Who Doesn't Love a Good Cleanse? (January 12, 2016)
"Who doesn't love a good cleanse?" archly questions the sign atop a display of lemons, cayenne pepper and maple syrup as you enter Trader Joe's. Does who, eh, what?
Lots of people don't, apparently. The internet was loaded with articles about detoxification this past week, many of them cheerily exhorting us to start the New Year right with some form of this purification ritual, but more of them begging us not to even CONSIDER endangering our health by doing something as wild and crazy as drinking fruit juice for a couple of days. Good times.
It’s easy to see why "cleansing" would be a hot topic right now. Most likely whatever eating and exercise discipline your average person normally has went completely by the wayside over the holidays, and now feelings of guilt and general physical ickiness are the order of the day. The idea that that ickiness comes from toxins resulting from the holiday bacchanalia entrenching themselves in your helpless organs and potentially causing no end of disease (which is called in the alternative health biz “autointoxication”) has a sort of intuitive logic to it. However, your basic seasonal detox probably actually is a misuse of time and self-discipline -- although not for the reasons usually given.
Experts of the conventional type dismiss the idea of detoxification done other than for a strictly medical application (which are withdrawing from drug addiction and removal of heavy metals) for several reasons. The main one, of course, is because pooh-poohing the beliefs of the general population is just what they do. But there are other reasons, and a couple of them are pretty sensible.
A few years ago a group of British scientists contacted a number of manufacturers of detox products and queried them as to exactly WHAT their products were eliminating from the body and HOW they were accomplishing this. Not only did each manufacturer have a different definition of the meaning of "detoxification”, they were unable to provide any evidence as to how their products were performing said function.
This vagueness as to what is being removed, what it is being removed from, and how it is being removed permeates the detox business. And I don't dispute the dishonesty and greed of your basic corporate types either. But detoxification is a very ancient folk practice, dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians, and people have done it for thousands of years because it makes them feel better. The reason as to why they feel better gets tacked on afterwards. So until someone actually tries to study this stuff in some coherent fashion, I wouldn’t automatically dismiss anything that Cleopatra did. Because you know who SHE was.
But it always helps to know what it is you’re trying to do. Here’s my take on cleansing/detoxification.
We all know that there is such a thing as bioaccumulation (which is the accumulation of toxic substances in the body because its ordinary mechanisms of ridding itself of them are inadequate or defective). The bones, fat and blood can retain large amounts of such nasty things such as BPA, strontium 90 and mercury.There are even conventional medical methods for dealing with at least some of those things. So the concept of your body generating endogenous toxins beyond its ability to appropriately handle them (particularly if one has recently been participating in an unhealthy activity) and suffering disease as a result is an easy premise to accept.
We must not forget, though, that the problem of getting rid of stuff inside the body that isn't good for it is something that critters have been dealing with since at least the advent of cyanobacteria. So it seems logical that the human body would probably be pretty good at it by now. And it is, stupefyingly so.
The body’s normal detoxification system (employing the liver, kidneys, colon, skin and lungs) is a wonder. It is amazing what they heroically deal with on a daily basis. If those organs are all in tiptop shape, it's doubtful they could be improved upon.
So here's the thing. Most of us were raised in one of the Abrahamic religions, meaning that whole Guilt thing is a big one for us. We feel that since we enjoyed ourselves over the holidays by breaking some of our personal rules that we are Guilty and should be punished for it in some fashion. My thought is that this particular seasonal popularity of cleanses and detoxes has more to do with seeking redemption of sin through suffering than it does regaining health through the elimination of toxins.
Therefore I’m with the Experts on one thing. Your basic detox, even if it did what it’s supposed to do (and there’s no evidence that it does), is probably unnecessary. You might be feeling bad about polishing off that pecan pie when no one was looking, but that doesn’t mean that you need to appease a vengeful god by drinking lemon juice water for two weeks. Just call it what it is.
Are your organs full of impurities that can be flushed out with water and juice and other such things and leave your metabolic engine ticking over nicely? There's no evidence for it. True, your body may very well not be in the same shape it was around Labor Day. If that’s the case, the thing to do is not some amorphous “cleanse”. You deal with the problem itself.
Gained weight? Lose it. Got flabby? Get back on the treadmill. Partied too hard? Catch up on your sleep. Ate too many cookies and got away with it scot free? Yell "hooray!" and just get past it. When you really drill down to why you aren't feeling quite right, my guess is that a course of coffee enemas is most likely not going to be the answer.
Now if after all my yammering you still feel like you could use a tuneup and you are still up for this detox thing, more power to you. No one’s proved yet that it ISN'T valid, and lots and lots of people feel better after doing one. But it does seem to me that the most genuinely helpful thing you can for your body is to support its natural system of detoxification through healthy living. Get enough sleep, drink enough water, up the fruits and vegetables. Don’t abuse that perfectly good body of yours anymore, make sure it gets everything it needs for a while, and unless you’re actually ill, you’ll be golden.
--dr. diane holmes
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