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Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald

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Detox Demystified: Fad, Fact, Or Fiction?

Posted: 03/27/09 09:54 AM ET

I just finished reading the latest about how celebrities "detox,"--pretty much by starving themselves. I cringe when I see these articles. What other group of people could make deprivation seem attractive?

Seriously, what really concerns me is that these extreme programs are misleading. You simply cannot "detox your body" in seven days--or even seventy --no matter what you do.

Last week's post on spring detox generated quite a bit of buzz and great conversation. The topic of detox is intriguing, whether you are viewing it from a drug or alcohol perspective, or just looking for a solution to your health, weight, and energy challenges. We live in a world where our food and atmosphere contain toxic chemicals, and we truly don't know what effects this may have on our health. Even so, we want to be healthy. We don't want to be paranoid, but, at the same time, we don't want to be in denial.

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the subject of detox. The truth is, we don't know everything. We are living in an unprecedented time on the planet in terms of toxins. Our bodies are designed to deal with toxins on a regular basis. In theory, we shouldn't need to do anything special. Our body has the wisdom to filter out toxins effectively. However, there has been no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influences.

An important basic point to remember is that out bodies are built to detoxify. Your body is made up of approximately 100 trillion cells. A basic function is to take in nutrients and eliminate wastes. You are always detoxing. That's what cells do. Right now you are detoxing. Whether you are on a "detox program" or not, your body is detoxing. You breathe in air, you breathe out carbon dioxide. You eat and drink, you eliminate waste. You sweat. You can't escape 24/7 detoxification.

Where do toxins actually come from? External toxins come from air pollution, food additives, pesticides and other industrial toxins, cleaning products, personal care items, etc. Internal toxins include the by-products of the normal metabolism that your body undergoes on a regular basis.

So when we talk about detoxification for health, we are really looking at the question of: "How efficiently are my detoxification systems working?" The reality is that we don't know completely.

Skeptics of our ability to enhance the body's detoxification processes may say that our liver and kidneys do a great job of getting rid of toxins naturally. But to say that our bodies automatically remove toxic residues completely no matter what we eat, drink, smoke or are exposed to in our environment just doesn't make sense. Still, we have so much more to learn and study about how the chemicals of our time are affecting us.

For the skeptic, I would point out that there are many studies showing that our bodies store toxic levels of chemicals. There is not one single study that I have found to prove that our bodies efficiently eliminate all of these toxic chemicals.

There is evidence that environmental chemicals are being stored in human body tissues. Environmental health expert, Laurine Brown, PhD, MPH has summarized some of these studies in her article, "What's Your Chemical Body Burden?" She references the Centers for Disease Control's Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which analyzed the blood and urine levels of 116 chemicals in a sampling of some 2,500 Americans ages 6 and older. The CDC found toxic residues in virtually every sample tested. And that is just blood and urine. Over time, toxic residues accumulate in our fat tissue as well. This accumulation has been linked to numerous health concerns.

The World Health Organization released a statement that cancer will overtake heart disease as the number one global health killer by 2010. I don't deny that the cause of cancer is multifactorial, but a leading cause is toxic chemicals, whether from smoking, pesticides, or industrial chemicals.

We could naively think that our government is thoroughly testing chemicals that are not safe for us and removing them from the marketplace. Unfortunately we know this is not the case. A recent congressional audit has found that the EPA has failed miserably in assessing the toxic effects of chemicals on public health. A fascinating article from the Journal Sentinel reveals the disturbing details of the audit. (This newspaper has been chronicling the EPA's failures to adequately inform the public about toxic chemicals in its series "Chemical Fallout," which started back in 2007.) The report acknowledged that "The EPA lacks the adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment, as well as tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States." According to the article, Lisa Jackson, the EPA's new administrator, "promised to take the report under consideration."

The Environmental Working Group reports that the EPA called off a severely misguided study in 2005 that "would have paid families $970 to videotape their children after exposing them to pesticides and other dangerous chemicals." (This one's a shocker.) Beyond the wacky thinking behind this approach, the proposed study illustrates how looking into the problem of toxins is not a simple matter.

Bottom line: Research on the subject of detoxification is not only limited, it can be downright inaccurate, flawed, and/or skewed.

