Detoxification 101: What Is It, Why It’s Useless, and How to Do It Effectively

Detoxification 101: What Is It, Why It’s Useless, and How to Do It Effectively

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is detoxification?
  3. What are “toxins?”
  4. Detoxification is not weight loss, and weight loss is not detoxification
    1. …and this is not the kind of weight loss you want.
  5. Known detoxification scams
  6. Why is detoxification regaining popularity?
  7. Your body is constantly detoxifying
  8. Can you “detoxify” healthily?

Introduction

One of the earliest posts I’d ever written here on BGG2WL was about the idea of “cleansing,” which has morphed into what we know today as “detoxing.” I’m pretty consistent in my stance on it – it’s not worth it – but, as I’ve learned more and more, I’m realizing that it’s getting harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what’s healthy and sensible and sustainable and what isn’t.

Lots of us firmly believe in some kind of nutritional absolution – that there’s a quick and simple way to be absolved of guilt related to whatever sins we’ve committed with regard to how we think we should eat and live. Of course you can be absolved of the guilt. Is it that easy to get rid of the consequences of said “sins,” though?

The modern detoxification industry, with its pills and potions and powders and teas and tablets and tinctures, would have you believe that this is the case. And the prevalence of multi-level marketing programs, programs which make detoxification an easy thing to buy and an even easier thing to sell to a desperate population – makes it difficult to escape, and even more difficult to make sense of it all.

That being said, consider this a pleasant primer with regard to what detoxification is, what it does, why it’s virtually unnecessary, and what you need to know about your body to demystify detoxification.

What is detoxification, anyway?

People love to talk about “detoxification” as being some kind of ancient practice – “Oh, people have been detoxifying for centuries…” – but detoxifying what? Why? And where?

These questions are important. Detoxification, as a valid practice, has its roots in addiction treatments like alcohol and drug use. Alcohol detoxification becomes necessary after a person consumes excessive amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time, resulting in more than internal complications – said person’s brain chemistry becomes altered in a way that prevents them from being able to actually stop the continual drinking. Detoxification aids in the process of helping them break that cycle and combat the negative effects of withdrawals, as a part of rehabilitation.

The same can be said for drug addiction. Detoxification, or the practice of removing your body of the toxins it has accumulated throughout the course of consumption of a substance, helps a sufferer remove the substance from the body, thereby also helping to remove much of the contributing factors in their desire to continue consuming.

But, in the 21st century, we’re largely not referring to drugs and booze when we talk about detoxification. We’re talking about… wait – what are we talking about?

What are toxins?

No one knows. No, really… no one knows. In virtually every promotional tool I’ve read or listened to regarding the “toxins” that need to be removed from the body, I’ve never heard an actual toxin listed. These toxins are never identified by what they are, instead being acknowledged by what they “do.” It’s always a very generic name – “toxins” or “chemicals” or “pollutants” – with a very specific consequence like “destroys your skin” or “causes cancer.” I promise you – if we’re at the point in the science where we can identify what a particular toxin does, we should be able to identify said toxin by name – or, at least, by source – as well.

A “toxin” is defined as a substance that can cause damage to a living creature, and “damage” can be anything. As there are three primary methods of consumption – inhaling, ingesting, or absorbing – a “toxin” can be something that allegedly causes a skin malady, an emotional issue, a nutritional deficit, and so on. Depending on your nutritional beliefs, animal flesh will be considered a toxin. Depending on which “healthy living enthusiast” you follow on social media, dihydrogen monoxide is a “toxin.”

(That’s water, by the way.)

Detoxification is not weight loss, and weight loss is not detoxification

People mix up the benefits of weight loss achieved through lifestyle changes with “detoxification” and, as a result, wind up conferring more credibility to “detoxification” than they should. As I’ve said countless times before, there is more to weight loss than the food… and there is more to the food than weight loss. With improved quality of nutrition comes benefits to hair, skin, energy levels, digestive function, nutrient absorption, and more. That “more” can also include the feeling of having been “detoxed.”

If you are losing weight through a means other than simply improving your nutritional habits and increasing your activity levels, that’s not detoxification. If you do use better lifestyle choices as your method of weight loss, then you are getting rid of much of what slows you down, makes you sluggish, and screws with your skin. This, however, doesn’t require a fancy liquid or a pill or a foot pad (???) to achieve.

