Deconstructing Detox Treatments: Myth or Health Restorative?

“Snake oil,” declares Robin Bernhoft, M.D., incoming president for the American Academy of Environmental Physicians, when asked what he thinks about over-the-counter diet detox kits. Since Dr. Bernhoft offers detoxification treatments in his southern California clinic, his disapproval might seem out of place. But the medical detox his clinic offers is different from what consumers get from a detox kit purchased at a health food store. This is the confusing landscape of the detox diet world, which ranges from books and kits to clinic regimes and protocols.

Detox defined. What is a “detox,” anyway? According to Phoenix homeopathic physician, Bruce Shelton, M.D., M.D. (H), a detox involves converting an insoluble toxin into something water-soluble so that it can pass out of the body. But fasting, juicing, taking detox herbal supplements or following a restrictive diet recommended by one of the many detox books won’t accomplish that, according to many health experts.

The principle that the human body requires detoxification is not a new one. From ancient times to present, body purification and detoxification have been practiced through the use of herbs, potions, enemas, body scrubs and saunas, often for religious purposes. Detox hit mainstream America a few years ago when the pop star, Beyonce, famously lost weight in a short period by following “The Master Cleanse,” a “diet” consisting solely of a beverage made of lemon juice, water, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Even that diet is not a new one; the original 1976 book, The Master Cleanser, extolled the benefits of cleansing the body of toxins.

Does the body need detoxing? Hollywood hype notwithstanding, the mainstream medical establishment has turned up its nose at the idea that the body needs help in clearing out toxins. They contend that the body does a commendable job detoxifying itself without any help from the most commonly recommended detox regimens: special diets, herbal supplements and enemas. In fact, our bodies are usually quite efficient at purging the toxins we produce during metabolism, as well as the ones we might ingest, inhale or get on our skin. The regular detox channels?lungs, kidneys, colon, lymphatic system and most important, the liver?are all designed to detoxify our bodies. Yet there are medical professionals, like Drs. Bernhoft and Shelton, who believe that there are instances when medical detox is necessary.

Detox advocates say that our toxic load has increased beyond the body’s ability to handle the burden. They cite increases in rates of diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, autism, cancer, Alzheimer’s and obesity as examples that the body is no longer able to keep its house clean. Detox experts believe that our regular detox channels were never meant to handle the tremendous number of toxins we are subjected to. Brenda Watson, C.N.C., author of The Detox Strategy, believes that everything from the flame retardant on your mattress to your shampoo adds to your toxic load.

Toxin overload. It’s hard to argue with the premise that we?ve been exposed to huge amounts of toxins. Most big cities have air pollution problems. The Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy group, issues warnings about fruits and vegetables with dangerously high pesticide residues. We?ve been warned to avoid eating shark, king mackerel, tilefish or swordfish because of mercury contamination. And BPA (bisphenol A), a substance used in plastics, is now considered to be toxic by many health professionals. That’s a pretty convincing argument that we?re taking in a lot of toxic substances.

The question remains, however, whether the body can perform its own detox or whether we need outside help. Bernhoft believes that depends on genetics. In fact, his medical practice is based on the following statement, a quote from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Gene Environmental Interaction Fact Sheet: “Virtually all human diseases result from the interaction of genetic susceptibility and modifiable environmental factors.”

“Each person’s genes are unique, which is why one person thrives on something that makes another person sick,” says Bernhoft, who believes people should be tested, especially if they have a chronic illness, work around toxic substances, or live in an area with a lot of air pollution. Once he’s found a patient’s weakness, he strives to correct it by adding enzymes or enzyme cofactors to help the body do a better job of detoxifying itself. To clean out the built-up toxins, he employs treatments that include diet, sauna, massage, colonics and chelation therapy (injections of metal-binding substances such as EDTA) designed to target and remove stored toxins.

Scientific grounds for detox? Is there science to back up the theory of toxic burden and the need for detox? The Massachusetts-based organization, Natural Standard, which analyzes and validates scientific data on integrative medicine, states that there is insufficient evidence to support most of the claims made in favor of detoxing. The organization has found no studies to support the validity of detox procedures, nor proof that toxins stored in organs and fatty tissue can be released simply by altering one’s diet. At present, there is one ongoing clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health purporting that dietary manipulation, coffee enemas and pancreatic enzymes can cure pancreatic cancer.

There’s scant scientific evidence to support the notion that the human body cannot cleanse itself naturally. Since the benefits of detox have yet to be proven, you might be better off taking a common sense approach to health symptoms.

  • Before you try a detox because you are tired, try sleeping more.
  • Before you try a detox because you have chronic constipation, try eating more fiber, drinking more water and exercising.
  • If you have menstrual irregularities, bloating and gas, headaches, joint pain and memory issues, consult a medical professional because those might be signs of a serious illness unrelated to toxic buildup.
  • Self-prescribed, unsupervised detox regimens carry with them many risks: Dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, depletion of carbohydrate stores, muscle loss, mineral imbalance, bowel perforation and metabolic abnormalities.
  • If you believe you are at risk because of a medical condition that might interfere with one or more of the body’s natural detox systems, or because you?ve been exposed to high levels of toxic materials, consult a doctor for testing.

?Sharon B. Salomon, M.S., R.D.



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