If you keep up with online health trends you have almost certainly heard of Detox Water at one point or another. Claims of its health benefits range from weight loss to helping maintain chronic ailments and diseases, while the simplicity of the recipes allows anyone to make some at home in their own kitchen. With our endless focus on hydration, we knew need to get to the bottom of this and see if detox water really does what its proponent’s claim it does.
Detox water is nothing complicated. Generally speaking, the recipes for making detox water and infused water are identical, but infused is a more accurate and descriptive adjective. Infused water is made by adding fruit, herbs, or vegetables into normal drinking water and allowing the flavors and micro-nutrients to infuse. Detox water is made by an identical process, but by using “detox” as our adjective we imply some activity of “detoxifying,” which as we’ll see below is a specious claim at best.
Who Needs To Detox, Anyway?
In the world of alternative medicine, toxins are the bogey-man responsible for ailments of every description. While the word “toxin” does have a scientific definition as “a poisonous substance produced within living cells or organisms,” the use of this word in your day-to-day discussion, especially on the internet, is… looser. To put it politely.
Psuedo-scientists and alternative health “experts” are quick to attribute any and every negative symptom to the presence of toxins. They also tend to be very concerned about the omnipresence of toxins in our environment, and the horrible impacts these stealthy devils can have on our health.
On the surface, their argument is sound. There definitely are harmful, toxic substances in our environment. Yet a more detailed understanding of the underlying biology quickly reveals the great over-simplification of the toxin theory of health.
What is a Toxin?
In the article What Are Toxins? from Medical Daily, there is a lovely quote which really sums it up. To quote the article:
‘“To be frank, I don’t think ‘toxin’ means anything,” said Professor Tom Brenna, who studies biomedicine and nutrition at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. “It’s one of those words that seems like it means something but in actuality means nothing.”‘
What Professor Brenna is referring to is both the inherent ambiguity of the term “toxin” as well as its popular misuse. Given the right dosage, any substance could be considered a toxin – even essential elements like H2O and O2 will have horrible toxic consequences in the wrong amounts. Simultaneously, tiny amounts of compounds known to be deadly toxic – actual poisons like cyanide or arsenic – can be completely harmless, passing through the body with no observable effect.
This is a basic principle of toxicology, sometimes expressed with the Latin phrase sola dosis facit venenum, or “the dose makes the poison.” The saying is claimed to have originated from 16th century philosopher and physician Paracelsus, who is recording as having said: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.”
In many ways re-tooling your thinking towards avoiding toxins can actually produce some healthy results. It can lead you to eating healthier foods, avoiding exposure to certain chemicals, or even exercising in the hopes of “detoxifying.” While health gurus may not have a good definition for what constitutes a “toxin,” many of them do a good job of advocating for healthy eating habits and positive lifestyle choices geared towards avoiding toxins. This allows them to piggy-back their ineffective psuedoscience on actual working techniques, muddying the waters for those trying to cut to the heart of the issue.
There is a sort of easy-to-use logic behind the idea of toxins. It is a basic arithmetic which appeals to people: more toxins equals poorer health, less toxins equals better health. Though sometimes a working method of reinforcing healthy principles, this over simplification is treated more as fact than metaphor when it comes to alternative health theories.
Detoxifying: How To Cleanse Your Wallet of Money
By itself the idea of toxins doesn’t hurt anybody. It might even help. But combine it with a general lack of scientific literacy, general confusion about the term’s definition, and the ingenuity of both con artists and bamboozled true believers and you have a perfect storm of alternative medicine scams. Detox schemes come in all shapes and sizes: diets, crystals, exercise regimens, detox water, detoxifying foot pads, mud baths, forcing yourself to sweat, pills, creams, powders, absurd rituals, and unnecessary products of every description.
Some of these products are totally useless. Some of them might do something. But what none of them really do is detoxify. Every healthy individual is equipped with all of the tools they need to detoxify their bodies without the help of any special products. The body has its own detox system, comprised of the skin, respiratory system, immune system, intestines, liver, and kidneys. A massive portion of your body’s functions are dedicated to filtering, trapping, and removing potentially harmful compounds.
While certain practices, foods, drugs, or supplements may be capable of improving the function of organs which do “detoxify,” this is not something that any healthy person needs to be concerned with. Proponents of detox practices often portray organs like the liver as trapping and storing the toxic substances it metabolizes. Students of biology and medicine are aware that the liver does not really function like this – it constantly converts these compounds and excretes them as bile to the kidneys, where the waste products are eventually converted to urine and literally flushed from the body.
