Do Detox Diets Really Work?

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By Rod Navajas

Before we dive in deeper on this topic, we first need to understand what are the motives people usually go on a detox diet for.

More commonly than not, the weight loss benefit of a detox protocol, is the benefit that tends to lure most people in. Individuals on a detox diet, usually undergo a period of abstinence of certain lifestyle luxuries: consumption of alcohol, avoidance of sugar or gluten and complete elimination of animal protein, usually for a period of a few weeks. The instant gratification of seeing some KGs dropping on the scales for those interested in weight loss, keeps them engaged and motivated. But what exactly does detoxification mean and how does it works? Let’s break it down…

What exactly is detox?

By definition, detoxification is the physiological process of removing toxins from the body. Although improving the process of removal of substances is a crucial step, avoidance of exposure to these compounds is also necessary. The analogy I like to use, is of a clogged-overflowing sink. To resolve the problem, you first work on turning the running tap off, before you move to facilitate drainage. Same with the body! The only difference is this is a non-stop process within the body as we are constantly detoxifying exogenous and endogenous substances. Hormones are an example of endogenous and pharmaceutical drugs and xenobiotics such as BPA (famous compound contained in plastic bottles) are examples of exogenous compounds. 

So, it makes sense that most detox protocols tend to eliminate substances that can overflow the sink. Unfortunately, the process of unblocking the drain is much more complex than that and requires much more harmony between its different steps. 

It goes beyond the scope of this article to dive into the complexity of this process. Figure 1 shows the 2 main steps of liver detoxification (the main organ responsible for biotransformation of substances before excretion): Phase 1 and Phase 2.  Phase 1, is highly dependent on the Cytochrome P450 (CYP450) family of enzymes, located mainly in the liver. During phase 1, compounds are transformed into more water-soluble substances through oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis reactions. Phase 2 involves conjugation enzymes. Conjugation enzymes add different compounds to the substance to be excreted. Those 2 distinct phases require a wide range of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytochemicals to work efficiently. 

Figure 1. The complexity of Phase 1 and Phase 2 Liver Detoxification

The role of diet in detoxification

Many detox diets encourage patients to consume a calorie-restrict, nutrient-deprived diet. While many can see a quick result in weight loss due to depletion of muscular and hepatic glycogen (sugar reservoir in the body) accompanied by water loss, an extensive period of insufficient consumption of vital nutrients, can lead to impairment of adequate detoxification processes in the body. The inadequate consumption of amino acids such as methionine, results in an almost immediate loss of S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), an important methyl donor for DNA methylation – crucial factor for epigenetic function. Methionine and cysteine, are the building blocks for glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants in the body responsible to neutralise free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. 

On the body composition front, reduction of dry lean mass greater than the reduction of fat mass is also commonly observed in more aggressive detox diets. 

To detox or not? 

Although elimination of certain substances can be very beneficial, a prolonged and aggressive detox diet can not only impair detoxification processes in the body, but also changes body composition in a negative way. 

A moderate approach aiming to increase the supply of key nutrients necessary for optimal detoxification pathways, while reducing exposure to toxins, should be the preferred method if physiological function is to be preserved and body composition is not to be negatively affected. 

References

Bennet, P. (2006) ‘Managing biotransformation: The metabolicgenomic, and detoxification balance points.’ Proceedings from the 13th International Symposium of The Institute of Functional Medicine

Hodges, R. E., & Minich, D. M. (2015). Modulation of metabolic detoxification pathways using foods and food-derived components: a scientific review with clinical application. Journal of nutrition and metabolism2015.

Liska, D. J. (1998). The detoxification enzyme systems. Altern Med Rev3(3), 187-198.

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