Can You Lighten Your Toxic Load?

Recent reports confirm we all harbor a stockpile of potentially harmful chemicals.
By Catherine Guthrie

Few concepts are more ubiquitous in the lexicon of alternative medicine than detoxing. Peruse the shelves at any health food store and you’ll find detox teas, detox herbal blends, detox tinctures, and detox kits complete with all of the above—everything you need to purge your body of its chemical stockpile. Not sure you want to tackle your toxins alone? Just pick up the phone and dial an alternative-minded spa. Colonics and multiday juice fasts are nearly as commonplace as hot stone massages and reflexology.

Detoxing is a booming business, and why shouldn’t it be? What person in her right mind wouldn’t want to lighten her toxic load? (No thanks, I just topped off my mercury level at the dentist yesterday.) Besides, Americans are easy targets. With so many other things beyond our control—terrorists, snipers, cowboy economics—at least we can take comfort in being the masters of our own Superfund sites.

And according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (informally known as the “body burden” study), those sites are full to bursting. Between 1999 and 2000, CDC scientists tested the blood and urine of 2,500 people for 116 different chemicals. Not one man, woman, or child tested squeaky-clean.

“We’ve known that toxins in the environment could potentially wind up in humans, but this is the first time we’ve actually been able to see it,” says Jim Pirkle, director of the CDC’s environmental health lab and the study’s lead investigator. “This is not what might have gotten into you, this is what did get into you.”

Detox devotees are convinced environmental toxins are to blame for a range of ills—everything from fatigue to cancer—and that our number one priority should be to get rid of them. But is there any truth to the notion of humans as toxic waste disposals? And, if so, is detox really the answer?

The CDC’s report is one of the first scientific papers to spell out the sheer variety of toxic residues lurking in human bodies. But people have been ceremonially cleansing themselves long before the advent of dioxins and PCBs. Native Americans use sweat lodges for religious and purification rites; in India, an age-old system of healing, called ayurveda, is built around ridding the body of toxins. “Detoxing has been an integral part of traditional systems of healing for millennia,” says James Gordon, a physician who is founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Common sense would suggest that maybe it does some good.”

But is common sense enough? Scientific evidence that detoxing can prevent or treat disease is lacking. In fact, it’s not even easy to prove that a person’s average exposure to chemical cocktails is detrimental to his or her health. “Just because you can measure something in people doesn’t mean it’s dangerous,” says Pirkle. “Certainly lots of levels we’re measuring are perfectly safe.”

However, proponents cite circumstantial evidence, such as the parallel rise of environmental contaminants and rates of some diseases. Cancer rates, for example, have risen between 20 and 50 percent since 1970. Asthma diagnoses have jumped 75 percent since 1980. And the number of children diagnosed with autism leaps 17 percent each year.

Exhibit B is the thousands of cases of hazardous chemical overexposure that are well documented. Pesticides, mercury, Agent Orange, and lead are all known to cause illness. Lead is a perfect example of how something people thought was benign turned out to have a hidden cost. It was added to gasoline in the 1930s to boost fuel performance; not until decades later did scientists realize people were suffering from lead poisoning as a result of breathing gas fumes. Although lead is no longer added to gasoline or paint, scientists are still struggling to define a safe level of exposure.

Until scientists can nail all this down and draw more direct links between toxins and disease, we’re left to wonder: Can we successfully reduce our toxic load? And will doing so at least make us feel better?

One can’t discuss detoxing without paying homage to the fact that the body is magnificently equipped to detox on its own. Whether they enter through the mouth, the lungs, or the skin, all toxins must go one-on-one with the liver, where they are identified and usually either destroyed, socked away in the far reaches of the organ (the liver’s actually much larger than it needs to be to do its job), or sent on to be eliminated. Toxins that survive the liver must face the well-equipped filtering system of the kidneys. Ultimately, if not sent packing in waste products, toxins are stored in fat cells.

That’s what worries detox proponents. “Toxins can hang out in the fat for a good while,” says David Riley, an internist, homeopath, and cofounder of the Integrative Medicine Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “They’ve got to affect you eventually.” Many detox plans target these repositories by instigating the burning of fat through heat or fasting.

But others say that toxins in fat aren’t dangerous, and the body doesn’t need help to perform a function it is well suited to do by itself. “Most Americans have hundreds of toxins stored in their livers, and the liver is very capable of taking this kind of chemical load,” says James Dillard, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of Alternative Medicine for Dummies.

Dillard suggests that much of the brouhaha around the benefits of cleansing comes from the many psychological and spiritual benefits of detoxing. Colonics, sauna therapy, liver flushes, and fasts make people feel better by dint of ritual alone, he says. “But do these practices cure or prevent illness? I say show me the science.”

Such requests for hard scientific data rankle detox experts who don’t see the rationale for applying Western standards to holistic medical concepts. “I don’t care what scientists think,” says physician Elson Haas, director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, in San Rafael, California, and author of The Detox Diet. “I’m an empiricist, not a scientist; I go by what people tell me.” For evidence that detox works, Haas says he looks no further than the thousands of people he’s seen lose weight, lower their cholesterol, get off their medications, and feel better after completing his ten-day detox diet.

