Detox Teas & Liver Cleanses: Scam Or A Sure Thing?

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Somehow, somewhere, our livers have been given the mantra, “Work hard, play hard.” But is this extreme sense of balance necessary? I’ve heard from different experts that the liver already naturally detoxes the body, so I had to find out for once and for all. Thankfully, Jennifer Nebesky, president of the Canadian Liver Foundation, answers all my questions. 

Is the term “toxin” a fear-mongering word or is there legitimacy behind it? 

Yes, and no. “Our bodies absorb and ingest substances that, in small quantities, are relatively safe but can be harmful in larger amounts. We call these ’toxins.’ For example, excess sugar and fat intake […] can be classified as toxic, so can excess alcohol consumption and tobacco smoke,” says Nebesky. “Your liver helps to remove and break down most drugs and chemicals from your blood stream. But breaking down these toxic substances creates by-products that can damage the liver. Although the liver has a great capacity for regeneration, constant exposure to toxic substances can cause serious, sometimes irreversible harm. Which is why making conscious decisions about what you eat and drink, what products you use and how you use them – both on your body and in your home – the medications you take, is very important.”

When it comes to those detox teas and herbs to boost detoxification, more research is needed. The word “toxin” in marketing materials can be ambiguous. “Supplement companies who market liver detox products often do not clearly define the term ’toxin’.” 

Are there any nutrients – or frankly any lifestyle habits and changes – that help the liver do its job to detox? 

Get ready for sage advice you’ve heard before: Eat well and exercise. “Healthy lifestyle choices will help support your liver to do its job,” says Nebesky. She points to nutrient-dense foods, those that specifically contain antioxidants like fruits and vegetables. “Processed fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest culprits in contributing to liver diseases, specifically non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – particularly if a person is already struggling with being overweight or obese. When a person eats too much sugar and fat, the liver may be unable to export the excess, which means the excess sugar will get converted into fat in the liver. This fat build-up can lead to fatty liver disease or make an already fatty liver worse.”

While it’s obvious that exercise helps with weight maintenance and weight loss, Nebesky says physical activity is backed by research in helping the liver. Exercise decreases fatty build-up in the liver, improving fatty acid breakdown and preventing liver cell damage.

For those diagnosed with liver disease, a following a nutrition program of quality carbohydrates, dietary fats and protein-rich foods is even more important, she adds. 

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What are the symptoms that the liver isn’t naturally detoxing as it should?

Symptoms of liver disease can include: “Fatigue, nausea, dark urine, long-lasting itching of your skin, spider-like blood vessels on the skin, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, known as jaundice.” And Nebesky says it’s also possible to have no symptoms at all. And these symptoms are also attributed to other health conditions, so getting an expert diagnosis is important. 

Does a “detox” or “cleanse” help the liver?

Firm answer on this question. “Your liver doesn’t need to be detoxed or cleansed,” says Nebesky. “It does that job itself. Your liver needs to be detoxed as much as soap needs to be cleaned. As mentioned, healthy lifestyle choices help your liver perform its best and aid in the prevention of liver disease. And further, liver cleanses and liver detoxes have not been proven to treat existing liver damage.”

I’ve been pitched detox teas to weight-loss cleanses. And some even sound very convincing, especially if you’re wanting the results they suggest, hint or even promise. “Over the last decade, endless products have flooded the markets claiming to detox or cleanse the liver,” says Nebesky, “whether it is following a weekend of bingeing on food or alcohol, a quick weight loss strategy, mood improvements, maintaining daily liver function or to repair an already damaged liver.”

She continues: “Many of these liver cleansing claiming products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Health Canada and have very limited – if any – research evidence or reviews. While some common ingredients in liver cleanses have been shown to have positive results — milk thistle has been shown to decrease liver inflammation, and turmeric extract has been shown to protect against liver injury — there is limited data in humans to recommend the routine use of these natural compounds for prevention.” And many liver detox and cleanse programs sold online are low-cal foods and drinks that are rich in fruit and vegetables, says Nebesky. As for detox pills and other cleansing products, “there is no clinical data to support the efficacy of these cleanses. In fact, some dietary supplements can actually cause harm to the liver by leading to drug-induced injury.”

The bottom line on cleanses

“While your body does accumulate toxins, cleanses and detox diets are not supported by toxicological mechanisms or clinical evidence. And they can occasionally be dangerous. Your liver, and other organs, work nonstop to detoxify you; a diet rich in protein, vegetables, and fruits will provide them with the nutrients they need to function optimally. Ultimately, the best thing you can do to keep your liver healthy is to treat it well.”

Liver Detoxification: Fact or Fiction

Here are some common thoughts about the liver, liver function, cleansing and detoxing. Nebesky clears up if they are fact or fiction.

“Lemon water cleanses the liver.”

Fiction: “Lemons are generally healthy, as are most fruits,” she says. “Specific health-promoting claims about lemon water, however, are built on very weak evidence.”

“Elimination diets are detoxifying.”

Fiction: “Generally speaking, these types of diets can be considered successful in the short-term, mainly due to a caloric deficit, which can lead to weight loss and generally ‘feeling better’,” says Nebesky. “Many studies show that prolonged fasting and extremely low-calorie diets lower the body’s basal metabolic rate – the measurement of the number of calories needed to perform your body’s most basic functions – as it struggles to conserve energy. And once the person resumes normal eating, rapid weight gain follows – also referred to as the ‘yo-yo dieting’ effect.”

“Raw foods are easier for the body to digest, helping detoxify the body.”

Fiction: “There is no evidence that raw diets have detoxifying effects,” she says. “But, since raw food diets are based around eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains, you will be getting lots of fibre, which is good for digestion and will ultimately support your liver health.”

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“Increasing water intake is the number one way to detox.”

Fact & Fiction: “Let me explain,” says Nebesky. It’s fiction in that water detoxifies the body. But it is true that drinking more water is a healthy life choice. “It helps with physical performance, energy levels and brain functions, may help with headaches, may help relieve constipation as well as aid with weight loss.”

“Consume more liquids than solid foods.”

Fiction: “No published medical research currently supports the safety or efficacy of juice cleanses,” she says. “There is some research that indicates drinking vegetable juice is a healthy way to increase your intake of vegetables, but it should not replace fresh, whole vegetables. Whole fruits and vegetables have a higher nutritive value and can help the body to naturally detoxify itself.” If you can eat whole foods, opt for that, suggests Nebesky. But that said, some days a smoothie or a juice is just too convenient. And that’s more than okay, too. But it’s just not better for your liver.

“Eat more greens, less fibre.”

Both Fact & Fiction: It’s fiction to avoid fibre. In fact, “fibre helps keep bowel movements regular, lower cholesterol levels and control blood sugar levels, while helping your liver work at an optimal level.” And it’s a fact that consuming more greens and whole vegetables are good for your health, as both are high in fibre,” says Nebesky. That said, she does share that some people have difficulties digesting fibre. That’s when “a low-fibre diet is recommended to treat flare-ups of digestive system problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.”