Detox diets have become a hot topic, not because of their use controversy, there is no controversy among scientists, but because celebrities are using them as a miracle solution for a life of excess and chaos. Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Madonna or Justin Bieber, they all appear in pink magazines talking about their miracle diets. It is a flourishing business, although it is probably useless for our organism.
Another recent hot topic is the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). It is a deal for free commerce between the US and the EU. Companies will have more freedom to trade overseas, but consumers will be less protected, and restriction laws from both parts will be avoided. Forbidden substances in one market will have an open door to enter the other market.
Obviously I don’t agree with it. But we should not call the alarm so soon. First of all, I would like to make clear an important fact:
Added chemicals have not produced any pandemic in recent years
People are not dying because they got in contact with additives from the chemical industry. John Oliver leaves us with some ideas about the alarm on cancer causing substances. In general, he is calling to everybody’s common sense, especially regarding sensationalist scientific studies:
- If a compound appears to be harmful in rats, it doesn’t mean it will do so on humans
- If a study has less than 1000 individuals, it might not be reproducible
- Most studies are design in order to confirm an assumed hypothesis
- What happens in the lab may or may not correspond to what happens in the clinic
- If a study claims to be 100% reliable, it is not 100% reliable
Nutrition conditions our health and should be a topic of general interest. Everybody can share his view point, however you should support your opinion in science, clinical trials or at least lab experiments at any level. Claims without any experimental base, like “I heard it somewhere” or “everybody knows it” “it has always been that way…” do not bring any light when a controversial topic is being discussed, just science can enlighten unknown paths.
Detox, purifying, liver and kidney cleanse diets, all of them are getting much attention, especially among the ladies, probably because they promise purification and redemption, probably because we think we look better upon purification. Somehow, we relate hypercaloric and sweet food with sin and contamination, so we created a bond between spiritual lifestyle and detox diets. We see in TV all celebrities having their green smoothies, and there is nothing wrong about getting fruits ad veggies juices, rather the contrary, they provide you with healthy nutrients. Here we refer to detox diets, based on eating a magic combination or even nothing, what will remove toxic metabolites from your body. Do all these really work? The Mayo clinic (and almost all the scientific community) says there is no evidence about the capacity of any food to help you getting rid of harmful metabolites in the organism. It is a fraud. They are using consumers lack of knowledge to make money. Some ideas I would like to share about it are:
- Fitness and healthy lifestyle will stay with us in the long-term. Sports like running and a healthy diet, help us to stay healthy and get the best version of ourselves. That is obviously something good, however, others see an easy business and they don’t hesitate on taking advantage of consumers lack of knowledge. Sometimes advice is controversial so who can we trust? I choose to trust official institutions, the FDA in USA and the EFSA in Europe, both organizations have a board of scientists that evaluate scientific papers related to health and food.
- Natural does not mean chemical-free. Chemophobia is a disease that eco gurus have created, but chemistry is ubiquitous, chemistry is our friend, and it helps us to explain nature, physiology and pathology. We are nothing else but an organized amount of atoms making molecules that make cells. We are stardust.
- The dose makes the poison. How much of something is required to be harmful? a Vitamin excess can be more harmful than a limited amount of mercury. Every substance has its lethal dose LD. Even for homeopaths the right dose of toxic-considered compounds might be therapeutic. Anyways, the dose of a substance you take determines if it is innocuous or toxic.
- There are no easy solutions, what really counts cannot be easily obtained, a healthy lifestyle requires effort and sacrifice. Fast solutions like miracle diets, detox diets, magic diets, just want to have your money and will not work in the long term, they can even be harmful. If you don’t have any control on your diet, you smoke you frequently drink alcohol or you have a sedentary lifestyle, don’t expect to take a pill and solve it.
Being all these said, here are some observations made on the research I done on scientific papers related to detox diets.
a) Do we really need to detox?
Every year around 2000 products are newly introduced into the market. Most of them have not been properly tested. It is also known that some chemicals are strongly lipophilic and cannot be properly excreted in urine or feces and stay stored in the body. Some of these compounds are present in cosmetics and domestic use products, some of them include:
- POP persistent organic pollutants. Compounds use as flame retardants, pesticides, paints, electric lubricants, coolants, they accumulate in the body, can be transferred to the baby through breast milk, and have been reported to cause the following health effects.
