Anti ‘detox’ stance is unscientific and defies common sense

I came across this story today. It’s based on an article written by Professor David Bender – a nutritional biochemist. His article, which appeared in the journal The Biologist, apparently debunks detoxification regimes. They’re worthless and unscientific, apparently. The body, we’re assured, already has efficient detox systems (including the liver) that efficiently eliminates toxins and keeps us from harm.

But hang on a moment, if the body’s detox system is to brilliant, how come a few thousand milligrams of paracetamol can lead to liver failure and death? Let’s see how far our liver gets us if we decide to down a bottle of antifreeze? How come poisons are called ‘poisons’?

Let’s try a foodstuff, and an example that I think even Professor David Bender would have difficulty dismissing out-of-hand – alcohol. Drink enough alcohol, regularly enough, and it can damage the liver. As a result, the liver can fail to do its job properly, which can lead to the build-up of potentially toxic substances that effectively ‘poison’ the body. Liver failure due to alcohol can kill, too. There’s nothing contentious about any of this, in that all this is utterly accepted by the medical profession.

People like Professor Bender appear to be keen to remind us that our natural detox systems work perfectly well, thank you very much, and will always keep us from harm. But that clearly is not true in in the case of, say, paracetamol and alcohol. He and others may rationalise this on the basis that paracetamol and alcohol are known toxins, while the ones referred to by natural therapists and purveyors of detox regimes are not defined.

I accept this might be true, but common sense dictates that our diet and even the air we breath may introduce substances into the body that have toxic potential. They may not be so well -known or well-recognised, but are well really saying these things have NO potential to harm health and wellbeing?

Is there no possibility that these things might overwhelm the body’s detox capabilities just a bit, and therefore harm the body? And is it not possible that ‘cleaning up the diet’, ensuring better hydration and perhaps supporting the liver with some nutrients might help the body reduce the toxic load and enhance health and wellbeing? In my mind these are rhetorical questions.

I know that many doctors and researchers like to dismiss the concept of ‘detox’ but actually this practice is entrenched in conventional medicine. For example, when someone is suffering from paracetamol overdose they are usually treated with agent that reduces the toxicity of a breakdown product of paracetamol. That agent is N-acetylcysteine – a nutritional agent.

Some will claim that the difference is that the use of N-acetylcysteine in paracetamol toxicity is tried and tested, and that ‘detox’ products and regimes is not. This might be true, but that does not automatically invalidate detox regimes and products? Many people like Professor Bender make the mistake of dismissing something that has not been subjected to formal study. It is fair to say in such situations that there is no scientific evidence for something’s purported benefits. However, to conclude from this that this proves it has no benefits is actually very unscientific indeed.

24 Responses to Anti ‘detox’ stance is unscientific and defies common sense

  1. Nigel Kinbrum 14 December 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    To be fair to Prof. Bender, he is against detox treatments & remedies that are of dubious benefit, or even harmful. NAC is a specific remedy for a specific poison. What specific poisons are in the body that can be removed faster by detoxes?

    For instance, is there a remedy that removes acetate from the blood significantly faster? That would be useful!

    Cheers, Nige.

  2. Mike Pollard 16 December 2011 at 11:33 am #

    I don’t buy any of the popular detox nonsense any more than I buy that I’m interfering with vital bodily function when I’m massaging my wife’s feet (reflexology).
    Unless you can show me the proof that sticking a tube up my backside and filling my colon with a coffee enema has any basis in scientific fact, then I’ll stick with my 62 year old liver.
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof!

  3. Floradora 16 December 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    If the liver is so efficient, it makes you wonder why doctors so often do liver function tests when they run blood tests on patients. How unscientific of them.

  4. Feona 16 December 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    I agree with Nigel – the kind of daft and extreme detox regimes that celebs bleat on about are examples. Unless you’ve been poisoned or had an overdose, loads of water and less food than usual will do the trick. I think you might have ovr-reacted a bit, Dr Briffa!

