Is Detoxing Really a Myth?

As we go into the New Year, detox diets claiming to cleanse and purify the body are everywhere. But can you really detox - or is it a myth? Get-Fit Guy digs through the evidence to uncover the facts about detoxing.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #216


Last week, The Guardian released an article entitled, "You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy?"

In the article, author Dara Mohammadi said:

“…detoxing – the idea that you can flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go – is a scam. It’s a pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things.”

So is this true? Is detoxing just a sham?

As we go into the New Year, when diets are all the rage, it’s important to know the truth about detoxing, and in this episode, you’re going to discover whether detoxing is really a myth.

What Are Toxins?

It’s important to begin with an understanding of what toxins actually are. No matter how “clean” you live your life, just about everybody shows some evidence of a build-up of toxins. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, they found some pretty shocking results.

On average, the CDC’s report found 212 chemicals in people’s blood or urine, 75 of which had never before been measured in the U.S. population. The chemicals included:

  • Acrylamide - formed when foods are baked or fried at high temperatures and as a byproduct of cigarette smoke
  • Arsenic - found in many home-building products
  • Environmental phenols - including bisphenol A (found in plastics, food packaging and epoxy resins) and triclosan (used as an antibacterial agent in personal care products such as toothpaste and hand soap)
  • Perchlorate - used in airplane fuel, explosives, and fireworks
  • Perfluorinated chemicals - used to create non-stick cookware
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers - used in fire retardants found in consumer products such as mattresses
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - found in paints, air fresheners, cleaning products, cosmetics, upholstery fabrics, carpets, dry-cleaned clothing, wood preservatives, and paint strippers

When combined, these chemicals can potentially present a toxic burden to the human body and, as the CDC has found, can accumulate in your blood, urine, and tissues. While your body does actually have detoxification organs that can process many of these chemicals and toxins (your liver and kidneys), exposure to these chemicals can potentially cause medical problems if your liver and kidneys are not functioning properly or are overburdened with a poor diet.

How Do You Detox?

While the kidneys are indeed an important filtration mechanism for removing waste and excess water from the body, it’s the liver that has the crucial job when it comes to detoxification. Along with filtering your blood to remove toxins, your liver uses a two-phase process to break down chemicals and toxins. During phase 1, toxins are neutralized and broken into smaller fragments. Then, in phase 2, they are bound to other molecules, creating new non-toxic molecules that can be excreted in your bile, urine, or stool.

But in order for this liver detoxification to work properly, your body must have adequate nutrients. If not, the phase 1 and phase 2 processes may not work properly, which can leave toxic substances to build up in your body. There are specific nutrients that support both pathways.

For example......

Phase 1

  • B-Vitamins (B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid)
  • Flavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables
  • Foods rich in vitamins A, C and E (carrots, oranges, wheat germ, almonds)
  • Glutathione (found in avocado, watermelon, asparagus, walnuts, fresh fruits and veggies, and the nutrients n-acetylcysteine, cysteine and methionine)
  • Branched chain amino acids (found in animal protein such as dairy products, red meat, and eggs)
  • Phospholipids (found in eggs, lean meats, organ meats, fish, and soybeans)

Phase 2

  • Indole-3-carbinol (found in cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
  • Limonene (found in oranges, tangerines, caraway seeds, and dill seeds)
  • Glutathione (found in avocado, watermelon, asparagus, walnuts, fresh fruits and veggies)
  • Fish oil
  • Amino acids from protein

Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of these nutrients for supporting proper liver detox pathways.

How Do Detoxing Products Work?

The first claim in the article from The Guardian is based on a quote from Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University. He says:

"…there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t. The respectable one is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated."

The article goes on to explain that when it comes to products that range from dietary supplements to smoothies and shampoos, not one of the manufacturers can actually define what they mean by detoxification, or name the toxins these products are supposed to remove.

However, just because a manufacturer of, say, spirulina powder, can’t say how it works, doesn’t mean there isn’t scientific evidence for its potential to remove toxins from the body.

For example, cyanobacteria is a specific type of bacteria found in spirulina that is an accumulator (also known as a “biosorbent”) of heavy minerals. It does this via a process called ion-exchange binding, and can significantly reduce heavy metal toxicity in tissue. In fact, 100 micrograms (a very small amount) of spirulina hexane extract has been shown to remove over 85% of arsenic in tissue. At a dose of 250-500 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, spirulina has been shown to prevent metal toxicity in pregnant rats' offspring when the mothers were given fluoride and it has also been noted to reduce lead accumulation in brain tissue, protect against heavy metal cadmium build-up, and attenuate mercury accumulation in the testes.

Granted, spirulina is one of the few molecules in existence that actually has a large body of evidence to support its detoxifying activity, but other compounds such as dandelion extract, ginseng and zinc have also been clinically proven to reduce heavy metal build-up. And while heavy metals are only one form of toxin that can accumulate in your tissues, there is no doubt that science has proven that these toxins can indeed be removed via the use of these specific “detox” compounds found in nature. So when the article in The Guardian guffaws at the ideas of superfoods, such as spirulina, evidence suggests that there's more to the story.

Take milk thistle extract, another popular detox or cleansing supplement. While the article in The Guardian would have you to believe there is no value whatsoever in consuming this type of nutrient, studies show that milk thistle actually protects and promotes the growth of liver cells, fights oxidation (a process that damages cells), and actually blocks toxins from entering the cell membrane.

Silymarins, a group of antioxidants extracted from the seeds of milk thistle, have antioxidant properties several times greater than that of vitamins C and E. In fact, silybin (a type of silymarin) has been shown to be especially effective in promoting liver health. Milk thistle also helps to enhance detoxification by preventing the depletion of glutathione, which is necessary for phase 2 liver detoxification.

You can also look to farming for another example of detoxification of dangerous materials that have bioaccumulated in a living organism. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicide used on crops around the world, has been shown to cause gut and genetic damage as it builds up in the bodies of animals. Because of this, some farmers use activated charcoal and humic acid (a clay-like substance extracted from soil) to detox their cattle after the animals have been exposed to glyphosate chemicals while feeding.

As you can see from these examples, to claim that detox supplements and diets simply don’t work is a gross oversimplification. While there isn't any evidence for the efficacy of that cayenne pepper, lemon, and maple syrup juice cleanse your coworker has been bragging about, evidence for other nutrients' detoxification capacity actually does.

Stay tuned because next week we will discuss whether colon cleanses actually cleanse. Plus, I'll give you practical steps to help your liver and kidneys detox your body naturally (no cayenne pepper/maple syrup/lemon juice starvation diet required!).

Do you have more questions about whether detoxing is a myth? Head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy and ask your questions or join the conversation there!

Fruit detox image courtesy of Shutterstock.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.