Does Doing Detox Make You Dirty?

Guido Masé also known as @herbalist on Twitter, has provided many a fascinating riposte to complementary medicine conversations with @sciencebase and others. Much of it seems to home in on the same conclusions despite the perceived polarity of the debate. One such point of agreement is in the myth of “detox”. Here, Masé discusses why even a herbalist is averse to the term.

I often get asked about using herbs for cleansing, or “detox”. Many seem to think that using certain plants for a week or two can provide them with a range of health benefits. Some are non-specific, such as “greater vitality”; others are more targeted, such as “a cure for my arthritis”. This time of year, I hear the idea that an herbal detox can reverse the overindulgences from the holiday season. There is a considerable mythology built up around this concept. Let’s examine it for a moment.

First, if you need to cleanse, you must be dirty or toxic to begin with. This is an insidious thought, and presupposes a weakness in the physiology (original sin?). I have seen folks internalize this thought, leading to greater restriction of food, harsher purgative treatments, fear of the world all around. This is not conducive to well-being!

In fact, the human physiology is well adapted to managing substances that enter its domain. Through the liver, kidneys, lymph channels and skin, it keeps us safe and healthy remarkably well. If you doubt this, consider alcohol, a strong poison that, in moderation, causes few if any long-term ill effects.

Second, the plants used in detox programs are usually ones that, by virtue of their chemical constituents, induce or accelerate the metabolic and eliminative function of the body. This may very well be the case – bitter plants, for instance, do have effects on digestive and hepatic secretions[i]. But the notion that you can use these plants in high doses for two weeks to cure a range of complaints is akin to thinking that you can cure obesity by starving yourself for two weeks. Our bodies simply don’t work that way, and such a strategy might even be harmful.

I suspect that the detox mythology, as so many myths, holds within a kernel of truth. Growing up in the Alps of northern Italy, my grandmother, father, and aunts would gather bitter dandelion greens for salad in the spring. “Helping the digestion” was quoted to me as a reason for eating these salads – which, as you can imagine, were not my favorites. But these rituals didn’t take place just once a year: during the summer, endive, escarole, and radicchio (some very bitter veg) kept showing up on my plate. In the fall, chicory roots (bitter, “liver” plants[ii]) were dug up and roasted. These were daily, moderate habits – not monthly binges. That’s the point.

Another part of the mythology is that our chemical environment has changed over the last two hundred years. It’s a complex question – bacterial toxins are less present, but petrochemicals are in ascendance. We are starting to understand a bit of how this affects us[iii], and it doesn’t look particularly good. I am not sure how effective the plants used in detox programs are at eliminating these chemicals from our bodies. I am also unclear as to the whole “oxidative chemical” model of aging and inflammation[iv] – and therefore question whether “anti-oxidants” are really what we seek. But one thing I do know is that the number of plant species we consume has dropped quickly over the last one hundred years[v], and as a result, the chemical environment has really shifted away from the one in which we evolved. I recommend avoiding petrochemicals and reintroducing botanicals – but not in massive, infrequent quantities. Except in rare situations[vi], this is not very helpful and may actually be harmful[vii]. Traditional approaches always rely on gentle, long-term habits – and, as with exercise, this might be the closest we can get to a panacea.

[i] For instance, in the case of Dandelion

[ii] Maude Grieve, 1931

[iii] Review by Hectors et al. “Environmental pollutants and type 2 diabetes” 2010

[iv] Testing the oxidative stress hypothesis

[v] Cordain, L. et al. “Origins and evolution of the Western diet” 2005

Grivetti and Ogle 2000

[vi] Hruby et al. “Chemotherapy of Amanita phalloides poisoning with intravenous silibinin” 1983

[vii] Hepatitis and cholestasis induced by Chelidonium

This article has been reproduced from the SciScoop Science Forum which is open to guest contributors on scientific topics. Copyright David Bradley.

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About David Bradley Science Writer

David Bradley has worked in science communication for more than twenty years. After reading chemistry at university, he worked and travelled in the USA, did a stint in a QA/QC lab and then took on a role as a technical editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Then, following an extended trip to Australia, he returned and began contributing as a freelance to the likes of New Scientist and various trade magazines. He has been growing his portfolio and and has constructed the Sciencebase Science News and the Sciencetext technology website. He also runs the SciScoop Science Forum which is open to guest contributors on scientific topics.
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