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Experts Would Really Like You to Stop Buying Detox Diets

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Maybe you feel like you detoxed in January, or you need to detox after January. From your bodega’s juice aisle to TikTok, we have no shortage of products and people hawking potential ways to “cleanse” and “detox” our bodies.

Despite the prevalence of diets, products, and treatments—detox drinks sales alone are expected to approach $10 billion by 2032—the psychological appeal of these products far outweighs any scientific proof that they work. At best, these products “detox your wallet,” as Ryan Marino, MD, a medical toxicologist and an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, tells GQ, and at worst, these products can damage the organ systems that naturally detoxify your body every day.

GQ spoke to Dr. Marino to get a medical perspective on the perpetual trend of detox products and what you should know before cleansing your bank account.

What does the term “detox” even mean?

Even in the medical sense, Dr. Marino says that detox “doesn’t have a clear definition or is used loosely.” Generally speaking, there are two medical scenarios in which people detox: one, they’re getting drugs (including alcohol) out of their system and going through withdrawal. Second is treating a patient for “a true toxic exposure” that needs to be removed, such as lead, which wouldn’t necessarily be called detox, through a process like chelation.

How do these detoxes “work?”

As Dr. Marino says, they don’t. But detox products can come in the form of multi-day juice cleanses, single-serving beverages and teas, capsules, and other methods. Sometimes, these products are advised to be taken in lieu of a meal (which may just “detox” your body from receiving its usual nutrition.)

Why are detoxes so appealing?

“The concept of detoxing and doing a cleanse—or whatever it is—remains popular at all times and is always shifting,” Dr. Marino says. Some recent examples, which might already be past due for their trendiness, are flat-tummy teas and activated charcoal, which can now be found in everything from ice cream to cocktails.

Detoxes and cleanses are appealing because they offer a “magical solution” to issues like aging, being overworked, or simply existing in a stressful society.

There is a century-old idea of “autointoxication,” which detoxes and cleanses tend to echo, where everyday existence leads to a buildup of toxins in the body. Autointoxication, used as a justification for colonic irrigation, was dubbed “a triumph of ignorance over science” in a 1997 Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology editorial.

It’s a universal experience, Dr. Marino says, to want a quick fix and detox and cleanse your way to better health. But he describes these appeals as ableist, predatory, and self-blaming, as they tell people they’re doing something wrong, rather than identifying that people might be stressed or are simply aging.

Can your body detox on its own?

Dr. Marino explains that the human body is " very well-evolved and adept at removing toxic substances from our environmental exposures and day-to-day life.” The liver and kidneys are the major detoxifiers in the body.

“We’ve seen a lot of problems in people taking different supplements,” he says, “particularly liver injuries, which ironically takes out your ability to detoxify.” (In one case, “yogi tea,” a popular detox supplement, was identified as a “potential cause for acute liver failure.”)

How are these things regulated?

Dr. Marino notes that the supplement industry is largely unregulated. Though supplements are obviously much easier to acquire than prescription medications, they don’t undergo the same quality control. So you can’t be sure what’s in the bottle is what’s on the bottle, let alone if it’s safe.

Can detoxes be harmful?

“None of these things are going to have a true benefit,” says Dr. Marino. And despite laws and regulations that prohibit false health claims, many brands and influencers who market them do just that. If you do truly need detoxification from a specific toxin, “then you need medical treatment,” he says. According to him, if you don’t have a working liver or working kidneys, nothing you can acquire from the TikTok shop will help.

Charcoal has medical applications as an “evidence-based medical therapeutic.” But it can actually dull the effects of medication, so it can make critical heart meds and birth control less effective. Compounds known as chelating agents are sometimes used in medical scenarios, and even in those scenarios, Dr. Marino is hesitant to deploy them because they can come with health risks. Despite those risks, chelating agents are available online for purchase, promising to detox the body of heavy metals.

“In reality, these things also remove vital minerals. They remove your magnesium stores, your calcium, and can predispose people to just being in pain all the time, having horrible muscle cramps, and people have actually died from this.” Dr. Marino points to several published cases.

What else should you know about detoxes?

It’s important to remember that anyone selling a product, supplement, or herbal tea has a financial conflict of interest in telling you about the purported “benefits” of said product. Many of these influencers and celebrities “are probably not trained to do this scientific research,” he says. Even if they do find some PubMed links to throw around, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that the study is valid, good, or applicable,” says Dr. Marino.

So what should I do instead?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet or easy way to “reset” your body, but if you want a lifestyle change, maybe try out the "Power 9" from the Blue Zones. Or, maintain good hydration by drinking water; aim for seven hours of sleep at night; get some movement in; and eat a Mediterranean Diet. Living a healthy lifestyle isn't as sexy as buying a glossy product from an influencer, but experts say when it comes to your health, all the boring stuff is best.

Originally Appeared on GQ