The journey to maintain a healthy lifestyle is often long and difficult. Many people wish to find easier ways to lose weight, boost energy levels, or just generally feel healthier. Detox products and services often claim to provide all this and more by removing horrific toxins from the body.

Unfortunately, many of these detoxes are ineffective, and some are downright harmful. While some factors, such as certain health conditions, can prevent natural detoxification, the body can already detox itself — it's actually pretty good at it.

How the Body Detoxes

Among their other jobs, the kidneys and liver are the body’s main way of detoxing itself. These organs essentially act as large filters for blood. As the liver processes the blood, it identifies poisonous substances and waste products, renders them harmless, and then sends them back into the blood or excretes them into a fluid product.

This fluid, called bile, enters the intestine and eventually leaves the body in the feces, which removes the toxins. The kidneys perform similar functions but instead excrete waste products into the urine.

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The Myth of the “Detox”

Originally, the term “detox” referred to a medical procedure that actively removed dangerous levels of poisons, drugs, or alcohol from the body. Medical detoxification usually occurs in a hospital or clinic under the supervision of a medical professional.

The detox programs that most people are familiar with are usually do-it-yourself diets or procedures that are widely available and lack scientific evidence supporting their use. Some products claim to detox systems or individual organs, while others are “whole body” cleansers.

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A Look At Detoxes

The vast majority of detox products are unable to state exactly which toxins they are attempting to remove. Instead, they mention general materials like heavy metals or pesticides that the body already removes without outside assistance. Additionally, detoxes often claim to have general and unprovable abilities, like providing an energy boost, making the skin glow, or causing weight loss.

Sure, weight loss may occur, but it is usually due to resulting diarrhea or simply because many detoxes ask the user to fast for several days. The other benefits, if they occur, are due to healthy ingredients, not any innate detoxifying powers.

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Common Detox Ingredients

Most detox products contain some combination of fruits and vegetables, like kale, lemons, ginger, apples, and many others. These ingredients do technically help with detoxing, but only because they are already good for the liver and kidneys. Many fruits contain antioxidants that protect the body from issues like inflammation, which can impact kidney and liver function.

Iron-rich vegetables like kale support the body’s metabolism and cellular functioning. In general, it is often healthier and far less expensive to eat the natural ingredients themselves rather than consume them as part of a detox product, especially since these products tend to contain fairly small quantities of them.

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The Bogus Ingredients

Beyond the basic fruits and veggies, many detoxes contain “super ingredients” or similar additives that they claim have the biggest effect. Algae, like spirulina, are common targets for this, despite there being no substantial evidence supporting their use for any condition.

Some algae can produce toxins like cyanotoxins or microcystins that cause issues ranging from gastrointestinal upset to liver damage. Additionally, some of these ingredients have also had histories of heavy metal contamination. Because it views detox products as dietary supplements, the U.S. does not regulate their production or enforce any safety standards.

Spirulina Powder On A Wooden Background R Franca / EyeEm / Getty Images


Colon Cleanses Are Unnecessary

In addition to the wealth of oral products that claim to detox the body, some utilize rectal delivery. Colon hydrotherapy, also called a colon cleanse or colonic, is a common service available at some spas. These services are essentially enemas that supposedly remove toxin accumulations in what many people consider the dirtiest part of the body. In reality, there are no built-up toxins to remove. The water simply flushes out fecal matter that the body would eventually expel anyway.

Colon cleanses can, however, damage the gastrointestinal organs while increasing the risk of intestinal parasites and heart failure.

woman undergoing colon therapy


Alkalinity Cleanses Make No Sense

One of the biggest detox trends is the alkaline cleanse. Alkaline is a term that refers to the high end of the pH scale, meaning extremely basic. This detox recommends eating alkaline-promoting foods like green vegetables, herbal teas, and even alkaline water to make the body more basic on the pH scale.

However, different parts of the body have different acidity levels. Stomach acid is between 2 and 3.5 pH, while the blood is around 7.4. The body goes through a lot of effort to regulate its pH balance, meaning it is extremely difficult to adjust the pH levels to any meaningful degree. Technically, diet can temporarily change urine pH level, but this does not provide any benefit for the average person. Like most detoxes, the health benefits of the alkaline diet stem from eating healthier foods.

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Conditions That Require Outside Help

For the body to need a detox, the body must first contain toxins. This means that either the kidneys and liver are no longer functioning properly or a person absorbed a dangerous level of toxins in a short time. Common conditions that impact organ function are nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis C, and various autoimmune diseases.

Certain medications, recreational drug use, alcohol abuse, and severe dehydration can also impact kidney and liver function. Chemical spills or workplace accidents are potential sources of toxin exposure.

woman drinking water fizkes / Getty Images


When to Seek Professional Help

If the body does require medical detoxification, there will usually be several notable symptoms. Warning signs for a loss of kidney or liver function include high blood pressure, blood in the feces or urine, needing to use the bathroom more often, jaundice, or swelling of the hands and feet.

Excess levels of specific toxins will cause unique symptoms, such as muscle spasms or breathing difficulties.

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How to Actually "Detox"

As with many health issues, the best way to keep filtering out any toxins the body picks up is to keep systems functioning in tip-top shape.

This means regularly getting plenty of exercise and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Cutting back on alcohol can help keep the liver healthy and maintaining a healthy BMI will lower the risk of conditions like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

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