Internal Affairs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am

'I NEED TO GO ON A DETOX ...' THESE DAYS, you're either doing it, talking about it, thinking about it or avoiding it. From the office pantry to online chat rooms, taxi queues to society dinners, we can't seem to stop hearing tales about the modern miracles of detox.

The fact that the word 'detox' has no textbook definition in scientific circles and there is no medical proof that any such process works, makes our faith in it even more remarkable.

Detox, commonly defined as a bodily process that transforms toxic substances into something harmless or excreted, might be a modern obsession, but the concept can be traced back to ancient Egypt, when cleansing rituals such as enemas and fasting and the consumption of specific foods and herbs were used to rid the body of toxic waste believed to cause disease.

Nowadays detoxing means different things to different people and spans a whole range of energising and purifying procedures. These can include trips to a spa for a facial and deep-tissue massage, abstaining from alcohol and meat after festive binges, and courses of traditional Chinese medicine. And then there are those who go one step further, booking themselves in for regular colonic irrigation sessions to 'flush it all out'.

Or there is the 'total liver flush' remedy, which entails consuming a cocktail of olive oil, grapefruit juice and Epsom salts (Tabasco optional). After a day of fasting and inactivity, this potent concoction promises to help you detox by making you pass 'stones' (green or black) the next time you go to the lavatory.

Clearly, a lack of scientific definition hasn't hindered the popularity of detoxing as a means of gaining purification, energy and better health. For clients who want to detox, Christina Denton, a nutrition consultant at Pure Fitness, recommends a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, eliminating all fried foods, high-sugar and high-fat items, drinking plenty of water while keeping caffeine and alcohol intake to a minimum, and doing at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. But, she says: 'Detox diets are a way of cleansing our system and getting rid of any excess toxins within the body - they are not a form of weight loss. Because they are a form of fasting, individuals such as teenagers, pregnant women, diabetics and athletes are not advised to undertake them due to the limitation of important minerals and vitamins.'

Priscilla Lau, a dietician at Holistic Nutrition Consultants, encourages a similar regime of fruit, fibre and eight glasses of water a day to promote regular bowel movements. Inevitably, healthy bowel movement has become synonymous with detoxing. Lau says: 'Often people with intestinal problems such as constipation come to us to seek advice on detox methods to promote bowel movement. Although there is no clear scientific definition of detoxification, so-called detox supplements, colonic irrigation and various fad diets - such as juice diets, cabbage soup diets and so on - are all gaining popularity. Many fad diets don't have adequate calories, which on a long-term basis may lead to malnutrition. And colonic irrigation may 'wash away' the good bacteria in the intestine or perforate the intestine, leading to infection and complications.'

Dr Norman Chan, a specialist in endocrinology and a consultant in weight management at Matilda International Hospital, agrees about the latent dangers of detoxing. 'Detox is a fashionable term that has no specific meaning, let alone a scientific definition,' he says. 'Some people refer to detox in a specific diet or spa treatment to add commercial appeal, but it is just a glorified way of going on a fast fix for weight loss. Colonics in particular can deplete the body's salt to unsafe levels through the secretion of the mucosa, which is the natural lining of the colon and essential to bodily function - this procedure is, in most cases, counterproductive in the long term.

'There is simply nothing better than a combination of a balanced diet, keeping fit and a responsible lifestyle for good health. Healthy home cooking, fresh vegetables and regular exercise are the lifestyle changes people should be making.'

'Detox diets, such as liquid or meal-replacement diets, usually involve fasting, eliminating wheat and dairy products or consuming very low calories,' adds Daphne Wu, dietician-in-charge at Matilda International Hospital. 'So if you go on these diets frequently, you end up with insufficient nutrient levels, which usually make you feel tired and cold easily. Detoxing also compromises muscle repair and suppresses the metabolic rate. This can lead to muscle loss and in the long run impair your immune system.'

Despite the risks highlighted by professionals in western medicine (when asked how often colonic irrigation should be embarked on, most say, 'never') and despite the fact that their advice generally revolves around common sense, for many cash-rich, time-poor city-dwellers, the idea of instant gratification offered by various non-traditional health practices is still appealing. As one devotee says: 'I think detox works best with colonics, because even if you fast, nothing is coming out - so the toxins may still be in your system.' And, while a trip to a so-called colonic farm used to include a return plane ticket to Thailand, nowadays people can pop into a centrally located clinic in Hong Kong for a session during their lunch break or after work.

With branches in Central and Causeway Bay, HydroHealth is one of the more established hydrotherapy centres specialising in colonic irrigation. Clients enter a private room where they insert a lubricated rectal tube themselves, through which a flow of purified water enters the colon for about 40 minutes. While some people swear by the process, others find the idea hard to stomach.

According to Optimum Health Centre, another colonics specialist, 'detoxification through colon cleansing is probably the quickest way to improve general health and excrement'. Its website also states that 'colon cancer is the second largest cancer killer in Hong Kong, while studies estimate that up to 90 per cent of the population suffers from constipation. It has been established that through regular cleansing of the large intestine (colon or bowel) with warm filtered water, the health will improve as well as skin tone and energy levels.'

However, until such claims are scientifically proven, practitioners of western medicine and nutritionists remain sceptical about the efficacy and safety of colonic irrigation, while local clinics keep defending the services they provide. According to the HydroHealth website: 'Doctors are generally trained to treat specific illnesses by chemical-based medication. Colon hydrotherapy belongs to the natural methods category and is only performed by specialists ... Some may worry that friendly bacteria may be drained during the colon hydrotherapy session. In order to replenish these bacteria, bifidus (healthy bacteria that usually populates the colon) will be given orally or through rectal infusion at the end of the session.'

In any case, for the uninitiated and curious out there, the choice is yours. And for those who want to keep it clean while playing it safe, simply follow doctor's orders. In the words of Dr Chan: 'With detox, people are hoping that money will buy them health. Avoiding the toxins is the only thing they need to do.'