Feeling the Need to Detox? Here's the Real Truth

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Detox diets, regimens and supplements are supposed to rid your body of toxins acquired from food, lifestyle or the environment. Proponents also say detoxing – or cleansing -- can improve your health and promote weight loss. But what does the research say about detoxes and cleanses? And are these methods and supplements safe? UH physician and toxicologist Ryan Marino, MD, provides a science-based perspective.


Podcast Transcript

Pete Kenworthy

Years ago when you heard about detox, it generally related to some kind of rehab, right? Somebody who was in a really bad spot and they had to be chemically treated to break an addiction with drugs or alcohol, something like that.

Macie Jepson

Well, today detox is a multibillion-dollar industry made up of cleanses and juices and supplements and extreme measures to rid our bodies of toxins. But do they work or are they fads? Hi everybody. I'm Macie Jepson.

Pete Kenworthy

And I'm Pete Kenworthy, and this is Healthy@UH. So, detoxes vary but they can be a number of things, right? They could be, they could involve some sort of fasting. They could involve some sort of strict diet with vegetables or fruits or fruit juices. In addition, some detox diets advocate things like herbs or supplements or colon cleansing, enemas to empty the intestines. All sorts of various things are out there telling you what to do to get rid of these toxins in your body. I've never tried anything like this. Have you done any of these?

Macie Jepson

You know, I'm curious, but I'm also really, really confused for all the reasons that you just mentioned. I mean, not to mention the fact that they're expensive. So, I look at them; I read about them. I hear about them in the daily Kim Kardashian media frenzy. My friends try to sell them to me for $300. But I've never actually taken the bite or the sip or, I don't know, whatever it is that you take, that magic bullet, because the options are really overwhelming.

Pete Kenworthy

Yeah. And as we like to say, we are not the experts in this situation, but we're going to try and end some of the confusion and add some fact to the conversation. We're bringing in Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist here at University Hospitals. Doctor, thanks for being with us.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Pete Kenworthy

So, this global detox market was valued at over $51 billion last year. And I don't mean to laugh, but that's a lot of money. We're talking about cold-pressed juice. We're talking about slimming tea. Because of this $51 billion, you would think these work, right? People are buying them and spending a lot of money on them.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. But I think that's just a lot of, a lot of scamming going on.

Pete Kenworthy

Huh. What do you mean?

Dr. Ryan Marino

So, I mean, it's a big market. These are purported to have some sort of medical benefit. And I think buying things over the counter usually isn't a good way to practice medicine.

Macie Jepson

How about getting rid of toxins? Is it a good way to get rid of toxins? And what kind of toxins are we talking about that are so bad for us that we have to spend money and have them removed from our body unnaturally?

Dr. Ryan Marino

So, yeah. I think that's, that's kind of the whole, the scam of it all is they've tricked people into thinking that you have toxins that you're somehow wrong. I need to do something to kind of keep up with that. The only thing you need to detox your body naturally, and I hate to even say that because I don't think anyone really does need to detox, is just your liver and your kidneys. And if, if those aren't working, you should, should seek medical attention anyways.

Macie Jepson

So, you're saying that there really any bad toxins from these processed foods we're eating, from this bad lifestyle that we're living. There's nothing so bad in our body that we need to do this?

Dr. Ryan Marino

Well, there's certainly toxins out there. I mean my, my whole career is toxicology, so it wouldn't exist without a lot of toxins out there, but nothing that these things are going to treat. And nothing that people will necessarily need to worry about most of the time. I mean, if you're exposed to kind of like smoke or environmental waste, that kind of thing, that's definitely different. But a tea that a celebrity sells you isn't going to fix that.

