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Do you need to Detox?

The theory behind going on a detox is that it removes toxins that have built up in our bodies, either from our own over-indulgences or from our environment. Detoxing methods often involve restricting your diet, and having lots of water, with the idea that this flushes out your organs. But there are also thousands of detox products available, and newspapers, magazines and websites regularly describe or promote the latest regimes, often with celebrity endorsement.

We investigated the most common detox claims found on products and online to see if there was any scientific evidence behind them. Prof Nick Plant, a toxicologist from the University of Leeds, helped to explain the latest work in this area.

Claim 1 – Our bodies need help to get rid of toxins - FALSE

We often hear claims that toxins build up in the body from things like too much alcohol, caffeine and fast food. But our bodies have an impressive array of organs designed to get rid of the chemicals we are exposed to every day or inflict upon ourselves. So long as you are not consuming anything to dangerous excess, your liver, kidneys, bowel and even your skin and lungs will be ‘detoxifying’ you naturally and don’t need any help.

Claim 2 – Detoxing gives your organs a rest - FALSE

Actually the evidence points the other way - for your liver to be working in tip top condition it needs to be constantly doing its job because that allows it to adapt to the chemicals we're being exposed to. Dramatically changing your diet might even stress your organs more and mean they don't work so well.

Claim 3 – Detoxing gets rid of chemicals stuck in our body from the environment - FALSE

Every day we are exposed to chemicals from the environment. Things like heavy metals from air pollution, pesticides, perhaps chemicals that might leach off plastics. But detox regimes will not detoxify you beyond what your body can naturally do. We also have lots of regulations that help ensure that the levels of chemicals you're typically exposed to are monitored.

Claim 4 – Getting rid of toxins in the body helps you lose weight - FALSE

Detox diets usually involve eating fewer calories. Any weight loss is likely to be down to this reduction in calories, and not to removing toxins from the body.

Claim 5 – Detox makes you healthier - FALSE

New trendy ingredients in some detox products may actually be harmful. Activated charcoal and clay products say they will help cleanse your bowel. The problem is that while both are good at absorbing chemicals, this includes many of the important vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy. You should also be careful of detox products containing Senna since they can have a laxative effect which may interfere with medication you’re taking, including birth control pills.

Claim 6 – It says it’s good for me on the box – it must be true – FALSE

There are rules about the health claims advertisers can and can’t make on products, but the wording on packaging can still be very confusing. Read it carefully and think through what it really means. In some recent cases, the Advertising Standards Authority has required some companies to remove detox claims from their packaging if the evidence to substantiate them was lacking.

Who can you trust?

If you would like further advice, dieticians and doctors are a good place to start. They are required by law to have particular qualifications in order to practise. But nutritionists and naturopaths – although many are reputable – don’t need to have any qualifications and are not subject to the same level of regulation. Books, websites and blogs are largely unregulated, so anyone can make claims without evidence.

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