Updated 16 September 2013

Detox: fact or fiction?

The "solution" for many people, when they have overindulged, is a detox diet to rid the body of "toxins". However, before you go ahead with your own detox, consider these things.

The end of the year is in sight and it’s almost time for fabulous year-end parties and summer holidays filled with lots of festive eating and drinking. Few people survive the silly season without overindulging and for many the festive season, unfortunately, also includes feelings of bloating, constipation and lethargy.

The “solution” for many people is a detox diet to rid the body of “toxins” and restore energy levels. However, before you go ahead with your own detox, there are a few things you should consider.  How healthy are detox diets really? Do they actually work, and could they perhaps be causing more harm than good?

Detox diets have been fashionable for many years and touted as the perfect way to “cleanse” the body, promote weight loss, overall wellness, clearer skin, improved digestion and heightened immune function.

'Empty promises'

A typical detox diet comprises of a few days of fasting or drinking liquids only (such as water, fruit juice, vegetable juice and rooibos tea), followed by a strict diet of raw fruit, vegetables and water. Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are avoided and some detox diets also advocate the use of certain herbs and supplements along with colon cleansing (enemas) to help empty the intestines. A detox diet can last anything from three days to two weeks.

Detox diets may be popular, but there is little scientific evidence that they actually remove toxins from the body. “Detox diets do no more than the body's own natural system to get rid of toxins,” US researchers say following a study at the University of Southern California.

“Most detox plans serve up empty promises: from cell cleansing to skin revitalisation, colon decontaminating and liver purging,” the experts report in the leading Food Technology journal. “The human body is designed to detox itself. Healthy adults, even overweight adults, have been endowed with extraordinary systems for the elimination of waste and regulation of body chemistry.”

The body’s greatest detox organ is the liver. Together with the kidneys it makes up a filtration system which naturally detoxifies the body every minute of the day. Your body does a perfectly good job of removing toxins without any external interference.


Despite the body’s own capabilities, there are countless detox plans, products and treatments on the market promising great results - the detox industry is worth millions throughout the world.

“Many detox products which are marketed as ‘safe and natural’ contain harsh laxatives and/or diuretics which can be harmful to your health,” warns Health24's DietDoc, registered dietician, Dr Ingrid van Heerden. “Laxatives interfere with the natural function of the bowels and, in extreme cases, an overuse can lead to a loss of peristalsis (normal bowel function).”

Excessive use of diuretics can lead to dehydration, which can be fatal in some cases. “If a detox product makes you urinate all day long, it probably contains a strong diuretic and should be avoided,” says Dr van Heerden.

Other risks and unpleasant side effects of detoxification include: feeling faint due to low blood sugar levels (due to severely limited kilojoule-intake and lack of important nutrients), irritability, headaches and fatigue, constipation (due to caffeine withdrawal, rather than toxin withdrawal), and regaining lost weight once the diet has stopped. The weight gain occurs, as the weight loss seen on these diets is due to loss of water and lean body mass, not fat mass.

The only detox products that can assist you in terms of constipation are probiotics or “beneficial microorganisms” such as Bifidobacteria and Lactic acid bacteria, which help to restore the natural flora in the digestive system.


There are many detox scams out there. One such scam, uncovered at beauty salons and health resorts in South Africa and abroad, was the detox foot bath, an electronic device that claimed to detox the body. An electric current and some salt were added to water and after 30 minutes the water discoloured brown, which was “proof” that detoxification took place. Upon investigation it was found to be a hoax: when an electric current is passed through salty water, the electrodes rust naturally, hence producing the brown water.  Needless to say, the detox food pads (which promise to extract all the toxins from your body through your feet while you are sleeping) are another hoax.

So what should you do?

Don’t waste your time, money or your health on detox plans. The best advice for a healthy body remains to follow an overall healthy lifestyle with a balanced eating plan and regular exercise. If you can avoid overindulging in the first place, you will not feel uncomfortable, overweight and fatigued.

By all means, enjoy the festive season and allow yourself some treats, but try not to overdo it. As with all things in life, moderation is key. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, drink enough water, power up with whole grains, stick to lean proteins, cut down on fats, salt and sugar, stay active, and allow your body to take care of the rest.

(Photo of woman drinking water from Shutterstock)

(Sources: BBC News,; Heart and Stroke Foundation, Health24)


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