It’s a nebulous term used by snake oil-salesmen to sell products cloaked in pseudoscientific terminology on late night television. Detox. If what they say is true, we apparently have millions of toxins constantly circulating throughout our body, permeating our cells, coating our digestive systems in a poisonous film, bogging down our organs. These toxins cannot be dealt with, nor reasoned with via the standard avenues of diet and exercise; no, they require the aid of special supplements and detox paraphernalia: magic herbs, weird colon-scouring clay mixtures, foot pads that supposedly suck the toxins directly out of the body, lemonade or juice fasting kits, liver flushes. They’ll often bring out a spokesperson who plays doctor well enough to convince your average Cheeto powder-encrusted insomniac that he or she needs this book or that colon cleanse to avoid obesity, cancer, disease, and depression. If you could just flush out all those toxins, you’d be doing great.
It’s all utter nonsense, of course. And it’s telling that these people never actually identify the toxins. It’s just a blanket term with unnerving connotations and few real denotations – but that’s exactly how the detox scam artists like it. Drum up fears about mysterious toxins without ever having to identify them. Perfect.
Let’s take a look at a few of the more popular detox methods.
The Master Cleanse
Also known as the lemonade diet, the Master Cleanse protocol prescribes a strict detox diet consisting of distilled water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, with morning salt water flushes. Yeah, you basically drink nothing but spicy lemonade for thirty days and this is supposed to remove “harmful toxins,” accelerate “healthy weight loss,” and bring about “the correction of all disorders.” Common side effects are dizziness, muscle waste, headaches, nausea, irrational cravings, and vomiting – but these are touted as evidence that the Master Cleanse is working. All that diarrhea and fatigue? That’s just your body expelling the toxins!
Still, some people report beneficial effects. Weight loss is one, but is that any surprise when the average glass of Master Cleanse (two tablespoons maple syrup, two tablespoons lemon juice, 1/6 teaspoon cayenne pepper) runs a little over 100 calories? Besides, there’s no protein in this diet, making it highly catabolic. Fasting of any sort can have beneficial effects (SIRT1 expression, for example), but those are better pursued through intermittent fasting and proper Primal nutrition.
You’ve probably seen the disgusting images of toxic “mucoid plaque” deposits culled from unhealthy colons. If not, give “mucoid plaque” or “colon cleanse” a whirl in Google Image search. You’ll get hundreds of results, images of brown/black, ropy extrusions that look a bit like chewed up Tootsie Rolls. This is “mucoid plaque,” a toxic film that supposedly accumulates on the walls of our colons over the years. No one is safe from the scourge of mucoid plaque, and the only way to rid yourself of this menace is to purchase a special fiber-and-herb cleansing formula, or shoot a high-powered jet of water through your colon to dislodge the toxins.
It’s strange, then, that physicians have always been unable to locate this mysterious, seemingly ubiquitous colonic plaque, even after “several thousand intestinal biopsies.” Some even suggest that the colon cleansers are creating the problem themselves, and that those ropy extrusions are the product of consuming all that insoluble fiber in the cleansing formulas. Huh? A self-fulfilling marketing ploy that ensures repeated consumption of a product by exacerbating the very condition it purports to relieve? Nah, that would never, ever happen.
Heroic Doses of Fiber
The obsession with consuming massive amounts of fiber to push things along is just weird to me. If you realize what insoluble fiber does in your colon – it scours the walls and generates the production of lubricating mucus, sort of a defense mechanism – you get a little apprehensive about consuming heroic doses of the stuff. A bit of fiber is fine (and may even enhance gut production of butyric acid), especially in whole-food fruit and vegetable form, but to supplement with massive amounts of fiber is completely unnecessary. It assumes that single daily visits to the toilet aren’t nearly enough. We are unclean, impure animals that must purge our colons five times a day.
This is insanity. If you poop once every two days, you’re fine. I’d even say constant trips to the bathroom are indicative of a problem; the notion that our bodies were designed to expel waste every couple hours is ridiculous. Efficiency of elimination makes far more evolutionary sense.
But the detox crowd needs that feedback. They like to know “something’s happening.” They love depositing those “plaque deposits” in the toilet bowl. They live for the lightheadedness and vomiting of a lemonade cleanse, because that means it’s working. What’s interesting to me is that most of these detox pushers claim they’re promoting a more natural existence, free of toxic chemicals and manmade contaminants, and yet they display a distinct lack of faith in the body’s ability to naturally regulate itself. They place themselves in direct opposition to conventional physicians and claim to represent the alternative side of medicine that considers the body as a holistic thing, rather than a set of symptoms to be treated with drugs and invasive techniques. I see two sides of the same coin. I see a quack that considers the human body to be inherently flawed and in desperate need of outside assistance. He or she may not be peddling heavily marketed pharmaceuticals with questionable clinical support, but the “natural” lifestyle changes they promote are anything but non-invasive and border on the religious or the self-flagellating.
The concept of detox is real, but our bodies are already equipped with natural measures designed to remove toxic substances from circulation. We really don’t need any new-fangled products with no scientific basis when we’ve got lungs, kidneys, a liver, the colon, and our body’s tendency toward homeostasis, all of which work perfectly well.
When we breathe out, our lungs are expelling CO2 from the body.
Our kidneys remove various acids from the body while regulating water levels. Excess water can carry too many electrolytes, or even urea (a real toxin).
The liver is a massive factory devoted to detox. It has a real knack for taking insoluble toxins and adding a molecule that renders them water-soluble; the toxins can then be excreted out by the kidneys. This is a far more elegant detoxification process than swallowing a bunch of herbs and insoluble fiber to flush out your colon.
And finally the poor, misunderstood colon. The colon is, quite literally, a waste removal system. It’s specifically designed to handle large amounts of toxic fecal matter. It’s “dirty,” I guess, just like the inside of your garbage can is dirty. It’s supposed to be dirty! It’s built to hold all that dirt and keep it from ending up where it doesn’t belong. Sure, people have problems with their colons from time to time, but ripping it asunder with a bunch of fiber and regularly shooting it with a powerful stream of water won’t help you there.
If you’re eating an otherwise healthy Primal diet, detox is naturally taken care of via urination, defecation, sweating, and exhalation. Avoiding fructose and binge drinking keeps your liver free of fatty deposits and running smoothly. Round things out with regular exercise, steady sleep, and plenty of sun, and I’ll bet that you, your colon, and your toxic load will be just fine.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.