You hear a lot about the supposed health benefits of a cleanse or detox, designed to eliminate toxins from your body. There are many claims about various detox regimens, which could be in the form of a fast, diet, drink or powder.
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Removing toxins has questionable benefits, including:
- Improved energy.
- Weight loss.
- Relief from constipation.
- Resolved headaches, muscle aches and fatigue.
Sounds great, right? What you may not realize is that our bodies naturally detox! Our digestive tract, liver, kidneys and skin are responsible for breaking down toxins for elimination through urine, stool or sweat. Here we talked to registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, to get the low down on detoxes.
- How does a detox work?
- Are detoxes effective?
- What are the pros and cons of detoxing?
- Be good to your gut
- Your brain on a diet
- MORE TIPS AND TRICKS FROM A NUTRITIONIST
- Natural and Practical Ways to Detox & Cleanse Your Body by Donatas
How does a detox work?
The theory behind cleanses is that, by eliminating solid foods or specific food groups, you are eliminating toxins, Patton says. “That supposedly gives your digestive system a break, allowing it to heal and better absorb nutrients in the future,” she explains.
Solid foods are often replaced with drinks like water with lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper; green tea; or freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. Cleanses can last from a day to a month.
Are detoxes effective?
The truth is, there is no conclusive medical evidence that your digestive tract will heal from skipping solid foods (unless you have a digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease or gastroparesis), Patton says.
“Solid foods are actually helpful,” she notes. Fiber, found in plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, slows digestion, helps with nutrient absorption and removes toxins via stool. Your digestive tract uses probiotics from fiber to nourish your intestines with beneficial bacteria, which helps maintain immune health.
“Cleanses aren’t effective for long-term weight loss,” Patton says. “The weight you lose from a cleanse is a result of losing water, carbohydrate stores and stool, which all return after you resume a regular diet.”
For athletes, losing carbohydrate stores means losing your body’s preferred fuel source during exercise. So a cleanse isn’t appropriate while training for any sport. If you choose to do a cleanse or detox, do so for no more than two days during a recovery week when you are doing little to no exercise.
What are the pros and cons of detoxing?
Before you decide to cleanse and spend big bucks on a magic drink or pounds of freshly juiced fruits and vegetables, Patton says to be sure to weigh the benefits and drawbacks.
- You’ll benefit from increased intake of vitamins and minerals either naturally from juiced fruits and veggies or supplemented from drinks.
- It can help you identify food sensitivities by eliminating certain foods for several days, then gradually reintroducing potential trigger foods.
- These diets are low in calories, which will leave you with little energy to exercise and may disrupt your metabolic rate and blood glucose levels.
- You may experience gastrointestinal distress and frequent bowel movements.
- Detox diets are low in protein.
Whatever you decide, remember that your body is meant to detox itself. “A balanced diet of whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes is healthy for your entire body and won’t interfere with your ability to exercise,” she says.
Be good to your gut
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Many people are drawn to cleanses to reset their GI system, but there’s no evidence that the cleanses and detoxes you typically read about have any benefit. Instead of trying to flush out toxins, take measures to boost your gut health so it can do its job well. “A healthy gut is important for almost every aspect of wellness — from boosting your mood to helping you sleep, from weight management to preventing chronic diseases, the list goes on and on. To reboot your diet and reset your gut, remember to eat the three P’s: prunes, pulses and pears,” says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, nutrition and healthy cooking expert.
“Prunes help maintain good digestive health and can positively affect the bacteria living in the gut, potentially reducing the risk of colon cancer. And pulses (which include lentils, beans, chickpeas and peas) can improve gut health by strengthening the gut barrier and reducing the risk of gut-associated diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Pears contain prebioitic fiber that helps promote intestinal health by providing food for beneficial probiotic bacteria.” The point is, you need a variety of fiber sources to optimize your gut health so make sure to include these foods, as well as others rich in fiber (such as whole grains and an array of fruits and veggies), often.
Your brain on a diet
March 16, 201802:32
Take a break from booze
“Alcohol may lower inhibitions, which could make you more likely to reach for unhealthy foods,” says Keri Gans, RD, Nutritionist, and Author of The Small Change Diet. Anyone who has tossed back a couple of margaritas and some chips and guac at happy hour can relate! Save the booze until after your reboot. “Once you’re firmly back on track, if you want to reintroduce alcohol in moderation, go for it,” she says.