  5. Maria Cross 16 December 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Prof Bender is right in that the liver and kidneys are fine organs of detoxification, but as far as I am aware the human body has not yet evolved an organ, or system, to detoxify the myriad of chemical toxins to which we are exposed on a daily basis. Dioxins, PCBs and bisphenol A from plastics are newcomers which easily make their way into the blood and take up residence in the body – in fat stores in particular. Tissue samples confirm this. Detox products are of course a load of unsubstantiated nonsense – which means we have a real problem. Prof Bender has failed to recognise this in his overly simplistic, and astonishingly unscientific dismissal of toxicity in the human body. Dr Briffa is spot on to highlight this.

  6. Betsy Branstetter 16 December 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    To detox or not to detox, that is the question. I prefe to err on the side of detoxing but on the moderate side. Water, supplements, but only drinking my coffee!

  7. David Manovitch 16 December 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    I have not read Prof Bender’s comments and will have to rely on the integrity of Dr Briffa in making comment. Firstly i wonder if he exhibits ‘nominative determinism’ with regard to the most common toxin our livers are exposed to?

    Secondly his comments do seem typical of the blinkered knee jerk response typical of many doctors. If it’s not in the text books or the medical journals, then it doesn’t exist. Todays medical orthodoxy is often tomorrows joke.

    I think that the claims made for detox regimes are over stated, but remember fasting has been around for millennia and used to purify the body. It does make sense does it not? Personally I ‘m just going to carry on making vinegar, it’s more fun. Cheers!

  8. Jenny Hargreaves 16 December 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    Why is grapefruit juice contraindicated when taking certain pharma drugs? Answer – it slows down Phase 1 (when the body changes toxins to hydrophilic form for Phase 2 detoxification). As a result more of the drug stays in the system to have the desired effect. Grapefruit – a nutritional product. Perhaps the doubters may consider investigating Phase 1 of liver detoxification and the conjugation paths of detoxification in Phase 2. Maybe not an over-reaction after all.

  9. Bill Rowles 17 December 2011 at 12:55 am #

    I’m with Mike – I perceive Prof Bender’s attack on “detox quackery” as entirely justified. Of course, sufficient hydration is essential for optimal kidney filtration, just as moderate alcohol consumption is prudent to avoid compromised liver function.
    The point is, surely, that the burden of proof is on the detox camp?

  10. Valerie H 17 December 2011 at 1:25 am #

    The article you mention is quite arrogant and uses anecdotal scare tactics to prove its point. It reinforces confusion around detoxing. I would like to undertake a detox but I have no idea whom to trust. Detoxing can be scary because illness symptoms are part of the package in order to clean the body.

    Detoxes have been part of human experience for thousands of years. Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have detox protocols. Herbal purges are documented in European literature as well. For example, I think one of the Canterbury Tales mentions it. Sadly, the European herbal tradition was literally killed off in witch hunts. Now we have to cite studies to prove how plants affect our health. It is probably a necessity because we have lost thousands of years of ancestral herbal wisdom. More research is needed to replace or validate what information is left.Until such research is done, western medicine can confidently and arrogantly assert that all detox is bunk.

  11. Clare 17 December 2011 at 1:55 am #

    Detoxification is a natural process undertaken by the liver and other organs. It refers to more than one process and includes the breakdown of excess hormones in the body (eg oestrogen). Problems occur when the body’s capacity to detox are exceeded. A detox diet should therefore support body’s capacity by providing adequate protein (needed for detox) as well as B vitamins, magnesium and other nutrients that are needed as co-factors. A detox diet therefore needs to include adequate protein, plenty of fresh veg/fruit etc. Unfortunately the term has been /
    ‘misued’ to include eg juice fasts or near starvation diets which tend to upregulate some of the liver’s detox processes but do not provide sufficient nutritional support for others – this is a half-therapy. Another factor important to consider is ‘elimination’ – once toxins have been neutralised by the liver they need to be excreted eg via the bowel – constipation will result in recirculation of toxins etc. So consideration to ensuring a properly working bowel is necessary – probiotics, flaxseeds etc may be useful here. Some may consider enemas (eg using coffee) although not my cup of tea!

