We live in a world of fads – you can’t avoid hearing about the next big diet, the miracle pill that will make you immediately skinny, or skincare creams that magically make you look ten years younger.
It can get hard to differentiate the truth from the scams. People use the latest craze to sell their products and treatments. Whether it has any basis in science or medicine is often not even part of the conversation.
Detoxing (short for detoxification or detoxifying) is on the lips of dieticians, doctors, and homeopathic practitioners everywhere. It has a number of different meanings, depending on who you ask and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s hard to walk through a pharmacy these days without seeing products purporting to singlehandedly remove all the toxins from your system. But what does it mean to detox?
You’re Detoxing Right Now – Metabolic Detoxification
In fact, you’re detoxing all day every day. At least, as long as your liver and kidneys are working properly. This is the actual, general meaning of ‘detoxing,’ and it is a constant process that your organs are performing all the time.
As the blood circulates around your body, it delivers oxygen and picks up waste products, in order to transport them to the part of your body that deals with them. Carbon dioxide ends up in your lungs, where you breathe it out and replace it with more oxygen. Other toxins, like heavy metals, pollutants, pesticides, and the waste products from your metabolic processes, end up passing through the liver and kidneys in a two-stage process.
The first part works to neutralize the harmful chemicals and byproducts, using a mixture of organic reduction and oxidation (together known as redox reactions) to add oxygen, remove hydrogen, or both. Next, your body adds certain chemicals to the mix to make it soluble, which means you can get rid of it. Every time you breathe out, sweat, or go to the toilet, your body is doing its thing to detoxify your system.
They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab – Medical Detoxing
The original, and more technical, use for the term detoxification is a clinical one. It is the process that the body goes through when recovering from an extended period of drug use, though it refers only to the physiological process, not the psychological one. In other words, detoxing can help your body to return to a normal state. Fixing the underlying cause for the addiction or over-use is a separate part of the process.
When Sterling Archer, from FX’s Archer, jokes that he can’t stop drinking all at once, because he’s afraid that the cumulative hangover will kill him – he’s not actually wrong. After an extended period of constant use, the body becomes habituated to having alcohol in it and going cold turkey can have severe, and sometimes fatal, consequences.
Detoxification is part of the recovery process for both alcohol and various drugs, including opiates like heroin and morphine, as well as sedatives like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. It is the first stage of breaking the addiction. Rehab centers will do what they can to help patients to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal, and this can happen with or without the aid of medications.
The New Kid on the Block – Detox Diets, Retreats, Etc.
This is where things get a little murky. In many circles, ‘detox’ has become the new word to replace the bogey-man: diet. Be it a juice cleanse, or a water fast, there are various ‘tried and tested,’ but not scientifically supported, methods out there.
The general aim of a detox diet is to try to support the body’s natural detoxification process by either supplying it with the nutrients it needs to do that job, or by supposedly giving the organs a break by ingesting fewer toxins. The former method can potentially be beneficial. However, there is little solid science to suggest that fasting and so on actually aids in the functioning of your liver and kidneys.
Companies sell ‘detoxifying’ products of every shade of the rainbow, but they don’t mention what toxins they actually are supposed to remove, and when the manufacturers are asked, they often don’t even have a proper definition for what they mean by detox. So, as with everything you read on the internet or hear from a friend, take any and all claims of a magical detox with a healthy pinch of cynical salt.
Fasting is more straightforward but it can be dangerous. You will definitely lose some weight by starving yourself. But at some point, the body will stop shedding pounds and will activate other ways of dealing with the lack of nutrients. This can have long-term negative effects on your health.
You Are What You Eat
After all this, then, what does it mean to detox?
In the trendy sense of the word, detoxing refers to using products and methods that get rid of ‘toxins.’ The idea behind it is that the body is unable to deal with these toxins by itself.
But this is fundamentally untrue. The thing to note is that many (if not all) of the people who try to persuade you that you need to detox are trying to sell you something, one way or the other.
The best route to health is through eating well, getting regular exercise, and a proper night’s sleep. If you spend the entire year drinking heavily every weekend, eating fast food, and sitting around in front of your computer, you can’t fix it all in one week of detoxing.
Better to implement changes that you can maintain year-round, and that will support your body’s natural functioning.
Green foods are good for your gut, even a small increase in exercise can dramatically reduce your chances of heart disease and other nasty complications. The blue light from your phone or laptop tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime and makes it hard to settle down, so try to avoid using tech before bed. These small changes will have better results than any detox ever could.