“Hello darkness my old friend”… today’s post was started during the witching hours of the night, not because of insomnia (yay, progress!) but because of Fi-somnia… aka my 4.5 month old baby, Fiona. She’s a much cuter reason to have a disturbed REM cycle.
Anyway let’s talk about the health elephant in the room: detoxing. I have heard more and more talk about various detoxification methods and I am just not sure what it all means, so today’s post is about clearing my system (pun intended) of these questions.
First off, what are the theories around detoxification? One theory I have heard for those who have eczema goes as followed: our organs (specifically the liver and kidneys) become over-taxed by our modern diets and exposure to heavy metals and other toxins, and at some point it becomes all too much and our bodies cannot flush-out said toxins, so instead, the build-up of toxins show off their toxic love by wrecking our skin.
Now going by that theory, let’s quickly delve into the soup to nuts details of how detoxification works in the body in general by addressing (very quickly) specific organs.
- Liver: works by changing toxins into less harmful substances and/or helping the body flush out toxins
- Kidneys: remove waste and acid build-ups from blood into our urine to be flushed out of the body
- Intestines: helps to remove toxins via waste or vomit
- Lymph system: transports its white blood cells throughout the body
- Respiratory tract: the lungs remove gases from our bodies
- Skin: (when intact) prevents some toxins from penetrating into the body
So from there, let’s address some specific detox methods I’ve heard about including the watermelon detox, the lemon detox, etc. My internet researching first led me to a review done in 2014, which reported that there wasn’t much evidence to show that detox diets actually work. It indicated that studies that said otherwise usually had flaws in their methods or too few people tested (aka small sample sizes, which is a problem because then you can’t reasonably assume the results will work for a much larger group).
I then looked more for studies, but before I talk about them, let’s backtrack and talk about studies that investigated how detoxification naturally works in the human body (and/or animal bodies). First I wanted to figure out what organs have been studied to hold toxins. A study done in 2007 on African catfish showed how the livers, kidneys, and hearts of the fish ended up storing high concentrations of heavy metals (zinc, lead, arsenite, cadmium, and copper) presumably from pollution entering the water nearby. I’m not sure if the same organs are seen to hold toxins in the case with humans, but given how often we hear livers talked about in the same sentence as detox diets, I’d venture to say yes. I then actually looked up via the CDC, about organs and toxic exposures for humans, and apparently all organs can be affected. Well then, how do our bodies avoid full spectrum toxicity?
Well, bodies have some ability to create compounds out of heavy metals, to bind them chemically to make them less dangerous to the body (which is the function of the liver, remember?), as was supported in a study in 2004 on seals, porpoises, and albatross. Generally heavy metals can end up in cells in the body: in the cell’s fluid, mitochondria, nucleus, etc (in the case of the study, they were talking about liver cells). But how specifically do bodies deal with heavy metals; or in other words, what gets the liver to start neutralizing these toxins? A study done in 2004 on mice looked at something called the metal responsive transcription factor 1 (or MTF-1). Side note: a transcription factor is a protein that helps turn on/off genes. The study’s results showed that a developing fetus that lacks Mtf1 (the gene that MTF-1 can turn on/off) will die because its liver won’t be able to form properly, but an adult that lacks Mtf1 will have difficulty handling heavy metals and will have low lymphocytes (the cells that help clear bad germs and materials out of our blood). This MTF-1 also is used to deal with when the body has hypoxia (not enough oxygen) or oxidative stress (too many free radicals in the body). What this all means is that our liver is able to function properly because it has this protein that turns on whatever genes are needed to get the liver to deal with toxins (metals and free radicals).
Now let me also quickly talk about oxidative stress, which is important to note because heavy metals can cause oxidative stress. That may be why and where the idea of some detox diets came from: if you want to detox from free radicals in the body, doesn’t it seem logical to consume antioxidant-rich foods and nothing else for a few days to cleanse? And what foods are known to have good supplies of antioxidants? Watermelons, lemons, and many fruits and vegetables that we see juiced into detox juices. So using that line of thinking I now move on to trying to better understand the support behind specific cleanses.
