The Truth About Detox Diets
Have you been thinking wistfully about a healthier lifestyle? Maybe it’s time to detox. If that sounds appealing to you, a quick Internet search will yield a ton of suggestions for how to go about it. Numerous plans for detox diets and cleanses are right there, ready to help you, and some make very appealing claims: Flush chemicals from your system! Lose weight! Have more energy! Look years younger!
Don’t take all these claims at face value. The body’s natural detoxification systems center on the liver and kidneys, and in fact, we can take many actions to help keep these vital organs healthy. However, this is an area of health and wellness where unproven claims abound. Before buying into any particular detox plan, it’s a good idea to do a little research and ask a few hard questions. (For a few suggestions, see Questions to Ask about Detox Diets, later in this article.)
People try detox plans for many reasons, but here’s one of the most common: When you start looking at detox books, many begin by talking about chemical body burden. It’s a well-documented fact that we all carry around a lot of pollutants in our bodies. The average person’s blood and urine contain measurable levels of numerous chemical contaminants including the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), flame retardants and other industrial chemicals. One group that does extensive investigation into and reporting on these issues is the Environmental Working Group. You can also read detailed reports on human exposure to environmental chemicals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Knowing all that to be true, who wouldn’t want to detox? The trouble is that when you start reading about proven medical therapies for removing pollutants from our systems, the options look pretty limited. One of the few established medical options is chelation therapy for removing high levels of heavy metals from the blood, for people with lead poisoning, for example. (And even here you need to be cautious—this treatment should only be done under medical supervision. The FDA has issued advisories about over-the-counter home chelation products.)
What’s much more likely to be effective, according to those working in the area of toxins, is avoiding these chemicals in the first place. Fortunately, there are many great ways to go about this, including eating organic food to avoid pesticide exposure and choosing nontoxic products for our homes, including natural cleaning and personal-care products.
A few resources that can help you find less-toxic products are the Environmental Working Group—it offers guides to identifying and avoiding potentially harmful chemicals in personal-care products, household cleaners and produce—and the Organic Consumers Association. It’s quite simple to make your own nontoxic household cleaners and beauty products; for our recipes, visit our Guide to Homemade Cleaners and Homemade Beauty Products.
Many proven detox strategies take this preventive approach—keep problem materials out of our bodies in the first place rather than trying to flush them out later.
Now let’s talk about detox diets. Many detox plans take the form of diets, often short-term “cleanses” you can do for a week, or even just over a weekend. For help understanding these diets, I talked to Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and an official spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a professional organization for dietitians and other nutrition professionals.
You won’t find many health professionals who recommend short-term detox diets and cleanses as anything other than a fairly harmless practice, and Giancoli is no exception. “There is no scientific evidence that these diets or these methods of flushing and cleansing have any benefit for the body, or will remove any kind of toxins from the body,” she says.
Here’s the thing: Part of the philosophy of many detox diets is that we need to “give our bodies a break.” But, Giancoli says, “your body doesn’t need a break. It needs food going through the digestive tract. You need fiber.”
Many detox diets are low in fiber, especially if they rely heavily on juice. That’s because when you juice, you lose the fiber and some of the nutrients in the whole fruit, while also concentrating the sugars. You’re better off eating the whole fruits and vegetables, or if you really want them in liquid form, making a smoothie, Giancoli says. “Get one of those high-power blenders that will liquefy whole fruits and vegetables into a smoothie, so you receive all of the nutrition from the whole fruits and vegetables, versus removing some of the nutrition by juicing.”
“As long as you’re getting a lot of whole fruit in your diet already, a little bit of juicing is OK, but when you’re receiving all of your fruits and vegetables in the form of juice you’re missing out,” Giancoli says.
The healthiest diet may not be the one that helps you rid your system of junk, but a long-term plan for a healthy, balanced diet. “If you don’t have a healthy diet and you’re feeling like you need to detox, you probably just need to change your diet and eat better.”
Most health professionals agree on the basic elements of what makes up a healthy diet, and it involves long-term healthy choices that will not sound at all surprising. Giancoli recommends a plant-based diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables. It should also include whole grains and lean protein—it might also include dairy. “A plant-based diet that’s not heavy in processed foods: That’s the best detox you can offer your body.”
Some detox plans also include recommendations for herbal supplements. Fans of herbal medicine will be pleased to know that several herbs do show promise for protecting the liver, although as with other components of detox plans, you’ll want to ask some questions and consult your health-care provider before adding new herbs to your routine.
A good source for learning about the latest scientific research on medicinal herbs is the nonprofit American Botanical Council, based in Austin, Texas. I spoke to founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal about what may be the best-known herb for protecting the liver: milk thistle.
While not every milk thistle study has shown a protective benefit (especially when treating serious liver diseases such as hepatitis C), numerous studies show milk thistle has a protective benefit in supporting the liver, and just as importantly, it’s a relatively mild herb, with a time-tested safety record. “If you look at the majority of clinical studies on milk thistle, the overall safety is well established,” Blumenthal says.