Others insist there is scientific evidence behind detoxing, or at least a scientific means of measuring the process. Walter Crinnion, a Seattle naturopath and leading authority on environmental detoxification, uses before-and-after blood tests to show decreased levels of toxins in his patients; he also describes (with admirable restraint) the material that’s released when a patient has a colonic: “We’ve documented chlorinated pesticides and a variety of heavy metals in the colonic effluent.”

Crinnion also points to specific health benefits in his patients. “Once we reduce the circulating levels of toxins in people’s bodies, we see their energy return and many of their symptoms disappear,” he says. People with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, get some of the best results, he adds.

The reason? “That’s open to debate. But a growing body of literature links autoimmune illnesses to environmental chemicals,” Crinnion says. “I’m sure that when we really start documenting this stuff, we’ll find that colonics lower the circulating levels of toxins in the bloodstream.” (Currently, Crinnion tests people after months of a comprehensive detox program, so he can’t say for sure the colonics alone are what’s bringing down blood levels of toxins.)

But he’s not about to wait. “That would mean holding detoxing to a standard that we haven’t applied to many other treatments,” Crinnion says. “There’s no double-blind research to show that aspirin cures a headache, for example, or that coronary artery surgery works. Only 30 percent of medical procedures have such studies to support their use, yet we believe in many more than that.”

The bottom line? There’s no doubt our bodies are loaded with toxins, but what to do about it, if anything, remains frustratingly unclear. Most detoxing therapies will probably make you feel good, but it’s an open question whether they’ll keep you healthy or cure disease. Still, many practitioners enthusiastically suggest detox as part of an overall health regimen, often in combination with other therapies. In fact, there are almost as many methods of ridding the body of its toxic burden as there are pollutants. Before taking aim at your toxins, it’s important to suss out which methods you can try on your own and which ones require professional guidance. Fasting and Juice Therapies Books, brochures, and retreat centers recommend juice fasts to soothe a variety of ills, including colon disorders, allergies, and asthma. Some detox experts routinely fast one day each week, while others, such as Haas, fast once a year for up to ten days.

Knowing the physiology behind fasting is crucial to understanding its role in detoxing. The idea is that by withholding calories, you eventually force the body to turn to fat for fuel, and that by burning fat, you chase toxins out of fat cells and into the blood. Many practitioners advise combining a fast with complementary cleansing techniques, such as herbal teas, fiber supplements, and colonics. Otherwise, toxins are less likely to be flushed from the body and may simply be repacked into whatever fat is left, says Crinnion.

Even detox skeptics have a hard time knocking the occasional one-day fast. “Most of us could probably use a digestive break,” says Roxanne Moore, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Just remember to drink plenty of water (at least 64 ounces) and take a multivitamin to make up for lost nutrients. If you’re going to drink juice, make sure it’s 100 percent juice, not a sugary concoction like a juice drink, Moore says.

If you’re drawn to a multiday fast, don’t go it alone. Pair up with a practitioner who can oversee the process and offer additional therapies to aid your body in booting toxins out of the blood and into the urine and bowels.

A standard treatment for heavy metal poisoning for more than 50 years, chelation therapy works by giving patients a chemical called EDTA (ethylenediaminetetracetic acid) either intravenously or orally. In the body, EDTA clings to heavy-metal molecules, such as lead, aluminum, and arsenic, escorting them out in the urine.

Some alternative-minded physicians believe heavy metal poisoning is the culprit behind a plethora of modern-day ills and recommend chelation therapy as a cure-all for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to psoriasis. But years of clinical trials have yet to find definitive evidence that chelation cures anything beyond what it is designed to treat—severe heavy metal poisoning.

Recently, the technique has become popular as a noninvasive treatment for heart disease, specifically narrowing of the arteries. Since EDTA attaches to calcium, some believe it helps reduce the buildup of calcium-rich, artery-damming plaque. Numerous studies, however, including a double-blind clinical trial recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, have failed to bear out that notion. In hopes of settling the debate, the National Institutes of Health commissioned a five-year, $30 million clinical trial to study chelation and heart disease.

In the meantime, hold off on chelation therapy for anything but a medically confirmed case of heavy metal poisoning. Considering that a full course of chelation may involve up to 30 sessions over several years and cost up to $10,000, it’s worth the wait.

Enemas and Colonics
As ground zero for the body’s waste production, the colon is a natural target for detoxification. One of the most sought-after methods of scrubbing out from the bottom up is known as a high colonic. Administered by a professional in a clinic-like setting, a high colonic sends up to 20 gallons of water into the large intestine with a specially designed machine. (In comparison, a home enema uses roughly a quart of liquid and flushes out just the rectum.)

