Summer detoxes: Are they worth the hype?

We’ve all heard about detoxing. Summertime rolls around and people feel an urge to rapidly lose weight and “cleanse” their bodies of built-up toxins from a stressful year. What we don’t hear enough about are the risks associated with detoxing. Detoxing your body and rapidly losing weight may sound appealing, but let’s examine the science.

What exactly is a detox?

A detox is some form of a restricted diet—typically, a liquid drink—that may or may not come with additional supplements. They are usually marketed to promote weight loss, increase energy, feeling better or improve overall health.

An example of a detox is the ‘Master Cleanse’, also known as ‘The Lemonade Diet’, which consists of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and water. The idea is to consume this concoction for 10 days whenever you feel hungry, as a replacement for solid foods. The cleanse is advertised to detox your body and help you lose weight.

What the science says about detoxes

Yes, our bodies do accumulate toxins, but there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that detoxes are able to remove harmful toxins from our bodies and occasionally they can be dangerous.

Our organs work around the clock to ‘detoxify’ our body. In fact, if our body didn’t do such a good job at removing toxins, we wouldn’t live very long. Consider:

  • Our lungs constantly breathe in oxygen and breathe out excess carbon dioxide, removing this waste product from circulation
  • Our liver metabolizes alcohol, hormones, medications and environmental toxins
  • Our kidneys act as a filter – they reabsorb what we need back into the blood and excrete anything we don’t need, like waste or toxins, into urine
  • Our skin allows the release of sweat, which is mostly composed of water but also contains some waste products and possibly heavy metals
  • Our gut makes daily decisions regarding what to absorb into circulation and what to excrete

If you really think about it, it’s pretty amazing what our bodies do to naturally detox.

There is also no scientific data supporting the long-term effectiveness of detoxing, whether it be for weight loss or improved health.

Mental and physical drawbacks of detoxes

Anecdotally, many people find eliminating solid foods mentally and physically draining. This, combined with the added stress of participating in social events or family outings, can be taxing to our mental health. It can harm our relationship with food since an overly restrictive diet can lead to binging, which results in negative food associations and feelings of guilt or shame.

Restricting calorie intake can also be taxing on the body and potentially lead to increases in our stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is linked to weight gain, which makes any weight loss experienced in the short term difficult to sustain.

If you’re feeling mentally or physically depleted, that implies the detox is not living up to its claim of feeling better and increasing energy.

Why does it feel like detoxes are helpful?

One of the main reasons why this has become such a popular trend is because detoxing feels like it actually works.

You may experience some weight loss with a detox, but this is due to a loss of water from breaking down carbohydrate stores, not just from a reduction in calorie intake. This type of weight loss is not sustainable, unless you are planning to continue the detox forever, and this is not recommended!

During a detox, you’re also removing many processed and sugary foods from your diet, which may contribute to ‘feeling better’, but you can also receive this benefit while consuming solid foods.

Lastly, there may be some placebo effect. Your brain and your body are so intricately connected that sometimes when you are expecting certain results, your body can generate them without any active treatment. It may seem like the detox is real but it’s not going to provide you with any lasting results.

Are detoxes safe?

There is potential for harmful side effects from detoxes and it should be noted that no commercial detox programs have been tested for safety and efficacy.

Restrictive diets also come with mental and physical health risks including a slowed metabolism, which makes it harder to manage your weight long-term. Other side effects from detoxes may include muscle loss, nutritional deficiencies, fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, irritability, cramps, hair loss, nausea and constipation.

If you do decide to go ahead with a detox, it’s advisable to consult with your registered dietitian, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition, as this can make a detox quite dangerous.

Taking care of your body the right way

If you want your organs to do their best work, we should not be depriving them of the nutrients they need to function optimally. Instead, help enhance your natural detox pathways by following these tips:

  • Include cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower in your diet as well as berries, artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks and green tea. These foods contain nutrients that can regulate our liver’s detoxification and antioxidant activity.
  • Consume plenty of fibre from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Fibre acts both directly (by binding bile and its associated toxins to facilitate their excretion) and indirectly (by feeding our gut bacteria, many of which go on to produce by-products that can act on the liver and kidneys to enhance their ability to excrete toxins).
  • Drink plenty of water, as this will help the kidneys excrete urine and daily toxins.
  • Consume adequate lean protein, which is critical to maintaining optimum levels of glutathione, the body’s master detoxification enzyme!
  • Sweat multiple times a week!
  • Decrease your exposure to known contaminants and toxins (smoke, pollution, pesticides in foods, alcohol, illicit drugs, heavy metals and mercury, to name a few).

The bottom line

Having a healthy relationship with food is essential for personal health and we, at TELUS, encourage you to take the time to reflect on your own nutrition as you continue to integrate sustainable choices into your diet.

A diet full of variety, particularly plenty of fruits, vegetables, fibre, protein and fluid, constitutes the best and healthiest cleanse available.

So, the next time someone asks if you’re planning to do that summer detox – take a deep, cleansing breath and say, “I just did.”

For more information on detoxes, check out this article on why you should reconsider a juice cleanse.