Detoxing Demystified

“Detoxing” is all the rage right now—whether it’s foregoing solid foods in favor of juices during a liquid cleanse, suffering through a colon cleanse in the form of a colonic irrigation, fasting or restricting diet, or a combination of these—many naturopathic-based schools of thought agree that our bodies benefit immensely from such practices. However, these approaches lack adequate scientific evidence to support their purported health benefits and are even considered dangerous practices. So are they legit or just another quick-fix marketing ploy?

First of all, what exactly is a “detox”?

A “detox” or “cleanse” refers to practices, often specific diets or regimens, aimed at removing toxins from the body or assisting with weight loss. However, the term “detox” means something entirely different when examined through a physiological perspective. We are naturally equipped with a finely tuned set of tools that are specifically designed to break down and remove unwanted compounds from our bodies.  

So what exactly is a toxin?

A toxin is an agent produced by living organisms that produces an adverse effect, such as snake venom, secretions by poisonous frogs, the microbe that causes botulism, etc. The term toxin is often misused in mainstream media to represent any substance or agent that produces an adverse effect. This is in fact the definition of a toxicant, also referred to as a toxic agent or substance. Although there is disagreement on whether the term “toxicant” specifically describes man-made toxic agents or if it encompasses all toxic agents (both anthropogenic and naturally occurring), for our purposes we will define toxicant as the latter.

Ok, so HOW do we “detox”?

When we ingest a toxicant—for example, a shot of tequila—our body responds by converting the ethanol from the tequila shot into a compound which is easily eliminated from the body via urine. The enzyme responsible for this is aptly named alcohol dehydrogenase, and it is just one example of a suite of enzymes that our bodies naturally produce to aid in the process of altering chemicals into forms that are more easily excreted from our bodies through urine, feces, or sweat. Most of the “detox” action (the technical terms being metabolism or biotransformation) takes place in the liver, although there are other tissues in our bodies that can do this as well—such as skin, lung epithelium, and the gastrointestinal tract!.

Unfortunately, a liquid diet or a liquid power-washing of your colon will not increase the effectiveness of your body’s enzymes that transform potentially harmful chemicals into compounds that can easily leave the body.

Wait, what about antioxidants?

Ah yes, antioxidants. Many “cleanses” and “detox” diets, juices, and supplements boast their high levels of antioxidants, suggesting that ingesting high concentrations of these concoctions will give you the superpower to undo last night’s tequila shot(s). There are two main types of antioxidants: enzymatic and non-enzymatic.

Categorization and examples of antioxidants

Similar to the previously mentioned alcohol elimination enzymes, enzymatic antioxidants are already expressed in our cells and can’t be found in a juice. The natural balance of chemical reactions in the body is aided by the actions of enzymatic antioxidants and their biological foils, prooxidants. Prooxidants can be generally defined as any compound that induces oxidative stress in cells, but primarily exist in the body in the form of free radicals, which are highly unstable and reactive compounds. Prooxidants may sound scary but are actually produced during normal and essential cellular functions, and antioxidants help keep them in check by neutralizing their unstable tendencies. Think of a see-saw with prooxidants on one end and antioxidants on the other—a healthy system is one where there is a little bit off ebb and flow but a general balance between the two sides. In addition to enzymatic antioxidants, our bodies also require non-enzymatic antioxidants, which include a diverse array of molecules including melatonin, vitamin E, and vitamin C, among others. Many non-enzymatic antioxidants can be found in fruits and veggies, and yes, green smoothies!

Redox homeostasis: maintaining balance between prooxidants and antioxidants

Of course, there are times when the balance, or homeostasis, between pro- and antioxidants is disrupted. This disrupted state of homeostasis is referred to as oxidative stress, and it too is a natural part of being alive. Oxidative stress becomes a concern when the body’s capacity for dealing with oxidative stress is pushed beyond normal limits, and the excess of oxidative stress has been linked with a cornucopia of adverse health outcomes. Excessive oxidative stress can occur due to exogenous triggers including exposure to environmental toxicants, UV or ionizing radiation, and certain pharmaceuticals, as well as endogenous processes such as inflammation and immune responses.

So “detox” drinks really do work?

Meh. Not really. Think of a sponge—you can fill it with water until it is completely saturated, but no matter how much more water you pour on it, the sponge simply cannot absorb any more. This is similar to how our bodies deal with nutrients and antioxidants—once you reach that point of saturation, your body simply won’t get any “extra”. If you eat a healthy and balanced diet, chances are that you already receive all the nutrients and antioxidants you need and more!

Is there anything I can do to protect my body from all the bad toxicants out there?

Yes—don’t eat rat poison or live inside a fume hood. If you can check those off the list and still wish there was more you could do to help your body with its natural detox system, you can:

·         Exercise

·         Sleep more

·         Stay well hydrated

·         Move throughout the day

·         Eat a well-balanced diet rich in plants

In general, leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle is one of the best ways to ensure your body’s innate ability to deal with toxic insults is operating at full capacity.

Peer edited by Jessica Griswold.

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Less stomach flu? Yes, please!

(Caution: do not read just before lunch!) We all know the feeling… queasiness, belly in knots, guts on fire and no end in sight. Now I want you to imagine the worst possible place to get the runs or yak up your breakfast. Maybe you’re thinking about your car’s leather seats, a sporting competition you’d rather forget, or that time you were supposed to meet a hot date. How about on a shuttle in outer space? Worse yet, what if your illness far from home was accompanied by a realization that your (rather limited) food supply was to blame?

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Pillsbury company teamed up with NASA and the US Army Laboratories to develop a method for ensuring astronauts could avoid such a predicament. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) approach revolves around preventing hazards at critical steps during food production, rather than simply testing the finished product. Since then, the US Food and Drug Administration has adopted the same concept for keeping our meat, fish, poultry, milk, juice, and food-service establishments shipshape. Thank you, Mr. Doughboy!

Unfortunately, if you’ve had a glass of tap water today, it likely did not have the same preventive checks in place. To keep disease at bay, drinking water typically receives some type of filtration and disinfection. Required compliance monitoring tells us retroactively whether finished water was safe according to measurable indicators (e.g., common fecal bacteria); however, frequency of monitoring varies widely, and people might have already been exposed by the time results become available. Further, while disinfectant usually does a great job of killing bacteria, most stomach flu cases are caused by viruses that resist disinfection and are harder to measure. Chemical testing similarly looks at historically relevant indicators, but may miss hundreds of newly created chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or pesticides. Thus, backward-looking monitoring can both overestimate safety and come too late to prevent illness, much of which goes unreported.  

High-profile events in Flint, Michigan, Charleston, West Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina have raised awareness that water suppliers are facing increasing vulnerability due to land development around water sources, aging water treatment and distribution infrastructure, and the plethora of new chemicals entering water bodies. Globally, the World Health Organization has recommended a holistic risk management program called Water Safety Planning for all drinking water suppliers since 2004, with examples in more than 90 countries as of 2017. Like HACCP for food systems, they work by instituting proactive checks on the most critical risks between the water source and your tap.

Recent research investigating best-case scenarios (urban utilities in high-income countries) demonstrates the potential for this approach to benefit public health, water quality, regulatory compliance, and operational performance. Cost-benefit ratios remain under investigation. Importantly, reductions in the incidence of stomach flu can lead to reduced healthcare costs and increased worker productivity, with the long-term expectation of healthier, thriving, and more equitable communities. According to a 2010 United Nations resolution and the 2016-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, all of us deserve safe drinking water. Perhaps it’s time we follow in the footsteps of those who first walked on the moon?

Peer edited by: Daniel Conroy

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