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Do detox plans actually work?

columns Updated: Mar 15, 2014 22:21 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Just thinking about the toxins and chemicals in the food, water and air around us is enough to give you brain-freeze. The air we breathe has low doses of several lung-paralysing toxins while the meal you’re having — however healthy — is likely to have enough heavy metal, pesticides and sundry poisons that can, in concentrated doses, destroy large armies and win battles.

To understand the toxicity better, let’s just take heavy metals emitted from vehicular and industrial emissions. They are everywhere. Unlike organic pollutants, heavy metals do not decay and seep down into the water-table and leech into the food chain.

In the short term, heavy-metal toxicity suppresses mental and central nervous functions to lower concentration and energy levels. Long-term exposure causes progressive physical, muscular and neurological degeneration that mimic dementia, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. Exposure to some, such as arsenic, lead, mercury and manganese, can potentially cause uncontrolled cell growth that leads to cancer.

Going organic helps in a very small way. It certainly doesn’t justify the added expense. Organic food is likely to have fewer surface pesticides but they have the same amount of heavy metals and hormone-disrupting PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls from coolant fluids) found in the environment and water.

Add to that the antibiotics used to fatten meats, the hormone oxytocin injected in cows to make them milk, and carcinogenic dioxins from fossil burning that makes its way to the fatty tissue of animals, and each meal you have turns into a toxic cocktail that, if tested, would be banned even by government with lax food standards.

If we’re not dead yet despite this deadly onslaught, we have our body to thank for it. Our liver, kidneys and digestive system work overtime to break down and excrete most of these toxins, usually within hours. Some, like fat-soluble dioxins and PCBs, take up to years to break down, which is why they are banned and their emissions curbed to lower exposure in several countries.

The question, then, is whether detox programmes work in situations where lowering exposure is not possible — as in India, where the efficiency in which environmental laws and food safety standards are implemented is debatable.

Among the most popular are fluid detox programmes, which encourage people to have no solid food for some days at a stretch. These, say experts, make no difference to the chemicals stored in body fat, which take years of non-exposure to eliminate permanently.

Instead of getting rid of these stored toxins, such diets trigger the release of fat-soluble toxins from fatty tissue into the blood. A study in the journal Obesity Surgery found that levels of pesticide, dioxin and PCBs in the blood rose 25% to 50% in people who lost weight very rapidly.

Animal studies show that high levels of these toxins in the blood leads to greater contamination of vital organs and muscle tissue, where they do far more damage than in fat tissue. Since most of these chemicals are endocrine-disrupters, hormones take the first hit, increasing appetite and triggering off food cravings, often leading to weight gain.

What’s worse, only a small percentage of these toxins end up being excreted, with most ending up right back in the fat tissue. And chemicals that the body does eliminate quickly — like phthalates found in plastics — quickly build back as soon as you start eating and drinking again.

Even with its limited benefits, opting for pesticide-free food is a good idea, but even better is cutting back on alcohol and smoking, including reducing exposure to tobacco smoke.

Dryathlons — the popular term for short breaks from alcohol — lowered liver fat, cholesterol and blood glucose in a small group of volunteers who stayed off alcohol for a month, showed a study from the University College London Medical School, reported by the New Scientist in January this year. An added bonus was that it made it easier for the volunteers to say no to alcohol in social settings even after the study was over, which lowered their average consumption.

Until a solution is found, the only option is try to take in toxins slower than the body eliminates them in any little way we can.