Detoxing – Does it work?

MOST of us overdo it during the festive season. No wonder January is the most popular month for detox diets which typically involve drinking pints of water each day, eating a very restricted diet and taking particular supplements.

The theory is toxins from unhealthy types of food and drink build up in the body and can lead to health problems. Purging these toxins is meant to leave you feeling full of energy and thinner.

Some promise to enhance the immune system, relieve pain, stimulate circulation, beat cellulite, banish bloating and make your skin glow. Sounds good doesn’t it?

However critics ranging from the British Dietetic Association (BDA) to the Sense About Science movement, a British charity that promotes public understanding about science, say the concept is at best nonsense and at worst dangerous.

“Detox diets are marketing myths rather than nutritional reality,” says Dale Rees, dietician and spokesman for the BDA. “The claims are wild and exaggerated and can make you ill.”

Dawn Page, right, from Faringdon, Oxfordshire, was awarded more than £800,000 in 2008 after she suffered permanent brain damage while on a special hydration diet on the advice of a nutritionist.

She claims she was told to drink large amounts of water and reduce her salt intake. When she started vomiting she says her nutritionist said that it was a normal part of the detoxification process.

A few days later Dawn suffered a severe epileptic seizure due to water intoxication and now relies on written notes to remember basic instructions and finds it hard to recall simple information.

While dieticians are regulated by the Health Professions Council (HPC) and governed by an ethical code, nutritionists and nutritional therapists are not. This means anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and offer advice.

Here we explore some of the most common misconceptions surrounding these types of strict dieting regimes.

1 Detoxing will help you lose weight

Initially you may shift some pounds but that’s only because you lose water, says Dale. “You are using up glycogen that’s stored in the body to give you immediate energy when you need it and it is bound up in water.

“That is why as soon as you have a piece of toast, the weight goes back on again.”

Researchers from Liverpool University discovered it is impossible for extreme diets to work long term.

The body is designed to hang on to fat stores when it thinks it is being starved, their research found and severely reduced calories can decrease your metabolic rate for the same reason.

Your blood sugar levels can drop too which leads to sugar cravings not conducive to strict dieting.

By following an extremely low-calorie diet there is a chance you may not get the essential vitamins and minerals you need and your body will start breaking down muscle tissue.

Since most detox diets ban dairy produce you’ll lack calcium which is not only good for you but can aid weight loss with studies showing that people who include low-fat dairy in their diet lose more abdominal fat.

“For sustained weight loss, a balanced, varied diet with appropriately-sized portions is the only way to go.

“I recommend my patients use an eight inch dining plate for lunch and dinner, filling half with vegetables and a quarter with protein and a quarter with starchy carbohydrate,” says Dale, who adds that most detox diets don’t mention exercise whereas research shows it is an essential part of any weight-loss plan.

2 Detoxing will help your body rid itself of toxins

If the human body accumulated a number of toxins then we would feel ill. If anything builds up toxins it’s detoxing.

“When you starve your body of calories, it starts to build up chemicals,” explains Dale. “These chemicals, known as ketones, can result in nausea, dehydration, weakness, light-headedness and irritability.

“A prolonged lack of protein is particularly dangerous, causing your body to break down its own muscles and can compromise your immune system.

“The body has its own system of getting rid of toxins: it’s called the liver,” says Dale. In fact, our lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract and immune system are all effective in removing or neutralising toxic substances. One study by Imperial College, London, concluded that our livers and kidneys are the perfect detox machines.

“Ever wondered why nobody ever says what the toxins are that are eradicated via detox?” says Dale.

“Or why nobody can ever point to any factual evidence? The idea detoxing eliminates toxins runs counter to our understanding about human physiology and biochemistry.”

The principle of detox goes back to medieval times but it is anti-science, agrees Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine, who works at Peninsula College of Medicine & Dentistry in Exeter.


“You can’t overindulge on food and drink, then wave some magic wand,” he says. “The only thing that detox removes is money from your wallet.”

3 Detoxing will make you feel healthier

“There is no evidence to suggest detoxing will make you feel healthier,” says dietician Azmina Govindji. “When you first go on a detox the contrast from perhaps a diet full of junk to one that is very low in processed foods could initially make you feel more energised.

“But trust me, that feeling will be short-lived.

“By severely restricting what you eat you won’t be getting enough energy and you certainly won’t be getting the range of nutrients you need. You’ll start to feel tired, dizzy and may suffer from headaches which are characteristic of fasting.”

Many people report blurred vision and vomiting. “Other risks include lack of calcium leading to osteoporosis, lack of vitamin C leading to scurvy and poor skin, hair and nails and if you don’t have enough calories, your bowels won’t work well. Failing to socialise with friends due to a restricted diet can also lower your mood,” says Dale.

Researchers at Liverpool University found those on strict diets have impaired cognitive function and slower reaction time compared to non dieters.

Dieters who cut out certain foods with nutritional value such as wheat-based or dairy products also risk a shortage of some of the nutrients our bodies need for agility, mental function, self-esteem and alertness, among others.

Meanwhile a drop in blood sugar, caused by long gaps without food, has been found to make people feel irritable, anxious and low.

4 It is good to exclude certain food groups from time to time

The foods allowed and banned in detox diets can vary widely but generally fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, herbal teas and large amounts of water are in, while wheat, dairy, meat, fish, eggs, caffeine, alcohol, salt, sugar and processed foods are out.

Dairy foods, in particular, provide us with important nutrients and it is potentially harmful to exclude it from the diet, according to the BDA.