- endocrine disruption
- cardiovascular disease
- neurological disorders
- metabolic disease
Despite they were forbidden some years ago, POPs are still found in nature, they are very hard to degrade. Polychlorinated biphenyls, which are structurally-related compounds, were forbidden in the 70s, but we can still find them in every blood, milk or fat sample, although analysis techniques are now able to detect femtomolar amounts of substances which are below the toxic dose. The EFSA claimed we can find POPs in almost every food, from fish and meat to diary, but there is still no consensus over its toxicity. In 2012, an expert panel conclude that although endocrine disruption do interfere in hormone function, there is no real evidence that world health has been affected by these compounds.
- Phthalates are other compounds that we are often exposed to. They are included in cosmetics, packages, toys… Their antiandrogenic and development effects have been observed in lab animals. They cannot be used in toys anymore.
- Bisphenol A is commonly used in plastic food and drinks packages. It has been related to changes in reproduction, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and inmunotoxicity. It it still under research in EU, USA and Australia.
- Metals, are everywhere, but in the right amount they can be toxic, special concern has to be payed to mercury, cadmium and lead in food, arsenic and aluminum in cosmetics. Lethal dose depends on who you ask, WHO stated metal dose is higher than what we intake through food or water, EFSA has the same opinion, however the “Center for Disease Control and Prevention” said there are no out-of-danger lead levels.
- Natural products, like allergens in plants, fruits and animals; for instance, Iodine is present in the body in physiological conditions, but an iodine excess can produce thyroid disorders.
b) How could we get rid of some of these substances?
Through chelation, we introduce in the body a chelating compound, a bigger compound that will act as a transporter, with free electron pairs, that catches the smaller atom or molecule (which bears empty orbitals to host the chelator free electron pairs). The formed complex shows new properties, like increased solubility, that can be used to aid its excretion.
This therapy is used in hospitals in case of heavy metal poisoning (mercury or lead). Some doctors even use the EDTA chelation therapies to get rid of arterial calcium and hinder atherosclerosis. It is quite a controversial method since it seems there is nothing really proven and it is having some health risks.
The next table was published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics and it summarizes several detoxification experiments, a nutrient was given and the amount of toxic eliminated was measured.
As we can see, some algae like nori, used in sushi, or Chorella pyrenoidosa raised the excretion of some dioxins, (H6CDD, PCDDs), PCBs, and PCDFs (polichlorinated dibenzofurans). It seems that the mechanism of action is simply by reducing the intestinal absorption, they don’t reach the blood stream and they are excreted in feces. Algae and plants are also rich in chlorophyll that is able to chelate magnesium the same way the hemo group, in hemoglobin, chelates iron (see picture). Both compounds bare a porphyrin moiety with four nitrogens pointing to the cents of the molecule, the ideal constitution to chelate an electron-deficient free metal. In addition, some proteins, like metallothionein, are also present in algae and also have chelating effect. Our bodies synthesize metallothionein in the liver and kidneys and they use them to chelate free ions to easily move, store or get rid of them.
c) Health risks of detox diets.
Any intervention or drastic change we do on our bodies, should be supervised by a doctor. Do not take too many diuretics or laxatives you could get dehydrated. It is also a bad idea to fast during several days in order to get rid of these compounds. We have already discussed about the advantages of intermediate fasting, but if you fast for several days, fat deposits may start to get consumed setting free fat soluble toxic compounds. Liberating this compounds will help them to reach other organs.
To conclude, there is a debate about which amount of chemicals is toxic. On the one hand, specialists claim there is no danger, and the levels we are exposed to, are not dangerous at all. On the other hand, specialists suggest we don’t know which are the effects of these compounds on the long-term, since they accumulate in the body and cannot be easily excreted. From what we can see we can affirm that, there is no world pandemic threatening our health from exogenous chemical exposure. Tobacco, DDT and other hazardous substances were detected and made public. The cancer increased incidence could be a side effect of massive chemical exposure, but there is no evidence about it. Most likely, detox diets are driven by the redemption feeling we have, cleaning ourselves from the inside, although there is no science-based statement for that. Green smoothies are healthy, and they might, to some extent, help you excreting some compounds. However, we cannot exchange years of healthy eating and regular sport by a couple of days taking cucumber detox, despite we would love to do so, especially the companies selling those expensive juices.
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