It sounds like an appealing idea doesn’t it? In just 7, 14, or 21 days you can be rid of all those nasty toxins and have the glowing skin and vibrant energy you feel you could have. Many people are drawn to detox programs and products for health and weight loss. Some of the popular programs involve strict diets, juicing, special teas and herbal supplements. But is there any truth to the claims made? And can you really detoxify your body anyway?
The skeptics view is that your kidneys, liver, bowel and lungs do a perfectly adequate job of keeping levels of ingested ‘toxins’ in check, and that normal people don’t need to spend any money or effort to detoxify. In fact, ‘detox’ is a dirty word in some circles, implying all kinds of unscrupulous woo from snake oil merchants of the highest order.
Yet the EWG Environmental Working Group, a US based not for profit, widely known for their list of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ most pesticide laden fruits and vegetables, have raised the alarm amongst health conscious consumers. Along with their concerns about agricultural use of pesticides and herbicides in our food supply, they also spread awareness about cosmetic ingredients that may be harmful to human health. Their apparently sensible and intuitively appealing information is hard to ignore, despite the usual take down pieces attacking the scientific rigour of their findings.
Prof Marc Cohen, who led my Masters program at RMIT University in Melbourne, is an academic who is not afraid to speak out about the shocking and long lasting impact of environmental toxins on human health. The ongoing issues of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) collecting in human tissue is of particular concern to parents. Pregnant women, babies and children are most vulnerable. Cohen says,
“Children are not just little adults; they have higher food, fluid and air intake per kilogram of body weight and a higher metabolic rate and higher absorption of toxins than adults, as well as having immature detoxification and immune systems, developing organ systems and a longer latency period in which to develop chronic disease.”
Along with pesticides, we are likely exposed to BPA (Bisphenol A, a known endocrine disrupter) through plastics, and other fat soluble compounds in flame retardants used in clothing, furniture, cars and household goods.
Like many areas of research in chronic illness, it can be challenging to directly link chemical exposure to health issues. After all, we are all exposed to numerous, usually tolerable, low levels of environmental toxins every day. Of course the producers are quick to decry any hint of blame, whether it’s agriculture lobbyists, or new furniture manufacturers.
There’s no denying that these persistent toxins accumulate in human fat. From an Ayurvedic perspective, Robert Svoboda describes the storage system of the lymphatics as akin to a junk cupboard being stuffed full. It’s no problem, until you reach maximum capacity and try to open it. Science supports this notion, as one of the few times in life we liberate stored toxins from fat cells is during breastfeeding. While breast milk is, and will hopefully always be, the best food for babies, the mother’s toxic burden accumulated through her lifetime, is shared with her little one. Studies have linked a mother’s urinary phthalate level in the third trimester of pregnancy, with a child’s intellectual development at age 3 (Whyatt et al, 2012).
So what can we do?
- Preconception care should include an effort to lower stored levels of fat soluble toxins. Just three days of organic, unpackaged food could reduce your phthalate by two thirds and your BPA by half (Barrett et al, 2015).
- Avoid food in plastic packaging and cans
- Wash your hands, and encourage children to do so, before eating to reduce exposure to flame retardants
- Eat less meat – toxins accumulate up the food chain in animal fat
- Choose organic food if possible, even better, grow your own
There’s no need for expensive products or packaged detox kits. Normal folk could do well to give alcohol a rest, take only required medications, and eat relatively unprocessed whole plant based foods. If that was normal then all would be well. We could probably tolerate the low levels of environmental toxins we’re exposed to if we minimise the ones we can control. In some cases even this whole food, natural approach to detox can create some unpleasant sensations and side effects. A responsible, evidence based naturopath can offer supportive care, and the effects are likely to be self limiting.
If you feel that your consumption of processed and packaged food is getting higher than you’d like, by all means set aside a few days or a week to make a conscious effort. If you have a history of disordered eating it’s not wise to go to extremes. And even if you don’t, there’s no need to do much more than remove the obvious toxic loads, and counter their effects with increased vegetables, fruits, clean water and exercise. Your clever body can do the rest. It’s as simple as that.