By: Suzanne Canada, Ph.D.
Tanager Medical Writing
An ongoing barrage of information and mis-information has been dispersed through various media about the dangers of toxins in our environment. Although everyone agrees that you certainly should avoid ingesting, inhaling, or absorbing toxins into your body; your body has natural ways of removing toxins. Some new fads claiming that you need to “detox” to assist in the process may actually harm you more than help.
There are certainly many pollutants in the world today that should be minimized or avoided1. Naturally occurring sources of toxins in the environment include:
- Other people: who can carry human pathogens
- Food poisoning: due to contamination with E. coli, Salmonella, or even Botulism
- Wild animals: that may carry typhus, viruses, cholera (e.g., rats in Manhattan were recently surveyed by researchers at Columbia University and were found to carry many bacteria and viruses)
- Bacillus and Clostridial bacteria, the spores of which exist naturally in soil
- Plant toxins (lectins, tannins, alkaloids) that limit herbivore ingestion and damage
- Air pollution: dust, pollen, fungal spores such as mold and mildew
However, hype about the prevalence of toxins in our homes for the purpose of selling extreme detoxification products and procedures could hurt people both physically and financially. Misinformation has been widely promoted, claiming that these toxins are the source of many health problems such as ADD, autism, chronic fatigue, and even cancer. In fact, detoxification is sometimes appropriate when prescribed by doctors in the healthcare setting:
“In the setting of real medicine, detoxification means treatments for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons like heavy metals. Detoxification treatments are medical procedures that are not casually selected from a menu of alternative health treatments, or pulled off the shelf in the pharmacy. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals when there are life-threatening circumstances.” 3
Increases in the use and promotion of “Detox” diets, products, and procedures has brought them under scrutiny of some health researchers. In one case, researchers from Georgetown University Medical School looked at 20 studies published in the last decade and found no evidence of benefit to colon cleansing.4 An investigative article by Consumer Reports reported that their medical consultants questioned the need for detoxification at all! 5 Another evaluation published at WebMD concluded that you could quickly lose a weight using a detox diet, but you will have to endure hunger, weakness, and could experience side effects of low energy, low blood sugar, muscle aches, dizziness, and nausea. Other health authorities point out that the human body has natural processes to handle the elimination of toxins, no matter what you eat.6
How Does Your Body Get Rid of Toxins?
Far from being helpless, the human body has developed many ways to defend itself against toxins in the environment. 8 The body defends itself through three major organ systems:
1. The skin and gut, which act as a physical barrier.
2. The kidneys and liver: The primary function of the liver, kidneys, and urinary system is to expel toxins that result from the body’s metabolism of food and drink 7.
3. The immune system: Organs including lymph nodes, bone marrow, thymus, and white blood cells resist or eliminate potentially harmful foreign materials or abnormal cells. Their major targets are bacteria and viruses. White blood cells (Lymphocytes: B-cells, T-cells, macrophages, etc) are highly specialized cells which recognize and destroy specific targets.
The innate immunity and the complement system consist of 11 plasma proteins produced by the liver, usually activated by pathogens and antibody complexes, which help to eliminate pathogens. This mechanism includes inflammation, which is the human body’s first defense that destroys invaders, and prepares affected areas for healing and repair.
- US EPA website: www.epa.gov
- Paul T., (2014) New York’s Rat Population Hosts Dangerous Pathogens. Columbia University Medical Center.
- Gavura S., (2014). The Detox Scam: How to spot it, and how to avoid it. Science-Based Medicine.
- Raymond J., (2011). Detox danger: Trendy colon cleansing a risky ritual. NBC News.
- Do you really need to detox? Consumer Reports, Jan 2009.
- Zelman K., (2016). The Truth About Detox Diets. WebMD.
- Liver, Kidney and Urinary System. NetDoctor, 2016.
- Ritchison G., Blood and Body Defenses II. BIO 301 Human Physiology.