…and this is not the kind of weight loss you want.

Lots of people go on weight loss cleanses, or go on cleanses with the sole purpose of losing weight. Some people obsess so much over the scale, that they believe getting a colonic – basically getting your insides power washed with a hose inserted up inside of you – is how you achieve success. Some people go on “master cleanses” believing that the bulk of the weight they lose will be the equivalent of long-standing change, will result in lifelong benefits, and will ultimately turn into lifelong detoxification.

Except, permanent weight loss isn’t a result of a 3-, 10-, or 30-day cleanse; going on a detox – no matter the duration – won’t teach you what you need to know about engaging with healthier habits in the real world; and, if you ultimately only do detoxes as a way to atone for the previous weekend’s sins, you’re sabotaging yourself anyway. The problem isn’t the fact that you “detox” to feel better – the problem is the habits you feel like you need to atone for.

Known detoxification scams

The more that detoxification is marketed as a means of achieving health and wellness, the more common – and, dare I say, creative – the scams become.

We went from the cheap teas at the Dollar Store to body wraps that make Big Claims about sucking toxins right out of your skin to pills that make you poop “Real Live Organisms and Worms That Have Been Living Inside You” to juices that claim to make you feel better.

Except, yeah….about those poop-inducing pills:

Some colon-cleansing tablets contain a polymerising agent that turns your faeces into something like a plastic, so that when a massive rubbery poo snake slithers into your toilet you can stare back at it and feel vindicated in your purchase.

And, yeah, about those detoxifying “foot pads:”

Detoxing foot pads turn brown overnight with what manufacturers claim is toxic sludge drawn from your body. This sludge is nothing of the sort – a substance in the pads turns brown when it mixes with water from your sweat. [source]

And, hmm….let’s have a word about these “skinny” and “fit” and “strong” teas that are floating around Instagram, shall we?

Why is detoxification regaining in popularity?

Yes, that phenomenon of women who are already thin taking photos of themselves standing with or next to a bag of overpriced leaves that amounts to little more than “stuff for flavoring” and “cassia,” which is a known [cheap] natural laxative.

You’ll often see these photos with the bag of tea held at waist height, or there’ll be nothing but tummy in the shot, period. There’ll be a “before and after” shot, or the woman in the shot will already have a figure many women lust over.

Instagram is a prime place for exploitation. It’s an environment that thrives on as few words as possible, with many people coming because they want visual inspiration – design inspiration, style inspiration, and, yes, fitness inspiration. Except, when someone’s selling you something and encouraging you to pay high prices to consume it, you should require words. You should demand them. Lots of them, for that matter.

Teas that promote some kind of weight loss or fitness improvement or “waist shrinkage” are ultimately the kind of teas that contain ingredients with laxative properties combined with the kinds of ingredients that also serve as diuretics. Basically, they make you lose all the mass in your bowels – ergo, you poop a lot – and you pee out any free water lingering in your body.

Except, peeing out any free water in your body actually hurts you instead of helping you. Peeing out too much water faster than your body is ready means you’re losing nutrients faster than your body can process them.

And, when it comes to going the teas making you go Number Two, of course it’s going to have what could be considered a “slimming effect.” Take a look at where your intestines are situated in your body:

Diagram of the human digestive system, from Atlas of the Human Body

Diagram of the human digestive system, from Atlas of the Human Body

Now, think about the path of digestion. To describe it crudely, in the mouth, down the throat, into the stomach, through the intestines – which are several feet long – and ultimately out the door.

See those intestines? If you eat a lot of food with little fiber, and find that it’s not coming out as fast as you can consume it? Guess what? It sits in your intestines. Where it expands. Thereby expanding your waistline.

So, yes, by going Number 2 – especially if you haven’t in a while – you would be reducing your waistline. And, because the scale doesn’t differentiate between pounds of fat and pounds of poop you’re currently carrying, you’d never know that what you actually lost was stuff that’s been sitting inside you from a week of not pooping… not several pounds of body fat.

