Is there any benefit of a detox diet?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Friends are urging me to join them in a “detox” diet. Is there any value to it?

DEAR READER:

At first, the idea seems appealing. Our bodies do produce plenty of chemicals that can become toxic to our tissues.

We also absorb some potentially toxic substances from the environment. Surely, in the post-industrial age we have added many chemicals into our environment — chemicals that none of our species, going back 40,000 years, had ever been exposed to. So a program that promises to rid our bodies of toxins has appeal.

Quite a number of my patients have tried various detox diets. One of the more popular ones is the “master cleanse.” For days, you consume only a concoction made of spring water, organic maple syrup, freshly squeezed organic lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Not all detox diets are that extreme, but many do require at least 24 hours of a strict liquid diet.

Proponents of detox programs claim that the buildup of toxins in our bodies decreases immunity, leads to chronic disease, decreases energy and slows metabolism. That surely is true for the natural waste products that our bodies produce. But our bodies have plenty of their own natural detoxification systems. The liver, kidneys and lungs all function, in part, to get rid of certain toxins.

Do we need detox programs in addition to our natural detox systems? Indeed, do any of these programs work? I’m not aware of any evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from our bodies, prevent chronic disease or improve overall health. What’s more, detox diets can be expensive and can cause unpleasant side effects, such as decreased energy, lightheadedness, headaches and nausea.

Specific foods and food groups are especially good at supporting our natural detoxification system. At the top of the list are cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, watercress and Brussels sprouts. Other foods on the list include garlic, leeks and onions, turmeric and citrus peel.

If you’re in good health, a brief detox diet probably won’t hurt. But avoid one completely if you are nursing or pregnant, young, elderly or have a medical condition.

I support my body’s natural detoxification system by eating a well-balanced, plant-rich diet that includes plenty of detox-supporting foods. After all, why drink broccoli when you can just eat it?

Whenever I am skeptical about a non-traditional treatment like putative detox programs, I worry that some readers will conclude that I’m just a traditional doctor who won’t entertain new ideas. But regular readers will know that I’m open to non-traditional treatments that have been studied scientifically and found to be valuable — such as tai chi for fibromyalgia. I’ve even had kind words for non-traditional treatments that haven’t been fully studied but appear to have no adverse effects. Acupressure for the nausea caused by chemotherapy is one example.

I’m open-minded, yet skeptical, about any proposed treatment — mainstream or non-traditional — until it’s been shown to be of value in scientific studies.

(This column is an update of one that ran originally in February 2013.)