Milk thistle is a logical choice to include in a detoxification regimen, Blumenthal says. “It’s got some of the best scientific basis for inclusion,” he says. “There is scientific data on test animals and humans showing that milk thistle increases the liver’s ability to create new liver cells and the ability to rid itself of toxins that it accumulates and has to flush out.”
However, when it comes to your health, you want to get specific, and Blumenthal wants to be clear. “We’re not talking about a tea made with milk thistle leaves. It’s the seed, which has been extracted and concentrated for some of the compounds known as flavonolignans.”
The standardized concentration is 80 percent, and that’s important, he emphasizes, because the best evidence for a beneficial effect is for those higher concentrations. “There’s very little pharmacological or clinical evidence that more dilute extracts have the beneficial activity,” he says.
For these reasons, it makes sense to consult your health-care provider about what preparation and dosage you take and for how long. Although milk thistle is a mild herb, you may not want to take high concentrations of it indefinitely. The American Botanical Council’s current monograph suggests standardized extracts can be taken for up to two years.
If you want to delve further into the realm of detox herbs, others to investigate include dandelion, turmeric and green tea, all of which have been found to aid the liver and/or kidneys. Good sources for current research on these and other herbs include the American Botanical Council and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Liver and Kidney Health
When we examine our detox systems, we’ll find many things we can do to help protect them, especially the liver. The simple steps outlined below can help avoid problems. Good resources for more information on liver and kidney health include the National Kidney Disease Education Program, the American Liver Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Consider screenings: For most people, our natural detox systems are already doing a pretty good job, but many people live with serious liver or kidney problems—for example, chronic kidney disease or liver problems caused by alcohol abuse or viral hepatitis. Symptoms of liver and kidney problems can include discolored skin or eyes that appear yellow; abdominal pain and swelling; dark urine color; pale or tar-colored stool; chronic fatigue; and nausea or loss of appetite. If your motivation for trying a detox plan is a suspicion that you may have liver or kidney issues, you can find out for sure by consulting a doctor and doing some simple screenings.
Protect yourself from viral Hepatitis: Hepatitis A, B and C are liver diseases contracted through viruses. Talk to your health-care provider, and if you’re at risk, you can be vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. Other ways to reduce your risk for exposure to these viruses include practicing safe sex and avoiding shared needles of any kind, including unlicensed tattooing and body piercing. Find a helpful fact sheet that addresses these issues at Women’s Health.
Go easy on the alcohol: No surprise here, excessive alcohol consumption is another way to develop liver disease. If this is an issue for you, talk to your health-care provider.
Manage medications: Some medicines and supplements are toxic to the liver, either alone or in combination. The best way to avoid this type of liver damage is to read the side effects and drug interactions associated with any medication or supplement, and always tell your health-care provider all the medications you’re taking, including over-the-counter, conventional and herbal medications. If you’re not sure where to start, the American Liver Foundation has a brochure with practical tips for managing medications.
Make other healthy lifestyle choices: A few last ways to improve your overall health include the following: Refrain from smoking, as cigarette smoking contributes to kidney disease; maintain a healthy weight, as obesity is another risk factor for chronic kidney disease, among other health problems; and get some exercise, which is recommended by just about every health and wellness plan.
Have you noticed that a lot of these lifestyle choices sound like common New Year’s resolutions? That’s probably not a bad way to think about a healthy detox program. These lifestyle choices aren’t sexy, and none of them are going to transform your life overnight, but if you’re not already doing this stuff, now is a great time for a fresh start. And isn’t that what you were really looking for from a detox program?
9 Tips for a Low-Toxin Lifestyle
1. Eliminate processed foods, refined sugar and simple carbohydrates from your diet as much as possible.
2. Eat organic vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and hormone-free meat, eggs and dairy products.
3. Limit alcohol consumption and eliminate smoking.
4. Manage medications, supplements and over-the-counter drugs by talking with your health-care practitioner.
5. Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
6. Use natural body-care products and household cleaners.
7. Remove shoes when entering your home to avoid tracking in pesticides and other chemicals.
8. Consider a water filter to limit potential contaminants.
9. Consider supporting your liver with an 80-percent standardized concentration milk thistle supplement.
Questions to Ask about Detox Diets
There are numerous detox diets out there, and while many of them offer at least some well-established health advice (Eat more fruits and vegetables! Get plenty of exercise!), you may also run into less well-documented claims. To figure out whether a particular plan is beneficial for you, it’s a good idea to do a little of your own research and ask a lot of questions. Here are a few that might help:
• Specifically what’s happening in my body with this detox plan? Don’t settle for vague explanations of removing “toxins.” What are the specific toxins you’re attacking and how does this plan help you get rid of them?
• What kind of evidence backs up these claims? Have there been any scientific studies? Case reports? What do health professionals say about it?
• How safe is this plan or treatment? Are there known side effects?
What does your health-care provider say? Even if it seems like a good idea for some people, does it make sense for you, with your specific lifestyle and health background?
Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas. You can find her reading labels in the wellness aisle of her local natural foods store or on Google+.
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