“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:
· 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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