I take yoga classes with this woman who tells her students that the spinal twist, which we do toward the end of class, is "flushing out all those toxins we just stirred up," and I'm, like, no, it's not.
Twisting your spine does not flush toxins. But nowadays, everyone's into cleansing their system, washing it all out. I can see why. We're awash in everything from pesticides to smog to heavy metals. I love this last one. The threat of heavy metal is as alive today as it was in the 70s, but how real is it? Is tuna the new KISS? Or is it a real danger?
I digress. What can you do about living in the dirty city? Are foods and herbs really industrial-strength scrubbers for industrial-strength pollution?
What the experts say
"Foods that would act as diuretics [to cleanse] are parsley and asparagus . Eating grains and healthy foods would replace less healthy foods, and that might be considered cleansing. People who subscribe to the raw food diet will end up with a diet that is probably less toxic and have the added benefit of getting lots of vegetables and the diuretic effect of eating those foods. Eating food rich in vitamins and minerals means your liver functions more efficiently and can possibly detoxify pollutants. The way to avoid mercury is not to eat white tuna. The larger the fish, the longer it's been in the water and the greater the chance of absorbing toxins. In the smaller fish, from which they make light tuna , it's not an issue - nor with other fish. I had a client who ate white tuna fish every day for years, and he ended up with mercury poisoning. When he stopped eating it, his blood levels went back to normal."
BARBIE CASSELMAN , nutritionist, Toronto
"All sorts of things, from microbes to chemicals, produced naturally or added to the environment, can be considered toxins. Do I believe it's good to flush your system every so often? I wouldn't recommend it. Most of the [bad] stuff in your body is fat-soluble. If it's in your lipids, flushing your guts isn't going to help much. For someone who has been exposed to high lead concentrations, chelation therapy [intravenous infusions or pills containing disodium EDTA] may be appropriate, but most of us aren't in that situation."
PETER G. WELLS , Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto
"Cleansing is a huge topic. It depends on what you want to cleanse: the organs, the blood, a specific organ. You have to be more specific. Heavy metal cleansing is notoriously tricky. There is a lot of conflicting research. Most people use chelating agents. The herbal approach has been to give the person distilled water or reverse osmosis water . The most popular herbs are cilantro and poke root . Some say this works and others say it doesn't, but I have gotten results."
JOHN REDDEN , herbalist, Toronto
"Chelation therapy is sometimes important for some types of heavy metal poisoning, especially lead. It is not effective at removing organomercury compounds, the major type found in large fish. I consider mercury one of the more significant potential pollutants, especially for pregnant women. The major source is burning coal. When mercury ends up in the ocean and lakes, it is converted to methyl mercury by micro-organisms and is then concentrated in fish. Chelation therapy should not be used except in clear cases of poisoning, and it can actually increase toxicity if used improperly."
JACK UETRECHT , Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto
"Some of the cleansing products out there may help, but people think they completely flush out all toxins. I feel cleansing is a long-term thing, in terms of choosing healthier food habits, instead of thinking, "I'm going to take this flush and everything will be OK." I feel people should return to the basics, like making sure they're having a bowel movement every day , getting enough fibre and proper nutrients to support the body. I usually recommend lemon water for a light cleanse."
SHERRY J. CHEN , naturopath, Toronto