By Melanie Hackett
If you are interested in health you have probably heard of “cleansing” diets aimed at ridding your body of toxins by reducing what you eat to a very limited selection of healthy products for two or three weeks.
But wait! Is our physiology that straightforward? No way. These diets simply don’t do what they are intended for. In fact, more toxins are created during these diets! Of course, there are many different types of detox diets. Like all fad diets, most of these are merely a tool for companies to earn money off unwary consumers and aren’t based on science at all. Even my mother, a very health-conscious and active 61-year-old who generally looks for the science, used to do annual “cleansing” fasts consuming nothing but elderberry juice for a week in an attempt to “flush away” toxins. I will focus on these types of “cleanses”.
In most people with a healthy diet, blood sugar levels are well regulated by two hormones: insulin and glucagon. Insulin, released by the pancreas after a meal, is the bus driver that takes the blood sugar to work. Mr Sugar’s workplace is inside all body cells where it can be used as energy for all cell function. Extra glucose (sugar) combines forming a substance called glycogen, which gets stored in the liver and muscle. The hormone glucagon, opposite of insulin, is the vehicle that takes Mr. Sugar from these stores back into the blood when your blood sugar gets low. These glycogen stores are crucial for maintaining blood glucose levels when you aren’t eating. They can be completely depleted after only a couple of hours of exercise at a heart rate 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. So how do we rebuild them? Only with a diet high in carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, quinoa, rice, whole grain bread, etc.)! These stores can also be depleted within a couple of days of consuming much less than you are expending, or not having a diet consisting of about 60 percent carbohydrates.
When the glycogen runs out, your liver breaks down fatty acids and proteins to use for energy instead. The by-products are three types of what we call ketones. Two of these are used by the heart and brain, and the third is a waste product stressing the kidneys. Ketones also make your blood more acidic. To correct this, your respiratory system goes haywire, and in extreme cases this can be fatal.
For the Bioscience Geeks:
When the pH of your blood is too low, you’ll start to hyperventilate to expel more carbon dioxide. This works because in the blood, carbon dioxide combines with water and forms bicarbonate and a hydrogen ion (the latter of which makes the blood more acidic). What’s in your lungs goes into your blood through structures called alveoli. If there is less carbon dioxide available, fewer hydrogen ions will be produced, and your blood pH will therefore go back to normal. However, less carbon dioxide also means there is less of a stimulus to breathe. This is how it can cause fatality.
The main point here is that rather than “flushing away” toxins, we create toxins when we don’t eat enough carbs. Excess ketones and the physiological effect they have can be considered toxic in the human body. These effects are pretty much identical to what happens both during starvation and during diabetic coma when a diabetic’s blood sugar is extremely high because they lack insulin, sugar’s bus driver, to help the sugar from the blood to the starved cells. This is also what happens during the Atkin’s diet, one that should only be tried in morbidly obese people who are at alarming risk of fatality if they don’t lose weight. In general, if a diet is not healthy or is impossible to maintain permanently, it probably should not be done at all.
When we don’t eat enough carbohydrates and our glycogen stores run out, the use of proteins for energy instead can be compared to burning fossil fuels. Instead of using renewable energy such as Whitehorse’s hydroelectric power, there are many more waste products with fossil fuels. The net breakdown of proteins to provide energy (either in a high protein diet such as the Atkin’s diet or when the body is starved of carbs in “cleansing” diets) not only creates ketones, but also causes a negative nitrogen balance, meaning there is a lot of nitrogenous waste being produced. Just as the burning of fossil fuels taxes Earth’s atmosphere, this taxes the liver as it tries to rid itself of the waste products. The immune system is weakened, and the levels of cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, may increase, further weakening the immune system.
The physiological effects discussed above merely state what toxins build up in the body and the negative effect on health during “detox” diets, and that’s not even to mention the nutrient deficiencies that occur during such limited diets, which have a cascade of harmful effects in the body.