Eat hydrating foods
“The human body is about 60 percent water, and your body needs to be continually hydrated throughout the day in order to optimally function,” explains Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “In addition to drinking H20 and water-rich, low-calorie beverages like tea, you can also prioritize eating foods that are full of water — including fruits, veggies, broth-based soups and even oatmeal. These foods are also full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that will benefit your body. In the summer, I love blending fruit into a breakfast smoothie and grilling peaches for dessert,” she says.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of “The Superfood Swap,” offers this tip: Swap grazing for plated snacks. “I have a tendency to graze mindlessly, and even if it’s on healthy stuff, it adds up,” she says. “Grabbing a spoonful of ‘this’ while standing in the kitchen, scooping a handful of ‘that’ while working at my desk, or eating just a few little bites of ‘something’ while watching TV.” Anyone else familiar with this scenario?
When I need to give my diet a reboot, I focus on having two nourishing, planned snacks per day.
“When I need to give my diet a reboot, I focus on having two nourishing, planned snacks per day, like a pear and pecans, or grape tomatoes and string cheese, or berries and yogurt. And I put the snacks on a plate, sit down and enjoy them.” This part is especially key. When you graze or snack mindlessly, you don’t register those foods as well as when you plate them. No plate? No problem! Use a paper towel, napkin, cup or whatever is available to you to help you eat more mindfully.
This is the one cleanse I can get behind! You’ve probably seen news reports that social media can heighten feelings of isolation and anxiety, but it can also increase feelings of body dissatisfaction. If certain accounts make you feel down about your body, your weight or the way you eat, it might be worth using the handy “unfollow” tool. Ditto for any accounts that recommend overly restrictive eating behaviors. There are healthy ways to lose weight that honor and respect your body so rid yourself of all the social noise that might be toxic to your overall wellbeing.
MORE TIPS AND TRICKS FROM A NUTRITIONIST
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Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Cleanses and detoxes are trendy, popular, and promise to clear out nasty toxins from your body and make you healthier. It’s a tall promise, especially since they can’t usually point to any specific toxins that they’re trying to rid you of.
Over the past few years, the meaning of “detox” has shifted from a protocol meant to rid you of toxins to, often, just a diet meant as a temporary reset. It either promises fast weight loss, or aims to get you into the habit of healthy eating, with residual effects that will last all year long.
A problem with this approach to dieting, though, is that a diet that is designed to be temporary is always going to be too extreme to last. For example, maybe you’re cutting out sugar entirely for ten days. That’s unnecessary, but some people find it a helpful step toward lowering their overall sugar intake.
The more old-school style of cleanses take this a step further. You’re often fasting, or only eating small amounts of a specific food or drink (like juice) in a regimen designed to be temporary and drastic.
What Cleanses and Detoxes Promise
For the most part, a cleanse and a detox are the same thing. They’re typically used interchangeably and have the same basic goals: to remove “harmful” things from your body. Sometimes, they aim to target a specific organ like the liver or colon, and supposedly, detoxing makes you feel better.
Both often involve limiting your food intake to pressed juice, avoiding specific types of food, or drinking a concoction of juices that supposedly rids your body of toxins. These supposed toxins are rarely described by cleansers in detail, but generally referred to as “poisons” or “pollutants.” In the medical field, toxins can refer to just about anything, from alcohol, to foods, to medicines, to asbestos. “Detoxing” can also refer to treatment for drug addiction, but that’s very different—here, we’re specifically discussing these food-and-drink cleanses.
There are far too many of these cleanses and detoxes to dig through, but here are 10 that Shape Magazine deemed popular in 2014, perhaps the peak of trendy cleanses. As an example, let’s take a closer look at the Master Cleanse, one of the most longstanding and popular cleanses out there. Here’s an excerpt from the book that describes exactly how the Master Cleanse works:
The cleanse starts with a herbal laxative tea both morning and evening. If this is not sufficient to clean out the intestinal tract, he advises a salt-water wash. These stops are necessary to remove the toxins loosened by the lemon juice cleanse.
I was then to drink between six and twelve glasses of lemonade, which consisted of lemon and maple syrup in proper proportions, with a small amount of cayenne added to wash out the mucus loosened by the cleanse.
Sounds gross, right? Well, it might be worth it for you if you believe the promises purported by Master Cleanse creator Stanley Burroughs:
For the novice and the advanced student alike, cleansing is basis for elimination of every kind of disease. The purpose of this book is to simplify the cause and the correction of all disorders, regardless of the name or names. As we eliminate and correct one disease, we correct them all, for every disease is corrected by the same process of cleansing and building positive good health.
