Do We Need To Debunk The Detox?

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I wasn't sure if this was the kind of spa where it's permissible to go nude but I decided to take the chance. I slipped off my oversized robe and laid it on the white tufted bench. If I was going to detox I would shed everything. Isn't that the point? Floating in the churning waters of the Vitality Pool, Dr. Rachel Fortune's words surfaced in my mind. "It's a hoax," she had told me in a conversation about the detox industry. After speaking with internists, nutritionists, and holistic healers, I wasn't convinced my body was poisoned, that my occasional fatigue was the result of heavy metals inflaming my tissue, or that my daily intake of three meals was tiring out my digestive system. But two hours into my detox treatment, I was too tranquilized for skepticism.

The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the kind of place you go for "me time." High above Columbus Circle, weary urbanites can submit to the Ultimate 24-Hour Detox program or the Digital Disconnect Wellness Escape. The Mandarin has a beat on the modern wellness seeker, the ones giving up gluten, dairy, and alcohol, suspending their social media accounts. Peruse the treatment menu and you won't find terms like luxury or indulgence (which, given the price, you might expect.) You find balance, strength, rejuvenation. It's a healing spa for a wellness generation.

At check-in I placed my phone on a tray which a fastidious receptionist whisked away, along with my shoes, so neither would soil the beige-toned inner sanctum. My day's agenda consisted of a whirlpool bath, a deep steam, and a lymphatic drainage massage—a type of bodywork celebrated in holistic circles for its ability to detoxify, but one with scant scientific support. Six Dirty Lemon Detox Tonics would serve as my sustenance. For weeks I'd heard arguments for and against the merits of detoxing. Now I would step inside.

A Wellness Way of Life

Detoxing: The practice of drudging up mental, emotional, or physical detritus and expelling it from our systems holds a timeless appeal, from Chumash sweat lodges, to Egyptian bloodletting, to Ayurvedic teas. It's a concept we in the wellness world are intimate with. While January marks a nationwide spike in interest in the practice, those of us drinking charcoal water, burning sage, and dry brushing incorporate detoxing into our daily lives. It's a buzzword with strong market appeal, spawning an industry. Just a cursory search for "detox" at the Vitamin Shoppe yields 184 products. But it's a term not regulated by the FDA, and one with an ever-expanding, ever-diluting definition. Quick-fix caffeinated capsules sold on late-night commercials, ancient sacred remedies, and bespoke cleanses championed by our modern-day mononymous gurus (Beyonce, Gwyneth, Oprah) use the term alike. A detox's value and its efficacy are hard to determine, but that doesn't stop us from signing up.

Elements of the Master Cleanse (left) and Beyonce (right) (Getty Images)

Who among the adaptogen-swilling hasn't felt the flush of a detox? Sakara's Whitney Tingle, along with partner Danielle Duboise, has done it all, "We've tried juicing, powdered shakes, and lived on cayenne lemonade for ten days straight. Danielle even did a water fast for 7 full days." Amanda Chantal Bacon, she of the famously virtuous diet, is, too, susceptible to the draw of a cleanse. "Yeah, I'm currently having that urge," admits the Moon Juice maven. "I'm looking forward to a few days of green juice, green soup, fermented veggies, and duly loaded protein shakes." Detoxes, it seems, have a nearly addictive quality. Dr. Frank Lipman, the father of the modern cleanse and founder of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center which counts Gwyneth Paltrow, Donna Karan, and Maggie Gyllenhaal among its regular clientele, views the practice as "an entry point to a healthy lifestyle and a healthy way of eating." But many who by all objective measures maintain balanced diets still feel the need to purge. LA-based reiki master, yoga instructor, and meditation teacher Kelsey Patel cleanses twice a year, opting for a three-day program of raw soups, seasonal salads, and minimal media: "It gives me a new perspective, the chance to reboot myself." She believes the volume of food we intake tires our digestive systems, which benefit from a temporary respite.

For functional medicine nutritionist Brooke Scheller, the value in a detox is more material: "Toxins are coming from our environment: pesticides, inorganics, heavy metals in water, in our air, in antiperspirants, shampoos, hairsprays. It's something that will really burden our digestive system in the long term." Scheller's New Jersey institute offers 21-day cleanses focused on foods chosen for their ability to support the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys. "If someone is carrying around a lot of toxins that are triggering inflammation, they are going to be struggling to lose weight. It's the removal of those toxins that are finally allowing these people to reduce inflammation and finally lose weight."

Kelsey Patel (left) and a cucumber salad and soup (right) (Images courtesy of Kelsey Patel and Getty)

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An Inside Job

The idea that our environment is poisoning our bodies or that our digestive systems need time off are emphatically contested by many in Western medicine. Dr. Rachel Fortune is the medical director of Newport Academy, a rehabilitation center that specializes in treating eating disorders and substance abuse—a situation that requires detoxing as the term originally entailed. She won't mince words. "It's a hoax," Dr. Fortune says of the juice cleanses and detoxifying teas she sees the healthy clamoring for. "A short-term cleanse or detox is not going to change the makeup of your body. A healthy body has its own detoxification organ in it, the liver being the primary one. If you have a functioning liver, nothing you put in or take away is going to hinder the liver's job. You can drink the alkaline water and the juices and do the enemas. Your body is going to override the nonsense."