Who can you trust? The Environmental Working Group, and their Human Toxome Project. Through this project, the EWG is working to determine "the scope of industrial pollution in humanity." Both toxins that come from pollution and everyday consumer products are included in their research.

What Can We Do?

Often "doing a detox" is initiated by the desire to lose weight, or to recover after falling off the wagon with sugar, junk food, etc. In these cases, the quick-fix cleanse ideas seem appealing. If they get people to re-think health habits by having them abstain from foods that are unhealthy, that part is great.

What is mostly promoted to the public is in the form of pills, potions, 7-day plans, etc. The problem with this approach is that the marketing materials often mislead the consumer to think that they have actually "rid themselves of toxins." Impossible!

So how do we find out about the actual amount of toxicity in our body? It's not easy and it's not cheap. A National Geographic reporter put himself though the process, and he wrote a fascinating piece about the experience. The testing he underwent would normally have cost a whopping $15,000!

Assessing toxins and their effect on health is not yet part of standard medical care. There are some progressive groups of physicians that do address this, such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the American Academy for the Advancement of Medicine.

The ability of our bodies to detoxify efficiently is based on multiple factors. These include genetics, one's individual toxic exposure, and the availability of nutrients essential for the detoxification process.

I firmly believe that we have to combine science with basic common sense. Quick-fix detox programs can promote the on-again-off-again mentality. They appeal to the same crowd that gravitates towards extreme weight-loss diets. Instead, we need a sensible day-to-day approach in both areas.

The topic of how to safely remove toxins from your body or how to increase your body's ability to break down and eliminate toxins is a lengthy subject. Volumes have been written about it, and the new research and information is constantly coming forward.

With all this in mind, here are 5 tips for approaching detoxification sensibly.

1. Avoid extremes. Especially avoid following the latest celebrity detox that you've read about in the tabloids. Instead, educate yourself about the least-toxic choices when it comes to buying personal care items, food, cleaning products, etc. Make these changes gradually and see what fits within your budget. Follow the 10 tips in my previous post, "Spring Cleaning: 10 Steps To Bring New Life To Your Liver." Increasing water intake alone can have profound positive effects. Look for basic common sense info about habits that support the natural detoxification processes in your body on a regular basis. Let your lifestyle be one that is supportive of your body's natural ability to detox.

2. Have a "detox focus" periodically. There's nothing wrong with having a periodic (such as seasonal, e.g. spring) time when you give special attention and acknowledgement to your body's detoxification mechanics. We all get a little off-track occasionally, and sometimes we need a plan laid out before us to get started again. Some may choose a week or two to purposely avoid alcohol, refined sugar, red meat, etc., while emphasizing a more plant-based diet. That can be a great start, and I personally prefer the plans that incorporate healthy, non-toxic foods to the fasting programs.

3. Make sure your nutrient intake is optimal. Virtually all vitamins and minerals are involved in the daily detoxification process. That's one of the reason you'll want to ensure that you are getting optimal amounts of all essential nutrients, especially the vitamins C, E, and B complex as well as the minerals zinc, magnesium, and selenium. Herbs such as milk thistle and schizandra, as well as the nutrient alpha lipoic acid have demonstrated antioxidant properties and the ability to protect the liver from toxins.

4. Seek professional advice for special conditions. If you have a medical condition that you believe would warrant a medically supervised detoxification protocol, please do not attempt to do it on your own. You could waste your time and money, and most importantly, put your health in jeopardy. Find a healthcare practitioner who is current on detoxification research, testing, and protocols. Be wary of a practitioner who throws a bunch of supplements at you without substantiating the reasons, as well as one who doesn't think you need vitamins at all.

5. Take it slow. For some, the idea of detoxification may be new and feel overwhelming. Please don't stress out! I recommend gradually making more and more non-toxic choices over time. If you push yourself too fast and hard to make the changes, stress hormones could literally add to the toxic load your body has to process. Having peace of mind is as invaluable a support for detoxification as anything. Follow Michelle Obama's lead and plant an organic garden. Gardening is good for the fresh nutritious foods it supplies as well as nourishment for the soul!

Taking this sensible approach certainly doesn't seem as glamorous or intriguing as the latest "lose 15 pounds in 15 days" celebrity detox. But the payoff is much better. Eating healthy and reducing your toxic exposure over time can often result in increased health and vitality, better moods, and sharper mental focus--adding life to your years, as well as years to your life.

 
 
 

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