  12. Chris 17 December 2011 at 5:21 am #

    Are there three sides to the notion of ‘detox’?

    Is one side a notion that a carefully constructed diet plan can ‘purge’ the body of toxins? An idea seemingly promoted by celebs wanting a few column inches of media attention and authors, say, like Carol Vordeman.

    And is another an idea that toxins should not be introduced by the taking of measures to avoid them?

    Then how about the notion that the metabolism of the quite normal and healthful can lead to toxic by-products if the correct co-factors are not present to prevent, say, oxidation and oxidative stress, or poor processing of amino acids as with methionine in the absence of B vits, esp. B6?

    I’ve always been a bit offended by the promotion of the first notion that periodic ‘purging’ can combat the deleterious effects of abuse of the second. The second notion seems a good idea to adhere to, and the third notion seems increasingly important as traditions once long associated with food production, process, and eating habits are broken down.

  13. Dr Michael J. Butler 17 December 2011 at 6:57 am #

    I have NEVER seen such a one-sided or pre-loaded argument in all my life; and from a man of science? Since when was Paracetamol, Anti-Freeze and Alcohol part of a normal intake of a human being? The human body is an absolute marvel but lets be fair – it is programmed to react to those things that it is expected to face – at which, it does a wonderful job! Detoxing programmes; just another load of tosh and yet another unnecessary money-spinner! The body can do this (and many other things) by itself, if it is treated properly – just like any other complex machine! It seems to me, like we treat our cars better than we treat ourselves!

  14. mike cooke 17 December 2011 at 11:37 am #

    Over a two year period, 1992 – 1994 I did the following juice fasts with only water and orange juice. 3 x 21 days, 2 x 40 days, 1 x 60 days and the last one was 1 x 135 days. It was a life changing experience spiritually as well as health-wise.

  15. Donald 17 December 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Trying to work out what Dr Butler’s points are.

    Don’t think Dr Britta was suggesting analgesics, NSAI’s, Cox1/2 inhibitors, antifreeze, Red Bull etc should be seen in the same light as nutrients. I think his point is that meds use complex enzyme systems that protect the body from environmental toxins and regulate the immune system. When you add vaccines, poor diet, alcohol and genetic defects to the cocktail then you can expect a myriad of different symptoms.

    Many of these symptoms are seen and recognised by the average GP as worthy of more medication. The merry-go-round continues….

    Paracetamol is quite a money-spinner. The human body is much more complicated than a car. Cars don’t have billions of inter synaptic neurones for one thing–so the analogy doesn’t work for me.

    Dr Briffa’s article makes sense to me. He usually does!

  16. Gaye Godkin Nutrition 17 December 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Haven’t read Prof. Bender’s article. I’m dubious of the multi million € detox industry. However, I do know and appreciate that certain toxins are stored in the fat cells of the body. In 2008 in Ireland we had a dioxin scare in pig products. This was caused by using inappropriate oils in the pig feed. Those animals were a threat to human health. To ensure safety to human health all pig meat was withdrawn. A lot was learnt from this episode. No. 1 learning. Mothers milk (from the 1st pregnancy only)does contain a high amount of dioxins. I think the problem is that we are bombarded on a daily basis with pollutants and yes the body is under extra pressure. A clean diet, lots of vegetables, good hydration and exercise goes a long way.

  17. Glyn Blackett 17 December 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    I can easily believe a lot of chronically unwell people have problems with toxicity – but as a practitioner I’d like to see some evidence for that before I recommend a detox programme. I regularly see heavy metals in hair mineral analysis, and I also use organic acids testing as a functional test of detoxification, but I wonder if Dr Briffa could recommend other good functional tests?

  18. Esther 18 December 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    The body’s detox systems are very efficient and have plenty of redundancy(spare capacity), so that we can easily survive with a fraction of our total liver and kidney capacity. Throughout evolution we and all living things have survived when we could keep in balance the “bad” and “good” stuff we are exposed to. So far (as far as we can measure) we seem still to be able to do this, unless the epidemics of cancer and degenerative diseases are due to failures of detoxification that we are unable to measure. Detox regimes are untested and on the face of it seem unlikely to make a big difference to degenerative diseases which take a long time to develop.