All detoxes exploit this, thereby completing the connection between “detoxification” and “weight loss.”

Your body is constantly detoxing

What you should know about your body is that… it’s awesome. Somehow, before you were born, your body already knew it’d need methods for expelling items that are of no use to your body or otherwise don’t belong there.

As the primary methods of consumption are absorbing, ingesting, or inhaling, it’s safe to say your liver and kidneys, and your lungs have detoxification covered.

If your inhale something that doesn’t belong inside of you, you almost instantly begin to cough and gasp for air. That’s your lungs helping you out.

However, when you absorb or ingest something that doesn’t belong, that’s your liver and kidneys doing the work.

Anything that doesn’t kill you instantaneously is sent to the liver to be converted – either into something useful, like glycogen, or into something able to be easily expelled, like carbon dioxide (what you exhale) or water (what you sweat out.)

When it comes to removing toxins from the body, several organs are designed to do just that.

  • The liver plays a major role in breaking down and filtering substances from the bloodstream that the body can’t use.
  • The kidneys remove substances such as urea, a byproduct of protein metabolism.
  • The gastrointestinal tract, including the colon, is also designed to get rid of what the body cannot use and to keep what it needs. [source]

And, when it comes to the “need” to detox those organs… don’t worry about that, either.

“There are myths that toxins clog up or get stuck in these organs,” Vreeman said. “That is just not true.”

[…]”The term ‘detoxify’ is used so often that it makes people think that special steps need to be taken so ‘detoxifying’ happens,” Vreeman said. “It leads to people not trusting their bodies. Your body, however, does not need special cleansing efforts. What it does need is for you to get enough fluids and to eat a healthy, balanced diet.” [source]

Can you detoxify healthily?

Yes – your body does it every day. But can you do it healthily? Are there things you can do to make sure your body runs optimally?

Absolutely.

A nutritious and well-balanced diet, and regular and consistent exercise.

No, this isn’t me nagging you. I’m serious.

The best way to improve the way your organs function, is to give them everything they need to be healthy. The vitamins and minerals necessary to repair and replenish them, when they take on the arduous and taxing work of keeping you running strong, all come from that healthy produce that you’re not eating when you’re busy detoxing.

And, no, juicing and smoothies don’t count.

Those dark and leafy greens are full of fiber that helps push big chunks of stuff through your intestines and out the door, but also helps your insides clean out something called mucoid plaque, which is basically food debris that cakes up along the walls of your intestines and makes it difficult to absorb the nutrients in the food you consume.

I’ve seen pictures of the stuff. It’s gross.

When you juice, you’re missing out on fiber that helps clean most of this stuff up and helps to improve the health of your GI tract. Finding healthy and enjoyable ways to eat veggies, however, will not only keep your energy levels high and rid your body of the constant stream of additives and preservatives and sugars, but also improve the health of the organs responsible for keeping you running strong.

And you don’t have to spend several hours on the toilet to do it, either!

By | 2017-06-10T11:19:57+00:00 June 30th, 2015|Debunking The Myths|12 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

12 Comments

  1. Gail Mattingly July 3, 2015 at 9:52 AM - Reply

    I agree with your research. I’m currently detoxing by eliminating 2-3 harmful items from my diet per week, sugar, caffeine ,etc. and adding more fruits, veggies & walking for 6 weeks. Your blog makes much sense and encourages me.

  2. G July 5, 2015 at 8:27 AM - Reply

    Great post. Just a note though, I did a little research on “mucoid plaque” because I’d never heard that term & apparently it is a term used mostly by the very folks who manufacture & promote colon cleansing products & services. Based on what I read these pictures of mucoid plaque only come from people using these products & the concept that there is gunk blocking the absorption of nutrients is false. I haven’t done extensive research here, but since I appreciate the information you provide I thought I’d just share what I found.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall July 5, 2015 at 10:04 AM - Reply

      Hmmm… so, let me share a bit about where I learned the term from and how it was used, and maybe it can clear things up a bit.

      So, I attended a conference last year where an RD presented on different nutrition matters – eating for energy and performance, and pros and cons of the paleo diet. It was complete with photos and, if I recall correctly, videos… and it was pretty gross.

