Cleansing and Detoxing - A Complete History
Dennis Buckley, Master of Science in Nutrition
Cleanses of every format have become in vogue over the years. Whether it’s a coffee enema with bold claims of irrigating your colon and detoxing your liver (1), a face cream echoing the anti-aging promises of the fountain of youth (2), or the ubiquitous juice cleanse that you can find in your favorite upscale grocery store, products in various categories have fallen prey to the cleanse and detox craze. If you’ve had even a passive interest in social media over the past decade or browsed the gossip rags at the grocery store, you know that cleanses are a Thing (with a capital T). Detoxing and cleanse diets have become multi-million dollar businesses with claims covering the gamut of just about every health condition there is (3). So, when did the hype around cleanses begin, are the claims around them legit and should we offer SaladPower "cleanses"?! By the end of this piece, you’ll have the answers to those questions, and it’s quite likely your conception of health and nutrition will have changed for the better.
Detoxing Through the Years
To understand modern culture’s obsession with ridding the body of toxins (the main goal of any cleanse/detox), we must first understand why humans started this practice in the first place. Ancient cultures like the Ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Sumerians and Chinese, believed toxins accumulated in the body naturally and had to be expelled no matter how healthy your diet was (9). Contrast that with today's cleansers who detox as a result of consuming too much alcohol, preservatives and additives in food, and unhealthy junk food in general. It is in this misconception of how our organs work that paved the road to modern cleansing as we know it.
A diagram from the famous "Ebers Papyrus" from Ancient Egypt, which outlined many of the herbal remedies for autointoxication.
These ancient cultures had a theory called ‘autointoxication’ which claimed that byproducts of ineffective digestion could poison the body and cause disease (10). Waste products in the intestinal tract were thought to be major contributors to disease and a range of therapies arose with the sole intention of cleansing the colon and flushing these “toxins” out of the body (11). Fast forward to the 19th century when medical doctrine had unanimously adopted the theory of autointoxication. Patients’ obsessions with the health of their digestive tracts made it easy for pills, tonics, and enema devices to flood the markets, which effectively “opened men’s purses by opening their bowels (12).”
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the medicine industry began to objectively test the legitimacy of these claims and “treatment” methods. The Journal of the American Medical Association, among other organizations, joined in the “continuous, relentless, excoriating critique of quackery” in efforts to expose the dangers and illegitimacy of colon cleansing and dispel these untested claims about colon cleansing (13). While the theory that “autointoxication produced by intestinal obstruction… was… the only cause for disease,” has been debunked, the idea of purging the body of mysterious and nondescript toxins persists today (11). Cleansing began with colonic irrigation, but evolved into a nebulous "catch all" practice of ridding the body of “harmful substances”. For most people, there are a few common practices that come to mind when one utters the word “detox” or “cleanse”. Some like to roast in the sauna after a hard night of drinking to sweat out the alcohol. Others enjoy soaking their feet in a glass tank of water, gazing in awe as the clear water turns brown between their toes. “You see that brown stuff? Toxins.” Others will drink copious amounts of water, teas or juice to “flush” out these unspeakable toxins. These practices should ring familiar, but it's detox diets that have caught the public's attention. Millions of consumers have sought redemption from an easy-to-follow protocol with claims of enhanced health, and we’re told it's as easy as drinking a bottle of juice.
The Psychology of the Juice Cleanse
Cleansing is big business. Even bottled water has jumped on the bandwagon. “Detox with Evian: Evian spreads quickly through your system and facilitates the elimination of waste and regenerates the body from inside out in the easiest, most natural way.” We know that human beings have a long history of purifying and cleansing, but the question remains. What is it about juice cleanses that people find so alluring? The answer to that question involves a fundamental misunderstanding about the way the human body works.
