Science

What is a toxin?

Your body is under siege. Invisible dangers lurk in every bite of food and every breath you take. That’s how it can feel if you’re concerned about toxins—you may even feel you need to buy a special drink, eat a special diet, or behave in a special way to sidestep their devastating effects.

You wouldn’t be alone. An Instagram search for #detox brings up nearly 23 million posts, and hashtags like #detoxyourbody, #toxinfreeliving and #detoxdrinks are as plentiful as the toxins they claim to help eliminate.

But before you climb aboard 2022’s new-year-new-you-toxin-termination train, take a deep breath. Toxins are much less harmful than you might think—and pursuing a detox could be hazardous to your health.

What is a detox, anyway? 

The concept of “detoxing” your body from harmful substances is relatively new. According to historian Adrienne Rose Bitar, a lecturer at Cornell University, it arose in the 1970s, gaining steam alongside the fear drummed up by the United States’ war on drugs. Over time, diet and health gurus borrowed the terminology of addiction treatment, then broadened the idea of “detoxification” to every bodily system. As the idea took hold, there was an explosion of diets and regimens designed to correct those supposed evils.

But what is it that we’re trying to detox from? The answer differs wildly depending on who you consult—and more often than not, it diverges from the actual scientific definition of the term. In medicine, “toxin” refers to a biological substance that is poisonous to humans (think snake venom or botulism toxin). Scientists also use the term to refer to harmful environmental chemicals such as lead and PFOS.

For the vast majority of those who refer to toxins, though, the word is used as a catch-all for any substance purported to harm human health. Everything from the air you breathe to the combinations of food you chomp could produce toxic substances that lurk in your body, depending on who you ask. And those who truck in toxin removal claim that everything from saunas to silent retreats to green juice can help.

There are two tiny problems with this approach: It’s both completely unnecessary and potentially harmful.

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The best form of detoxing  

Here’s the thing: your body comes fully equipped with everything you need to stamp out actual toxins.

The liver is the star of the poison-clearing show. Known for performing hundreds of vital bodily tasks, the three-pound organ converts the contents of a body’s blood into useful compounds. When the liver encounters toxins like environmental pollutants or alcohol, it breaks them down into less harmful chemicals. The kidneys and colon pitch in, too, banishing harmful substances through urine and feces.

Some toxins you ingest get eaten up by acids in your stomach or enzymes in your small intestines. And if you encounter a water-soluble toxin like a high level of salt, a pesticide like azatrine, or ethanol, the liver gets straight to work. “It will be cleared immediately,” says Indika Edirisinghe, a professor of food science and nutrition at the Illinois Institute of Technology who studies food’s role in fighting inflammation and other ills. Some toxins, however, are fat soluble. Though the liver can break some of those substances down into water soluble ones, it can’t transform others and passes those on to other organs, where they accumulate and either degrade with time or stay put. 

The body can purge some fat-soluble toxic chemicals with the help of medical treatments like chelation, which binds to some heavy metal molecules in the body so they can be carried out in urine. But for other toxic substances, like the polychlorinated biphenyls found in some common building materials, there is no known antidote. 

[Related: Too many antioxidants can give you cancer]

Why detox regimens can do more harm than good 

Faced with a fear of toxins and a lack of faith in those hard-working organs, plenty of people try to give themselves a leg up by eating special diets or taking substances touted as detoxifiers.

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That can backfire, Edirisinghe says: In their quest to remove vague toxins from their bodies, people can cause very tangible harm. Many “natural” cleanses aren’t as safe as you might assume. 

“When it comes to certain nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals, more is not good,” he explains. “If you exceed the tolerable upper level [of a vitamin or mineral], things can go in the wrong direction.”

Take Vitamin E. The substance is touted as an antioxidant—a chemical that can prevent or slow cell damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage cells, leading to aging and disease. But our body actually needs a balance between free radicals and antioxidants. Too much Vitamin E can disrupt that equilibrium and make it harder for cells to communicate with one another, Edirisinghe says, but it’s marketed to consumers as a vital part of detoxification.

“You have a really good system,” says Edirisinghe—and for the most part, a healthy body has everything it needs to tackle toxins. There are exceptions, such as the consumption of heavy metals or pesticides. But short of completely reforming the industrial food system or solving the problem of mega polluters, it’s nearly impossible to sidestep the consumption of any toxic chemical—and you can’t safely eliminate ones like lead from your system without the intervention of a licensed medical professional.

A focus on toxins can hurt people in another way: by plunging them into an eating disorder. In a review of more than 50 peer-reviewed studies, the frequent use of diets or cleanses focused on detoxifying and/or a fear of eating toxins was identified as a risk factor for orthorexia nervosa. The disorder, which involves an unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating, has yet to make its way into the DSM, the diagnostic manual of record. But it’s increasingly being recognized and treated by eating disorder specialists.

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Eating a varied diet and mixing up the types of foods you consume is better protection against accumulating toxins than attempting fad cleanses or taking supplements, Edirisinghe says. “You have a really good system,” he adds—and for the most part, a healthy body has everything it needs to tackle toxins. There are exceptions, such as the consumption of heavy metals or pesticides. But short of completely reforming the industrial food system or solving the problem of mega polluters, it’s nearly impossible to sidestep the consumption of any toxic chemical—and you can’t safely eliminate ones like lead from your system without the intervention of a licensed medical professional.

If you’re scared of toxins, your best bet is to take care of your body by eating a balanced diet that meets USDA dietary guidelines, staying active, and doing your best to sidestep environmental pollutants like smoke, lead, and industrial chemicals. But ultimately, it’s worth examining why you feel the need to detoxify to begin with.

“‘Toxins’ are nearly always general, vague metaphors for all that is wrong with American culture, politics, and people,” Bitar writes in her book Diet and the Disease of Civilization. “Like other powerful and enduring myths… the detoxification myth is utopian and optimistic, offering hope for a better body and a better world.”

After all, says Edirisinghe, your body is the product of millions of years of evolution. So take a deep breath and bet on the detox method you were born with—in all its efficient glory. 


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