Does Detoxing Really Work?
In 2010 environmental thought leader Bruce Lourie and environmentalist Rick Smith wrote the international best seller, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, an exposé on the toxic load that’s poisoning the environment, the food chain, and us. The thesis of the book was that we all need to be more careful about what we put in our bodies, on our bodies, and into the earth’s landfills because it has a demonstrable (and measurable) impact on all of us. Fair point. But what about the toxic load that’s outside of our control, that’s in our workplaces, our cars, our restaurants? So Lourie and Smith decided to write a follow-up, Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals out of our Bodies and Our World, about how to get all the toxins out of your system once they’re in there. And that’s where it gets a little bit more nebulous, particularly in a detox landscape that’s overly-marketed and full of false claims. So, in a hilarious and fascinating account, the duo decided to test it all through self-experimentation—and by talking to a lot of experts in the process. They exposed themselves to any number of bad things—shampoos, cosmetics, fabrics and mattresses, non-stick pans, plastic bottles, and pesticide-laden food—and then they measured their blood and sweat. And then employed everything from from chelation to sauna therapy to detox diets to see what expedited the cleanse. Some things definitely did nothing (ionic footbaths). Some things made them pass out (overzealous sauna-ing). But some things worked—namely anything that compelled the body to sweat, and anything that burned fat (most toxins are lipophilic, i.e., they’re attracted to fat). Below, we asked Bruce Lourie some questions.
Many argue that our bodies were designed to detox and that facilitating it is a fool’s errand—do you agree?
Our bodies have amazing natural detox abilities. Many of our major organs, most notably our liver, are designed to cleanse us of impurities—evolving over millions of years perfecting these traits. But our systems are not prepared for the onslaught of post-1950 synthetic toxins that we ingest, breathe, and absorb through our skin, on a daily basis. So we need to take special precautions to avoid certain products and we must do all that we can to support our natural detox abilities.
“Our systems are not prepared for the onslaught of post-1950 synthetic toxins that we ingest, breathe, and absorb through our skin, on a daily basis.”
These harmful chemicals in everyday products include everything from shampoos (parabens and phthalates), cosmetics (too many to list), fabrics and mattresses (flame retardants and PFCs), non-stick pans (PFCs), plastic bottles (BPA and styrene), and our food (pesticides). These chemicals are linked to breast and prostate cancer, reproductive disorders, thyroid conditions, childhood asthma and behavioural problems such as ADHD, among a host of other carcinogenic and endocrine-related health issues. These are the chemicals of greatest concern and the ones we want to avoid, and eliminate through detoxing.
To cut right to it, were you able to scientifically prove that there are ways to help our bodies speed/facilitate detoxification? What results were the most dramatic and surprising?
As any goop reader will know, the single most important detox idea is to adopt a detox lifestyle, an annual 48 hour cleanse just doesn’t cut it, literally.
Water is the force of life. Understanding this may be the most important part of any detox routine. Our bodies are roughly two-thirds water so we must make sure we are replenishing our systems with fresh, filtered water on a regular basis. In addition to flushing our primary detox organs (liver and kidneys), water, combined with heat and or exercise, drives one of the most important and scientifically proven detox methods—sauna.
“While doing my sauna experiment I discovered that we actually sweat out toxic plastics!”
Sweating is a good thing! My detox routine (remember, lifestyle) includes drinking six to eight glasses of water per day, every day, and at least three activities per week that involve sweating. This includes any form of vigorous exercise, supplemented with sauna if you have access to one. While doing my sauna experiment I discovered that we actually sweat out toxic plastics! And even more interesting, certain chemicals come out of our sweat more readily than our urine, the other main water-based detox system we have. So of all the detox systems I researched I was most impressed by the importance of our internal water cycle and the simple idea of drinking lots of water and sweating. What’s more, sweating in a sauna does wonders for your skin. I literally had colleagues I barely knew commenting on my skin while I was in the middle of my intense sauna experiment (where admittedly I overdid it to the point of passing out).
“Certain chemicals come out of our sweat more readily than our urine, the other main water-based detox system we have.”
