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What's a Detox Supplement—and Does It Work?

What's a Detox Supplement—and Does It Work?

They're on sale just about everywhere, but are these pills, powders and drops a load of bunk?

“Toxins.” These shapeless, typically unnamed evils are said to exist everywhere and make us sick, giving rise to a booming industry of detox supplements in the form of pills, powders, pads and more. What are toxins, exactly? And can a detox supplement really help our bodies get rid of them?

What toxins are we talking about?
When we talk about toxins, we're referring to harmful chemicals produced inside and outside your body, says Robin Foroutan, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These include the byproducts of normal metabolism and digestion (ammonia, urea, lactic acid, etc.), as well as the chemicals present in our modern, external environment (pesticides, fertilizers, mercury in fish, particulates in air pollution, lead from water pipes, etc.). Sometimes, exposure to certain harmful chemicals can create inflammation, disrupt hormones and metabolism, and increase your risk of disease, says Foroutan.

The body has its own defensive, detoxifying system that includes breath exhalation, bowel movements, urination, sweating and normal liver function. The liver plays a large role in filtering out harmful substances. Once any substance is ingested—including nutrients, medications or toxins—it makes its way to the liver, where it is processed or detoxified. Then, it's either transferred back into the bloodstream or passed to the bowel where it can be eliminated.

Supplements to avoid
Though some naturopathic and integrative medicine practitioners believe that certain dietary supplements, in tandem with a healthy diet, can help the body’s natural detoxification processes, many traditional physicians and government health organizations disagree. The National Institutes of Health says there isn’t any convincing evidence that detox supplements work, and certain products and ingredients may harm you, or simply be frauds.

Take colon-cleansing powders and pills, for example. Many claim to eliminate toxin build-up, but a 2009 clinical review found “overwhelming lack of evidence of health benefit.” Furthermore, there was a link to adverse events, including electrolyte imbalances, septicemia, colitis and even death. At the very least, colon cleanses with laxative effects put users at risk of dehydration.

Some detox supplements contain dangerous ingredients, as well. These can be difficult to identify, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t review detox products for safety or effectiveness before they hit shelves. Still, the organization does flag items found to be particularly unsafe, like:

  • Power Slim Detox: In 2016, the FDA urged consumers not to buy this detox weight-loss product, because it was found to contain undeclared sibutramine, a controlled substance that can increase blood pressure and heart rate, sometimes fatally in people with a history of heart disease.
  • Certain Detox Transforms Health and Nutrition products: Working with the FDA, the company voluntarily recalled a number of their dietary supplements in 2015, after it was discovered they contained undeclared drugs linked to gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, abnormal bleeding and even cancer.

Finally, there are plain old ineffective products—marketing scams meant to separate you from your hard-earned money—like detox foot pads. The Federal Trade Commission says these items, which stick to the soles of your feet and claim to cure everything from toxin overload to cancer, have no scientific basis.

Foroutan, as opposed to government health organizations, takes a more open-minded approach to detox supplements. “Because the supplement industry is unregulated, it’s impossible to say, as a category, whether detox supplements are helpful, harmful or neutral,” she says.

Tips for a healthy immune system and digestive tract
Whether or not you worry about harmful toxins, adopting healthy habits can be helpful. “Being aware of it can help you minimize your exposure and practice a lifestyle that optimizes your body’s own detoxification processes,” says Foroutan. She offers the following dietary tips to promote a healthy body every day:

  1. Drink adequate amounts of water to facilitate regular bowel movements.
  2. Eat fiber every day in the form of vegetables and whole grains, also in the name of regularity.
  3. Include plenty of antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate and vegetables like artichokes and kale to help eliminate cell-damaging free radicals from your body.
  4. Incorporate probiotic foods—meaning naturally fermented products like sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, pickles and yogurt—into your diet. To promote a healthy population of gut-friendly bacteria, also include prebiotic foods, such as fruits, vegetables, onions and garlic.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to kick-start a new, healthy lifestyle, the safest and most effective things you can do are eat well and limit putting yourself in harm’s way—which includes being wary of the potentially unsafe world of supplements.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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