Can you imagine a world where the recipe for glowing good health involved little more than slipping on a pair of vinegar-scented socks or slugging down an Aloe Vera and wheatgrass smoothie?
Unfortunately, such a world only exists in the fairy tales peddled by the burgeoning detox industry. An industry where robust and exacting science is unapologetically dismissed in a whirlwind of mind-boggling products and diets that extravagantly claim to cleanse the body and flush harmful toxins from our system.
My apologies if — quite understandably — you are one of the millions of people who, worn down or stressed out by modern life, have been seduced by such urban myths.
But, as a toxicologist, I can say categorically that detox diets and products that claim to do the same are, at best, a money-gorging waste of time and, at worst, can even make you ill.
The science is not merely insubstantial. It is, frankly, implausible.
It is also unnecessary. You see Mother Nature, honed by years of evolution, has gifted the human body with a very efficient detoxing system of our own — in the form of the liver, kidneys and intestinal tract.
Every day these three major organs breakdown and eliminate harmful substances from the body — some that come from our environment, and some that are by-products of natural chemical processes in our body.
We are further protected by an extremely efficient barrier between us and the environment: our skin. Together, they form a detoxification system that is robust, sophisticated and versatile enough to withstand the normal levels of “impurities” we put into our bodies.
Yet we are constantly told by adverts and the media that we must “detox” from such things as caffeine and alcohol because they allegedly attack the body, which is defenceless in their wake.
It is because of these suppositions that a team of reputable scientists, including myself, set out to investigate the outlandish health claims of numerous detox plans. Our results were published in the Making Sense Of Chemicals guide published last week.
What worried me most is that some of the claims on products would be laughable if they weren’t so cynically exploitative and potentially dangerous. Some detox products might actually cause health problems rather than solve them.
For example, some detox tablets contain liquorice extract, which is recognised in medicine as a treatment for those suffering from constipation, since it can stimulate the gut — so those who take it could suffer from an upset stomach.
But worse than that, because liquorice lowers potassium in the blood, it can also cause serious problems such as high blood pressure and fluid retention.
Other products were simply pointless, for example one detox patch claimed to help prevent a “stagnating lymphatic system”.
Now, the lymphatic system, which is responsible for draining fluids from tissues, is anything but stagnant: in fact, it circulates several pints of fluid each day.
If it ever stagnated, it would cause inflammation of the lymph nodes, which is very painful.
You’d know about it without needing a detox patch to tell you.
If you are tempted to use gimmicks like this, make sure you read the small print beforehand.
For example, the side effects of a “detox foot patch” containing vinegar — which claims to help arthritic joints — include irritation of the skin.
Another concern are skin-smothering detox wraps which you wear around your body (but not the head) for about half an hour at a time.
The effect — especially if the material isn’t permeable enough — will be like wrapping the body in plastic which could irritate the skin and even cause swelling because fluid will not be able to circulate properly around the body.
If kept on for a prolonged amount of time, this could lead to impaired circulation and even an outside chance of blood clots.
Besides, since one of the functions of our skin is to form a protective barrier against the outside world, I don’t see how some flimsy patches which look like wilting tea bags could do much good.
Detox socks and patches worn on the feet are especially bizarre in their assertions that they can somehow magically flush the body of toxins. Tight socks could cause circulation problems — and prevent fluids moving around the body — and sleeping in them at night might encourage athlete’s foot or other fungal infections because of the lack of breathability.
Further proof that all this is pointless came a few years ago when I was involved with a BBC programme in which we dispatched a group of women to a cottage for a week and put them on one of the so-called detox diets.
An analysis of their blood and urine before and after the experiment showed absolutely no change in liver function or levels of trace metals such as aluminium.
It was a spectacular example of the utterly baseless effect of detoxing.
Yet the idea that it is good for you still prevails, a post-millennial Emperor’s new clothes which feeds on the time-poor and super-stressed who desperately feel they need a boost.
Trust me, there are easier ways to get that boost. Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep and don’t smoke. It’s the most effective method you can adopt to improve your feelings of wellbeing.
And there won’t be a glass of wheatgrass in sight.
Here’s Professor Boobis’s verdict on some of the most popular detox treatments. He is professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at Imperial College London.
Claim: Contain a natural crystal called tourmaline and wood vinegar to detox the body.
Prof Boobis says: The soles of the feet have the thickest skin so are the least likely place from which to extract toxins from the body — if extracting toxins in this way was possible. It is simply fanciful, regardless of what these products contain, to suggest otherwise — not only is the skin too thick but the pads cover too tiny an area.
LEMON MAPLE SYRUP
Claim: A drink made from organic natural tree-syrup, mixed with fresh lemon juice, water and a pinch of cayenne pepper, to dissolve mucus and waste, as well as having a stimulatory heating effect which speeds up the metabolism, helping it cleanse and eliminate toxins.
Prof Boobis says: There’s nothing special in the syrup and lemon that you couldn’t get in a balanced diet and they will have no detoxifying effect. The cayenne may make you feel hot and sweaty.
EPSOM SALTS BATH
Claim: An Epsom salts detox bath stimulates the lymph system and encourages increased oxygen and blood flow to our body.
Prof Boobis says: A warm, relaxing bath can lower blood pressure and inhaling steam can have a relaxing effect. But there is no detoxing effect.
Claim: A blend of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants including beta-carotene and N-acetylcysteine, to support the body’s natural eliminative processes.
Prof Boobis says: This wouldn’t have any impact at all. N-acteylcysteine would not be needed in a normal diet, which already contains similar substances.
Added antioxidants are no use to those already on a balanced diet and, at very high levels, beta carotene has been linked to cancer.
Claim: These draw out and absorb stagnant lymph fluid, toxins and other impurities.
Prof Boobis says: Even if the socks did help remove toxins — which is implausible — they only cover a tiny fraction of the skin’s total surface area. And lymph fluid rarely stagnates.
Claim: Helps eliminate harmful toxins from your body and provide essential vitamins and minerals to your skin.
Prof Boobis says: Sweating is a natural process and that’s what the wraps may make you do. But perspiration is not a major route for removing harmful substances, so sweating more will have no effect. This wouldn’t make any difference.
NETTLE ROOT EXTRACT
Claim: Natural extract will cleanse and detoxify the body.
Prof Boobis says: I cannot see how a nettle root extract would have any kind of impact on the body in terms of ridding it of toxins. The mechanisms make no sense.
Claim: An “Energizing Cartridge” creates a flow of electrons and a bioenergetic field into warm salted water to rebalance and harmonise by sending signals up through the lymph glands to stimulate the detox process.
Prof Boobis says: The skin — especially on the feet — is the least effective place to draw anything from the body. If you could penetrate it to “send signals” to the interior of the body, the effects would be catastrophic, because it would mean we could seriously alter the function of the body by signals through the skin. This would result in total imbalance of the body’s normal functions.