Reading Twitter first thing in the morning is not a great idea. Your blood sugar level is low and you are quite likely to find it annoying. For example this morning I was confronted with a set of tweets promoting detox products and programmes. My response was to tweet that I had just investigated the detox properties of eating a biscuit. I had eaten a biscuit and felt better, and so concluded that biscuits are valuable form of detox therapy. (Note for American readers – in the UK a biscuit is the name for what you call a cookie.)
Detox products and claims abound, but nobody seems to have come up with a definition of what exactly the process of detoxification that they are supposed to carry out actually is. From a biological point of view detoxification is a very important business. Plants and animals all need to maintain themselves intact physically and chemically to stay alive. There is a term for this process – homeostasis. It means keeping things the same. For example to maintain our body temperature we sweat when we are too hot and burn more calories when we are cold. My natural reaction to waking up with my blood depleted of sugar was to eat something that was sugar rich. It was a plain chocolate McVities Digestive if you are interested in my particular homeostatic strategy.
Removal of toxins that we encounter is one key bit of the body’s homeostasis programme. For example when you eat an apple along with a big slug of healthy and nutritious ingredients you are also getting some toxins along with it. Formaldehyde is one of them, which I mention mainly because everyone knows it is toxic. There is a lot more acetaldehyde as it happens, which is a close relative and is also toxic. Luckily we have enzymes for dealing with this sort of thing. Toxicologists spend their whole lives studying how this all works.
So toxins are very real, and we certainly need to detox them. Does the body need any help doing so? I suppose it might do under certain circumstances. If you get poisoned there are materials that can help get rid of the problem. Carbon and EDTA spring to mind. But many of the things that are suggested as detox agents don’t seem to fall into this category. Fruits for example, whether or not they are superfruits, are quite likely to contain toxins. We can deal with those toxins, but they are still there. Steamed vegetables are another popular suggestion. They probably are lower in toxins than fresh ones, but they will be lower in vitamins as well.
More processed foods also present toxins that the body has to deal with. Alcohol for example puts a big strain on our natural detox systems. It would be good if someone could come up with a treatment that would allow us to get blind drunk without suffering the adverse consequences. Unfortunately the only really effective way of preventing the toxic effects of alcohol is to not drink it in the first place. A cup of green tea is rich in antioxidants and might well have some health benefits, but it is not going to counteract the effect of an Oliver Read style weekend long bender.
The preservatives and colours used in processed foods are not very nutritional and your body would be quite happy if it never had to deal with them. I think colours are probably not worth worrying about. They are used at extremely low levels and so I ignore them. Preservatives on the other hand do place demands on your detox ability. They have all been studied and the permitted levels have been worked out scientifically. A can of soft drink or a microwave meal is not going to do any harm on its own. The high salt and sugar content of these modern foods are a much bigger problem and reason enough to avoid eating too many of them, but dealing with the preservatives will be using your body’s resources as well. Like alcohol, avoidance is the only strategy.
One thing that the body doesn’t do is let toxins build up. Homeostasis is a complex system involving enzymes, behaviour and even morphological changes, but it doesn’t use a to do list. Toxins are broken down and/or removed as quickly as can be managed. So we don’t build up a ‘toxic load’ that we need to somehow get rid of.
I have never seen a shred of evidence that any of the detox diets or products have the slightest beneficial effect. I can’t even think of how such a claim could be justified. Anybody who is alive is detoxing all the time whatever they have happened to have eaten. Fasting might reduce the total amount of toxins in your body, and that might be a good thing to do. But even then I don’t imagine that the body would be freed of toxins.
So as far as I can see, detox is not something that you can simply buy off the shelves, or even that you would really want to if you could. I certainly don’t remember ever seeing any convincing evidence that detoxing by whatever method does any good. In fact my experiment with a biscuit makes my biscuit detox programme one of the better supported ones. As to detoxing ingredients in cosmetics, the idea that you can have any influence on the body’s behaviour from the other side of the skin barrier is far fetched in the extreme.
Picking which cosmetic claim is the most ridiculous is a tough job. It is a crowded field. But I think that detox has to claim the crown.