For those people who suspect they have a true allergy to milk, wheat or any other food, the condition should be diagnosed and managed by a qualified medical practitioner.

Even cutting out caffeine may be detrimental and cause initial headaches. Provided it doesn’t make you anxious, shaky or prevent you from sleeping, coffee in moderation won’t hurt you.

In fact, some research suggests that coffee acts as a powerful antioxidant and could reduce our risk of a wide range of health conditions.

To make up for the foods they suggest we stop eating, detox diets usually advocate masses of fruit and vegetables but often just one or two types.

While fruit and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet, no one fruit or vegetable can provide nutritional nirvana. Studies show it is the variety that counts.

5 Detoxing encouRages drinking more water: that must be good

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that many of us do not drink the recommended 1.5 litres of fluid (the equivalent of six to eight glasses) a day which is the amount required to meet the body’s needs.

“Fluids don’t need to be water. They can be juice, squash or fruit tea,” says Dale. “That said, tea, coffee and cola are caffeinated and therefore act as a diuretic with the result that you’ll need to drink even more.”

So the idea of detox diets encouraging us to drink more fluids sounds great. The problem is most detox diets encourage us to drink too much water which can lower the level of salt in the blood.

Water then moves from the diluted blood into cells and organs where there is less water.

This causes the cells in the brain to swell increasing the pressure inside the skull. As the brain is squeezed vital regions are compressed and seizures can be triggered.

Water intoxication can be fatal. One woman in America died shortly after taking part in a water-drinking competition.

Jennifer Strange, a mother-of-three from Rancho Cordova in California, drank two gallons of water in a matter of hours and resisted going to the toilet in an attempt to win a computer games console.

Her family was awarded $16million (£9.7m) in compensation from the American radio station that organised the contest.

6 Detox is endorsed by so many celebrities that it must work

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, below, has told fans through her lifestyle website GOOP that she is embarking on a New Year cleanse this week.

Lasting 21 days the regime, named Clean, has been devised by the star’s diet guru Dr Alejandro Junger. It comprises two protein shakes for breakfast and dinner, supplements and a lunch made from any combination of prescribed foods such as vegetables, brown rice and chickpeas.

The maple syrup diet, which counts supermodel Naomi Campbell among its fans, involves drinking a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for five days.

It is claimed cayenne pepper speeds up the metabolism, maple syrup increases energy and lemon juice provides essential vitamin C.

The BDA says the maple syrup diet has no nutritional value, is mind-numbingly boring and so deficient of substance you’d find it hard to function.

The blood group diet that Cheryl Cole has reportedly followed and which bans foods according to your blood group is based on pseudo-science, according to the BDA. “Cutting out food groups is not wise as it puts us at risk of nutritional deficiencies and makes us likely to feel fatigued and miserable,” says Dr Rob Hicks, GP and author of Old-Fashioned Remedies: From Arsenic To Gin.

“No offence to celebrities but their endorsement isn’t really a recommendation that detox is a good thing,” adds nutritionist Carina Norris.

She says their trim figures are usually achieved with the support of an entourage of chefs, personal trainers and beauty therapists.

Antibiotic dangers

Taking antibiotics can mean you become more prone to secondary infections, but why, and what can be done about it?

Even if you’ve been blessed with the constitution of an ox, you’re likely to have been handed a prescription for antibiotics at some stage in your life. And you’ve probably felt better for taking them. But going on a lengthy course of broad-spectrum antibiotics can bring problems of its own. While the initial problem may clear up, taking the antibiotics can mean you become more prone to severe secondary infections.

For a long time scientists have been wondering why taking a medication that knocks one infection out, invites others in. Now research from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine may have given us an explanation.

The research has shown that the good bacteria in the gut keep the immune system at the ready to fight off infection from invading pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria. For senior author Jeffrey Weiser, MD, professor of Microbiology and Pediatrics, it’s rather like starting a car: It’s much easier to start moving if a car is idling than if its engine is cold. In the same way, if the immune system is already warmed up, it can better cope with the bad bacterial invaders. The implication of these initial findings in animals, he says, is that prolonged antibiotic use in humans may effectively throttle down the immune system, so that it is no longer working at peak levels.


It’s down to white blood cells known as neutrophils, and how well they’re working. “Neutrophils are being primed by innate bacterial signals, so they are ready to go if a microbe invades the body,” Jeffrey Weiser explains. “They are sort of ‘idling’, and the baseline system is already turned on.”

“One of the complications of antibiotic therapy is secondary infection,” says Jeffrey Weiser . “This is a huge problem in hospitals, but there hasn’t been a mechanistic understanding of how that occurs. We suggest that if the immune system is on idle, and you treat someone with broad-spectrum antibiotics, then you turn the system off. The system is deprimed and will be less efficient at responding quickly to new infections.” The study was carried out with mice, so further research needs to be done, but findings so far show that it may be possible to find a way of giving antibiotics to humans with just the beneficial effects and not the drawbacks.

So how do you keep the immune system ready to fight off infection if you have to take antibiotics? The first step is to live well before you need medical treatment. “Try to stay as healthy as possible,” says dietitian Sian Porter, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA). “Stay physically active, get enough sleep and have a good diet. If you’re eating plenty of different types of fruit and vegetables, oily fish, whole grains and calcium, this should help to keep you healthy.”

Sometimes though, even this isn’t enough to keep us well and antibiotic-free. Elizabeth Weichselbaum, of the British Nutrition Foundation, has carried out a study of research into probiotics and how well they work. Probiotics are designed to provide us with good bacteria and help recreate balance in the gastro-intestinal tract.