The health benefit of colonics is hotly debated, even among the alternative elite. Dillard, for one, says there’s no truth to the notion that sludge builds up on the sides of the colon. Unlike the interior of the arteries, nothing sticks to the inner surface of the colon because the cells of the gastrointestinal tract are much like skin, he explains. Just like skin cells, GI tract cells are constantly replaced. “What’s going to stick to a cell that’s destined to be sloughed off anyway?” he asks.

Crinnion agrees, but claims that’s not the way colonics work. “We don’t clear old sludge from the lining of the colon,” he says. “Colonics are thought to stimulate the liver and gallbladder into releasing their toxins.” (Some practitioners believe organic coffee enemas are particularly effective.)

He incorporates colonics into much of his patient care, but doesn’t recommend people use home enemas without being in close consultation with a health care provider such as a naturopath. “If you start dumping a lot of toxins out of your body, you can feel real bad real quick,” he says. “Toxins aren’t to be trifled with.”

Sauna Therapy
Like fasting, the idea of detoxifying in a sauna relies on the body’s ability to metabolize fat and release toxins into the bloodstream. Physiologically, the first part makes sense. When you enter a sauna, the hot air nudges the body’s core temperature up, so you sweat in order to cool off. Sweating makes the heart rate rise and, in turn, the metabolism inches up, potentially burning more fat.

But whether or not you can actually sweat toxins away is debatable. For one thing, the body has to burn off carbohydrates before turning to its fat stores, and most people have plenty of carbs to burn during the time it takes to have a typical sauna. 

Crinnion, however, advocates particularly long sauna treatments to detox, though he says his regimen is for patients he calls “heavily toxic—not your average person who just wants a spring cleaning.” He builds such patients up to three one-hour sessions a day in a sauna set to 130 degrees, which is far cooler than most health club versions. The average patient undergoes six weeks of treatment. And as with fasting, Crinnion advises against treating oneself, since toxins released into the bloodstream must be ushered out of the body with complementary cleansing techniques, such as dietary changes and colonics, lest they be reabsorbed.

If you’re a sweat connoisseur, chances are you’ve heard of far-infrared saunas. Unlike conventional saunas, which heat the surface of the body with hot air, far-infrared saunas increase body temperature from the inside out using heat-inducing light rays. Some studies indicate that far-infrared saunas best older versions for relieving muscular pain, but Crinnion doesn’t buy it. He says some patients prefer far-infrared saunas because they aren’t as hot as radiant-heat saunas, but as for being better for you? “You’ll do just as well with the old-fashioned kind,” he says.

10 Ways to Lower Your Toxic Exposure
Whatever you think about detoxing, both critics and proponents agree on one thing: The best way to reduce the level of chemicals in your body is to limit the number that gain entrance. Crinnion compares the body to a boat with a hole in it: “You’re better off patching the hole in the side before you start bailing.” In short, reducing your daily toxic exposure may be the best detox of all. Here’s how. 

Don’t smoke. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 compounds, including 40 known carcinogens, and it’s the leading source of indoor air pollution. If you can’t break the habit, at least smoke outside and spare your family and friends.

Cut down on mold. Inhaled mold spores can cause allergies, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, so ventilate bathrooms, launder area rugs regularly, and thoroughly clean water-damaged carpets. Also, keep moisture levels to a minimum; an indoor humidity level below 50 percent is best. (Hardware stores sell devices that measure humidity, as well as dehumidifiers that lower humidity levels.)

Eat organic fruits and vegetables. If your budget balks at the idea of relying exclusively on organic produce, consider substituting organics for the worst offenders. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables are strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, peaches, cantaloupe (from Mexico), celery, apples, apricots, green beans, grapes (from Chile), and cucumbers. For a list of the 12 least contaminated produce picks, visit the group’s website at

Use sink and shower filters to reduce your exposure to chlorine. Chlorination byproducts are linked to elevated risks of birth defects, miscarriage, and bladder cancer.

Leave dry cleaning to ventilate outside of its bag for a day or two in the garage, on a deck, or inside the trunk of your car. Within 48 hours after you hang dry-cleaned garments in your closet, your home will actually contain elevated levels of solvents. The EPA lists tetrachloroethylene, a common dry cleaning solvent, as a probable carcinogen.

Scrutinize your cosmetics, deodorant, and hair spray. Last year, 52 out of 72 name-brand beauty products were found to contain phthalates, a family of chemicals known to cause birth defects. Unfortunately for consumers, a loophole allows companies to leave phthalates off of ingredient lists. For a list of phthalate-free cosmetics, visit

Use nontoxic bug repellents. Long-term effects of pesticide exposure may include damage to both the liver and the central nervous system as well as cancer.

Substitute all-natural household cleansers and detergents for chemical- laden, overly scented ones. Look for products at health food stores, or, for scrubbing, make your own mix of water, vinegar, and baking soda.

Limit your use of paint, varnish, and wax, all of which contain cancer-causing organic chemicals. When you must use them, be sure to ventilate the area as thoroughly as possible. Or choose non-toxic paints.

Don’t buy products presoaked in formaldehyde, such as particleboard, plywood, and permanent-press fabrics. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen that can cause everything from nausea to headaches to asthma attacks.