This is the time of year when social media, lifestyle sites and popular magazines are all about atoning for the sins of the holiday's eating, drinking and lazing – usually with some kind of ‘detox’ diet.
Whether we’ve had a winter Christmas and new year cossetted inside loading up on eggnog, or a summer break full of barbecues and parties, it’s the same. We need to ‘get back on track’, lose weight, get fit, get rid of all those bad things we’ve been putting in for the past few weeks.
There’s a kind of hangover we feel after the holidays – the feeling we need to make good and re-set – that's exploited perfectly and expertly by an industry devoted to helping us detox, cleanse, or flush away all the ‘toxins’ we have supposedly accumulated in the holidays.
Tempting as it is to buy into the idea of detoxing – especially if we're feeling sluggish after a period outside our normal routines – experts say it's really nothing but clever marketing: effective at cleansing our wallets and not much else.
The language of 'detox' is revealing. The marketing often uses terms that sound technical and vaguely medical, the implication being that toxins accumulate in our bodies and need to be cleansed from our systems so we can function properly.
An array of vague symptoms are attributed to these toxins, ranging from headaches to skin problems to weight gain. Detox products and diets promise to ‘flush’ these out of our bodies to make us feel fresh, clear-headed and lighter. Many programs also promise rapid weight loss, and to rid our bodies of unappealing-sounding fungus such as Candida.
But here’s the thing – our bodies do not need to be artificially cleansed. We have a complex and sophisticated in-built detoxification system made up of our skin, kidneys, lymphatic system, gastrointestinal system and liver. We’re covered.
Although detox advocates paint a grim picture of a toxic sludge-like build-up in our colons, or toxins accumulating in our kidneys and livers that need to be flushed out or cleansed periodically like a filter – this is not actually how our bodies work.
“Anyone who suggests these organs need a 'cleanse' is demonstrating that they don't understand basic anatomy or physiology.”
The organization Science Based Medicine puts it like this: “The liver is self-cleansing – toxins don't accumulate in it, and unless you have documented liver disease, it generally functions without any problem. The kidney excretes waste products into the urine – otherwise that substance stays in the blood. Anyone who suggests these organs need a 'cleanse' is demonstrating that they don't understand basic anatomy or physiology.”
It’s the same story with Candida – a yeast most of us have on or in our bodies. It generally doesn’t cause problems. Science Based Medicine calls it “a made-up cause of disease and illness” for which there is no evidence. We do not need a detox regimen, they say, to sort out this non-problem.
Another popular substance you might see pop up in detox kits is charcoal. The claim is that activated charcoal will absorb the bad stuff we’ve been eating and drinking and help cleanse us from the inside. Charcoal is indeed used in the context of medical detox – when people need to be treated for drug overdose or poisoning – but there’s no evidence it does anything in supplement form. In fact, it might actually hinder nutrition, as there is evidence it can bond to vitamins and minerals that do us good.
So why do people sometimes feel better – or at least cleansed – when they do detoxes? The effects people sometimes feel are not from toxins being eliminated, they're from a combination of eating much less than usual and the laxative ingredients often found in detox supplements and juices. Any weight loss is likely to be water – and temporary.
If we really want to improve our health for the new year, nutritionists favor a more moderate approach: try to re-establish regular exercise and sleep patterns, add more vegetables and fruit to our daily diet, concentrate on whole, fresh foods. If we do want to eliminate something, cut out alcohol for a week or two. Combined with adding more good things, it’s highly likely we’ll feel fresher and more energetic, with no detox kit required.