It’s that time of year again. No, we don’t mean the festivities. We mean the detox-bashing in the mainstream media that always floods the airwaves at this time of year. This year it’s the turn of the Guardian newspaper to fire up the skeptics and get the detox-bashing off to a rollicking start and they’ve done so with two consecutive pieces. According to its most recent article, apparently it’s irrelevant that detox products are “snake oil”. Apparently, people use them because they “make us feel virtuous”. Their previous article went straight for the natural health jugular by determining that you simply “can’t detox your body, it’s a myth”.
It’s detox-bashing season again in the media - snake oil and myths peddled by charlatans and quacks?
We have the ability to naturally detoxify, but our internal detox organs weren’t designed for the toxic overload synonymous with modern living?
Certain nutrients can upregulate both Phase I and II detoxification processes in the liver, as well as kidney function?
Don’t be put off detoxing - it’s backed by your body’s biochemistry, published science, dozens of clinical trials and centuries of clinical experience amongst those who have practised detox regimes!
If you were planning, like thousands of others, to kick start the New Year with a whole body cleanse and a reinvigorated physical activity programme, we'd urge you to not be put off by anything you might read in the Guardian. There’s nothing new, same old samo. Even our 'old friend', Dr Edzard Ernst (now retired from his university position), has been pulled out of mothballs again for both articles, saying the same (incorrect and incoherent) thing he’s been saying about detox for as many years as we can remember.
According to Ernst, “The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak. There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better”. And that, “there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t”. The respectable one apparently is only used by doctors to save people from life-threatening drug-addictions. “The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.” Really?
It’s quite true that the body has organs of detoxification. But they were never designed to cope with the onslaught of modern life. They, along with the metabolic systems that support them, also evolved over millenia to work alongside traditional diets. They were never designed to work on a diet of Macdonalds and coke.
Our exposure to industrial chemicals, pesticide residues in our food, chemicals in personal care products, ultra-processed and junk food laden with additives, nutritionally deficient diets, lifestyle stressors and lack of physical activity all conspire to not only increase our toxic load over that of our ancestors, but also reduce our capacity for effective detoxification. Add to that load, our altered and de-stabilised gut microbiome, leaky gut, genetic variations (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that directly affect the detoxification capacity in many of us, along with alcohol and drug abuse, and smoking by some. It's not hard to see why detox organs and pathways may become overwhelmed.
So whilst those are, in the main, external toxins, the body is also continuously creating toxins internally (endotoxins) that need to be 'biotransformed' and excreted too. Hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and many other substances are continually being made (anabolism) and old ones broken down (catabolism). These natural metabolic processes need to be accomplished efficiently, as many of the intermediate metabolites can be more toxic than the substances ready for breakdown or excretion eg. Diindolylmethane’s (DIM) role in breaking down the dangerous (16-hydroxy) oestrogen metabolite. Intestinal integrity and the health of the gut microbiome, along with the detoxification organs, are essential for effective and efficient detoxification.
The liver is the principal organ of internal detoxification. Within it occur a complex series of biochemical processes that firstly recognise a toxin and convert it to an intermediate (Phase I biotransformation), which may be temporarily more toxic. The metabolite is then packaged up (conjugated) in readiness for getting rid of it (Phase II biotransformation). Excretory pumps may then assist excretion (Phase III biotransformation).
Phase I is completely dependent on enzymes (Cytochrome P450 enzymes), which vary considerably between individuals (genetic variations), your level of physical activity and key dietary factors that can either speed up their metabolism or slow them down. Phase II is all about taking these new enzyme-converted substances and conjugating them to other molecules to make them safer or more stable and easier to transport out of the body. Certain co-factors in your diet such as specific vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients help to mediate phase II reactions. This isn’t ‘snake oil’. This is proven biochemical, scientific fact.
Nature’s detox larder
Whilst your genetic inheritance is not something you can physically alter, you can certainly upregulate your own internal detoxification mechanisms with physical activity and good nutrition choices. Another incontrovertible scientific fact is that vegetables and fruits contain very specific phytochemicals which are necessary for our health.
We asked our founder and scientific director, Robert Verkerk PhD, to comment on Dr Ernst's claims. He states, “Biochemical science established decades ago that certain nutrients can upregulate both Phase I and II detoxification processes in the liver, as well as kidney function. Indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and kale, are good examples. That’s one of the reasons these vegetables are so good for us. The silymarin in milk thistle, especially in the seeds, as well as the amino acid N-acetyl-cysteine are also well proven for detoxification support, the former with a long history of use in herbal medicine. The latter is still commonly used in some cases of drug poisoning. To say that there is no evidence that any nutritional or herbal medicine can enhance detoxification over and above an average diet is simply incorrect scientifically.” Again, not snake oil; but proven scientific fact.
Bring on the kale and broccoli smoothies!
For those of you who want to support your body to clear out both endogenous and exogenous toxins after the festive excesses, it’s worth reading our debunking of the Sense About Science’s stand on detox from 2009. Please don’t worry that it’s out of date – their arguments haven’t changed and your body’s biochemistry still functions much in the same way as any of your ancestors from 20,000 years ago!
As we’ve said before, it’s only people ignorant of the science who refuse to accept that natural factors in the diet (eg. dietary polyphenols, curcumin in turmeric, sulphoraphane in broccoli, ginger, licorice, dandelion), as well as a wide variety of herbal species (eg. Rehmannia glutinosa, Coptis chinensis (berberine), Schisandra chinensis, Terminalia belerica (‘bibhitaki’) and other nutrients (eg. N-acetyl-cysteine, a precursor for glutathione), are able to substantially enhance our elimination of toxins within the body.
On the basis of published science, including dozens of clinical trials, as well as years and even centuries of clinical experience among those who have practiced detox, we hope you start 2015 off with a detoxifying health regime! However, please be responsible about it and do it with proper advice, or prior knowledge and make sure you balance healthy diet and lifestyle choices with adequate physical activity, rest and relaxation. Amidst all the good stuff, may be the odd 'snake oil' salesman, a fact of life, and one common to all industries.
A final reminder: please remember that many healthy detox regimes aren’t just for Christmas! They should be integrated into daily living! If in any doubt, seek advice, not from Dr Ernst or the Guardian, but rather from a trusted, qualified and experienced nutritional, herbal or traditional medicine practictioner.