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Detox diets and supplements: separating the fear from the facts

No matter where you look nowadays, someone is trying to sell you on a diet, pill or potion that promises to help you ‘detox’. In contrast, there are myriad scientists that will tell you that ‘detoxing’ is a bunch of BS and that there is no benefit to any diet or supplement that claims to help your body to detoxify.

So, what is the real story?

Is there any evidence backing ‘detox’ diets and supplements?

Summary:

  • Weight loss on detox diets is likely due to calorie restriction, not the elimination of toxins.
  • In a healthy body, the liver does a great job of detoxification
  • ‘Poison is in the dose’ – there are few if any ‘bad’ foods and all chemicals only become dangerous at a particular dose and exposure.
  • Spirulina and chlorella, milk thistle, dandelion, ginseng, onion, garlic, curcumin, resveratrol, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, C, and E reduce the oxidative damage associated with heavy metal toxicants.1-7
  • Chlorella may be useful in inhibiting the absorption of dioxins via food and preventing accumulation of dioxins within the body.8
  • Milk thistle reduces oxidative damage and may reduce entry of toxins into cells.9, 10

Will a detox help me to lose weight?

Many people do lose weight on detox diets. It’s often claimed that this is because ‘toxins’ encourage the storage of fat, but in all likelihood, it is actually because while following a restrictive detox diet the person simply eats less.  As an example, a 2015 study demonstrated that the ‘Lemon Detox’ diet helped women lose weight,11 but that this was due to simple calorie restriction.

Take home message:

Any time you drastically restrict calories you will lose weight…and this has nothing whatsoever to do with toxins.

Do I even need to worry about toxins?

There are toxic chemicals in our environment and in the foods we eat. However, these are typically found in relatively small amounts, and most of the time our bodies are very good at processing and excreting them. The simple act of possessing a liver, kidneys, and skin puts you in the perfect position to detoxify almost all of what life throws at you…and if you don’t have those things you have much bigger problems on your plate!

However, if these are not working effectively, or you are exposed to higher levels of toxicants (for example if you work with petrochemicals, dyes, or other industrial chemicals) these innate processes may not work optimally and your health may suffer.

Reduce exposure…

I was taught (way back when I entered practice nearly twenty years ago!) that our job is to first ‘do no further harm’ and secondly to find the root cause of the problem and work with that, rather than simply treating symptoms with pills and potions.

So, the best way to begin to address the topic of ‘detoxing’ is to reduce exposure to known problem toxicants, without becoming obsessed with all the chemical bogeyman lurking under your sink. There will always be toxic chemicals created both within the body and absorbed into it from the immediate environment. There will also always be a constant process of breakdown and destruction, and healing and growth happening within the body. Many ‘toxic’ compounds are benign at very low levels of intake and only become damaging when consumed in excess. The amount varies depending on the chemical, but it is fair to say that damage relates to the frequency, dose, and exposure to a chemical, not the mere presence of it. In addition, many substances that are seen as ‘toxic’ and removed during detox diets (such as coffee) are actually health promoting at low doses and only become damaging to the body in higher doses. For example, the evidence suggests that up to 5 cups of coffee per day are health-protective and that around ½ to 1 alcoholic drink per day (and no binge drinking!) is associated with improved all-cause mortality12.

Take home message:

If we over-consume anything (even certain vegetables, herbs, and fruits!) they can be harmful to the body. We need to stop beating ourselves up, stop being scared of food and ‘chemicals’ (everything is made of chemicals!) and instead focus on being truly healthy, strong and resilient.

Support natural detoxification pathways (without taking the train to crazy town)

Many of the potential toxins/toxicants that we can be exposed to promote oxidative damage. Reducing this damage is one of the actual evidence-based applications of supporting our innate detoxification pathways and mitigating the effects of toxins.