In medical terms, people in need of “detoxification” of the kind these practices refer to would be likely to have some kind of serious organ failure and require medical procedures such as dialysis. The best thing anyone could reasonably expect from any kind of detox practice would be improving liver or kidney function, which is in most cases unnecessary. On the whole, the premise of removing toxins from the body is inherently flawed, and scientific evidence for the efficacy of practices like detoxs or cleansing is effectively nonexistent.
Detox Water, Detox Drinks, Water Cleanses and More
The Lemon Water Detox. Lose weight with Detox Water. Cleanse your body with these special drinks. Flush the toxins from your body with fruity magic waters. Health is just a drink away. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Detox water and detox drinks are a logical progression of the ancient human desire to cleanse one’s body with water. It is also the obvious counterpart to the detox diet fad, and a direct physical representation of the metaphors of “flushing” and “cleansing” the body often associated with detox practices.
Like all of its other counterparts that offer the ability to detoxify the body, detox water doesn’t live up to the claims of its proponents. It should come as no real surprise that adding some lemon to your water does not have some miraculous transformative property which converts two of the most benign and everyday ingredients imaginable into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Benefits of Infused Water – Real and Imagined
In our article Benefits of Infused Water we looked at the actual benefits of what could also be called “detox water.” Like with most of the detox pseudo-science, the whole idea is germinated from a nugget of truth. Water is the essential ingredient in detoxifying the body – without it, the kidneys could not produce urine and the body’s most important detox system would cease to function.
An extremely broad interpretation could therefore deem the term “Detox Water” a fair and valid one, but it would apply to any water which is not itself toxic! This would give us a pretty useless definition, but it is actually useful for illuminating a point: the fundamental need for proper hydration.
If you are really concerned with detoxifying your body or finding some kind of cleansing drink, look no further than the water from your tap. You don’t need to embark on any type of elaborate water cleanse or drink some huge amount of water (these types of detox program are actually very dangerous, as drinking too much water can lead to dangerous overhydration.) All you need to do is drink enough water throughout the day to allow for your body to perform optimally. How do you do this? It is as simple as listening to your body and drinking when thirsty.
Where “detox water” or infused water comes into the picture is along the road to building healthy hydration habits. If you don’t particularly enjoy drinking water, adding some delicious fruit, a subtle hint of vegetable, or the tantalizing aroma of some favorite herbs can make drinking water more enjoyable. It may also add some remote trace of nutrients from the fruit or vegetables, but as we explore in the Benefits of Infused Water article, this is never more than the sum of its parts. You can’t expect to get more health benefits from drinking water infused with strawberries than you would from drinking water and eating some strawberries – actually, you should likely expect less benefits!
Can Detox Water Actually Help People Lose Weight?
One of the most common claims behind detox water is its ability to help with your weight loss goals. Particularly bold proponents of the practice even go so far as to make claims like “lemon water burns away fat,” or that water infused with certain herbs or vegetables can help boost metabolism or give you more energy.
Interestingly enough, infused water can actually have a great impact on helping a weight loss program. But it is not any kind of magic bullet, and the mechanism by which it can help with weight loss has nothing to do with “detoxifying” or “cleansing” the body at all. In our article How Drinking Water Helps Lose Weight we looked at how proper hydration can be a great way to help with weight loss goals.
In that article, we explored how researchers have shown that drinking enough water – just regular, plain old water, not detox water – can help with weight loss regardless of level of activity. We also touched on a study which showed that drinking water before a meal can help reduce food intake by making subjects feel fuller faster. Another study has demonstrated that proper hydration boosts the metabolism in overweight children while resting, resulting in them consuming more energy and potentially contributing to losing weight from doing nothing more than staying properly hydrated.
We see a familiar trend. Like with almost every benefit of so-called detox water, the real benefits can be achieved purely through proper hydration. But making infused water – whether you’re hoping for it to “detox” you or not – can have another utility in your diet. A great way to cut a truly staggering number of calories from your diet is eliminating sodas, fruit juices, and other sugary drinks by replacing them with servings of infused water. Infused water can still provide some delicious flavor and is much more of an enjoyable treat than plain old water.
What the studies appear to suggest is that healthy hydration habits can have real impacts on achieving your weight loss goals. This study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition “showed that increased water consumption, in addition to a program for weight loss or maintenance, reduced body weight after 3–12 mo compared with such a program alone.” Despite these positive results, the authors still caution that more research is needed in this area: “[t]he evidence for this association is still low, mostly because of the lack of good-quality studies. ”
The Dose Makes The Medicine
In the same way that the dose makes the poison, so too does the dose make the medicine. The many potential health benefits of different compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and herbs are very real. Increasing intake of certain foods, use of dietary supplements or specific drugs derived from these compounds can have real and noticeable affects on the health of the body. What this does not mean is that minute amounts of fruits or vegetables will have any real impact on your body.