  19. hilda glickman 19 December 2011 at 2:09 am #

    Even if the body can detoxify itself it is all about total load. THere is nothing wrong in helping things along by cutting out things that are hard to detox such as alcohol and eating a clean diet. In this day and age it is not good to fast, though, as too many toxins could then enter the bloodstream too quickly.

  20. DoctorM 19 December 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    It depends what one means by detox. If one means an occasional arbitrary detox treatment in a spa and then going back to the normal junk lifestyle what’s the point – there are so many different untested detox regimes which make loads of money for the spa owners and have dubious benefits or may be positively risky – I do not think the article is wrong to condemn these.
    However if one adopts a healthy lifestyle – natural foods – avoidance of pollution – good sleep pattern – good exercise pattern – sun exposure etc, this is just evidence based common sense and certainly not ‘detox’. So it’s difficult to argue that detox is not junk.

  21. Pete Grist 20 December 2011 at 1:07 am #

    I was quite astonished to read such a poorly argued piece. You know perfectly well that the detox quacks are aimed at people overdoing their Christmas dinner.

  22. jake3_14 20 December 2011 at 7:43 am #

    In his comment, Dr. Butler actually makes Dr. Briffa’s point. We are immersed in an industrialized environment where our bodies are forced to cope with an array of unnatural and toxic substances. For example, in the 1980′s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that seven known carcinogens were persistent in the U.S. atmosphere and that they couldn’t be gotten rid of. Western populations have had long-term exposure to the known carcinogens of BPA and phthalates. The human body has *no* way of processing these types of toxins with it’s built-in detoxification system.

    What does Dr. Butler suggest we do to cope with these insults to our bodies?

  23. Esther 21 December 2011 at 9:28 am #

    IF it is true that the body has no way of detoxing phthalates and BPA AND that we are ingesting them in quantities that are doing us harm, (I don’t know if either of these things is true) how does “detoxing” help? Does it do something to our body that the liver and kidneys are unable to do?

  24. Jill H 22 December 2011 at 3:06 am #

    Professor Bender, of University College London, writes: “I am not sure what ‘self-healing’ is and the idea of ‘raised energy levels’ is nonsense.

    “The whole philosophy of detox is based on the unlikely premise that accumulated toxins cause a sluggish metabolism, weight gain, general malaise and so on.

    “Weight gain is due to an imbalance between food consumption and energy expenditure. There is no magic shortcut for weight loss – you have to eat less and exercise more. It’s that simple.”

    I have not read the article but the above has been reported as wording in it and I feel unscientifically irritated by the words and by the article in the Mail Online. Certainly the detox regimes highlighted in the article are very very dubious and for sure a waste of money. But what Dr Briffa, for me has done, is to bring some balance to such an extreme and one sided argument.

    Older traditions of healing seem to understand the importance of helping and harnessing the detoxification system we have in order to achieve mental, emotional and physical well-being. To just focus on these dubious products surely misses the point. I agree there is no ‘quick fix’ but, as DoctorM has pointed out, our body’s systems are affected by what we eat, what we drink, how much sleep, exercise and fresh air we take.

    One of my favorite traditions at Christmas that I learned from my grandmother was, after all the rich food, make a broth from the turkey carcass and, as a child, I was given the job to grate into this all the fresh vegetables. Have I read somewhere that ‘scientists’ believe there is something therapeutic about this kind of broth or is it just grandma’s wisdom handed down from previous generations that this would prove ‘cleansing’ and appealing after all the rich food.

    Oh and one last thing re the article – the reference to Prince Charles really irritated me. For over 30 years he has championed the idea of organic gardening – has championed the idea that our health is intimately tied to the health of the land – the health and wellbeing of animals and of our food culture. And his tea sounds really good to me.

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