The downsides of detoxing

A basic Internet search will yield countless recipes, diets and fasts that promise to rid our body of toxins such as alcohol, chemicals, food additives and other contaminants. These detox programs, which last anywhere from three days to one month, are also said to help us manage our weight, build a stronger immune system, improve our skin, clear our mind, boost our mood and even prevent aging.

The promises are big and the celebrities who endorse them fill our screens with glowing, healthy faces. But how many of us are asking more crucial questions, such as, does our body need detoxing? Or more important, can detoxing harm our body?

The answer to the first question, according to Lisa Rutledge, a registered dietician nutritionist, is no. In fact, there is no scientific evidence proving that detoxes improve our health in any way. “Many of the claims currently being made are unsubstantiated and even false, and this could have dire consequences for your health.” 

The harmful side effects of a detox or fast on a healthy adult include diarrhea and abdominal discomfort, low blood pressure and headaches, dehydration and loss of muscle mass. If you are already dealing with health issues, some detoxes could modify the functioning of your intestinal enzymes and liver, potentially triggering alarming new symptoms. And if you are taking medication, even herbal products, a detox could change how your body absorbs and excretes that treatment.

“At best, detoxes are a waste of money. At worst, they pose a serious health risk,” says Rutledge. “Your digestive system naturally eliminates waste from your body and in order to perform this function, your body needs to work on a regular basis. Withholding certain foods from your body or consuming laxatives, for example, prevents your body from functioning as it was meant to.”

So why have detoxes become so popular?

Rutledge explains, “We generally tend to consume less dietary fibre, which causes constipation and feelings of sluggishness. Detoxes are seen as a quick fix to feeling better, but they won’t help in the long term. And they could certainly be harmful if you have undiagnosed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example. There are other solutions that are far more effective, depending on what you are trying to achieve.”

Before jumping into a detox program, Rutledge recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • What goal are you trying to achieve with a detox?
  • How can you improve your current diet?
  • Are you drinking enough water?
  • Are you exercising enough?
  • ave you discussed your health concerns with a doctor to identify other potential causes?

More sustainable – and healthful – solutions to feeling better include:

  • Eating better and more regularly
    Of course, confer with a medical professional to ensure that your diet is adapted to your specific needs.
  • Exercising regularly
    Find movement that makes you feel good inside and out – even something as simple as a 20-minute evening stroll can help. 
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
    After all, stress has mental and physical symptoms. What can you do to help your body and mind relax?

If, after all this, you decide that you would like to try a detox regime, have a clear and honest discussion with your doctor and pharmacist to ensure that there are no interactions or adverse impacts on your current health profile.

“Above all, remember that your body is already equipped with its own detox system,” says Rutledge. “Unless you have a specific health problem, you don’t have to avoid certain foods or nutrients to feel better. Our bodies want to be in balance. What’s natural is eating and eliminating. So rather than deprive yourself of food, consider mindful eating instead.”

Lisa Rutledge BSc(NutrSc)’05, is a registered dietician nutritionist specializing in the areas of weight management, eating disorders, geriatric nutrition, diabetes and heart disease. Lisa is an active blogger and vlogger, and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Canada and CJAD Radio.


McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE)

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