"Should I do a cleanse?" I hear people asking this question a lot. If you're hoping it will remove toxins from your body, that's just not going to happen.
[Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter]
Detoxes and cleanses are very popular. They come in many forms, from charcoal-infused lemonades to detox teas, and they often have a hefty price tag.
The idea of cleansing isn't anything new — it's been around for thousands of years. For centuries, medicine and religion were deeply intertwined, and there was a lot of focus on ridding the body of impurities and sickness related to bad or imbalanced humors. Bloodletting, purging, fasting — they were all well-regarded treatments. Today, the wellness industry has picked up on our desire to rid ourselves of things. They've taken the word "detox," the medical treatment for people with drug and alcohol addictions, and used it to apply to market cleanses. They make it sound like pouring liquid cleaner down plumbing, getting rid of all the dirty stuff. But the reason that sounds right to us is it's a rooted in a lack of understanding of how our liver works.
The liver is located in our upper right abdomen. It's somewhere around half the size of a football — an American football — and weighs three pounds. It does many, many jobs that keep our bodies running, from assisting the immune system, to creating proteins for blood clotting, to sending out the cholesterol we need to produce hormones. The liver is also a key organ for dealing with harmful substances. You can think of it almost like a factory. It takes nutrients from substances that we consume, food, drinks, medicines, breaks them down so they can either be packaged in a way that's usable — like cholesterol and protein, for instance — or removed as waste in the bile or via the kidneys, usually in the form of urine.
Let's look at what happens when the liver encounters some specific substances. What about alcohol? That’s a substance that’s fine in smaller, moderate amounts but becomes poisonous in excess. When we drink, alcohol passes through our liver, and the liver breaks it down in three steps. First, enzymes convert the alcohol to acetaldehyde, a substance that can damage cells over time. But acetaldehyde is quickly converted into acetate, a much more stable intermediate, before it breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. These are components our body can handle.
Now let's look at a popular cleanse — cayenne, pepper, lemon juice drink, to help your liver flush toxins. You drink it, it gets digested, nutrients get absorbed in the blood and arrive at the liver. The liver processes these nutrients the same way it processes everything else. It packages whatever's useful that came from the lemon and the pepper and disseminates it throughout the body. Whatever it can't use becomes waste. There's nothing particularly magical about mixing cayenne and lemon. Doing a cleanse doesn't "clean the pipes," and it doesn't make your liver work any better or faster. At best, you might lose a few pounds on a cleanse, because you aren't eating much. At worst, you could go into starvation mode. You could throw off your electrolyte balance, not to mention disrupt your intestinal flora and bowel function.
Clearly, having a healthy liver is extremely important. The best things you can do: don't smoke, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get lots of sleep, but there are some more liver specific things to do. Don't consume too much alcohol, as it can cause a variety of problems over time, from fatty liver disease to cirrhosis of the liver, to liver cancer. Read the warning labels on medications as some can damage your liver when you don't take them as directed. You've probably heard about hepatitis, which can be caused by a viral infection of the liver that can be very serious. Get the vaccine for hepatitis B, if you haven't already. And if you're an adult who hasn't been screened for hepatitis C, consider talking to your doctor about testing options, as too many people don't realize they have it. Finally, be careful with supplements and herbs, particularly anything marketed as bodybuilding or a weight loss supplement, as these are not nearly as well-regulated as you would think. 20 percent of liver injury due to medication in the United States is actually caused by these kinds of supplements. So talk to your doctor before you start them.
So many things are sold to us as self-care, and cleanses are no exception, but I believe the best self-care is just learning more about our bodies. That way, we can tune out all the noise and make informed decisions on what we really need.