 1g of DHA (from algae or fish oil) per day is plenty.
Boost Phase 3: Drink plenty of water. There is no target amount, but you should aim to never feel thirsty. Tap water tends to be fine, and you should avoid bottled water (see above). If you are concerned about the quality of your tap water, use a standard filtering jug.
One entity that we have become particularly obsessed with recently is the “free radical”. A free radical can be any molecule in the body where one of the atoms has lost an electron. Electrons like to come in pairs, so that lonely electron will quickly steal a partner by attacking (or “oxidising”) another molecule. This damages the molecule under attack, and can create a chain-reaction, producing many more free radicals. Accumulating free-radical damage is thought to be one of the key steps in the ageing process. For this reason, many people have suggested that we should combat free radical damage by taking “antioxidants”, which are substances (such as Vitamin E or C) that can safely “give” an electron to a free radical, neutralising the threat.
While this initially makes it sound like free radicals are a bad thing, it is worth mentioning that our mitochondria (the “energy factories” of our cells) produce free radicals continuously, as part of normal energy production. As we each have many trillion mitochondria, any free radicals we introduce from the environment will almost always be outweighed by those that we produce ourselves. More importantly, many of these free radicals act as messengers in our cells, and are essential for normal bodily function. This is thought to be one of the reasons why many studies looking at supplementation with antioxidants have shown very little benefit. In one famous large trial, supplementing with Vitamin E even seemed to increase the risk of prostate cancer!
Whilst taking vitamins may be helpful to fill in the gaps of a poor diet, they are never a substitute for eating properly. If you are healthy and eat well, it is clearly better to just let the body do what it is designed to.
Don’t be fooled by the people trying to sell you fancy treatments or regimens that will inevitably not work, and are at best only going to be a waste of money. If you’re going to “splash out”, a meta-analysis last month calculated that swapping a highly-processed “convenience” diet for one rich in fresh vegetables, meat, fish and nuts costs around $1.50 (90p) per day.
So, drink lots of water, enjoy a cup of coffee and eat plenty of fresh meat, fish and veggies. That’s about the best “detox” programme out there.
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