A new year is the perfect time to kickstart all the plans you had for a healthier lifestyle. It feels like the right time to dust off your trainers and strut back into the gym as if you've never left, throwing out all sugar and carbs as you go. Like clockwork, your best friend has invited to join a juice cleanse challenge. Seven days, no solids, just "nutritious" juices. Giving your body a break from all the refined sugar and processed foods you indulged in over holidays may sound like a good idea but is detoxing really all it's cracked up to be?
The simple answer is no, says Umhlanga-based dietician Kelly Lynch. "The body was designed to detox itself," she told the Huffington Post SA.
The sentiment has been echoed by the international medical community, but it's taking some time to sink in. Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, told The Guardian, "If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn't excrete, you'd likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention."
While our kidneys and liver act as the primary organs for excreting toxins from the body, our skin, lungs and lymph systems assist in the process too. Your liver keeps your bloodstream clear of pathogens and ensures that your body is able to break down proteins and amino acids, while your kidneys filter blood to remove excess water and urea.
The promises made by various detox products and programmes is that they will be able to boost this natural process to make sure you feel better, faster. But Lynch says she wouldn't recommend these programmes. "Detoxing seems to have gained popularity over the last 5 to 10 years," she says. "I think it has become a fad, and I get concerned when people embark on detoxes not fully understanding the implications on their bodies".
The side effects of detoxing can be very bad for you, she adds. "In the initial stages, people complain of headaches, severe diarrhoea and low energy," and often the detox is difficult to sustain.
"People sadly love a quick fix. We find it very difficult to create balance in the food space. We are either being super healthy or we are off the wagon. Sadly this is the mentality that opens the door for detoxes," she says.
The kinds of quick fixes she has heard of range from fairly common fruit and vegetable detoxes to truly bizarre diets, including a supposed "liver detox" that entails drinking olive oil for a day.
Fitness expert and New York Times bestselling author Ben Greenfield, it may not be as simple as dismissing all detoxing as pseudo-science. "Many popular detox and cleansing diets probably feel beneficial because of what they eliminate, and not because of any magical ingredients," Greenfield says.
"All the processed fats, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, candy, soda, commercial meat and snack foods you're eliminating on a detox diet are giving your liver and kidneys a chance to step up and do their normal detoxification duties, since they're no longer overburdened with bad food and not enough micronutrients and minerals to support their normal function".
The problem is that these diets are unsustainable, which creates a seesaw effect that leads to people jumping on and off detox bandwagons. "People do them and feel great, but they are not sustainable so they feel poorly when they come off them," says Greenfield.
Is there a middle ground?
Both Greenfield and Lynch believe there is. Lynch does not recommend restrictive detox programmes, which can sometimes be unhealthy or dangerous, but says the key is to support the body in its natural detoxing functions.
"I recommend that we add the food that people see as 'detoxing' into their daily life. Using a balanced and sustainable approach, I recommend adding more fresh foods into ones diet," she says.
This natural support of one's body is something that Greenfield advocates for as well. "If you eat foods that support your liver and kidneys ... you're already detoxing every day. And unless you've gone through something like a serious bout of alcoholism or heavy metal toxicity, you don't really need any fancy herbal blends or colonic cleanses."