Dietary Cleanses - Detoxing the Mind More than the Body

February 9, 2015

My husband and I are currently on a three day cleanse. We decided that we would benefit from a "resetting" of our daily food habits. Although we are generally healthy eaters, we each have our own little vices (too much chocolate, too many simple carbs, diet Pepsi, etc) and certainly, the last several months have only encouraged a less-than-healthy approach to nutrition. It seems the Christmas approach to "moderation with a tendency toward excess” had been lingering and taking up permanent residency in our home. It is in our attempt to break free from the temptation of the sugar habit that we have embarked on the Green Carrot's three day cleanse. This is day three. This program involves purchasing all your cold pressed veggie laden juices in advance and consuming only water and these six juices per day. This is not my first "detox", but my husband is a novice. My daughter and I did the Dr. Oz Three Day Cleanse last year. Obviously, I felt there was some benefit to having completed the first one or I would not have chosen to torture myself with such dietary restrictions ever again. There is no question that the cleanses deliver on the promise of fatigue, irritability, headaches and frequent bathroom visits. Do they deliver on the promise of toxin unloading, radiant skin, increased energy and improved digestion?

Detox diets and cleanses have been gaining popularity in the media over the last few years. Celebrities swear by them and endorse them. Savvy entrepreneurs are making mini fortunes developing and marketing products to quench our desire to be "cleansed"....teas, supplements, smoothies, shakes, full programs. The proposed theory is that we need to eliminate toxic substances from our bodies if we want to reduce our risk of illness and improve our overall health. (Why are there so many toxic substances in our bodies in the first place?????) But do any of these cleansing regimes really work? Do our bodies really need to be "detoxed" on a regular basis? Is there any actual science behind all of the hoopla?

 

The Science

It has been widely accepted for centuries that chemicals can enter the body and potentially cause adverse health effects. In the world of alternative medicine, particularly Naturopathic Medicine, there is an almost routine use of clinical detoxification therapies to treat a wide range of medical conditions. These practitioners follow the premise that the concentration of certain chemicals and metals that now exist within the body (blood, urine, semen, breast milk, fat, etc. ) arising from various environmental sources (air, soil, water, dust) and our food chain is at physiologically relevant levels. This concentration of chemical accumulation is known as the "body burden". These practitioners believe that the chemical levels within us have the potential to harm our health, including our neonatal and fetal well-being. 

Western medical physicians do agree that the human body is exposed to toxins from ingesting food, water and air. Certainly, in our modern industrialized world, the number and concentration of chemicals is at an all-time high, but scientists haven't yet been able to identify how harmful this "chemical soup" we are exposed to may be with any degree of certainty. Unfortunately, the amount of data on body burdens is extremely limited, and the data that is available only covers a small range of chemicals which are always studied in isolation. In reality, we are exposed to multiple chemicals simultaneously and they may interact with one another to cause unpredictable health effects.

For the most part, western trained physicians believe our bodies, via the liver, kidneys and the colon, are already able to detoxify our bodies. Dr. George Dresser, a toxicologist, pharmacologist and an internal medicine specialist at London Health Sciences Centre claims that “The liver is incredibly efficient at getting rid of those noxious substances. The kidneys do a great job at eliminating many toxins that are soluble in water". Moreover, it appears that the detox dietary strategies that we are embracing so whole-heartedly---fasting, extreme juicing, herbal solutions, etc----do not seem to be effectively removing any toxins from our bodies. Pesticides, for example, that accumulate in our fat cells, and are known to be harmful to our health, do not flow out of our bodies during a cleanse. Nor do any other potentially stored toxins. Sad news. Dr. Dresser further claims that there has never been a properly conducted scientific investigation on any of these cleansing methods. In a CBC marketplace investigation looking at the Dr. Oz cleanse that I did last year, the researchers found no change in liver or kidney function testing performed on study participants pre and post cleanse. While the cleanses I have chosen for myself and my family may not demonstrate any improvement in liver or kidney function, they have both been very safe. Unfortunately, some of the cleanses that are promoted are not so safe. The Master Cleanse, for example, has participants' dietary intake restricted to drinking water with lemon juice and cayenne pepper for seven days. 

In the world of Western Medicine, detox diets/cleanses are simply a brilliant marketing tool, created to cater to our inherent and long-standing desire for purification and a quick fix. The doctors and scientists within this realm of health and wellness attribute the popularity of cleanses to the fact that we are inundated with messages about environmental and food-chain toxins that we are unconsciously and unwittingly consuming (Mercury in the tuna, PCB's in the salmon, phthalates in our food containers, pesticides in our produce, etc. ) As well, we recognize and are responding to the fact that we often consciously betray our own bodies with the nutritional choices we make....consumption of too much alcohol, too many packaged products (mostly "artificial" food, successfully marketed as "wholesome") , too much sugar and far too many refined carbohydrates. 

Reset Ritual, Conscious Gratitude and Optimism

So, if I am aware of the lack of scientific evidence regarding the ability of an extreme juicing cleanse to actually rid my body of accumulated toxins, why would I choose to do a cleanse ? First and foremost, I view our current cleanse as a "reset". It is an effective method of disengaging from bad habits that have become far too embedded in our routines. Certainly after my last cleanse, I remained incredibly mindful about my nutritional intake for many months. This commitment was not borne out of naive expectation that I had successfully "detoxed" my body and did not want to contaminate the vessel again. Rather, separating myself from the freedom to choose what I ate for three days allowed me to more honestly recognize how often in a single day I would normally choose a sugar laden treat as my "reward" for work completed or for a strenuous work-out. Secondly, having strict dietary limitations imposed upon my daily eating habits is a good way to become more consciously aware of how I take food and its availability for granted. In our abundant culture, with a Starbucks and a McDonald's at every corner, I can easily forget how fortunate I am to never have to worry about where my next meal will come from. Having strict dietary limitations for a three day period forces me to think about those in impoverished countries and in my own backyard that rarely get to choose what they eat or if they eat daily. It is worthwhile to feel more "connected" to those 1.25 billion people around the globe on some small level. And lastly, I am an eternal optimist and a great believer in the wisdom of our ancestors and in the value of traditional medicine. Cleansing rituals have existed since the beginning of time and generally speaking, long-lasting traditions that do not succumb to the sometimes backwards thinking of modern times do hold benefits within them. Full disclosure.....I will have to admit that even though the science can not substantiate the claims, I do believe there are some not-yet-scientifically-proven benefits to these three day cleanses. After all, my husband and I will have each consumed 75 pounds of juiced veggies over the course of this weekend. How can there be no health benefit to that???

(photograph by Rod Innes, Powell River, British Columbia)

Eat well,
Live well,

Anna 

 

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