I would say that at least once per month I hear that someone I know is going on a detox. This seems to mean different things to different people. For some it is laying off the booze after a particularly heavy weekend; for others it is eating less burgers and take away, more salads. This is probably good general advice for most of us to follow. For some, though, it means embarking on an elaborate program of ‘cleanses’ aimed at removing ‘toxins’ from their body so that they ‘feel better’. If you ask such people what toxins it is they are removing, however, the conversation tends to falter.
It’s not their fault, though, if you look on the packaging of one of the literally hundreds of detox products available from health shops, or even pharmacies, then there is precious little detail on which to base an answer. In medicine there are legitimate detoxification procedures, they tend to be for drug addicts and alcoholics. The process is long and dangerous and the person in question needs a lot of care as they go through the process.
But when it comes to the detox products available off the shelf everything tends to be a bit nebulous. If you want to know which agents are going to be removed from your body, well, then you’re out of luck. If you want to know what, specifically, any of those nasties were doing to you: no dice. What you can expect to find is a vague list of non-specific symptoms that will apparently improve: tiredness, aches and pains and an improvement in your ‘wellbeing’.
The other classic detox is some kind of dietary regimen. Eating ‘superfoods’ that will boost your body’s natural immune function or some other such nonsense. The term superfood is completely meaningless, there is no such thing as a superfood. There are foods that are better for you than others but you don’t need an overpaid, underworked health guru to tell you the difference between those. As an example, broccoli is often touted as a superfood that’s good for the liver and, indeed, there is some evidence that broccoli is good for liver function, but not for the reason you might think. Broccoli, the same as all other brassicas, contains cyanide and it seems that this cyanide serves a role in priming your liver cells with a bit of toxin to keep them in good shape. One of the reasons broccoli is good for you, then, is because it is a little bit poisonous.
Let’s not beat about the bush any longer: the whole detox industry is, surprise surprise, a scam. At the top of the pyramid are people like Drs Jospeh Mercola and Mehmet Oz, out and out con-artists who know enough to know that what they sell is bull crap. Then there are your Vani Hari Food Babe types who seem to enjoy scaring the gullible from eating the food they eat. These are people who make a huge amount of money out of people’s fear and lack of sceptical know how.
Nearer the bottom of the chain are all the spas and wellness clinics that offer detox programs and such that probably aren’t doing you any harm so long as you can afford it. And let’s not forget all the quick fix products out there like the silly little footpads we should all be wearing at night that apparently draw out toxins through what is possibly the thickest, toughest least permeable part of our bodies. They tend to contain a chemical that reacts with sweat and then turns brown so that, when you tear it off in the morning, it probably feels quite satisfying to throw away all that imaginary rubbish from your body.
Given it is such nonsense why is it so enduringly popular? I do wonder if it harks back to times when we were more religious. In days past we would have gone to church, said our prayers and our Hail Marys, we would have been absolved by our religious elders. A quick fix from an authority figure that made us feel better about the bad things we knowingly did to others and ourselves. Not many of us do that anymore, thank God, but we still seem to be attached to the idea of a quick and easy solution that achieves nothing more than assuaging a general feeling of uncleanliness, of disgust at ourselves. I have nothing to back this up, it is just my opinion.
Luckily for us, our bodies are already very good at cleansing and detoxifying themselves. It’s mostly the jobs of the liver and kidneys but the skin, lungs and lymphatic systems also play a role. Our kidneys are made up of millions of tiny filters called nephrons. As well as removing urea and other ‘toxins’ your kidneys regulate your blood pressure, make new red blood cells and help to keep your bones strong through the release of various important hormones. Assuming that you don’t have some kind of kidney disease there is nothing that you can do to boost the effectiveness of your kidney function, there is no higher level to aim for.
The same is true of your liver. Your liver is not a filter at all, it is a mass of various cells that are rather good at biochemically changing substances that are harmful to us into ones that we can easily excrete. The classic example is alcohol: your liver breaks down alcohol to acetaldehyde. As it happens this is far more dangerous than alcohol, particularly to liver cells. Fortunately, your liver immediately breaks the acetaldehyde down into carbon dioxide and water which your body can simply remove via the bloodstream and lungs.
Detox, then, is a complicated set of processes. In the hospital when dealing with addicts it means one thing, in the context of the masses of activities your body carries out it means something else, and in the context of new year’s resolutions it is meaning-less. If you want to replace red meat with more fruit and veggies and drink less alcohol then good luck to you; just don’t waste your money on detox products.