Ditching the Detox

THERE are some of us who fear that if all the toxins were removed from our body, there'd be very little body left. And before anyone starts with accusations of exaggeration, they should take a look at recent images of Katie Holmes, allegedly toxin-free but not looking good on it.

The actress's painfully gaunt and unhealthy appearance, as she reputedly approaches the end of a punishing detox regime, would be enough to make anyone reach for a large Irish coffee to top up their caffeine, alcohol and dairy-product levels on the spot.

Holmes, who along with her husband Tom Cruise adheres to the tenets of Scientology, is reported to be following a diet of "herbal drinks and a purification procedure, to eliminate toxic substances". The programme is supposedly recommended to female followers of Scientology who are hoping to become pregnant.

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"Katie has almost rid her body of toxins, but sometimes it makes her lethargic," a source close to the Cruises was reported to have said this week. "Tom's encouraging her to stick to the diet because they are hoping to conceive baby number two."

Records of people detoxing their bodies date back to ancient Egypt but, since the 20th century, mainstream science has been increasingly dubious about its benefits, and recently there have been concerns that extreme detoxing can be highly dangerous.

Last summer a British mother, Dawn Page, 52, received 810,000 in a settlement after she suffered permanent brain damage when following an extreme detox diet that advised drinking massive quantities of water while cutting down on salt.

Many of us will at some point have woken up after a period of indulgence vowing to eschew imbibing anything other than carrots for a fortnight. Then, after two days of caffeine-withdrawal headaches and low-blood sugar-induced grumpiness, we give up.

Is detoxing necessary at all, and if so how do we go about it without either permanently damaging ourselves, or at least ending up looking like Mrs Cruise on a bad day?

According to many nutritionists, detox – other than in the medical sense for those with drug or alcohol addictions – is simply not needed, and can actually do more harm than good.

"Our liver is the organ that detoxifies our body and it means there's no need to detox. Some detox diets are very restrictive and can mean a person misses out on vital nutrients, so can do more harm than good," says Elisabeth Weichselbaum, nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation.

"If, for example, you were to detox by drinking just vegetable and fruit juices you might miss out on protein and that is very important for the body. If you think you're taking too much alcohol and want to cut back on that, it's a good thing, but detoxing won't help your liver break down the alcohol that's already (been consumed]."

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And, she says, guilt-induced purges after a weekend of indulgence are best avoided: "If you do a very restrictive diet, that can be quite stressful for your body; so if you've had a very unhealthy weekend, that's not the time to do (a strict detox].

"It's much better to follow a healthy diet and make sure it covers all the main food groups."

Weichselbaum adds that while she is unaware of any significant benefits from herbal supplements when it comes to helping your body process toxins, one good thing you can do to help your digestion is ensure you eat lots of dietary fibre.

"This helps things pass through your system more quickly, so your body has less time to (absorb] harmful substances."

And she adds that coffee, which so often appears on the banned list of substances in detox diets, does not have any recommended restrictions for anyone other than pregnant women.

"Coffee isn't really bad for you, unless you're drinking loads. Of course, if you find it's making you feel unwell then it's great to cut back, but there are no (set] limitations."

The most important thing, stresses Weichselbaum, is that before making any serious changes to your diet you consult a professional nutritionist.

Amanda Hamilton, a health expert, TV presenter and member of British Association of Nutritional Therapists from Edinburgh, believes that properly conducted detoxing can be extremely beneficial, but agrees with much of what Weichselbaum says, particularly when it comes to seeking the guidance of a registered nutritionist.

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Hamilton also stresses it is important that any detox ensures all basic nutrients are included.

"With Katie Holmes, it sounds and looks like she's not being getting enough nutrients. That means it is basically a crash diet, which is why she would be looking washed-out and depleted – the opposite of how a detox should make you feel. Detox should actually increase the nutrients in your body," she suggests.

"While it is completely correct to say the liver is efficient at detoxing – if it wasn't, we would all die – it is (helped in this process] by micronutrients, which in a lot of people are depleted."

Hamilton says these micronutrients, such as chromium and selenium, for example, are often low in modern diets because they are less abundant in our soil now, and are often lost in the processed foods on which many of us rely. By boosting levels of those, she says, we can help the liver to process toxins and help tackle many minor ailments, such as headaches, bloating and lethargy.

The other benefit of detoxing, she suggests, is that it can give our bodies a rest in order to "clear the backlog" if we have been consuming a lot of hard-to-process substances, such as wheat or alcohol.

But she cautions against detox plans that require people to suddenly cut any food from their diet or that lasts longer than a week.

Hamilton, who also runs detox retreats, says before anyone starts one of her regimes they must undergo a thorough health check and will be given advice on how to improve their diet in the future. And, she says, many of the negative experiences people can suffer while detoxing – such as caffeine-withdrawal headaches – can be avoided if managed with a combination of slow reduction (rather than stopping suddenly) and using nutrients such as chromium, which can be found in nuts and seeds, to address the blood-sugar dips that can cause side-effects.

However, like Weichselbaum, she agrees that long-term healthy eating is the ultimate goal and says there's no point cutting out foods, then going back to bad eating habits. Detox should be the start of eating a nutritional and healthy diet over the long term.

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"There's no miracle pill or body patch, and it's not about living a life of brown rice. It's about making sure you give your body the optimal fuel to keep it running properly."

It seems that, for those who feel they need to detox, doing so under the guidance of a registered professional would be the best way to go if you want to ensure you do it safely, comfortably and get the best long-term benefits. But when it comes to many of the detox products one can buy over the counter, it appears there's little hard evidence that they help. Many have simply been branded with the term 'detox' in an effort to increase sales.

In January, a report from the Voice of Young Science (Voys), an organisation representing more than 300 "early-career" researchers across the UK, urged consumers not to waste their money on products that claimed to detox but had no scientific evidence to back up their assertions.

The report said firms admitted in many cases they were renaming things used for cleaning or brushing as items suitable for detox.

The British Dietetic Association, which represents 6,000 dieticians across Britain, has also said recently that there is no "potion or lotion" which could "magically" rid the body of chemicals.

It seems professionals on both sides of the detox fence are agreed that any diet or detox plan that involves cutting out vital food groups or nutrients is potentially dangerous and should be avoided.

When it comes to the rest of the detox industry, however, the waters remain disturbingly murky.