Oxidation is a normal and essential part of many cellular processes; however, excessive oxidation is damaging. Our natural, internal antioxidant pathways rely on a healthy liver, and various micronutrient and macronutrients co-factors. While much of the research has been conducted in animals, it offers a glimpse into some nutrition interventions that might improve the resilience of the body. For example:

  • Spirulina and dandelion enriched diets reduce lead-related oxidation13 and reduce oxidation and mercury accumulation.1
  • Spirulina, ginseng, onion, and garlic decrease lipid peroxidation and increase endogenous antioxidants levels.2, 3
  • Chlorella may be useful in inhibiting the absorption of dioxins via food and the reabsorption of dioxins stored already in the body in the intestinal tract, thus preventing the accumulation of dioxins within the body.8
  • Curcumin, resveratrol, Vitamin C, E, selenium and zinc and the bioflavonoid quercetin can effectively protect against cadmium-induced lipid peroxidation and reduce the adverse effect of cadmium on antioxidant status.4-6 Curcumin significantly protects against lipid peroxidation induced by both lead and cadmium.7
  • Milk thistle reduces oxidative damage and may reduce entry of toxins into cells.9, 10

Is there any other evidence that supports nutrients and detoxification?

  • Research performed in mice also suggests that mercury excretion is enhanced by chlorella.14, 15
  • Spirulina plus zinc increases the excretion of arsenic in chronic arsenic poisoning16 and absorbs cadmium.17
  • Folate is critical to the metabolism of arsenic.18
  • Alpha-lipoic acid supports detoxification processes.19
  • Glycine was found to be effective for increasing glutathione levels, reducing malondialdehyde levels and decreasing lead levels in bone with extremely high doses (1000mg per kg bodyweight in subject animals).20
  • Treatment with cysteine, methionine, vitamin C and thiamine can reverse oxidative stress associated with arsenic exposure and result in a reduction in tissue arsenic levels.21

So, some herbs, supplements, and nutrients may help the body to deal with certain toxins. On the other hand, most of us aren’t dealing with heavy metal or other toxicity… but these hints from the give us some context for the role that various nutrients play in helping the amazing, internal processes of the body that keep us healthy and performing well, and that boost our resilience.

It’s not that anyone needs to ‘detox’ per se by going on an extreme and diet, they need to support their body more effectively. I have worked with many clients who previously felt they ‘needed’ to detox or cleanse 1-2 times per year. They felt that they were becoming ‘unclean’ or ‘toxic’ and that they needed to ‘flush’ all that accumulated junk out of the body. Frequently though these people didn’t exercise, or exercise consistently, they didn’t strength train intelligently, didn’t sleep well or enough, and didn’t eat a health-promoting diet. They weren’t toxic…they were simply not doing the simple things that they could to support improved health.

Conclusion

Most of the detox products on the market are based on weak evidence at best. The body has an amazing capacity to remove toxins created endogenously by normal metabolic processes and also to rid itself of inevitable toxicants that it assumes from the environment. An ‘additive’ approach to nutrition and lifestyle in which we support our own internal detoxification pathways to work ‘as nature intended’ seems the most prudent and affordable solution. Eating a varied nutrient-dense diet, exercising and getting enough sleep can help us to reduce damage from toxins and toxicants and preserve normal elimination of these compounds.

References

1.            El-Desoky GE, Bashandy SA, Alhazza IM, Al-Othman ZA, Aboul-Soud MA, Yusuf K. Improvement of mercuric chloride-induced testis injuries and sperm quality deteriorations by Spirulina platensis in rats. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59177.

2.            Karadeniz A, Cemek M, Simsek N. The effects of Panax ginseng and Spirulina platensis on hepatotoxicity induced by cadmium in rats. Ecotoxicology and environmental safety. 2009;72(1):231-5.

3.            Ola-Mudathir KF, Suru SM, Fafunso MA, Obioha UE, Faremi TY. Protective roles of onion and garlic extracts on cadmium-induced changes in sperm characteristics and testicular oxidative damage in rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2008;46(12):3604-11.