The media frequently tells us that “toxins” are the scapegoat behind just about every conceivable illness known to man, from a mild gluten allergy to cancer. This is in large part due to celebrity-driven marketing and advertising. Celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow sing the praises of a prolonged juice fast, and the fad has become a mainstream phenomena. Juicing has gained popularity over other alternatives because it’s convenient and easy to follow. By ingesting nothing but these juice products (some allow water), you’ll flood your system with nutrients and give your body a chance to rest, heal, and reset.
Consider this list on bestproducts.com of the 8 best tasting and most popular juice products in 2016. Rather than dissect each company, here’s a list of the collective claims being made (14).
Juice cleansing can:
- Help you detoxify
- Alkalize the body
- Give your digestive tract a chance to “rest”
- Give your body a “kickstart” after a pattern of eating unhealthy food
- Help reset your body
- Help you lose weight
- Get rid of heavy metals and toxins
- Purify your body of harmful toxins
- Lower your risk of disease
- Increase your energy
These are some pretty far-reaching claims. Can juice cleansing really cure disease, detoxify your body, help you lose weight, and more? Can a good juice fast reset your body in some way? This idea of a reset, and bringing the body back to harmony is the precise reason why juice cleansing is so alluring, and in this next section we’ll talk about the evidence behind some of these claims.
What’s in a Toxin?
One of the underlying goals of every juice cleanse is to rid the body of accumulated toxins. In this context, a “toxin” may refer to any substance that is believed to be toxic or harmful such as environmental pollutants, chemicals, heavy metals, preservatives, or even food additives like high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Depending on the company or the product being sold, a toxin can be just about anything for anyone. We talked about the theory of autointoxication earlier in this article, and despite its abandonment from the scientific community during the 1930s, the concept is still being marketed heavily, and customers are buying into it. The trouble is, after being scrutinized by the scientific community, no such “toxins” have ever been identified.
In 2009 a group of scientists organized by the UK charity group, Sense about Science, reached out to the manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets that claimed to detoxify (15). When manufacturers were pressed for evidence behind these claims, not a single one could produce a shred of evidence or define what they meant by detoxification, or even explain what they meant by “toxins” in the first place.
Let’s clear things up with the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s definition: “Toxins are substances created by plants and animals that are poisonous in large amounts (16).” Toxicants, conversely, refers to man-made poisons found in the environment (i.e. pollutants). By that definition, just about anything could be toxic in the right amount (17).
Toxicity and Dosage
With regards to detoxing, “there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t,” says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University (18). The respectable one, he says, is a legitimate medical treatment to help treat people with life-threatening drug and alcohol addictions. “The other,” he goes on, “is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.” Detoxification is a recognized medical treatment, but as Ernst says, the term has been bastardized by companies trying to sell a product. While there is a disconnect between how the word is supposed to be used and how it actually is used, there is another relevant issue to consider, and that is context. Most cases of legitimate detoxification involve specific, recognized medical conditions and procedures, like weaning a patient off of addictive drugs or alcohol, or addressing an identifiable toxicity of a known substance. In these cases, substances in the body must be removed or destroyed because they are a specific cause of illness for the patient. Conversely, ordinary people who want to detox are chasing after an idea and trying to rid themselves of nondescript, unidentified “toxins”.
Beware of quack doctors
Juice cleansing is often purported to be the answer to the abundance of unwanted substances in our diet. By subsisting on nothing but juice for a few days, you’ll detoxify and bring your body back to harmony, and you might even lose some weight. But without a rigid definition of what a toxin even is, what’s the real enemy we’re talking about here? The evidence has routinely shown that even common substances like water or cocoa, for example, can be harmful at high doses -- toxic, you might say. Water can kill you if you drink too much over a short period of time (19). It lowers the concentration of electrolytes needed for muscles to function -- including the heart. Cocoa is safe to be eaten by humans, but the theobromine in it makes it potentially lethal for dogs (20). This logic chain can be followed for just about anything you can think of, making many ordinarily harmless substances toxic or potentially lethal at high doses. The point is, anything taken in excess has the possibility of incurring harmful consequences in the body, and a fancy juice diet simply won’t help.
