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What You Need to Know About Detoxing and Eating Disorders

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Detox teas, drinks, smoothies and juice cleanse packages are ubiquitous in this health-obsessed day and age; whether it be at the grocery store, a local smoothie shop or a farmer’s market, you are bound to find endless options to “detox” yourself, even by concocting your own elixir. Often, many consumers of these brands that claim to detox are looking for a quick weight-loss solution.

A recent video and article on the BBC has shed light on the issue that is becoming more of a concern, especially among women and young girls. Emma, a 23-year-old woman, discusses her battle with anorexia nervosa and how she began abusing a detox tea from a grocery store when she realized it had a laxative effect.

Surprisingly and unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of data concerning the demographics and number of people who abuse detox drinks.

Regardless, it is happening out there to many individuals; why else would companies continue to promote and sell these products?

Here are a few common questions and research-based answers regarding detoxing and the concept of detox drinks:

Aside from a drink, what are other “detox” methods?

  • Caffeine enema.
  • Colonic.
  • Laxatives.
  • Dry brushing.
  • Infrared or traditional sauna.

Can’t my body detox itself naturally?

According to Alive, Dr. Christine Craig states that there are six self-cleansing mechanisms in the body that, unless you have a specific health-related concern, are always working to cleanse you:

1. Digestive tract: eliminates stool.
2. Kidneys: eliminates urine.
3. Skin: eliminates sweat.
4. Lymph nodes: eliminates allergens, viruses and bacteria.
5. Lungs/respiratory tract: expels carbon dioxide and mucus.
6. Liver: The “Big Kahuna” of detoxification, it chemically transforms harmful toxins so that other detoxifying organs in your body can eliminate them.

Why do some people choose to detox?

  • Environmental pollutants.
  • Medication use.
  • Alcohol or drug use.
  • Poor diet.
  • Hopes of losing weight.
  • To attempt to clear skin.
  • Disease, ailment or other health concerns.

Do detox drinks go above and beyond what the body already does?

No. Just simply no. There is absolutely no science to back up the use of a detox drink in order to lose weight or “detoxify” one’s body. The liver and other cleansing mechanisms in your body can do this naturally.

According to the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), “There isn’t any convincing evidence that detox or cleansing programs actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health.”

They also warn readers of several health concerns regarding detox cleanses, which will be discussed shortly.

Why don’t detox cleanses help with weight loss?

First, let’s clear something up: going on a detox cleanse will help someone lose weight but only temporarily. By detoxing via liquids, the consumer is usually not eating the recommended amount of calories and is following a strict regimen of drinking the detox along with a copious amount of water. This, in turn, flushes water out of the system, therefore the majority of weight lost is purely water weight.

Secondly, and again, a person on a liquid detox diet probably is not eating and if they are eating, like in Emma’s case, a laxative is taking care of part of that intake. If someone does not eat for a number of days straight, like what many juice cleanses call for, then they will most definitely see numbers decrease on the scale. Fasting or detoxing by a drink cleanse will not burn fat cells; this is just plain science, so the weight loss can often be attributed to loss of water weight.

Dr. Monali Desai, a family physician, states: “It’s not the juice that helps you lose weight; it’s everything you’re taking out of your diet.”

This seems pretty common sense, right? You have to eat again at some point, therefore will gain most, if not all, of it back quickly.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “Weight lost during a crash diet is likely from lean muscle and water, not body fat.”

This may not be common knowledge, but it is biologically true.

Lastly, according to a Harvard Medical School article on the topic, “Excessive intake of juice may cause weight gain and be dangerous for people with diabetes because juice is a concentrated source of calories and sugar.”

This makes complete sense, especially for those drinking primarily juice for multiple days.

What are the dangers of attempting to detox in this way?

1. When attempting to “detox” via liquid, the consumer is intaking a high amount of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables but are lacking valuable and necessary protein and fiber, unless making smoothies with whole fruits and veggies. A lot of people may think, “I’m only drinking and not eating, so this has to be better for me.”

2. Everyone needs protein, fiber, and other nutrients in their daily diet that are not found in most teas and drinks for their bodies to function properly. Another danger is the low amount of calories within some of these drinks. If someone is “detoxing” for multiple days, their bodies will go into starvation mode due to the insufficient amount of calories consumed. Starvation mode means low metabolism, along with the risk of becoming weak and potentially passing out or needing medical attention.

3. The high amount of sugar, low amount of calories or other factors can be a detriment for people with certain diseases such as kidney or liver disease, diabetes, etc, and for those with undiagnosed or untreated diseases and illnesses.

4. Drinks which claim to detox can cause even more havoc in a body that has preexisting conditions.

5. “Detox” juices or teas with a laxative can be extremely harmful and addictive. Those with these properties can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, which in turn can cause irregular heartbeat, lethargy, seizures and even death. They can become addictive due to that “clean” feeling and are very much more addictive to those who are extreme dieters or those with eating disorders. Once actual laxative abuse begins, one may feel as if they depend on them to have a bowel movement. Laxative use and abuse are very real and dangerous things and are even more precarious to those who are already vulnerable to using.

6. Hanger. Hungry + anger = hanger. It is definitely a thing. Those who omit actual sustenance from their diet and resort to drinking juices, caffeine and teas as a partial or full meal replacement are going to experience a loss of energy and become more irritable. This is just how the body works. Evolutionarily, both the lack of energy and irritability are intended to motivate us to get up and moving and on the hunt for food. Listen to your body. Eat.

What can you do instead to be and feel healthy?

  • Drink lots of water.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Eat less sugar and processed foods.
  • Choose more foods that are rich in antioxidants and those with prebiotics.
  • Decrease salt intake.
  • Move your body.

Let’s get personal with an author testimonial.

As someone who has an eating disorder and has for over two decades, I know the side effects and detriments of “detoxes” good and well. I have done store-bought juices and made my own concoctions, have tried numerous teas, gone to infrared saunas, have done multiple colonics (although with these, I knew I wouldn’t lose weight or really detox and was done to help with my chronic constipation from having my eating disorder), and have tried strange diets. Thankfully, I never used laxatives.

Some side effects I acquired while on the juice cleanses were dizziness, extreme hunger, irregular heartbeat, faintness when standing up, blacking out for short moments, stomach ache, irritability and blurry vision … oh, and hanger!

I got super splotchy hives all over my neck and chest after the infrared sauna and this was the night before my wedding … so, yeah. Thank goodness for airbrush makeup.

With the colonics, I had severe stomach pain and felt nauseous almost immediately after, as well as could not go to the bathroom on my own for several days, which seemed to defeat the purpose of having a colonic in the first place. Also, at times I felt faint and had a lack of energy afterward. Those were only my side effects; there are other much more severe side effects of getting a colonic.

I will tell you — I may have had a flatter stomach temporarily after these “detoxes” but only lost a tiny amount of weight, which all came back the second I ate, and I definitely didn’t feel or look any healthier. Someone once told me that I had a “glow about me” when I was drinking these juices for several days, but I’m pretty sure they were referring to my massive intake of vitamin C and carotene.

Being obsessed with detoxing and weight loss, as well as having those unfortunate side effects, was not worth it.

Instead, I currently choose to have a balanced diet and eat certain things in moderation. I also drink a lot of water and try to get a moderate amount of exercise. I do not exclude food groups or do any sort of fasting, diet or “detoxing” regimen— these would all be devastating to my recovery.

I would highly recommend that people research the validity, effectiveness and negative side effects of any type of regimen they are about to begin and obviously ask a trusted healthcare provider beforehand.

Follow the author’s journey on Instagram.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

Originally published: February 26, 2020
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