Do You Need a Detox? Myths & Realities About Toxins

Mara Unkefer

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The term toxin gets thrown around a lot these days — every day I see warnings about toxins in your food, your skincare, your water, along with advertisements for supplements designed to ‘detoxify’ your body. A scroll through social media is likely to turn up numerous brightly colored images of thin women in pristine kitchens cutting up vegetables next to a bottle of some magical detox pill. The toxins these ads refer to are seldom called out by name — it’s hard to tell what specifically you’re supposed to be afraid of. The truth is, fear sells, and fear of toxins in everything drives a multimillion-dollar detox industry. Let’s talk about what toxins are and aren’t.

What is a Toxin?

Classically, the word toxin refers only to poisons that are made by living things — bacteria, plants, fungus, or animals. For example, one of the most poisonous substances on earth is the botulinum toxin, a natural toxin produced by Clostridium bacteria that causes botulism. Small amounts can lead to paralysis and death by shutting down nerve function. In modern times, scientists also use the terms toxicant and environmental toxins to refer to poisons that are manmade.

Though these are the technical definitions, it is common to hear the word toxin used to describe any potentially harmful substance. Scientists usually only use it to refer to substances that are universally harmful, but it is not uncommon to see chemicals that are harmless or even necessary described as toxins in the non-scientific world. How does this happen? Often these questionable toxin labels stem from misinterpretations of research that has found extreme doses of a substance to be harmful. However, it is frequently the case that when it’s bad to have too much, it’s also bad to have not enough.

Goldilocks & Would-Be Toxins

The tricky part with many would-be toxins is dosage. Typically, when a scientist refers to a toxin, they’re referring to something that is poisonous at a very low dose. With really nasty toxins, like botulinum, just a little can do a lot of damage and situations where the toxin is beneficial are limited. For botulinum, this means you can pay hundreds of dollars to have teeny tiny amounts of the toxin injected in your face at a Botox clinic, but if you encounter the toxin in any other situation, you’re going to get very sick. For many of the chemicals commonly vilified as toxins, small doses are perfectly safe and even healthy. Most chemicals that get smeared as toxins across the internet actually have a ‘just right’ range — too much and you’re sick, too little and you’re dead.

A great example of this is formaldehyde — you frequently hear stories of outrage when people learn that a product contains a trace amount formaldehyde. The stinky substance, often associated with the preservation of dead bodies, is assumed to be wildly toxic at any dose. Many people don’t realize that the human body produces its own formaldehyde every day, and you have a small amount of formaldehyde in your blood all the time. Your body is actually very good at processing and clearing low levels of formaldehyde — it has to be because it is continually making its own. In fact, your body needs formaldehyde to keep your DNA stable — if you didn’t have a little formaldehyde in your system, your cells would stop functioning. However, when a person is exposed to large amounts of formaldehyde, such as someone handling the chemical in a manufacturing plant, the exposure can overwhelm the body’s natural ability to deal with it, which can have serious consequences to the person’s health.

The Dose Makes the Poison

A common saying in biology is “the dose makes the poison,” and this is true of all chemicals, including water. Yup, water is in fact a chemical — you’d be in trouble without enough water, and you can die from drinking too much. Any severe electrolyte imbalance shuts down brain and bodily functions — when a person is dehydrated, electrolytes can become too concentrated, when a person drinks too much water, electrolytes can get diluted to the point of death. When you see a post claiming ‘Toxin X Causes Symptom Y!’, take the time to note how much of the substance in question you’d need to consume to see negative effects. If the article doesn’t mention a dose, it is probably not a good source. If a normal amount is neutral or healthy, it’s probably not a toxin.

So Are Detox Diets Necessary?

The reality is that most detox products and diets aren’t actually doing anything to remove extra ‘toxins’ from your body. Be wary of any product designed to cleanse your body from the inside out with only a drink or a pill — someone is likely trying to profit off your health fears. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a diet encouraging the consumption of healthy foods, and you probably will feel better simply because you’re replacing empty calories with high-quality nutrients. A detox diet that encourages you to eat more whole foods won’t necessarily cleanse your body of unwanted ‘chemicals,’ but switching refined sugars and preservatives for fruits and veggies provides your body with valuable nutrients that can help your cells function at their best.

A healthy diet will do more for your body than all the detox teas in the world.

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After a decade of laboratory research in molecular biology, development, and behavior, I shifted my focus to science communication. Today I write stories about science, education, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Baltimore, MD
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