Do you need a New Year detox?

28th August 2013

Whilst New Year’s resolutions revolving around healthy lifestyle goals and new fitness programme pledges are a long established tradition, something related that has become an ever increasing trend in recent years amongst health devotees looking to kick-start their wellness regimes is the ‘Detox’ – a juice/supplement/enema based ‘flushing’ of the body, to cleanse you of ‘toxins’ and set you on the righteous path toward health and happiness.

But does a ‘detox’ actually do what it claims to do, is there any physiological foundation to it, and will it help boost your on-court performance?

Detox products and programmes have become big business, with all manner of detox-related herbs, pills and potions increasingly being made available for those looking to undergo this supposed ‘cleansing’ process. It’s an easy sell, due to the inherent human nature that sees us crave any kind of shortcut to addressing such overindulgence and dietary sins so typical of periods like Christmas and New Year, and our burning desire to get some kind of a head start on the road to our health and fitness goals.

The problem however, is that despite popular belief, there is unfortunately no plausible medical basis to the idea that you can flush an otherwise healthy body of ‘toxins’ and other supposed impurities through the use of any kind of commercially available detox programme or treatment (note that this is very different to the medical ‘detoxification’ process of addicts withdrawing from alcohol or drugs). It’s a myth. We have a great built-in detoxing system within our bodies already, centred around our liver and kidneys. No amount of supposed ‘superfoods’, magical footbath devices, or colonic cleansing will be able to offer any kind of conceivable boost or support to that system.

Despite being thoroughly debunked by current medical science, this concept of detoxing persists due to the huge market that has been built up around it, seized upon by dishonest and exploitative manufacturers and lapped up by ill-informed consumers. The premise of there being a need for us to affect a periodical cleanse of our bodies is based on pre-scientific theories of health and wellness, that have long since been superseded by our modern-day understanding of how the body operates and functions.

Even the very concept of ‘toxins’ is an extremely shaky one – what is a ‘toxin’ actually supposed to be exactly? Fellow detox advocates can’t even quite agree on this definition themselves, or produce any kind of actual tangible evidence of such a thing existing within the body – in the vague sense that most alternative health practitioners use the term, it is ultimately essentially meaningless.

Despite the increasing popularity of detoxing in recent years, the debunking of the detox fad isn’t a new thing – esteemed physician and science writer Dr Ben Goldacre, author of the best-selling ‘Bad Science’ book and blog, wrote of the absurdity of the concept way back in 2005. The whole detox myth wouldn’t even be so much of an issue if it didn’t hold potential dangers. At best the schemes and products are a waste of time and money, at worst, putting the body through extreme dietary restrictions and fasts, ingesting/inserting strange pill and tonic concoctions into the body, or taking in vast quantities of fluids at the expense of quality whole foodstuffs, can potentially upset the body’s own precarious balance of health and normal function. As Alan Boobis OBE, a professor and toxicologist at Imperial College London puts it:
“The body’s own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile. They have to be, as the natural environment that we evolved in is hostile. It is remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven ‘detox’ diets, which could well do more harm than good”

Perhaps one of the reasons the detox fad has become so ingrained with so many people, is that following a practice of one of the less extreme programmes of cutting out bad foods/cigarettes/alcohol etc. And paying greater attention to fluid intake nutrition and proper sleep, will of course make you feel better – regardless of whatever snake oil pill or potion is being promoted alongside it. These changes should be long-term, sustainable lifestyle adjustments though, and not just thought of as periodical week-long quick fixes that can erase poor lifestyle choices.

There are some great articles online that discuss the problems and flawed science behind the whole detox movement, that are well worth checking out – from the BBC here, the Guardian online here, the Quackwatch website here, the Skeptoid website here, and the Science-Based Medicine blog here.

Ultimately any short-term cleanse or detox-style regime will offer no ongoing health benefits, and the fluctuations of dietary intake and energy provision certainly won’t help your squash training programme. Eating well, drinking enough fluids, and getting plenty of sleep is the most timeless and very best ongoing healthy lifestyle programme – look after those things, and let the ‘detoxing’ of your body take care of itself.


Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

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