By Stefan Ianev
Detox is a hot topic these days and one of much controversy. Removal of toxins from the body has been an integral part of Ayurvedic, yogic, and naturopathic medicine for many years.
Detoxification therapies are commonly recommended because of the increased exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment including heavy metals, pesticides, pollutants, synthetic chemicals, plastics, and other harmful compounds .
Studies have reported that the majority naturopathic doctors report the routine use of clinical detoxification therapies to treat a range of medical conditions including obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, bloating, and chronic fatigue .
However, the use of various clinical and commercial detoxification therapies for eliminating toxins from the body have largely been dismissed by those in the medical and evidence-based community because they are purported as having little scientific backing and being potentially dangerous.
Perhaps this partly stems from the emergence of numerous of multi-level marketing (MLM) companies, most notably Herbalife Nutrition, that have come under heavy scrutiny due to multiple papers reporting hepatotoxic effects related relating to use of the products, and numerous lawsuits that have been filed [3-5].
Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken action against several companies selling detox/cleansing products because they (1) contained illegal, potentially harmful ingredients; (2) were marketed using false claims that they could treat serious diseases; (3) were marketed for unapproved uses: or (4) made misleading money-making claims [4,5].
Another problem with detoxification therapies is that there are many alleged ways of doing a so-called detox or a cleanse, and detox diets rarely aim to identify the specific toxins they are trying to eliminate. Detoxes/cleanses vary in intensity and duration and can range from complete fasting to simpler food modifications.
Detoxes or cleanses may involve the use of a single, or multiple approaches for eliminating toxins including .
- Drinking only juices or similar beverages
- Eating only certain foods
- Using dietary supplements or other commercial products
- Using herbs
- Cleansing the colon (lower intestinal tract) with enemas, laxatives, or colon hydrotherapy (also called “colonic irrigation” or “colonics”)
- Reducing environmental exposures
- Using a sauna
While some of these practices may be relatively safe in general, potential side effect may occur including .
- Some juices used in “detoxes” and “cleanses” aren’t pasteurized or treated in other ways to kill harmful bacteria which can make people sick. The illnesses can be serious in children, elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems.
- Some juices such as those from spinach and beet are high in oxalate, a naturally occurring substance. Drinking large quantities of high-oxalate juice can increase the risk for kidney problems.
- People with diabetes should follow the eating plan recommended by their health care professional and should consult with their health care professional before making any major changes in their eating habits, such as going on a “detox” diet.
- Diets that severely restrict calories or the types of foods a person would normally eat usually don’t lead to lasting weight loss and may not provide all the nutrients the body needs.
- Colon cleansing procedures may have side effects, some of which can be serious. Harmful effects are more likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease.
- Detoxification programs that involve laxatives, can cause diarrhea severe enough to lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
- Drinking large quantities of water and herbal teas and not eating any food for days in a row could lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances.
The risk may be especially increased when using commercial detox kits, not under the supervision of a licenced by a professional.
Furthermore, nutrients need to be provided in the right ratio to balance out phase I and phase II liver detoxification pathways as intermediate metabolites which are not excreted can built up to toxic levels and increase oxidative stress . In addition, many nutrients appear to exert biphasic, dose-dependent effects which may be influenced by genetic polymorphisms .
Therefore, we do not recommend commercial ‘detox in a box’ kits, and you should only consider doing a detox or a cleanse under the guidance of a medical professional after undergoing comprehensive lab testing.
To learn more about how detoxification works, and how to safely improve detoxification in the body without resorting to dangerous detoxes or cleanses, check out the PNC level 3 certification.
- Sears ME, Genuis SJ. Environmental determinants of chronic disease and medical approaches: recognition, avoidance, supportive therapy, and detoxification. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:356798. doi:10.1155/2012/356798
- Allen J, Montalto M, Lovejoy J, Weber W. Detoxification in naturopathic medicine: a survey. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Dec;17(12):1175-80. doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0572. Epub 2011 Nov 21. PMID: 22103982; PMCID: PMC3239317.
- LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-. Herbalife. [Updated 2018 Apr 11]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548447/
- “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed March 11, 2021.
- Federal Trade Commission. 2021. It’s no longer business as usual at Herbalife: An inside look at the $200 million FTC settlement. [online] Available at: <https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2016/07/its-no-longer-business-usual-herbalife-inside-look-200> [Accessed 10 March 2021].
- Hodges RE, Minich DM. Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application. J Nutr Metab. 2015;2015:760689. doi:10.1155/2015/760689