Pete Kenworthy

Let me play devil's advocate here for a second because you talked about a celebrity looking to sell you something. We've heard, you know, the Kardashians talking about this stuff. I think Cardi B was selling something, not selling it, but talking about on Instagram and how great it was and people should get it. Now, people will tell you they feel better, right? After doing this, whatever they're doing, whether it's fasting mixed with the juice or it's just these juices or shakes or whatever. So, what is that? Is this a placebo effect? Like what, what's behind people saying, I feel better, I look better, I've lost weight, that kind of thing?

Dr. Ryan Marino

I have to suspect that most of it is probably placebo effect. I mean the whole appeal of this like detox market, these teas, these juices, these cleanses is kind of this desire for magical thinking. People want something that'll fix a problem, and if you can buy it online, take a pill every day, there's definitely some sort of element of wanting to believe that that'll be like a magical cure all.

Pete Kenworthy

But it's all bunk.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. Unless you have some sort of deficiency or have some sort of poisoning, there's no reason to take supplements. There's no reason to try to detox from anything. And I think for the most part, like the detox teas cause a lot of diarrhea. People can get sick from these things. If people are actually feeling better, it might just be they've switched some more like hydration and fruit and vegetables into their diet. Probably risking worse outcomes more so than good.

Macie Jepson

All right. You just went somewhere that I want you to continue down that path. So, this can be bad for you.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah, definitely.

Macie Jepson

How so?

Dr. Ryan Marino

Depending on what people are doing here. The teas can cause a lot of diarrhea, can cause dehydration. There was a popular cleanse a few years ago where people would drink water with lemon juice and cayenne pepper and maple syrup. I personally saw a bunch of people who came in with bad dehydration, saw kids who had kidney injuries from that. You're kind of risking your body when you put things in it that are not approved by anyone, don't have any evidence behind them. And taking advice from a celebrity risking like dehydrating yourself is probably not a good idea.

Macie Jepson

So, Doctor, following up on the fact that you've seen kids come in with major problems…not terribly surprising to me. I have two daughters. The pressure to be perfect is unbelievable. But could you touch on that? I mean, what are you seeing in these, not just girls but kids?

Dr. Ryan Marino

Just to clarify, it was teenagers is who, here. But, I mean, these products can also be risky to have around with small children who can get into things that'll give them other problems. But I think the pressure that is on teens and young people, and not just young people, but I mean everyone to have a certain body type, be able to be super thin without having time in the day to go exercise and buy well balanced meals. People fall pressure to wanting something else to help them. And so, I mean, supplements, pills, vitamins, teas, cleanses, whatever it is, is, is what they, they turn to.

Pete Kenworthy

So, how do we get through to them, right? Certainly not everybody's going to listen to this. How do we change those behaviors? How do we convince people or let them know that it's, none of this is real? None of it works.

Macie Jepson

Especially when they're idolizing perfection on social media.

Pete Kenworthy

And those people are hawking, you know, they aren't selling their own product, but they're saying, hey, I did this and it works.

Dr. Ryan Marino

I think social media has a big part to play here because people do listen to celebrities a lot more than they want to listen to like a random doctor who says that the detox tea doesn't work. So, I think, I mean, trying to kind of change the message, things like this podcast, I mean, make a big difference.

Pete Kenworthy

You talked about not a lot of science behind it. Tell me a little bit more about that. I know we saw you quoted in a New York Post article, which is really kind of what caught our attention here. And the article also talked about a 2015 study and a 2017 study. What studies have been done? I assume there's stuff out there that it's not just one side says it's good and it works, and then the medical community it doesn't. There's science behind it.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. So, I mean certainly there, like herbs and supplements can have benefits, and there is science to show those things, and then those become medicine. So, when we refer to something as like a detox or supplement that's not medicine, that just means that it doesn't have any sort of evidence behind it. And they've done, there was a big review in 2015 that showed no benefits for a lot of these different things. And I think another popular thing more recently has been like activated charcoal being in ice cream and drinks and toothpaste. Now I think one of the Jenners is selling a toothpaste with activated charcoal. We do use activated charcoal in certain poisonings, but there's a vast amount of evidence showing that activated charcoal has very limited benefits. And so, I think that's probably the best example because it's been around for hundreds of years, and we really rarely use it because the benefit is so narrow,

Macie Jepson

You have to ask yourself where they come up with these ideas. They're quite creative. So, I just know generally that in order to rid yourself of toxins, your kidneys have to function and your liver has to function. And could there be something to say about taking a supplement that makes those work better?