      Looking back at my notes – I take extensive notes, because nerdy – it wasn’t brought up with regard to “and this is why you need a colon cleanse!” It was, instead, a “this is what causes it, this is what contributes to it, this is how you remove it, and this is how you can change your diet if you’d like to prevent it.” A colon cleanse was never on the table, especially since – in most cases – the majority of nutrient absorption should be done by the time food reaches the large intestine.

      The reality is, people who are extremely irregular with their number twos – with bowel movements being a key driver of “detoxification,” and fiber playing a major role in that – will absolutely have an issue with nutrient absorption, and different foods with different nutritional (and chemical, for that matter) makeup will affect your insides differently. Just like the same can be said for your arteries, it can be said for your intestines, too, and fiber plays an important role in making sure that process doesn’t affect you.

      I guess I’d expect that term to be co-opted by the industry that profits the most from inciting fear in people about their insides, but they’re using it to an end goal of achieving sales. The kind of plaque (a general purpose term for “stuff that sticks where it doesn’t otherwise belong,” be it “mucoid” or not) that affects the intestines is easily lifted by a good bowl of collard greens. Not a cleanse protocol that you purchase somewhere, and not from having a hose shoved up anywhere. Just general purpose dark-n-leafy fiber.

      I’ll spend a little more time on PubMed and the NIH website, and see if I can reach out to any researchers or surgeons to find out more on the topic. I do trust my source of info, but I’m far more invested in being accurate than being “right,” so I’m not above doing a little digging!

      • G July 5, 2015 at 3:43 PM - Reply

        Thanks so much for the added information!

  3. Thomaseen July 5, 2015 at 2:35 PM - Reply

    Absolutely loved this! Great, much needed information. People are always looking for the “magic pill” for weight loss. The key is diet and exercise! What goes in is reflected as the outward appearance. You want to look better, you have to eat better and exercise.

  4. Inez Robinson July 5, 2015 at 3:32 PM - Reply

    I am just now starting my journey in a healthy life styles and I am having such a hard time trying to adjust to eating clean and exercising. I have gained so much weight over the last few months that I am miserable with my self. I cant seem to stop making the excuses. To even start the journey. Feeling low …..

    • Erika Nicole Kendall July 5, 2015 at 8:23 PM - Reply

      Lots of people struggle in the beginning because they’re trying to do too much at once. Just take it one step at a time! It’ll go a little easier than you expect, I promise. 🙂

      • inez July 10, 2015 at 1:10 PM - Reply

        How would you recommend I start?

        • Erika Nicole Kendall July 12, 2015 at 12:54 PM - Reply

          Just with a walk, sis. Everyone starts somewhere. Give yourself the opportunity to become proud of your commitment to your daily walk, and let that compel you to add something new, like learning how to cook a different dish or vegetable. Give yourself time, and it’ll come. 🙂

  5. Curvy CEO July 5, 2015 at 3:59 PM - Reply

    You are SO thorough Erika! I know several people who are on juice diets and I’m actually worried about the long term consequences. I will definitely pass your article along!

  6. Jennifer July 14, 2015 at 6:38 PM - Reply

    Wow! What an informative article! I consider myself a natural health guru, and I had no idea about the poo pills and foot pads. lol! I guess I should have known about the foot pads though, for real-crazy!. I did a webinar on detoxing and cleansing a while back because I see how this is the “go to” for people who want to start being healthy, but there’s really no need to do it if you already have a lifestyle that feeds your natural ability to remove toxins. And that is where exercise and a rich, plant-based diet comes in. Those should be #1 on a daily basis. I am glad you provided some good information about the myths in detoxing that are floating around these days! We really need to get real, and stop dabbing in this and that. Making commitment to self, accepting and believing that your body is already doing the work (just give it the “tools” (nutrients) it needs to continue), and keep it simple is KEY! #greens

  7. Kenyan Howard toure August 7, 2016 at 10:48 PM - Reply

    I’m on a weight lost jounery I’m a curvy 315 but I’m 5’8 I’m sick of being sluggish clothes not fitting and people saying on you have a pretty face but i want to feel like i look thanks for the value info over the years I’ve spend money on diet junk looking at skinny chicks in waist trainers.

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