DEAR DR. BLONZ: Do we need to "flush" our digestive system and detox/cleanse our liver routinely? I ask because of the many posts I see on social media about this, most of them making a case for special products and fasting regimens. The argument presented is that doing a routine cleanse gets rid of toxins that would otherwise build up in the liver and form crusts in the folds of the intestines, making digestion less efficient. The situation is described as being responsible for common digestive ailments and general health problems, and also as affecting the function of our immune system.
They make a good case, and I wanted to give the regimen a try, but my physician said it's a bunch of nonsense. -- S.F., Tulsa, Oklahoma
DEAR S.F.: This is a common question, perhaps due to all that marketing. I compliment you for checking with your physician before making a purchase or beginning a drastic "cleanse."
I admit that being able to "flush toxins" out of the body is an attractive concept -- especially if there are ongoing health issues and this is positioned as the fix you need. Wouldn't it be great if there was objective evidence it could work as it claimed?
Toxins and undesirable compounds tend to be eliminated from the body via our excretory system, which includes the liver, large intestine, lungs, kidneys and skin. That is how our systems evolved to protect us from exposure to unwanted substances; humans might not have lasted this long if these systems were that faulty.
Elimination often begins with a step to reduce the potential risk of the substance, such as a detoxification reaction and/or dilution to help reduce the concentration of harmful elements. Unwanted fat-soluble and water-soluble compounds are distributed in the appropriate body compartment while waiting to be shown the door.
Some "detox" products and programs involve fasting, but this may not work as advertised. When we reduce our eating, or stop altogether, the body is programmed to pull fat from its storage areas to provide the energy we need. So those unwanted substances, shoved out of the way while waiting for elimination, will get pulled back into the blood. Studies have found that the blood levels of fat-soluble toxic substances such as DDT will actually increase during a fast.
The fatigue, aches, dizziness, anxiety, lethargy and other symptoms you experience during a fast are probably not signs of your body casting off toxins, as you may have been told. Instead, in a toxic twist, these symptoms can be byproducts of the stuff released as your energy-deprived body breaks down stored fat to get its needed calories.
Next, consider that our liver cells, like most others in the body, get constantly remade: Your liver is not made up of the same cells it used last year. And the cells lining your intestines get replaced every week, which casts doubt on those fears that we develop crusty insides if we don't detox.
While the promise of a quick-fix detox is attractive, a more reasonable strategy is to keep your body well-hydrated and nourished with a healthful selection of plant-based whole foods. This provides a constant intake of nutrients and protective compounds to keep your systems working. Complement this with an active lifestyle to keep blood and fluids flowing to all corners, and you'll help keep all things in tune and cranking along.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.