Dr. Ryan Marino

I would say no. So, I mean, keeping like hydrated is probably an important thing to keep your kidneys functioning at their peak. And then having a balanced diet, I mean, can help with your liver, certainly. But no supplement, no tea, no pill is going to improve the way your liver and your kidneys work.

Macie Jepson

I want to follow up, then. A natural detox...is that ever a good idea? I mean, just really taking a break from processed foods and doing the fruits and vegetables for a while?

Dr, Ryan Marino

People with processed foods and kind of like modern society, we definitely have issues that didn't used to exist, and not that like the chemicals in the foods or the way they're cooked are necessarily bad, but we don't have the balance in our diet that our bodies probably would prefer. So, eating like high carbohydrate and not getting protein is definitely bad. But on the flip side, eating like all protein and not getting carbohydrates is not something that I would recommend because that's also not healthy.

Pete Kenworthy

Is there a certain patient population that we're talking about here? I mean, is this a woman thing? Is this a man thing? Is it young, old? Or is it everybody and anybody who are being scammed, I guess, for lack of a better word?

Dr. Ryan Marino

I mean, I think everybody is affected at this point. This market is, is massive as we talked about. But I think there is a certain demographic that is kind of probably…younger women will be the ones who fall victim to these kind of like pyramid schemes where they end up selling these products and trying to convince all their friends on Facebook to buy it, at least in my experience. But it's not, it's not specific just to women. Men are affected. No one I think is really immune.

Macie Jepson

So, Doctor, if I wanted to take my $300 now that I'm not going to spend on my detox, what would you recommend that I spend it on for my body to live a healthy life?

Dr. Ryan Marino

Oh, that's a good question. I mean, I think buying some more fresh fruits and vegetables, getting a good meal, whatever makes you feel good, I mean, if it's a massage. There's a lot of things that can help people just relax. I mean, the stress people put themselves under is probably another element that's contributing to health problems in society. And I don't know, if someone smokes, I mean, maybe $300 would go a long way towards like things that could help them quit. Someone drinks a lot; $300 could buy you a lot of things to distract you from wanting to drink alcohol.

Pete Kenworthy

Are you telling me that the age-old advice of eat right and exercise is actually it?

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. An apple a day, something like that.

Macie Jepson

Oh, we come to that again.

Pete Kenworthy

So, before we let you go. Any sort of a minute or less summary on what this is all about? It seems like, big scam, be smarter.

Dr. Ryan Marino

The main takeaway is no one needs to detox. And if you think you do, you should talk to a doctor about it. But there aren't just toxins floating around in our bodies. And nothing that you buy over the counter is going to help with that. anyway. And to go back to the question you asked a minute ago about who's affected, I think this is kind of a good example of the growing pseudoscience movement that's been a problem in this country. And I think people who have a little bit of scientific knowledge and a little bit of education fall victim to this a lot. And so, these products all have some sort of like inkling of scientific. They sound like they do something. Charcoal is used in medicine. It does absorb toxins, but those little pieces just don't translate over to the whole breadth of this market.

Pete Kenworthy

We appreciate your time. It's been a great insight and hopefully people take something away from it like we have. We appreciate it.

Dr. Ryan Marino

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Pete Kenworthy

Dr. Ryan Marino, medical toxicologist with University Hospitals. As always, you can find our podcasts on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Macie Jepson

For more health news, advice from our University Hospitals’ medical experts, and Healthy@UH podcasts, go to UHHospitals.org/blog.

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