Getting the all clear
Everyone seems to be detoxing these days. But what is it, and is it safe to do at home? Zara Horner asks the experts
A MONTH OF starvation and colonic treatment may be out of the question for most people, but more Hongkongers are turning to quick-fix, over-the-counter detox programmes you can do at home.
'Detox is certainly a hot health topic at the moment,' says Michael Yim, Watsons' senior pharmacist (drug information). 'There are various definitions of detoxing, but it basically involves eliminating pollutants from the system. These come from many sources, including the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.'
Modern lifestyles take their toll on the body's digestive and elimination organs. A diet of refined, processed foods low in fibre and high in animal fat, coupled with lack of exercise and high stress levels, is said to produce an internal toxic mixture that contributes to gastro-intestinal overload.
'It's this combination of factors that's is the problem,' says Yim. 'If we all ate a healthy, balanced diet, exercised regularly and had adequate rest, our systems would cope better. But the added exposure to large amounts of external pollutants may cause toxicity.'
Others go further. According to www. detox.org, 'furniture, clothing, carpeting, cars, air conditioners, ships and planes all 'outgas' toxins like cadmium, sulphur dioxide, lead and mercury into the air.
'We even apply chemicals to our bodies in the form of personal hygiene products which are made from petroleum and other toxic substances. We might be able to handle all this if we ate nothing but healthy foods, drank only pure water, exercised regularly, were emotionally stable, rarely indulged in alcohol, caffeine or recreational drugs, and didn't smoke.'
But, of course, we don't always do that. These substances - which are ingested, inhaled and absorbed on a daily basis - can become more difficult for the body's elimination systems to cope with, detox proponents say.
After a relatively short time, the lungs, kidneys, liver, bowels and skin can cease to function adequately and the substances accumulated in the organs are re-circulated in the blood stream.
Fatigue, skin eruptions, headaches, allergies, mental confusion and the blues have all been attributed to this build-up.
Almost 100 years ago, Russian bacteriologist and Nobel laureate Ilya Mechnikov said that 'death begins in the colon'. It's a claim accepted by many health professionals. 'Talking about intestines and colons isn't pretty,' says James Whale, director of the American Nutrition Company and a detox fan. 'However, it's an important part of human physiology because the human intestinal system harbours about 15 pounds [6.8kg] of bacteria. Some of it's good, lots of it's bad. Detoxing encourages the body to rid itself of the bad stuff.'
According to an article in The Vegetarian Times, post-mortem examinations often reveal that colons 'are plugged up to 80 per cent with waste material'.
For many years, it was accepted that a bowel movement of anything between once a day and once a week was normal.
However, many health professionals now say that a properly functioning bowel should work for each meal eaten, according to www.detox.org.
For those thinking of a do-it-yourself detox, Whale advises caution. 'For any detox to be successful some planning is needed. If you go in strongly with no preparation, too many toxins may come out in one go and you'll feel very ill, indeed. It's good to eat mainly raw fruit and vegetables for a period of time before the detox, for example. But the main thing is to be sure of what you're taking.'
There are numerous programmes on the market - even adhesive pads you can put on the soles of your feet overnight that purport to draw toxins out of the skin.
Companies such as Watsons say they assure customers of their quality control. 'The detox programmes we offer have gone through lab tests to prove that they're free from pesticides, heavy metals and bacterial contamination,' says Yim.
But, Whale says, it's the ingredients that count. 'Detoxing has been around for thousands of years - there's really nothing new to it. A workable detox formula requires good natural ingredients. There are a number of products available that are simply laxatives and would have you doubled over with stomach ache and little else.'
The ingredients on the pack are typically listed from greatest to least. 'That means that if the first couple of ingredients shown are water and flavourings that's what you're taking,' says Whale.
How do you choose a safe, effective formula? 'There's nothing magical about these detox programmes,' says Watsons pharmacist Ho Chi-hoo. 'Most of them are designed to stimulate the colon, so proceed with caution. Never buy something where you can't read the ingredients or directions. And it's always best to ask for advice.'
Whale says word of mouth is the way to go. 'Our best-selling detox product is about 90 per cent referral-based, which is the way it should be. If people really feel better after taking a product, they'll tell others.'
Once you've committed to detoxing, Whale says it's important to choose a programme that fits your lifestyle. 'Detox is a positive thing, but start with one that's not too drastic a change. If you've never done it before and you regularly over-indulge, don't jump straight into a week-long fast. Pick a system that suits you, prepare for it, and enjoy.'
Plan to detox as part of your usual routine, but when stress levels are low.
Take regular, mild exercise throughout the programme.
Book a massage, especially a lymphatic drainage massage if possible, because this will help boost the system that carries metabolic waste products and toxins from the cells.
Have a sauna and sweat the toxins out (saunas aren't recommended for those with heart disease and/or kidney disease, who should consult a doctor).
Epsom Salts also reportedly help, because a salt bath is said to draw toxins from the body. Have the water as hot as you can stand.
Take a yoga class. The breathing techniques are said to help elimination.
Try dry skin-brushing to remove old skin and foster the skin's ability to excrete toxins.
Massage your stomach daily in a clockwise direction.
Drink lots of water.
Be prepared for headaches, fatigue, irritability or even mild depression as the toxins are eliminated.
See a doctor if there's any change in your bowel habits, if you pass pencil-thin stools, if you experience rectal bleeding or there's persistent abdominal discomfort.
Detoxing isn't recommended for children, the elderly, pregnant/nursing women, the chronically ill, drug/alcohol addicts or those who are underweight.
If you're diabetic, suffer migraines, have high blood pressure or take regular medication (including anti-depressants and birth control) seek medical advice before beginning any detox programme.