The Body Doesn’t Need To Be Cleansed
To jump back to the colon cleansing example, some proponents claim that slow bowels can cause digesting food to rot and putrefy in the gut, leaking harmful “toxins” into the bloodstream. Just the other day, I overheard an employee at a popular nutritional supplement store talking with a customer about cleanses. In trying to sell the cleanse program, the clerk made the all-too-familiar comparison between the intestines and the pipes underneath your kitchen sink: without routine cleaning, particles may build up and cause a blockage, a leak, or any number of problems. A good cleanse will “flush everything out” and “unclog your system.” Does “the system” really need to be unclogged in the first place?
OMG should I cleanse just because I had a cupcake?! Probably not.
Our body is in fact remarkably adept at removing harmful substances and excreting the waste products of metabolism all by itself. The liver, kidneys, lungs, skin, and the gut are all organs that have evolved to rid the body of harmful or unusable substances (21). The liver has enzymes that can process toxic substances like alcohol into benign compounds that are excreted from the body. Your kidneys filter unwanted chemicals and waste through urination. Your lungs filter the very air you breathe and your gut is a highly specialized organ that, in a healthy person, absorbs any nutrients the body can use, then excretes the rest. All of these processes happen automatically, all day, every day. No cleansing product, no supplement, tea, or cold-pressed juice has been proven to do a better job or even enhance these systems whatsoever.
At the end of the day, the clinical evidence and our understanding of the human body just doesn’t support commercial "cleanses" of any sort (22). Clinical studies investigating the efficacy of juice cleanses are scarce, and based on a recent review, not very convincing (23).
Your body is incredibly efficient at cleansing itself already
A Better Way
Juice cleansing is a practice of exclusion. For a prolonged period you forfeit junk food, candy, drugs and alcohol in lieu of juice drinks. The fact is, most Americans eat poorly, and detox diets usually mean eating less unhealthy foods while increasing ones fruits and vegetable intake. Avoiding unhealthy foods is a good move. Anecdotal reports of weight loss during a cleanse are commonly just water weight or glycogen depletion, and reports of energy and vitality are likely a side effect of consuming such a high amount of healthy fruits, vegetables, and vital nutrients -- nutrients that are largely absent from the Standard American Diet. In that respect, a juice cleanse has some benefits, but there is a better, less painful way to reap similar benefits.
Focus on health habits you can sustain on a consistent daily basis, not something you endure once every two months just to experience a fleeting, momentary benefit. Have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, don’t go overboard with sugar laden junk food or carbs, engage in exercise, sleep enough, and don’t smoke. You can drink healthy juice on a daily basis, but the smartest move is to supplement that with healthy eating habits. An informed approach to health and well-being is one of inclusion, variety and consistency not of exclusion or restrictive short term diets! No matter what your diet looks like, having a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables will provide the healthy nutrients your body needs. You’ve learned that the body does a fine job of filtering out unwanted substances, and the best way to help facilitate those processes is to eat and drink in a healthy manner every day. Supply your body with a wide variety of nutrients (vegetables, healthy fats, proteins and carbs) on a regular basis, and you will help ensure that your body cleanses itself.
And most importantly - do not blindly listen to health claims made by food companies. Educate yourself about nutrition and have a consistently healthy lifestyle instead of engaging in extreme & restrictive short term diets. Cleanses and detoxes are under researched and the "science" that allegedly supports them is dubious. Try to learn as much as possible about a new diet before starting it! These are values we hold very close to our heart at SaladPower. One of our core beliefs is that "the healthiest thing you can do is inform yourself about nutrition", and we hope this article helped! This isn’t about short term fads like cleansing, it’s about a smarter, sustainable way to live and be your healthiest self. Let us know what you thoughts in the comment section below!
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