Detoxing has become incredibly popular, providing people with the chance to get healthier and get rid of their toxins. Right? Well, not so much. Actually, detoxing itself is just a marketing phrase and it means relatively little in practice.
In this post, we’re taking a look at detox and answering questions about ‘does detox water work’, ‘what is a detox’ and ‘do detoxes work’. To do that, we’re taking a realistic look at the theory behind detoxing and the actual science.
So, What is a Detox?
The term detox has become a particularly common one, partly because companies use it heavily to market products or diets. The word is short for detoxification and refers to the idea of getting toxins out of your body.
It’s easy to see why people find this so appealing.
After all, our modern society is filled with chemicals – including those in our food and even ones that we are exposed to from the environment. Frankly, the idea that those could be harming us is terrifying.
So, people turn to detox products as a remedy.
In theory, these are supposed to get rid of the toxins in your body, promoting better health overall.
Now, there are many different types of detox products on the market ranging from the simple to the complex. This category includes diets that you can follow, supplements that are supposed to detox you and also other products, like detox teas (Fit Tea is one example).
Additionally, the term cleanse is also very popular.
Often this is used in the exact same way as the word detox and some products even use both phrases. The underlying concept is pretty much the same, so the information discussed in this post will refer to detoxes and also cleanses.
In fact, the only major difference between the two is that the word cleanse is more often used when referring to a diet-type approach, while the word detox is more frequently applied to products, like detox supplements or detox teas.
However, both words are marketing phrases, so companies tend to use them as they see fit.
In this post, we’re going to take a detailed look into the actual idea of detox, whether it works and if it is worth the bother. At the same time, we’re considering the question ‘does detox water work’, as detox water is one specific type of detox that is often promoted.
But, to start off with, we’re going to take a look at precisely what is involved in detoxing.
The terms detox and cleanse tend to mean roughly the same thing and refer to approaches for getting toxins out of your body
Types of Detox
There are a lot of different detox diets out there, far too many for me to cover in detail within a single post. However, we are going to look at a number of the specific types of detox that are out there, along with the general trends that you find in a detox.
Typically, detoxes are fairly short and intense processes, where you may be dramatically changing the food that you eat for the length of the detox. In almost all cases, this includes cutting out all ‘junk’ food, particularly processed food and foods that are high in sugar.
In some cases, you may also be eating or drinking a specific combination of foods.
There are a lot of supplements that are promoted for detoxing and most of these heavily rely on herbs as ingredients. In some cases, there may be evidence that a specific herb may help with weight loss or help in some ways but typically that evidence is extremely limited.
At the same time, the very concept of detox is something that cannot be measured so there is no evidence that specific herbs actually help a body detox.
You also sometimes see detox teas. For the most part, these work in the same way as a detox supplement and the evidence for their effectiveness is just as shaky.
However, I do want to note that I’m specifically referring to the idea of using teas to detox. There is little evidence that teas can be effective in this way, regardless of whatever herbs are added to them. Nevertheless, teas can still be fairly healthy and options like green tea can be a good addition to a healthy diet (1).
Now, in some cases, you will find that people take detox supplements on their own, while in other cases, they may take them as part of a larger detox plan. But, either way, they don’t help get rid of toxins.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that these supplements can seem like they work. This is because they often contain herbs that promote bowel movements. But, as I’ll discuss later, increased bowel movements aren’t necessarily good for health and they also aren’t an indication that you are detoxing.
In fact, many detox teas (and some supplements) actually contain compounds like senna, which is a natural laxative (2). Taking a laxative regularly when you don’t need to doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy practice and, to make matters worse, some people drink detox teas every day.
Having a laxative daily certainly isn’t a good plan for health and it’s easy to imagine how this could cause harm. For one thing, it could easily lead to dehydration and could also make you sick.
Detox supplements tend to rely on herbs and often have a laxative effect
Calorie Restriction and Whole Food
One of the most common types of detox diets is a diet plan where you end up cutting out many types of food and mostly relying on whole food, particularly fruit and vegetables. For example, you might end up avoiding all processed food, along with anything that contains refined sugar.
In many cases, this type of detox may also require following a set meal plan or keeping within a specific amount of calories.
The end result is that you typically end up following a diet that’s heavy in nutrients and whole foods but has low calories.
This can be great for weight loss, although any weight you lose is likely to be short-term.
Often this type of detox isn’t safe to carry out for an extended length of time because you may not be consuming enough nutrients.
Eating more whole food is certainly good for health, especially if it means you’re cutting down on sugar or processed food. But, that still doesn’t make this approach a good way to get rid of toxins. Realistically, you’re simply doing a crash diet that isn’t very different than countless other diet examples.
