Myth busting – Why 'Detoxing' and 'Cleansing' won't help your health

The science behind how your body does it without requiring any absurd diets or "cleansing" – and an example of how this can be lethal

Our body is the only real expert

With the words "Detox" and "Cleansing" used freely in social media posts by various "influencers", I think it's time to explain the science (not the Goop thing) of how your body is doing the actual work, and how various claims about "detoxing" diets can get you killed or or do long term damage to your health.

First things first, from a scientific perspective, "detoxing" is nonsense. Case in point – companies that peddle detox diets can't even name the toxins they're supposedly ridding your body of.

Much of the sales patter revolves around "toxins" - poisonous substances that you ingest. But it's not clear exactly what these toxins are. If they were named they could be measured before and after "treatment" to test effectiveness. There are still various things on the shelves that are advertised as a miracle cleanse against unnamed body poisons, including a shampoo from a popular brand, which made me laugh out (very) loud in the middle of the store. Yet none of those products is called 'kidneys' or 'liver'. And if working properly, they are the ones dealing with various things that are not popular within our bodies.

How do these organs work?

Well, unsurprisingly through various evolutionary stages, our body has adopted its own proprietary mechanism to deal with the things that we don't need. I mean, before we became the humans of today, our ancestors used to eat... whatever's available, or pretty much anything but rocks and soil.

Diagram of a liver in your digestive system

Diagram of a liver in your digestive system

So the liver evolved to function as a scrubber for the stomach content. When the stomach does its job and breaks down your meal, all of the actual toxins (alcohol, ammonia, leftovers from medications, for example) would end up going straight into your bloodstream, along with the healthy raw nutrients.

Fortunately, that blood goes through the liver first, via the portal vein, where things get broken down again, with the nutrients (now refined) going towards feeding your cells, while the bad stuff gets packed in a specialised cells called Kupffer cells. These engulf the toxins, digest them and excrete them as a harmless waste. But there is an issue with that. Since evolution is working very slowly and most chemicals that are in our food today are relatively new, it will take many generations (thousands of years), before the human liver adapts to scrub those out. So there is a point to avoid heavily processed foods where possible.

Diagram of a kidney

Diagram of a kidney

The kidneys on the other hand are another level of filtration (think of them as a very fine filter) that takes care of waste, excess fluids and even some minerals, in order to maintain balance in your blood. Minerals such as sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium can sometimes be too much for us and your kidneys work actively to prevent any imbalance, and protect you from the potential consequences. It's a sophisticated three-stage process to make sure nothing will pass under the radar and everything that's considered waste will go into your urine and out of your body.

But while it's a known fact that your organs can still be damaged from things like an overwhelming amount of alcohol, the "influencers" can offer another "miracle solution" - usually a 6 to 8 step diet that would "detoxify" your liver. Which is the biggest nonsense of them all!

Only your liver can deal with the toxins inside it, and no matter what you eat or drink, they won't magically get flushed out. And you can figure that out yourself, to bust the sales pitch, because if toxins were to be flushed out, there's only one place they can go from your liver - back in your blood and towards your kidneys.

While your liver is equipped to deal with raw toxins, your kidneys aren't. Doesn't sound healthy, does it?! Don't worry, this doesn't happen, because it's not possible. Yet people these days are placing their trust without recalling their school lessons (yes, this is taught in schools everywhere) and they are doing some amazing things to "detox" themselves.

The way "cleansing" can kill you

Soy sauce can be lethal in "cleanse" quantities

Soy sauce can be lethal in "cleanse" quantities

There are many "cleansing" diets and procedures that can hurt your body in various ways, but one particular method that has been peddled by a lot of "influencers" is drinking soy sauce. A case in the US caught my eye and although details are scarce, it has been confirmed by a medical record. A 39 year old woman drank one full litre of soy sauce in order to "cleanse" herself, following an extreme "detox" diet. Drinking the soy sauce made her organs (heart included) shut down temporarily and left her with permanent brain damage! And to be honest, it's a medical miracle that she is still alive.

The woman was already in a fragile state of health, eating only white bread and canned fish for 6 months straight. She had lost significant weight in the last 3 weeks and she was feeling weak and fatigued. After she drank the soy sauce, she told her husband her heart was racing, but she resisted the urge to drink any water. Then suddenly she began to stumble, lost her ability to speak intelligibly, then lost consciousness. Her husband called an ambulance and on the way to the hospital, her heart stopped, but she was resuscitated. Upon arrival in the ER, she was treated for extreme dehydration and regained consciousness after four days. But she was not able to move, she could barely speak or swallow, all signs pointing to an extreme brain damage. But she drank one litre of fluid (soy sauce), so how could she dehydrate so severely?

Well, soy sauce contains 5493 mg of sodium per 100 grams, and a one-litre bottle contains fluid weighing more than 1200 grams - meaning that she had consumed approximately 66 grams of sodium. According to past cases of salt-related fatalities, adults can die after ingesting as little as 25 grams of sodium. When a person ingests large quantities of salt, the cells lining the digestive tract automatically expel water to match the solute balance of the fluid within the tract. In an extreme case such as this, the woman became dangerously dehydrated as her organs, muscles and eventually her brain dumped out so much water that they could no longer function.

So will that awful looking green smoothie get rid of the toxins in your body? Nope, it's just gonna taste like sewage and you're gonna brave it for no reason. Don't be a victim of advertising, eat non-processed food where possible, and live your healthy life without risking death or permanent injury, because the "detox and cleanse" myth have been...

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Comments (16)

  • Very informational. Thank you .ncet time when someone says detox, I know what to explain to thenπŸ˜‰

      2 months ago
  • Excellent work! Thank you for the science lesson and good advice. πŸ‘

      2 months ago
    • Thank you. Just to clarify, the new chemicals that our liver don't recognise these days usually don't interact with our body and don't get concentrated anywhere. Eventually our liver notices that they've passed a few times and gets them...

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        2 months ago
    • I figured that was the case, I've always been an advocate of letting our bodies take care of business naturally. Tens of thousands of years of evolution trumps a few hundred years of scientifically derived pills any day, in my humble...

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        2 months ago
  • Fantastic article

      2 months ago
  • Amen.

      2 months ago
  • Great article! It is all crap because there is no science behind it. All those detox and various diets with bizarre names and cleansing are promoted by celebrities who are most likely getting 6-digit kickbacks for putting their names to it.

      2 months ago
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