4.            Eybl V, Kotyzova D, Koutensky J. Comparative study of natural antioxidants – curcumin, resveratrol and melatonin – in cadmium-induced oxidative damage in mice. Toxicology. 2006;225(2–3):150-6.

5.            Milton Prabu S, Shagirtha K, Renugadevi J. Quercetin in combination with vitamins (C and E) improves oxidative stress and renal injury in cadmium intoxicated rats. European review for medical and pharmacological sciences. 2010;14(11):903-14.

6.            Messaoudi I, Heni J, Hammouda F, Saïd K, Kerkeni A. Protective Effects of Selenium, Zinc, or Their Combination on Cadmium-Induced Oxidative Stress in Rat Kidney. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2009;130(2):152-61.

7.            Daniel S, Limson JL, Dairam A, Watkins GM, Daya S. Through metal binding, curcumin protects against lead- and cadmium-induced lipid peroxidation in rat brain homogenates and against lead-induced tissue damage in rat brain. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. 2004;98(2):266-75.

8.            Takekoshi H, Suzuki G, Chubachi H, Nakano M. Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice. Chemosphere. 2005;59(2):297-304.

9.            Abenavoli L, Capasso R, Milic N, Capasso F. Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future. Phytotherapy research : PTR. 2010;24(10):1423-32.

10.         Feher J, Lengyel G. Silymarin in the prevention and treatment of liver diseases and primary liver cancer. Current pharmaceutical biotechnology. 2012;13(1):210-7.

11.         Kim MJ, Hwang JH, Ko HJ, Na HB, Kim JH. Lemon detox diet reduced body fat, insulin resistance, and serum hs-CRP level without hematological changes in overweight Korean women. Nutrition research (New York, NY). 2015;35(5):409-20.

12.         Harvey C. Is there a ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption? Holistic Performance Nutrition. 2016.

13.         Gargouri M, Ghorbel-Koubaa F, Bonenfant-Magne M, Magne C, Dauvergne X, Ksouri R, et al. Spirulina or dandelion-enriched diet of mothers alleviates lead-induced damages in brain and cerebellum of newborn rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012;50(7):2303-10.

14.         Uchikawa T, Yasutake A, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y. The influence of <i>Parachlorella beyerinckii</i> CK-5 on the absorption and excretion of methylmercury (MeHg) in mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2010;35(1):101-5.

15.         Uchikawa T, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y, Yasutake A. The enhanced elimination of tissue methylmercury in <i>Parachlorella beijerinckii</i>-fed mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2011;36(1):121-6.

16.         Misbahuddin M, Islam AZ, Khandker S, Ifthaker Al M, Islam N, Anjumanara. Efficacy of spirulina extract plus zinc in patients of chronic arsenic poisoning: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa). 2006;44(2):135-41.

17.         Doshi H, Ray A, Kothari IL. Biosorption of cadmium by live and dead Spirulina: IR spectroscopic, kinetics, and SEM studies. Current microbiology. 2007;54(3):213-8.

18.         Heck JE, Gamble MV, Chen Y, Graziano JH, Slavkovich V, Parvez F, et al. Consumption of folate-related nutrients and metabolism of arsenic in Bangladesh. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2007;85(5):1367-74.

19.         Rogers SA. Lipoic Acid as a Potential First Agent for Protection from Mycotoxins and Treatment of Mycotoxicosis. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal. 2003;58(8):528-32.

20.         Alcaraz-Contreras Y, Garza-Oca, #241, as L, Carca, #241, et al. Effect of Glycine on Lead Mobilization, Lead-Induced Oxidative Stress, and Hepatic Toxicity in Rats. Journal of Toxicology. 2011;2011.

21.         Nandi D, Patra RC, Swarup D. Effect of cysteine, methionine, ascorbic acid and thiamine on arsenic-induced oxidative stress and biochemical alterations in rats. Toxicology. 2005;211(1–2):26-35.

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