The hyperbole goes on from there, but you get the idea. Nutrition researcher Kamal Patel sums most cleanses up like so:
What ties these diets together is a dual aim: weight loss plus a notion that we have built-up toxins in the body which are slowing us down and possibly killing us. So a typical cleanse, let’s say of juices only, is meant to shift your intestines away from digestion and absorption and towards “ridding the body of toxins”. That’s where the benefits are claimed to lie, but they may actually lie elsewhere.
Most cleanses have similar promises, claiming that going on some sort of juice fast (or other cleanse) can free your body of harmful toxins.
What Happens in Your Body When You’re On a Cleanse
We’re all aware that fruit and vegetables are good for us, so following that logic suggests that a diet of just fruit and vegetables must be super healthy, right? Right??
Not really. If you drink nothing but juice for a week, you’ll lose weight, but it’s because you’re not eating, not because your body is “detoxing”. Water is stored in your muscles with glycogen. When you eat a low calorie diet, you use up those glycogen stores, and lose the water weight with it. You’ll gain that water weight right back when you return to your normal diet. You’re also missing out on all those other vital nutrients like fat, fiber, and protein. In fact, some cleanses suggest that you avoid exercise when you’re on them because your caloric intake is so low—which leads to fatigue and dizziness.
After a few days, your body is basically running on fumes, and without protein your body might start to break down muscle tissue instead. Likewise, the lack of fiber in your diet tends to impact the function of your large intestine, which might explain why people tend to describe their gut feelings on a juice cleanse as similar to the stomach flu.
Most importantly, a juice cleanse doesn’t do anything that your body doesn’t already do on its own. Dietitian Andy Bellatti reminds us that our bodies are already pretty good at removing toxins. If they weren’t, and you needed a yearly detox, we’d all probably be dead:
Will drinking nothing but juice for three or five days land you in the hospital or result in irreversible nutrient deficiencies? No, but it is also unnecessary. Our bodies remove toxins on a daily basis thanks to the kidneys, lungs, and liver. The whole point of going to the bathroom is to flush out toxins!
While most of these cleanses and detoxes aren’t dangerous, they can cause some problems. Since juices don’t include much fiber, the body ends up absorbing more fructose sugar, which—as we all know—isn’t great for you in large quantities.
The good news about depriving yourself is that it takes months to get any serious vitamin deficiencies. Most of these cleanses are probably stupid but not seriously harmful, if all you’re doing is restricting food for a few days.
As for the claims of eliminating toxins, most commercial detoxes don’t list what a toxin is. And even when they do, they don’t give an evidence that they work. If they did, we could test the effectiveness of their claims. A 2009 investigation by Sense about Science checked 15 commercial detox products and found that none could name toxins, agree on a definition of detox, or supply any evidence for their claims.
All of this is to say: the only thing a detox or juice cleanse actually does to your body is make you hungry and nutrient deprived for a few days.
Better Alternatives to Cleanses
So, cleanses don’t really do anything productive and a special juice mixture won’t remove toxins from your system. That doesn’t mean you can’t do other things to get your health back on track.
In fact, the idea of a cleanse is basically just a reboot of your diet, which Bellatti agrees with:
There is something to be said for doing “food resets.” That is, going back to the basic tenets of healthful eating (mainly eating whole, minimally processed, largely plant-based foods) to reaccustom the taste buds to more subtle flavors. That, however, should not be confused with a cleanse.
But he does add:
Nutrition and health is about the big picture. What you do for five or seven days out of the year is pretty inconsequential.
Rather than worry about ‘detoxing,’ people would be better off thinking about eating nutritious, health-promoting foods on a daily basis. Think leafy greens, beans, whole fruit, nuts, and seeds. The idea that six months of unhealthy eating can somehow be remedied by drinking nothing but green juice for 72 hours is erroneous.
Likewise, an actual fast, as in, just drinking water, has some research showing that it’s useful. Patel explains:
Cleanses sometimes involve fasting or near-fasting, and that can actually have benefits, unless you have medical conditions or do it for too long. There is ample research demonstrating the effect of fasting on longevity; how fasting promotes autophagy, reduces mitochondrial oxidative stress, general decrease in signals associated with aging, and the potential to prevent and treat chronic illness, at least on some level. “Intermittent fasting” may be a viable option for those otherwise looking at specific cleanse diets. You basically limit eating to a few hours a day (typically around 8). That is a simple and sustainable way of eating, and doesn’t involve buying cleanse products.