Integrative physician Edison de Mello echoes that sentiment: "Simply put, yes, our body has the ability to detoxify on its own." But that doesn't mean de Mello doesn't still see a value in cleansing regimens. He routinely recommends them to his patients. Why? "In the last few decades, exposure to man-made chemicals and toxic substances has increased dramatically." While some physicians are confident in the human body's ability to regulate itself, others express a sense of uncertainty about the effect of the growing presence of new chemicals in our environments.

That's the rationale that resonates with Brooke Scheller. "We don't know everything about the toxins we're being exposed to." We do know that asbestos in our homes causes mesothelioma, that lead in old pipes causes low IQ, and that smoke pollution like the recent epidemic in London can trigger chronic asthma. And as for all the other elements in or industrialized atmosphere, "It's hard from a holistic standpoint to completely write those off as safe," says Scheller.

Smog over Los Angeles (Getty Images)

Consensus exists on the growing presence of toxins in our atmosphere, but how do we know that they're infiltrating our bodies and making us ill? Scheller's institute offers hair analysis. "We see people with heavy metals off the charts daily—things like barium, aluminum, arsenic, mercury, and lead, " the nutritionist says. Jeffrey Tyler, resident physician in internal medicine at UCSF, doesn't believe metal poisoning is an epidemic on the rise. "It's uncommon to see it," He explains. When it does present, Tyler says the symptoms don't include carrying a few extra pounds. "Patients with lead poisoning develop severe abdominal and joint pain along with short-term memory deficits. Over time we see worsening nervous system function, along with kidney disease and higher rates of cardiovascular disease." Omnipresent and mysterious, heavy metals are either the starting point to a host of ailments, or a scapegoat for a population who feels stalled on the route to wellness.

Clean Thoughts

For all the difficulty that lies in tracking a toxin's path into and out of the body, the psychological gains of detoxing are expressed in anecdotes time and again. How did acupuncturist Peter Caron feel after a weeklong ayahuasca cleanse? "Lighter, fairly clear, altered." Caron traveled to Iquitos, Peru, to partake in the Amazonian ritual. "The goal is for your personal demons to come out of the blackness and present themselves to you," a process assisted by a powerful emetic, rhythmic chanting, and the rustling of dried palm fronds, all prefaced by a week of abstinence and a diet of yuca, green plantains, and unseasoned fish. Caron was sitting upright on the dirt floor of a circular hut when his demon came to him. The thatched walls of the maloka fell away and the space expanded to the size of a football field when from the darkness a tentacle unfurled toward him like an aloe leaf, huge and menacing. "I had the sense it could have easily killed me," said Caron. Faced with his demon, he practiced what his shaman taught him. "I opened up my heart, sent love to it, and it suddenly transformed. I had the sense of something leaving." The demon morphed into a tiny goldfish, pink, and swimming in front of him, something that could be cupped in the hand.

Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo sees a practical benefit to detoxing: "Changing a habit like your daily eating can give you a sense of control because you are exercising that muscle of not giving in to every whim. There is a sense of power when you make a healthy choice." And in our fast-food age, when processed, unhealthful foods are never out of arm's reach, the black-and-white rules of a temporary detox can help us relearn healthful habits.

But there's something else at play when we pick up lemon water instead of an overflowing, rainbow-colored smoothie bowl. Think of it as a desire to Kondo our insides. Kelsey Patel spoke to the overwhelm of sensory input we've become inured to in urban life: "We're bombarded all the time with billboards, radio, TV, social media." She limits her exposure to media as part of her detox program. The hi-def images and ceaseless stream of voices of our internet age are the saboteurs of mindfulness. "We are saturated without even being conscious of it," says Patel. In the face of constant decision fatigue, she views the mental component of a detox as equally important to the nutritional, if not more so.

Western medicine and holistic practitioners disagree about the necessity for and the efficacy of detoxes, but they base their reasoning on opposing logic systems. They each supply half of two separate arguments. MDs point to the known physiology of the liver, nutritionists point to the unknown composition of urban air pollution. They value different information. They could both be right. They could both be wrong. What's clear is that for those who turn to detox, whether for a change in habit, a mental reset, or a spiritual experience, the benefits are concrete and keep them coming back for more.

Dirty Lemon Detox water (Courtesy of Dirty Lemon)

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Related Class

Life Springs

My massage at the Mandarin started quietly, barely a whisper. Missy thrummed her fingertips softly against my collarbone. She explained to me that lymphatic drainage is a subtle technique, one administered with a light touch in a careful succession of movements. The lymph system is a vast network of vessels and nodes, which filters fluids and antibodies through the body. The idea is that gentle coaxing can facilitate the drainage of those antibodies. Her soothing, analgesic tone electrified momentarily when she mentioned a nearby hospital was planning to expand their offering of the service, the soft sides of her palms gently plying my neck. Warmth spread across my skin as she undulated her hands with the precise pressure of a caress.

I rested post-treatment on a lounge chair beside a minimalist water fountain in an empty room overlooking Central Park. From 37 feet up, the city hardly moves. Even the birds are far below. I felt the phantom twitch in my wrist to reach for a phone that wasn't there. I heard the burbling of my empty stomach. I felt very alone and sat with the feeling. My thoughts were still and clear.

If I didn't feel purified per se after my cleanse, I did feel lighter. Is that what it's all about? There was more, though, a renewed awareness of the cues that drive me to eat or drink or text, a sense that I'd bonded with my body, that we'd been in closer communication for the day. When I spoke to Dr. Lipman, he used a term to describe the sensation attained through detoxes as "a subjective feeling of vitality." That came closest to describing what I'd gained: a visitation with my own aliveness, a glimpse of something fleeting but real.

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