Let's get to the bottom of some terminology. There are legit, medical detoxification protocols in place in hospitals and clinics. These are used for patients trying to get off hard drugs like heroin. There are several methods doctors can use to help a person get something out of their system, everything from gentle tapering off of the drug to a megadose of Naltrexone which blocks ALL of your endorphin receptors and can kill an addiction within 30 minutes (unsurprisingly, this method is extremely painful and very dangerous). This kind of detox is an evolving specialty, completely fascinating, and not at all what we're talking about today.
Diet gurus and scammers have taken the word detox and attached it to all manners of junk science. Detox is an amazing label because it simultaneously tells you "you are filled with toxins" and "we have the
cure" in a tiny two syllable word. In the last 10 years, it seems that "detox" is losing ground to the word "cleanse", perhaps because it's nicer to think of yourself as merely dirty than toxic. Either way the implication is clear; your body is full of unwanted stuff, and you need to get it out to be healthy!
Cry Me a Liver
Whenever the topic of detoxing comes up in conversation, I try to gently probe whether the person I'm talking to has any biology knowledge at all, or is just talking out of their alimentary canal.
Where is your liver? Can you put your hand over the general area where it lives?
If you know your basics, your right hand is now resting just above your bottom right ribs. Your liver is tucked up under those ribs. It's about the size of a rugby ball and is lopsided, the larger lobe nestled down in the right side of your torso. The fact that it extends all the way down past the protection of the ribs makes it a juicy target for fighters. The boxer Gerry Cooney was famous for his "liver shot", a left hook to the liver which completely incapacitates a fighter when it connects.
The blow is so effective because the liver is a major organ, jacked right into your central brain via the vagus nerve. Getting hit there shocks your whole system, leaving you unable to breathe or even pump blood for a short time. If you want to see what it does to someone in a more controlled situation, watch this video of a dumbass taking a liver shot for fun.
So, now you'll never forget that the liver is on your right side and is very, very important. Why is it such a key organ?
Your liver is the body's grand central station. 100% of your blood passes through the liver. 100% of your food nutrients pass through the liver. And as these things pass through, the liver is constantly filtering and tweaking hundreds of different variables to keep you at optimal health. If you're running low on fats, proteins, or sugars the liver will synthesize and release the deficit to get you back to a good place. It's also able to pump up your hormones, antibodies, and iron levels as needed. And when it detects something that's bad news for your body, it stamps it with a big "toxic waste" label and sends it down the garbage chute.
This is how your body actually "detoxes". The liver takes toxins, poisons, or other waste materials, processes them up into less harmful byproducts, and sends them out of your body through your urine or feces. If they go the urine route they're filtered from the blood via your kidneys. If they go the feces route, the colon does the final filtration.
It almost makes me cry how much simplification went into the two paragraphs above. The complexity and raw organic beauty of how your liver works is awe inspiring. Every night, millions of people around the world overdose on ethanol (also known as getting drunk) and are back to normal the next day because their livers dutifully scrubbed and excreted the poison with splendid efficiency. But no one ever stops to thank their livers. The liver is the tireless high-school janitor keeping the school spotless despite hooligan teenagers bullying him every single day.
The liver is the tireless high-school janitor keeping the school spotless despite hooligan teenagers bullying him every single day.
The power trio of your liver, kidneys, and colon are constantly cycling harmful toxins out of your system. They are extremely good at it. You're in the jumpseat of a rocketship of a body with a billion years of R&D. Every vertebrate animal has a liver. The dinosaurs had livers. The liver is a highly polished piece of organic technology. The liver is AWESOME.
This is why detoxes and cleanses are so off-putting to me. They disrespect the liver. They posit that your body is so crappy at getting toxins out of your system that you have to drink this magic kale juice or cayenne pepper lemonade or shove an enema up your ass to truly get the job done right. So, let me state this unequivocally in the clearest terms possible:
In a normal body there is nothing to cleanse that your organs aren't already doing a rockstar job at. If there's a buildup of a toxic substance that your body can't cycle out, you'll quickly become very sick, go to the hospital, and get decontaminated (or die). If there's something your body can't handle, an over-priced specialty juice sure as hell isn't going to do it.
There are no toxins or buildups lurking in your body. There is nothing to detoxify or cleanse. This isn't my opinion, this is the medical consensus. If. You. Don't. Believe. Me. Read. What. Medical. Professionals. Have. To. Say. About. This. Topic.
Then why do cleanses make you feel good??
People feel compelled to do a detox after a particularly rough spot in their lives. Periods of either high stress or reckless hedonism (and the excess drinking and binge eating that go with them) are usual precursors to a cleanse. The single biggest reason people feel better on their cleanses is what they're not eating and drinking, it has nothing to do with the fancy green juice they're sipping. It turns out when you stop eating horrible food and drinking tons of alcohol, you feel a lot more clear-headed and focused. SURPRISE!
There's also the psychological component of taking on a rigorous cleanse. I wrote about this more extensively in my post Hairshirt Diets, but it essentially boils down to the idea that you've been bad, and will now do something difficult and unpleasant as penance for your misdeeds. When people do something difficult they feel good about themselves, be it summiting a mountain or subsisting on nothing but juice for a week.
Depending on the circles you run in, you might also get some social currency by doing a cleanse. You tell your friends about it, you post photos of your expensive smoothies, and you get to bask in the glow of doing the hip new diet trend, all of which makes you feel good about your choices.
So why do I lose so much weight on a detox?
The answer goes back to your liver. One of the liver's many functions is storing energy in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is a bundled form of glucose, and the way it's constructed there are 3 to 4 grams of water for every gram of usable glucose energy. When you do a detox, you're almost always taking your carbohydrate intake all the way down to zero. This means you have no sugars (glucose) to burn, which causes your liver to release its emergency supply of glycogen to keep you ticking.
As these glycogen stores are used up, they release the water they've been storing, meaning you lose buckets of water weight in the first 24-36 hours of a detox.
The first 3-5 kg of detox weight loss is always from glycogen/water depletion, not fat loss. But as soon as you go off your detox, the liver refills its glycogen stores and the kilos go right back up.
You may be wondering, if you stay on the detox past the point where your glycogen stores are all used up (around day two) will you start to lose fat then? The answer is yes, but your body will also tear down muscle in the pursuit of the amino acids that your body needs to function properly. You'll weaken your immune system, digestive function, feel lightheaded, sluggish and nauseous. When you finally come off your cleanse and start eating again, your fat stores will plump back up but your muscle mass won't make the same recovery. Congratulations, with your trendy detox you've successfully altered your body composition so that you carry more fat and less muscle!
So if detoxes are bad, what should I do?
If you want your body to run clean, you need to give your system the right materials to work with. This means a diet based predominantly on plant-based foods, with small but consistent side servings of lean proteins and healthy fats. Eating this way is the ultimate detox diet, and it should last for the rest of your days. This is the diet that will give you good looks, good health, and a long life.
This is ultimately the thing that drives me up the wall about detoxes. When you spend a week on water or fruit juice, you deprive your liver of the essential proteins and fats that it requires for its multitude of functions. You're not only disrespecting your amazing body, you're actively preventing it from doing its job the way it wants to!
If you truly care about not being filled with toxins and chemicals, take care of your goddamn liver. Eat well, exercise often, and don't shock your system with detox diets that are more about the junk in your head than the junk in your body.