The Detoxin’ Concoctions

The New Year ushers in excitement, change, and endless possibility. This, coincidentally, runs parallel to the “oh my god I just ate waaaay too much” regrets and corresponding action plan to get back on track. 

Who’s there to cash in on your desire to be a healthier person? The quacks in the natural products industry pushing every fad diet plan and gimmicky product you can use, of course!  

We’re going to dissect their 3 step spend-lots-of-money-on-strategies-that-don’t-really-work plan for 2015.

Step 1 – Exorcise the Toxins

Almost every fad diet plan or product includes a claim to help you detoxify. “Get the toxins out,” they tell you. “Oh my, yes, I have been eating so poorly – all these chemicals from the bad foods! They’re on to something!” we say in response. The problem is, what the heck is a toxin?

I mean, we know what a toxin is. A toxin is a poison, produced by an animal, plant, or bacteria. The issue is a toxin which, as defined by medicine, is a specific thing that causes disease. It’s not some fluffy, catch-all definition that can mean anything synthetic or natural, from sugar to DEET.

There are thousands of products that use the claim of detoxification as their main selling point. Almost none of the proponents of these methods name a single toxin that is removed, in what quantity, or with what specific benefit.

Our body is pretty awesome, especially in how it handles all the stuff that we could possibly be exposed to in our diets. 

The natural detoxification process happens in the liver and kidneys, where foreign, non-nutritive substances are broken down and made so they can leave in our urine or feces.

Can that system break down?  You bet. Liver or kidney disease is a real thing, and people get very sick very quickly and need serious medical intervention.

Can that system be inefficient?  Kind of. The long and short of it is that the two best things we can do to help support this system is to eat dark, leafy greens and drink lots of fluids. 

Unless you are trending towards organ failure (chronic alcoholism, kidney insufficiency), your body does a great job of getting rid of stuff.

If we had to rely on a product we consumed to ensure our body removes “chemicals” or “toxins”, we would not have lasted very long in our evolutionary trail.

Foods contain a bazillion times more effective cofactors to support natural digestive and metabolic processes than any detoxification product could. Ensuring proper hydration guarantees all the reactions will be firing away efficiently.

Heavy metal toxins are frequently brought up. Here’s the thing… If you really had heavy metal exposure and subsequent toxicity, it’s detectable and treatable. 

It’s not a chronic thing that you live with and most dietary exposures are handled quite well (tuna fish, for example, has elevated exposure risk to heavy metals).

I’d say that there is a BIG difference between a protein bar like the Rise Bars we sell that have almonds, whey, and honey and the chemical soup bars that you get at the gym or muscle head shop. 

The damage the non-food chemicals in those bars (or whatever you eat) can cause may not be defined well, but limiting exposure is probably a smart plan.

Eat less stuff. Eat more food.

Remember this counterpoint to the “chemicals are bad” generalization:  A lot of natural chemicals in our foods are thousands of times more potent than additives.

So can you take something to detoxify?  Not really. Food first. If you need, greens supplements may help ensure you’re giving all the tools to the uber-efficient detoxification system that is our body. 

Step 2 – Cleanse Your Pipes

“…these detox programs amount to a large quantity of excrement, both literally and figuratively.”

                                                   -Peter Pressman, M.D.

Normally paired with a detoxification program is some form of a cleanse. These are drinks or powders that physically clean your insides, they say, absorbing the magical toxins. Kind of like kitty litter, but for your body.

Actually, it’s EXACTLY like kitty litter. Most of these products contain something like bentonite clay. Bentonite is an ingredient in kitty litter. When taken internally, it isn’t absorbed – it just passes through. Exposing it to water and mucous, it can create a “cast” of your intestines.

Another key ingredient in these cleanses are some form of laxative. Not even joking. Senna (a plant laxative) or psyllium (a fiber laxative) are the more “natural” options, but sometimes they put straight up bisacodyl or other strong laxatives. “I can feel it working – it’s really cleansing my body of stuff.”

Don’t mean to be gross, but it kind of is. The cleanse companies will literally tell you to – ahem – visually verify the cleanse is working by searching for oddly shaped excrement. You’ll go more often and there will be weird looking stuff in there. People pay for this.