Detox diets can often involve restricting calories and relying heavily on whole foods, which doesn't necessarily help with getting rid of toxins
Another detox approach is to rely on specific foods, rather than just focusing on healthy food in general. One fairly common example of this is a juice cleanse, where you are eating (well, drinking) juice rather than actual food. One site makes the following claim about this idea:
Likewise, there are other similar detoxes, which may focus on food that is connected to strong health benefits or is popular in some other way (like coconut water). Honestly, there is no evidence that these types of detoxes offer any real benefits.
Take that claim I showed above.
A key benefit of doing a juice detox or juice cleanse seems to be based on the idea of getting lots of nutrients (which is fine) in a form that is easy to digest – simply because the body ‘needs a rest’.
Why should it be necessary to be ‘giving the body a rest from solid food’? As far as I know, there is no science supporting that idea and honestly, it’s a little strange. For the most part, the concept is based on opinions about how the body should work rather than any evidence about how it actually works.
That’s not the best way to make decisions about your health.
Sometimes a detox may use specific types of food, like a juice detox, but there is little evidence that this method helps remove toxins
When I first started to look into the concept of detox, one of the questions that I asked myself was: does detox water work?
The reason for this is that detox water is actually a pretty popular idea and there are a lot of different variations on Pinterest and similar sites.
Detox waters can vary significantly but, for the most part, you’re just looking at water that has various healthy ingredients added to it. For example, some ingredients found in detox water can include the following (with links to articles on their health benefits):
Now, these various ingredients do tend to be healthy in their own right – but they are unlikely to help with detoxing. For the most part, detox water simply ends up offering interesting options for flavored water that is pretty low in calories.
With this type of water, you’re basically combining a number of interesting ingredients with water and letting it sit for a while, so the water gets infused with the flavors. For example, one recipe out there involves watermelon, rosemary, strawberries and a little salt. In most cases, you don’t end up eating the added ingredients but instead, you drink the water, which has a fairly appealing flavor.
Needless to say, doing so can help with health, especially as it might mean that you end up drinking more water. Likewise, you might end up swapping out sugar-sweetened drinks for detox water.
Now, as with drinking tea, there is some potential for healthy compounds to be obtained from the fresh ingredients you use (like antioxidants from blueberries).
So, this type of water may actually be healthier than drinking straight water. However, this is an area that hasn’t been directly researched, so there isn’t much information available on what benefits you actually get from the ingredients in detox water.
So, for the most part, the benefits you see from detox water are basically the same benefits that you would find from the water itself. This includes things like helping with weight loss and preventing dehydration (3,4,5).
Dehydration is actually a much more serious issue than people realize and it’s easy to become dehydrated without even knowing and dehydration has many negative impacts on health. This means that getting enough water every day is a critically important goal and if you’re getting that water through detox water, then that’s great.
But, does detox water work?
For detoxing? No, not really. The only way that it would help is if you were dehydrated, as dehydration could mean that you aren’t producing enough urine for your body to naturally detox. But, beyond that, detox water is just water and it isn’t likely to help.
Additionally, detox water is a little strange because people often just add it to their current diet, rather than attempting an entire detox regimen. I’m not entirely sure why some people feel that this will make a difference but honestly, it’s not likely to affect toxins in your body at all.
For the most part, detox water just involves making and drinking infused water. While you will get benefits from the water and possibly from what you infuse it with, the process still doesn't actually help with detoxing
What Toxins Can a Detox Diet Remove?
One of the most common patterns with detox products is that their marketing is incredibly vague.
In most cases, the products won’t actually tell you what toxins they are supposed to be removing. This is a major issue, as it makes it impossible to actually test whether or not the detox is actually working.
Although, that seems to be the point.
Instead, people buy into detoxes simply because they tend to feel better immediately after doing one. But, how a diet makes you feel is a pretty subjective measure. After all, people will often feel better simply because they expect to, rather than for any other reason.
For that matter, even just defining what a toxin is can be difficult. For example, if you try to figure that out using Google, you might come across this definition:
That definition isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to detoxing. Additionally, some compounds can be healthy (and even necessary) at some doses but toxic at others. A classic example of this is the various joke warnings that went around for dihydrogen monoxide, like the one below.
Technically speaking, everything in the image is true, although it is certainly misleading – as dihydrogen monoxide simply refers to H20, or water, in other words.
I bring this up to highlight one important point – nobody really knows what they are talking about when it comes to detoxing. Certainly, people can’t tell you what toxins you are supposed to be getting rid of or even what types of toxins the detox targets.
So, how is a detox supposed to work?
Well, there are a few different theories and detox products often promote all of them:
- Give your organs a rest (through fasting or less processed food)
- Promote more activity in the liver
- Increase excretion (mostly through increasing urine and bowel movements)
- Improve circulation and possibly metabolism
- Promote fat loss (and thus potential release of toxins stored in fat)
Out of these, the claim that makes the most sense is excretion. Most detox products or diets do promote excretion to some degree or another. For example, drinking detox water will certainly make you pee more often. Likewise, there are many detox products that increase the frequency of bowel movements.