First I searched for the lemon detox. There’s a study that was done in 2015 on overweight Korean women that tested the lemon detox drink (a lemon, maple syrup, and palm syrup combo) versus a placebo drink versus a normal diet for 7 days followed by 4 days of food transition. According to the abstract of the study (which was all I could access freely) both the placebo and lemon drink resulted in improved BMI, body weight and body fat, as a well as improved serum insulin levels and insulin resistance scores. Hemoglobin and hematocrit levels were unchanged for those on the lemon diet, while a protein called serum high-sensitive C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) was reduced. What I am unsure of, is if the hematocrit and hemoglobin levels were within a normal range to start for the participants (which is important to know because too low indicates issues like anemia/low iron in the blood; too high can be a signal of dehydration among other things). The researchers concluded that going on a lemon drink detox for 7 days improves body fat and insulin resistance. The reasoning behind why however, they said was because the lemon detox drink is low-calorie, so essentially you are just burdening your digestive system less. So it’s more likely the fasting component that helps rather than the lemon drink having a cleansing effect.
What about watermelon? A study done on rats in 2015 indicated that a diet of watermelon helped reduce the effects of laboratory-induced type 1 diabetes. The procedure involved the rats fasting for 24 hours before being injected with a solution (alloxan) to induce diabetes, and then being fed watermelon extracts for a week. The rats given the watermelon extract had improved weights and reduced blood glucose concentrations, among others changes that caused the watermelon-fed rats to more closely resemble the control (healthy) rats, than the diabetic rats.
Thus my overall concluding thoughts on detoxing so far, are that:
- If you are consuming fewer calories, innately you are taxing your digestive system less so you’ll have a natural “detox” effect,
- With fewer things in your digestive system, the effects of consuming foods that are rich in antioxidants probably does help remove free radicals. It also probably therefore lets your liver bind toxins and your kidneys remove waste more effectively, and
- If detoxing is therefore being used synonymously with fasting, then there is a lot of evidence that it works. Fasting has been studied to, when done safely, be beneficial for everything from diabetes and obesity to other autoimmune disorders.
The reason I brought up point number 3 is because there are studies done on lemon juice and other popular detox foods that don’t include fasting, but rather just adding said food to a person’s existing diet. One such study done in 2016 tried such an experiment, by adding lemon juice and garlic to participants diets, and their results included decreased cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, and reduced BMI. In Jason Fung’s book Obesity Code, he mentions how drinking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in water before bed helps lower your blood sugar levels while you sleep. So then one can beg the question of, are we seeing improvements to health more so because fasting allows our bodies to “catch up” and get rid of toxins, or because we are lacking nutrients and so when we supplement them we see positive outcomes to our health?
Backtracking for one last comment on juicing and raw vegetable/fruit detoxing. A study done in 2017 looked at the effects of a raw juice diet of 6 drinks a day for 3 days, varying the juices throughout, and saw a lot of positive results in changes to the gut microbiota, increasing microbiome species correlated with weight loss and other aspects. The issue still stands of whether or not it’s the food types themselves that are included in the juices, or the fasting aspect (as one consumes a lot fewer calories when juicing), that provokes said positive results.
Honestly, in my humble opinion, it doesn’t actually matter which answer is correct because if you are safely fasting on occasion (and/or reducing calories), and consuming healthy options with lots of vitamins and minerals while doing so, does it really matter which aspect is to praise for the good results?
Ending note: I hope this was apparent, but, the intention of this post isn’t to target people who do or don’t do detox diets but merely to satisfy my curiosity. I had heard a lot of anecdotal experiences on the matter and so I was curious to hear about the results from more formal studies as well. Whether or not you choose to detox is your own prerogative.
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