Here’s an awesome thought on cleanses:

 “The pill creates the very condition that it claims to cure.”   

                                                         – Brian Dunning

Yes, you’ll see something. No, that doesn’t mean that stuff was stuck in your intestines that you’ve now removed. It also doesn’t mean the mysterious toxins have been absorbed into it. 

It just means you took a laxative and now have more frequent bowel movements. It means you took a non-absorbable clay and it creates weird looking things.

You don’t have a problem, you just created something that looks like an answer.

Despite the lack of scientific studies to support any benefit to periodically douching the colon, many people are self-medicating with colonic irrigation as well. Instead of swallowing the laxative, they’d use enemas to “flush” out the colon.

A major function of the colon is to absorb minerals such as potassium and send them through the bloodstream. Colonics could wipe out these minerals and thereby cause deficiencies or imbalances, resulting in medical complications.

I’d say that close to no one is excited about their colonoscopy preparation in our pharmacies – something that literally cleans your colon and gets rid of anything that’s in there. 

They do so in a way to not dramatically disturb mineral absorption, unlike colonics or cleanses. Yet people are spending hundreds of dollars in cash to do it the wrong and unsafe way, regularly and voluntarily.

Step 3 – Just eat one thing for a while

Not to be outdone are the fad diets. You can find so many out there. Diets where you eat just bananas, or cabbage, or no-fat, no-carb, or even no-protein.

Other than the obvious dangers of excluding large amounts of macronutrients (fats, carbs, proteins), which can contribute to severe nutrient deficiencies, no one can stick to this long-term.

People tend to lose some weight in the beginning but gain it all back when they stop. No fad diet is sustainable and we all know that. How many people do you know that actually stick to any of these diets for more than a short period of time?

Juice fasting is another extremely popular form of weight loss or detox. We’ve discussed previously why juicing isn’t the best practice and why we prefer smoothies, so we won’t cover old ground. 

People drink nothing but juice for days and do lose some weight and say they feel great. Good enough for me!  Not really…  Because the fiber is gone from the fruits and veggies, they get a nice sugar rush.

Secondly, you WILL feel better if you reduce junk food from your diet, which juicers (and all fad dieters) do. Except they remove it completely, so quicker and more dramatic change. 

People do lose weight but only because they cut calories, not because of the juice.

Life is a balance. Life is planning. Essentially, life is budgeting.

Billions of Dollars Spent…Why?

There are a lot of wheels spinning as it pertains to dieting and weight loss. All of our psychological baggage, the amount of effort it takes to live a healthy lifestyle, and all the conflicting advice (mostly because of the quacks spouting their unsupported claims).

All the traditional practitioners (doctors, pharmacists, dietitians, nurses, etc) will tell you it takes effort to lose weight. They’ll say you have to change your behavior. 

They’ll say it’s not a short-term one-timer, but a long-term lifestyle. To practitioners, it’s easy – eat better and exercise. To us patients, it’s complicated.

This is why alternative practitioners and the propaganda machines of the supplement industry capitalize and WIN when it comes to diets and weight loss

People want the easy answers, and that’s EXACTLY what they deliver. “Take a handful of pills, do this weird thing for a few weeks, and you’ll be healthier and lose weight.”  And by your own hands, no less. 

They don’t do the responsible thing and tell you how to do it right. They give you systems and products that produce dramatic results quickly, without concern of the long-term sacrifice to your health. It’s easy for them to do so; they have no one to hold their feet to the fire.

And they get results!  People lose weight, even if it comes RIGHT back and normally more extreme. Dramatically changing their diet gets rid of all the junk they were consuming – and that makes them feel better too!

It doesn’t matter to them if just reducing the junk slowly, creating sustainable long-term habits is dramatically more effective, healthier, and safer.

Remember, if you make broad, ambiguous, unsupported claims that means it can apply to more people which means more sales!

Just trying to keep it real…

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

Dr. Neal Smoller, Holistic Pharmacist

About Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller, PharmD, is a licensed pharmacist: and owner of Village Apothecary, an independent pharmacy in the most famous small town in America—Woodstock, NY. He’s also the host of the popular wellness podcast, The Big Mouth Pharmacist.”

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