But, there’s no evidence that doing so actually helps get rid of toxins.
In fact, it might even be counterproductive. For example, one argument that often surrounds detoxing is that you want to get as much out of your intestines as possible. That’s a very human idea because we do have an obsession with things being clean.
However, clean isn’t necessarily a good thing in our bodies and that’s true when it comes to our intestines too. Instead, our bodies are complex systems and even some microbes play a role in promoting our health. So, trying to cleanse the intestines could easily cause harm rather than health benefits.
Overall, the biggest problem with detox diets is that the body already removes toxins and does a good job of this too.
On its own, this process will get rid of most of the chemicals that enter into your body that are not needed. Nevertheless, there are some compounds that are more concerning, which can enter into your body and even accumulate in your fat tissue. These include compounds like heavy metals, pesticides and organic pollutants (9,10,11,12).
But, there is little evidence to support the idea that detox diets could actually remove those concerning compounds anyway.
Detox approaches don't tend to specify what toxins they will remove or even what toxins are, making it essentially impossible for people to determine whether the detox is actually working for them
Do Detox Diets Work?
Detox diets tend to be pretty popular and there certainly are many people that are convinced they do actually work. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the body is already good at removing toxins on its own. At the same time, detox diets can’t even specify what toxins they are supposed to be removing and the underlying mechanisms are shaky at best.
But, if that’s true, why do people often feel better after doing a detox? As I mentioned earlier, one reason is simply because they expect to.
Another reason is that detoxes often involve cutting out processed food and other unhealthy parts of your diet. It’s not hard to see how that could help you to feel better – especially if you were eating a lot of junk beforehand.
Likewise, you are likely to be getting a different set of vitamins and minerals during a detox, including some that you may have been deficient in.
So, if you do feel better, it’s not because of the detoxing per se but because of things like getting more nutrients and eating healthier food. Realistically, those are patterns you should be following in your day-to-day diet, rather than just when you are detoxing.
It's also important to note that not everyone feels good during a detox. Instead, some people can struggle and even feel sick. Much of that will come down to the specific detox you are following.
But, are there any positive outcomes of detoxes?
Well, there are a few but they typically aren’t very good in the long run.
One example of this is weight loss. In some cases, detox diets can help with weight loss, especially if you are following a detox that lasts longer than a few days.
Once again, how well this works depends a lot on the detox. For example, some detox diets mean that you are eating very little over the course of the diet. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that some people lose weight. However, often that weight loss is mostly fluid, rather than fat, which is what you want to be losing.
In fact, one study showed just this, where people lost a considerable amount of weight and had improved metabolic outcomes when following a lemon detox diet (13). However, that diet also substantially restricted calorie intake, so the outcome was probably connected to that rather than the detox itself.
Additionally, losing weight this quickly is rarely ever a good plan. In most cases, people will end up gaining that weight back again pretty quickly. After all, you’re not changing your overall lifestyle, so there’s no reason to expect the weight to stay off.
But, in itself, fast weight loss isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In particular, losing weight like this can work if you switch to a healthy lifestyle afterward, rather than going back to your previous habits (14).
However, doing that does take a bit of planning and dedication.
At the same time, there are lots of ways to lose weight quickly and any diet that severely restricts your calorie intake will have the same outcome. So, detox diets are far from unique in that manner.
In some cases, detoxes may have positive outcomes but these tend to be relatively few and not sustainable. Certainly, detoxes don't actually get rid of toxins
Helping Your Body to Detox
One of the key reasons that detox diets don’t work is that the body is already very good at getting rid of toxins. At the same time, many detox approaches don’t even have a mechanism to actually remove toxins anyway and they don’t tend to specify which toxins they are removing.
Nevertheless, some people argue that detoxes are still important because your body’s systems can get ‘overwhelmed’.
Well… yes and no.
For the most part, your body isn’t going to lose its ability to detox simply because you’re eating a lot of processed food or live in a city. However, it is possible that your body’s ability to do its job might decrease, especially if you are a heavy drinker or a smoker.
Because of this, it can be worth taking approaches that support your organs and help to ensure they are all working efficiently.
But, a detox isn’t the way to do this. Realistically, a detox doesn’t even do your body all that much good because you’re often starving yourself or missing out on key nutrients during a detox.
Instead, supporting your body’s ability to detox is much the same as promoting your overall health. In particular, this means that you focus on eating whole and natural foods, while moving away from processed items and foods that are high in sugar.
At the same time, there are also specific types of food to consider, such as those that are high in nutrients (kale is a good example, as are leafy greens in general).
Overall, you can help support the roles of your body simply by relying on healthy whole food and getting a variety of functional foods in your diet.
This is much more effective than any detox and is also something that you can sustain. After all, healthy eating can become a lifelong habit and offers many different health benefits. In contrast, detoxes are short-lived and any benefits that they did offer would be short-term as well.
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