The Truth about Detox Supplements

Detox supplements have exploded onto the market in the last decade.  Once introduced as products that could relieve occasional gas, bloating and constipation, manufacturers quickly found a way to make a few extra dollars by marketing the products as cleansing and weight loss supplements.  Since then, the market has morphed into a multi-million dollar industry and the sheer number of detox supplements and products available boggles the mind. 

Miracle Product or Scam?

Detox supplements all claim to work wonders in the realm of detoxification.  They may argue they can assist in promoting better liver and kidney function, improve the overall health of your digestive system, or maybe remove deadly toxins and other substances from your body.  Unfortunately, the reality is that most detox products can guarantee you an increase in the number of trips to the bathroom and a body thrown out of whack! 

While you might think those additional trips to that bathroom are great for riding you of that extra “weight”, the reality is that you are also losing essential intestinal fluids in the process. High colonic cleanses undertaken repeatedly, especially as part of an aggressive detox regimen can significantly deplete key intestinal flora, which acts in part as one of the important lines of immune fighting defense mechanisms.  In a severely depleted state, infections can gain the upper hand, creating an ideal environment for “bad” flora to dominate the gastrointestinal system, which just happens to be the largest surface area in the body integrally involved in immune defense.  

Detox supplements can cause dehydration, draining the body of water and other important vitamins and minerals.  Granted during a detox, we want water loss, but we don’t want dehydration.  Many detox products can also cause an electrolyte imbalance, as the laxative element may contain sodium phosphate, which is known to cause a rise in the body’s electrolytes.  This can be especially dangerous for people who have heart disease, diabetes, kidney disorders, or other chronic medical conditions.  

It’s not a stretch then to see that without adequate hydration and the continual replacement of electrolytes and “good” intestinal flora, all sorts of physical stressor conditions can “turn on” because of the extreme shock or change to “normal” function that occurs.  This means you are at risk of experiencing peristalsis, fluid-electrolyte balance, autoimmune disorders, neuroimmune/neuroendocrine conditions, etc.  

What is even more troubling is that many people may not even know they have these pre-existing conditions before they undertake any type of cleansing.  Then when they do cleanse, they find that those symptoms or conditions are exacerbated, causing significant health concerns.  No question, an aggressive cleansing regimen has the potential to trigger dormant conditions because of the dramatic impact on the body’s immune regulators.  That is why anyone entertaining the idea of trying an aggressive cleansing or detox regimen should first consult his or her physician before proceeding.

Laxatives & Diuretics 

As the dominant ingredient in most detox products is some form of laxative, an increased number of bowel movements is certain.  However, laxative usage is not meant to be a long-term solution.  Laxatives are designed to pull excess water into the intestine in order to help free waste from the intestinal wall.  That is a good thing in the short term, especially if the body is being uncooperative, or if say a bulking fiber has slowed down the elimination of waste.  However, if used for a long duration, laxatives can rob the body of nutrients, flush healthy bacteria, and cause dehydration to vital organ functions. Some laxatives are worse than others, and even pose a high allergy risk and/or contraindication with many prescribed and over-the-counter medications.  

Use a laxative for more than a few days and you are likely to not only damage the muscular function of the bowel and disrupt the natural rhythm of the digestive system, but you could risk the development of kidney stones and possibly experience kidney failure.  Additionally, if you take more than one supplement at a time, or take too much, you could also experience liver damage.  To me, this seems like a high price to pay for temporary weight loss — mostly water –, which will be regained quickly.

In addition to a laxative ingredient, detox supplements typically include some type of powerful diuretic.  Just as laxatives can vary so will diuretics. Again, usage could lead you to assume you are losing weight, but the reality is that the product is simply pulling water out of your body and potentially causing dehydration.  Stop using the product and guess what?  You can bet your last dollar that you’ll likely regain all that lost “weight”.

Bulk-forming agents, which are generally fiber-rich foods such as bran, psyllium, and methylcellulose, are the only laxatives approved for daily use.  However, it is important to note that if you are already experiencing very low bowel movement frequency or hard stools, these foods may make the symptoms worse. The only laxatives approved for occasional use are osmotic agents such as sorbitol, milk of magnesia, and Epsom salts.  If these types are used more than occasionally, dependency may result.  

Steering Clear

Athletes and active individuals serious about health and fitness know that detox supplements like herbal cleanses and colonics are never recommended because of the urgency of bowel movement, possible decrease in performance, and the increased likelihood of Candida with intestinal flora removed as a result of a cleanse.  Even if you were to take supplemental probiotics to offset these negative effects, the ability to absorb much-needed nutrients will remain low until the body can restore homeostasis, and this takes time.  

Some individuals after cleansing find that peristalsis is adversely affected causing intermittent diarrhea and constipation. For athletes and physically active individuals, this means that nutrient timing and exercise performance can be diminished.  Therefore, products such as herbal cleanse and colonics should be avoided at all costs, unless medically warranted.  

If you have decided to detox, and the program promotes a natural and healthy approach to doing it, there really is no need to add any type of detox or powerful cleansing agent/supplement to that regimen.  However, if you do determine that you still want to use such a product, then you need to educate yourself regarding the ingredients. Talk to your doctor about the product’s potential side effects and the effect on your health.  Read and research the product labels thoroughly, and know exactly the role each one may play in promoting (or undermining) your health.  Remember to drink the recommended servings of water to maintain proper hydration, and do not remain on any detox product beyond the recommended time.  Doing so could not only deprive your body of important vitamins and nutrients but also cause permanent damage to your body and general health.