Chelation is another proven detox technique I tried out, but this is very specific for people with high levels of heavy metals, particularly mercury, in their bodies. It can be somewhat invasive and requires medical supervision so it is only recommended for people with documented mercury toxicity. In those cases it is highly effective.
What are the simplest things we can do?
A detox lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. The things that enhance our general well-being are happily the same things that help our bodies detox. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Eat more vegetables and less meat and dairy, to increase fiber and avoid animal fat.
2. Eat organic food, to avoid cancer-causing pesticides.
3. Buy toxin free personal care and household products—read the labels.
4. Drink lots of fresh filtered water.
5. Sweat several times a week.
6. Exercise regularly, even if it is just a 20 minute work-out.
“Binge cleansing is no better than binge dieting.”
If you do these things on a weekly basis you are guaranteed to have fewer toxins in your body while enhancing overall health. We need to turn the short-term cleanse idea on its head. Cleanses can be helpful but they are often presented as binges. Binge cleansing is no better than binge dieting. We basically go crazy for 48 hours doing something that we couldn’t possibly sustain on a regular basis, then go back to our unhealthy lifestyle. We must turn this thinking around and adopt a detox lifestyle, where we are living in a healthy and reasonable way most of the time, so that we are constantly detoxing (because we are constantly exposed to unwanted chemicals). And save the binging for the bad stuff. Break down and have some yummy barbecue ribs and fries if you must. But make that the exception. Or maybe a cheese platter is your big weakness. As long as it isn’t a daily cheese platter.
“We must turn this thinking around and adopt a detox lifestyle, where we are living in a healthy and reasonable way most of the time, so that we are constantly detoxing (because we are constantly exposed to unwanted chemicals).”
Speaking of cheese platters, you talk to a great extent in the book about how fat harbors toxins—can you expound on that a bit?
Ribs, fries and cheese take me to the final detox parable—fat is bad—in case that isn’t obvious. In addition to the well-documented cardiovascular problems caused by too much fat, there is a fascinating link between fat and toxins.
“There is a fascinating link between fat and toxins.”
First, most of the synthetic chemicals we need to worry about are called lipophilic—that means they are attracted to fat. So if we are eating fatty meats or cheeses, the pesticides and other fat soluble chemicals in our environment will be concentrated in the fat. So we will be ingesting more harmful chemicals. Second, if we consume fatty foods, there is a good chance we will store more fat in our bodies. And guess what that means—more places for the fat-loving chemicals to build up in. Third, if we are eating too much meat and dairy, that means we are eating too few vegetables. Vegetables and fruits (more veggies because fruits contain high levels of sugar) are important for a whole bunch of reasons. To name a few, vegetables are low in fat, high in soluble and insoluble fiber (really important for detox), and contain important anti-oxidants.
“Most of the synthetic chemicals we need to worry about are called lipophilic—that means they are attracted to fat. So if we are eating fatty meats or cheeses, the pesticides and other fat soluble chemicals in our environment will be concentrated in the fat.”
Make 2015 a cleanse year, the first of many. Follow my six simple recommendations and remember that the most important step is simply starting.
—Bruce Lourie is President of Ivey Foundation, a private charitable foundation in Canada, and a director of the Independent Electricity System Operator (Ontario), Philanthropic Foundations Canada, Canadians for Clean Prosperity, and the San Francisco-based Consultative Group on Biological Diversity. Bruce is the co-author of two best-selling books and an honorary director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. In 2014 Bruce received Earth Day Canada’s Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award and was named to Canada’s “Clean 50” group. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Canada. Bruce holds a B.Sc. in Geology and a Master’s in Environmental Studies. Bruce is well known for his work in convening collaborative efforts among businesses, NGOs and government that achieve significant progress. Examples include the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, one of the world’s largest conservation initiatives, and his pioneering role in connecting environmental issues to human health, most notably with the shutdown of coal-fired power plants in Ontario, the single largest climate action in North America. Bruce is a founder of a number of for profit and non-profit organizations including Summerhill Group, the Sustainability Network, and the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network. He has acted on numerous international, federal, provincial and municipal bodies advising on environmental, health and energy policy issues. Bruce holds a B.Sc. in Geology and a Master’s in Environmental Studies.
Related: How Detox Environmental Toxins