Early in the
New Year is the traditional time for setting ambitious goals for better health,
fitness and, often, a slimmer body. This resolve commonly reflects guilt
stemming from the dissipation of the preceding festive season – and it often
starts with a detox.
where the idea of an in-depth body cleanse or “the detox cure” comes from, but
it’s worth noting that many traditional and complementary medicine practices
describe cleansing and detoxification as a way to avoid illness, or engender
based on the idea that “toxins” accumulate and the body needs
regular purification. They cover everything from enemas and colonic irrigation,
lemon juice detox or water fasts to exclusion of certain food groups, purging
with herbs, large-dose nutrient supplementation and sweat lodges, among other
things. And they’re generally a waste of money and effort.
Read: Detox: fact or fiction?
Detoxing from what?
terms, detoxification means removing poisons or the
build-up of toxic substances, when large amounts have been consumed or have
come into the body through inhalation or skin exposure. It’s only used when the
amount or type of substance is such that our body’s natural detoxification
systems are unable to clear it.
The body’s detoxification
system uses the skin (via sweat and sebum), liver and gall bladder
(bile), kidneys (urine), lungs,
lymphatic system (lymph) and intestines (faeces) to get rid of toxins.
Read: Debunking detox diets
can be from both internal and external sources. Internal sources include the
by-products from usual physiological processes and cells' waste products. The
process of breaking down food components to produce energy uses oxygen, for
instance, and results in unstable molecules called free
radicals. These molecules must be neutralised or converted to avoid build-up to
sources of toxins can come from food and beverage-related compounds – molecules resulting from baking, deep-frying and
char-grilling, as well as alcohol and additives in processed foods.
Then there’s medication, tobacco smoke and exposure to environmental
pollutants, among other things.
from external sources (also known as xenobiotics) are fat-soluble and can
accumulate in fatty tissue. Exposure to these has considerably increased with
modern lifestyles because of industrial waste contaminating soil and water and,
in turn, agriculture products and seafood.
practices also use a variety of chemicals, resulting in residues in food
products. And cosmetics, body care products, as well as plastic food and
beverage packaging, all increase our exposure
to a variety of chemicals.
of exposure are often used as the main rationale for commercial detox programmes.
In the absence of robust human data on acceptable non-harmful ranges for all
the chemicals in our environment, the argument goes that any small amount may
be toxic and should be removed. But our bodies are purging these chemicals all
the time. Not consuming unhealthy food will reduce the amount of
detoxification your body needs to perform. Carlos/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Read: Detox diets – good or bad?
one-off detox regimen can “erase” the effects of weeks' worth of excess and
years of sluggish lifestyle habits. There’s no
scientific basis or high-level evidence showing the benefits of
commercial short-term detox programmes.
there’s good news too: your internal
detoxification system, which includes numerous organs and enzymes
coded for in your DNA, works around the clock to process toxins as needed.
consuming any alcohol, or masses of
chocolate and fried food, for a few weeks may (depending on what you’re eating
in their stead) reduce the amount of detoxification your body needs to perform.
But real good happens over the long term. And anyway, all the alcohol you’ve
drunk in the last few weeks has already been dealt with – principally by your
liver – to avoid harmful effects.
over 500 functions, the liver metabolises and detoxifies any dietary
constituents (including caffeine or herbal teas and supplements) and any
external toxins entering the body from a variety of exposure.
is a three-step process. In the first two phases,
fat-soluble compounds are converted to water-soluble compounds. And the third
facilitates transport of the converted products out of the cells, then out of
the body via the bile and faeces, or urine.
production of toxins, such as free radicals, is kept under tight control by a
sophisticated mechanism involving genes that code for antioxidant enzymes.
Indeed, enzymes play a key role in detoxification and when there’s more to
detoxify, the body produces more enzymes.
liver is the star of the show, most tissues in the body also participate in
detoxification. But the differences between individual genetic profiles mean there can be
large variation in responses to toxin exposure.
minerals in food are crucial for the optimal function of detoxification
pathways and the function of enzymes. But this doesn’t mean you should consume
large doses as that can also result in toxicity.
The crux of
the story is that the human body is a comprehensive, self-mending,
self-detoxing apparatus. It will perform its detoxification tasks regardless of
whether you’re undertaking a rigid detox cure, or a gourmet food and wine
tasting marathon. But providing the right ingredients for optimal function
daily, rather than opting for a quick-fix detox, is the key.
This article is part of our series about New Year’s resolutions, A Fresh Start.
It was originally published on The Conversation.
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