Today’s edition of Dear Mark  poses and then attempts to answer a question many have pondered: do detox and cleansing diets really work? More specifically, do the “more friendly” types of cleanses work, as opposed to the colon-blasting gut-rending methods? Several years back, I wrote a piece  on the latter type of cleanse, and I wasn’t very kind. For all the claims of ropy mucoid plaque bogging down the colon of apparently every American (at least the ones who eat meat), I wasn’t convinced, and the evidence simply wasn’t there. I still maintain my stance, but a recent question from a reader drew my attention to kindler, gentler cleansing and detoxifying diets, the kind that you might see on Dr. Oz or in the cupboard of your vegan buddy.
Do these have any merit? Let’s look into it:
I was wondering what your take is on cleanses – I realize you have already done a post on this – kinda, but I’m talking about the nicer cleanses (if there is such thing).
Before discovering the Primal way of life I bought a cleansing kit, no, not the horrid lemon detox diet or anything like that. It’s called the “Ultimate Cleanse,” and it requires one to eat only vegetables, fruit and raw dairy for 10 days, in addition to taking the herbs and supplements provided.
I would like to do it, not only because it was expensive, but also just to see how I feel after. Although I don’t like the idea of giving up my fats and proteins as I have grown accustomed to, that have been giving me long lasting energy, and making me feel GREAT – a whole lot better than eating a heap of fruit anyway! More importantly, I don’t want to undo all the good work that I’ve done since eating Primally.
I thought you could maybe do a post on the more friendly type of cleanses (if they exist), and whether it is worth doing, or whether they do more harm than good.
It would be great to know your thoughts!
I looked up the “Ultimate Cleanse” and found this , a product by Nature’s Secret. It has a “two-part system” of detoxification, with a proprietary blend of herbal extracts, and then cleansing, with a proprietary blend of plant fibers. The ingredient list for the detox blend is listed here . I randomly chose a few of the listed herbs, spent a few minutes in Pubmed  looking for supportive literature, and sure enough, found some. It wasn’t definitive, and it wasn’t necessarily in vivo, and the results may not be applicable to humans or your specific situation (or even your colon), but Nature’s Secret clearly didn’t pull these names randomly out of a hat. There’s “something” to them. But the thing is: you probably could randomly assemble a list of herbs off the top of your head, punch them into Pubmed, and find evidence that each and every one of them has a medicinal quality of some sort. Some may be “hepatoprotective” or “hepatocurative,” some may be “anticarcinogenic” or “apoptosis inhibitors,” and many if not most will have antioxidant properties. The point is that herbs have physiological effects . They all “do something,” which is why they’ve been used for tens of thousands of years in folk medicine (there’s evidence  that Neanderthals utilized medicinal herbs). Many modern pharmaceuticals are even derived from, or informed by, medicinal plants.
The big problem with all these detox diets and programs is that little to no scientific evidence for their efficacy exists. The herbs that make up the blends may have some evidence behind them, but beyond anecdotal reports from online forums or real-life acquaintances, there’s nothing to evaluate about the blends themselves. I couldn’t find a cleanse promoter with a section of their website containing clinical research, for example. Anecdotes  are certainly interesting, and if I hear enough from people I know and trust, they can even be persuasive. I’m not writing them off outright, but when no concrete mechanisms beyond Pubmed abstracts that consumers must dig up themselves are proposed, there is little to discuss – and that makes it harder to criticize.
Without digging up the ingredients of all the myriad cleansing and detox protocols out there, here’s my general take. Even if these herbal detox diet/cleansing blends work (and there’s no hard evidence that they do), the effects aren’t permanent. Sure, you could do a darn thorough job of cleaning your house every couple months, but if you don’t address the core reasons for the accumulation of clutter, you won’t have solved the problem. The house will get dirty again, the toxins will bioaccumulate again, and you’ll have to cleanse it again. You can’t take these blends forever. I mean, I suppose you could, but who would want to?
So, how do we address the core reasons for the accumulation of toxins?
Well, any discussion of detoxification is incomplete without mentioning the body’s natural, endogenous methods of removing, nullifying, and processing deleterious compounds. Indeed, the liver and the kidneys are our “natural detox units,” literally crafted over millions of years to be stalwart expungers of harmful metabolic byproducts and exogenous toxins. The liver  prevents pathogens from passing into the bloodstream, detoxifies environmental toxins, and processes excess nitrogen left over from the breakdown of protein . The kidneys  sift through blood and filter out extra water, urea (a toxic metabolic byproduct of protein catabolism), and other wastes, which exit the body in the urine. This is how every able man, woman, and child detoxifies and cleanses. We all come equipped with this rather effective equipment.
The most surefire way, then, to avoid inundating our bodies with unhealthy compounds is to support the function of our livers and kidneys, whether by eating foods that contain supportive compounds or avoiding foods that contain stressful compounds. That’s easy enough, and it doesn’t take a bunch of detoxifying herbal blends (and no enemas).
For liver health, avoid omega-6 polyunsaturated oils  in particular, and limit polyunsaturated fats in general, getting them only from fish, eggs, animals, and nuts. Don’t eat refined sugar . Don’t drink too much alcohol, and when you do, eat some saturated fat  with it and really minimize your polyunsaturated fat  intake the day of.
For liver health, eat egg yolks  often and try some liver  once in awhile. Both are the richest sources of choline , which our livers require to process fats. We can also make choline from methionine, an amino acid found in animal products , but it’s best to get plenty of both. Primal eaters, be aware: our choline requirements go up the more fat we eat.
Kidney health appears to be adversely affected by fructose intake when compared to glucose . And kidney failure seems to be preceded by the onset of metabolic syndrome , which, as we all know, has its roots in many of the same things that lead to fatty liver.
Funnily enough, the reason why, in my opinion, many of these cleansing diets could actually be beneficial in a roundabout way is because of what they eliminate. It’s not that the lemon juice, cayenne pepper, grade-B maple syrup, and distilled water are cleansing and detoxifying you; it’s that you’re no longer (over)eating the foods fried in polyunsaturated fats, the fructose-laden candy and soda, the nightly six pack of watery ethanol. All those foods, in the long term, actively conspire against the health of your liver and kidneys, the omega-6 fats, sugar, and alcohol by contributing toward fatty liver  (which obviously impairs liver function), metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes (which impairs kidney function ).
It’s pretty simple, in the end. As a society, our natural detoxification systems are overburdened with terrible food and a lack of supportive micronutrients. Detox gurus can talk about all the environmental toxins circulating through the air and being absorbed transdermally, but the biggest threat (and easiest target) is the stuff that we willingly put into our mouths, chew up, and swallow. If you really want to give yourself a chance at natural detoxification, eliminate the awful food that’s fouling up the process and start eating some nutritious Primal fare that supports liver and kidney function.