Is detoxing really worth it?

We choose the most miserable month of the year to restrict our few pleasures, but the human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances on its own

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

How’s it going then, the January purge? Are you finding Dry January a bit parching? Veganuary plans wilting fast? Statistics say that this is the week most of us will ditch the detox and pour ourselves a large drink as the January blues really start to take hold. Yeah, we’ll be disappointed in ourselves, too - all our plans to survive on green juice and good intentions out the window. But it’s quite possible that abandoning the detox is the best thing we could do for ourselves.

It is as much of a ritual as sweeping up the pine needles. With January come resolutions and retribution for the gluttony of December. We are bombarded with ads for diets, beseeched to embark on a detox. We know it’s all nonsense - weight-loss firms cashing in on our guilt. Yet we willingly don the sackcloth and sign up for the annual purge.

It seems odd that we would choose the most miserable month of the year to restrict our few pleasures - surely May is the month to start eating salad. But we can’t put our ablutions solely down to festive damage control - new year cleansing rituals are common across many cultures. Thai Buddhists ring in their new year with Songkran, where the young sprinkle water on their elders. The Japanese undertake a ritual house cleaning. Here, we stick patches on our feet, brew strange concoctions and deny ourselves solid food.

Nor is a detox is a new concept. The ancient Egyptians believed that decomposing matter caused fevers, and used colonic irrigation and coffee enemas. Most religious observe a period of fasting to purify the body and/or soul - Lent, Yom Kippur, Ramadan. Autointoxication theory was popular around the turn of the century, and abandoned in the 1930s. But ‘detoxing’ is back in fashion - John Lewis even reported that cult smoothie-maker Nutribullet was one of its most popular Christmas gifts.

While Jesus may have been forced to retreat to the desert, we modern-day detoxers have a whole range of nifty products to help us. Health-food shop shelves are crammed with detox teas, tablets and supplements. You can buy books on juice fasting, or log on to Gwyneth’s Goop website for her dandelion detox. And you can always hand over a small fortune for a lunch-hour colonic.

Why now? Some psychologists suggest that our secular society is finding itself at a loss - seeking meaning in an age of instant gratification. It may explain the surge in popularity of yoga, mindfulness and, indeed, fasting and detoxing - all borrowed from ancient religions. Whereas in the past a treat was just that, now there is less pleasure to be gleaned from any foodstuff until we know deprivation. In his book Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself, Alejandro Junger says: “We usually end up finding what we are looking for, but we only look for what we already know.” As much of a spiritual journey as a physical one, it seems.



Spiritual or secular, if we’re happy to fork over the cash, then what harm can a detox do? Well, it depends how passionately you purge. Cutting down booze, sugar and fat will only do us good. But, unless you have been abusing alcohol or hard drugs, the idea of us needing to detox has been dismissed as rubbish. “Your liver contains enzymes which convert toxic substances into less harmful ones. It works together with your gut, your kidneys and your lymphatic system to provide – the only – detox,” charitable trust Sense about Science says.

“So, the best way to get that ‘health fix’ after a time of indulgence? Simply drink water to keep hydrated, eat a balanced diet and get a good night’s sleep. The human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through your liver, kidneys, and colon. It isn’t possible to improve their function without medical assistance.”

In 2009 Sense about Science looked at 15 difference detox products on the market, and found scant evidence to back up their claims - in fact, no firm could explain in detail which actual toxins had been eliminated. So what are the products actually doing?

They range from the dubious to the more dangerous. Most detox teas contain peppermint, fennel, dandelion or nettle - natural diuretics that are a pleasant, hydrating alternative to caffeinated drinks. Some, however, contain laxatives, which will definitely make you feel, ahem, lighter, but over time can cause reduced bowel effectiveness.

Those patches that turn brown after a night on your feet? They claim to rid your body of toxins, parasites and cellulite, but in reality the brown gunk is a substance in the pads reacting with your sweat - you will get the same result over a steaming kettle. Certain ‘miraculous’ detox pills will result in an impressive ‘snake’ of faeces in your toilet (proud users even post the resulting pictures online) - but it’s merely plastics binding your poo. Colonic irrigation can lead to an electrolyte balance, or at worst, perforation of the bowel.

But surely a juice fast can’t be a scam? Nothing but liquidised fruit and veg must do us good? Well, yes, but perhaps a lot less than eating the vegetables whole (although, granted, you’d be munching for a while to consume the same quantities of raw produce). Juice-fast advocates say it gives the digestive system a break, but in fact beneficial fibre is lacking. And while you may feel lighter, most people tend to soon regain the pounds. Same goes for the more bonkers quick-fix diets like the Master Cleanse - the cayenne pepper and lemon juice fast made famous by Beyoncé - which may make you shed weight, but quickly gain it back.

“Fasting in any form will not help your body to preserve essential muscle mass, which drives an effective metabolism,” says weight-loss and lifestyle expert Louise Parker. “With a juice cleanse or fast, one usually sees exciting 'weight loss' - but when you look closer at the statistics, the percentage of muscle loss exceeds the fat loss which totally defeats the objective of anyone trying to achieve a leaner, more toned body. Some juice diets contain a lot of concentrated fruit sugar and whilst it is natural, it's still sugar.  Sugar in any concentrated form is the enemy of effectively targeting fat loss.”

Then what’s the answer? Drink and eat whatever we like? Not quite - eating a balanced diet is key to good health. If you must absolve your festive sins, by all means have a daily green juice, swap your morning coffee for some matcha tea, or plump for a salad. Just don’t think a detox will be your saving grace.

Louise Parker’s Optimum Weight Loss Programme is available worldwide