Health and nutrition might seem like a confusing mess, but a healthy diet is really all you need. Not a gimmick, not a week long cleanse, not a detox. You’ll need a full reboot of your diet.
This article was originally published in 2014 and updated on 1/8/2020 with the most current information.
Although there are no studies of juice fasts/diets, water fasting does have some scientific evidence behind it — “but very scant,” admits Strychacz.
In the book Triumph Over Disease, Jack Goldstein, DPM, outlines his true story in overcoming ulcerative colitis by sticking to strict water fasting and a vegetarian diet. Goldstein is one of very few people who has tested his own tongue scrapings, urine, feces, even perspiration during a water fast, Strychacz says. “He found that the contents are different than normal — that toxins like DDT do get removed.”
Strychacz would like to conduct a study of fasting’s effects on atherosclerosis. “Look at Dean Ornish’s low-fat diet. He claims not only to arrest but actually reverse atherosclerosis. That’s huge. I would argue that if a low-fat diet will reverse it, then what about a no-fat diet?”
Some still consider fasting — in any form — to be “out there.” “When I review diets that are not based on science, the question I ask myself is: Would I feed them to my family? In this case, the answer is a clear no,” says Susan Roberts, PhD, chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.
But the psychological or spiritual effect can’t be discounted, says Dillard. “People love the idea of cleansing, of purification rituals, going to the Ganges, to the spa. It has powerful psychological, religious, spiritual meaning. That has its own positive effect on health. But we need to separate that from saying this is science or good medicine.”
Just don’t look at water fasts or juice diets as a weight-loss solution. As with the Atkins diet, restricting carbohydrates causes you to lose weight — but you’ll gain it all back, says Dillard. “You’re losing water in your system.”
Juice diets do prevent your body from going into a state called ketosis, he says. Ketosis means your body has no carbohydrates to burn for energy, so it has to burn stored fat or whatever else is available, he tells WebMD. “You feel bad, even smell bad. That’s what makes you feel like hell during a fast. But is that because the toxins are coming out? No! You’re going into ketosis. It’s known physiology.”
Natural and Practical Ways to Detox & Cleanse Your Body by Donatas
Detoxing is obviously a subject of huge importance for us at The LifeCo. In fact, performing regular body cleanses and detoxes are the core principle of my beliefs on health and healing.
What exactly is a detox? Simply put, a detox is a process in which a person makes lifestyle changes to clear their body of toxins. These lifestyle changes typically involve abstaining from certain harmful things and optimizing body processes. Some changes are temporary, such as following a cleansing diet, others are permanent.
Here are some different detox options that you can easily incorporate into your life:
Clean, Raw and Alkaline Food Cleanse
This is a cleansing method and sometimes prolonged diet that consists of uncooked plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables combined with adequate amounts of raw nuts, seeds, and sprouts. Phytonutrients, micronutrients, fiber and enzymes cleanses vital organs such as the liver, lungs, skin, colon, kidneys and other systems in the body. It also eliminates acid and balances the alkaline pH level of the blood.
This detox consists of a liquid shake such as fresh lemon juice, cayenne pepper, organic grade-B maple syrup and water or the same mixture with added psyllium husk powder for deeper colon cleanse. Both methods aid cleansing of the liver and colon, resulting in good bowl movement, liver function and beautiful skin.
A liquid cleanse is an excellent way to cleanse the body while still maintaining energy levels. It involves the consumption of fresh organic vegetable juices, miso or liquid soups, green or berry smoothies, and a lot of water.
Regimes for cleansing the liver incorporate bitter greens and chlorophyll juices such as wheat grass and dandelion greens. Other liver-happy foods include carrots, celery, limes, lemons, and beets. Spices that offer cleansing effects on the liver include turmeric, rosemary, cayenne and cumin. Foods to avoid during a liver cleanse are coffee, milk, and sodas.
Juicing is mainly consisting of freshly squeezed vegetables combined with fruits. The best cleansing vegetables are dark leafy greens, parsley, basil, celery, cabbage, cilantro, cucumber, carrots, beets, ginger root, turmeric root and fruits such as green apples, fresh cranberry, lemon and pineapple. If possible use organic and local produce using a slow and cold press juicer.