A common trope of detox water proponents is using the health benefits of a certain fruit or compound and assigning them to their infused “detox” water creations. For example, to promote one of their detox water recipes a popular website links to a study entitled “Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits”. This literature review examines many studies which demonstrate the many potential health benefits from consuming apples. Importantly, if we review the studies referenced, we find that in every case the researchers were looking at people who regularly consumed apples by eating, drank juices or extracts like apple juice or apple cider, or used concentrated extracts.
This is important because while we might all agree apples offer some health benefits, it is unreasonable to expect any of those benefits from drinking some apple infused water. Why? Just think about the massive difference in dosage. Whatever amount of these helpful chemicals you get from drinking infused water is only a tiny, tiny fraction of what that apple might contain. Only whatever compounds managed to be infused into the water will make their way into your body. If you were looking for any of the health benefits of an apple, you’d be much better served by just eating an apple or two.
It might be the case that with certain fruits or vegetables infusing them in water could increase the bioavailability of certain helpful compounds, or that specific infusions do have some unexpected properties that might be helpful. But the reality is that we just don’t know. Scientific studies looking into infused water are scarce, yet this kind of rampant speculation is endless. Until scientific studies have demonstrated it, there is no reason to believe that you would find any special benefits from infusing water with fruits or vegetables.
The Many Other Claims
Although weight loss is often at the forefront of endorsements for detox water, the list of health benefits attributed to it at one time or another is virtually endless. If you completely embrace the idea of detoxing your body, you can attribute virtually any ailment or health problem ranging from a minor blemish to a terminal illness to some evil machination of toxins. This kind of thinking is not at all uncommon, and is something I routinely encounter any time the subject of detox water or similar “magic water” health trends come up in conversation.
Like astrology or mysticism, toxins and detoxifying keep their premises and conclusions intentionally vague and deal with very broad concepts. Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, this vagueness and refusal to limit the scope of their claims allows them to occasionally be correct despite the fundamentals of their premise being incorrect. This is the currency of these ideas, the means by which they are allowed to spread despite their flaws.
If you lead an unhealthy lifestyle and the first gateway you encounter to better living is someone giving you advice steeped in toxins and cleanses, you might find yourself amazed at the progress you make under their tutelage. It may never even occur to you that any part of their method would be incorrect – after all, it does seem to work. What’s more, there is no shortage of books, videos, “gurus,” and self-proclaimed experts who may never mention specifically what a toxin is despite their great universal certainty that toxins are bad news.
Bringing It All Together
So what is the take away from all of this fuss about detox and infused water? At the end of the day, the most important thing to take away from this (or any) detox scheme is to keep your ears and eyes open for the word “toxin.” As soon as someone starts talking about toxins this and detoxifying that, it is time to put on your skeptical thinking cap and go to work. More often than not, this is a huge red flag that your source is mixed up with some fishy pseudoscience and misinformation.
Detox water is only one of many of the “magic water” myths. These are ideas that usually involve performing some simple process on normal everyday water in order to “unlock” its healing or medical potentials. A similar practice with equally vague methods and specious claims that we have tackled before is called alkaline or ionized water. For more on that subject, see our article Alkaline Ionized Water Is A Huge Scam.
If you want to reap the supposed benefits of “detox water,” you can do so with nothing more than plain old H2O. If you’re a fan of infusing water to help you with your hydration goals, check out our Best Infuser Bottles Category of Best Bottles 2017 for some suggestions on great water bottles to help you make infused water where ever you go. Also check out our article Best Infuser Water Pitchers for some ideas on how to always have some infused water available around the house.
If you haven’t already experienced how great it feels to be properly hydrated, it is time to start now!
- Wikipedia: Toxin – Wikimedia, wikipedia.org
- What Are Toxins? – Chris Weller, medicaldaily.com
- Wikipedia: Paracelsus – Wikimedia, wikipedia.org
- The body’s own detox system – The Denver Post, denverpost.com
- The Detox Scam: How to spot it, and how to avoid it – Scott Gavura, sciencebasedmedicine.org
- The dubious practice of detox – Harvard Women’s Health Watch, health.harvard.edu
- Benefits of Infused Water – Jacob Hatch, hydrationanywhere.com
- Overhydration: Types, Symptoms, and Treatments – Healthline, healthline.com
- How Drinking Water Helps Lose Weight – Jacob Hatch, hydrationanywhere.com
- Influence of water drinking on resting energy expenditure in overweight children – Exercise, Nutrition and Lifestyle Clinic, The Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Association between water consumption and body weight outcomes: a systematic review – Berlin School of Public Health, Charité University Medical Center, acjn.nutrition.org
- Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits – Department of Food Science and Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, Cornell University, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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We examine the supposed health benefits of so-called "detox water."