Over the last decade, the popularity of the “detox diet” has skyrocketed. Diets like these promise to clean your blood and eliminate toxins from your body, promising results such as weight loss, increased energy, clearer skin, fewer digestive issues, decreased inflammation, and more. Some people claim to cure diseases like allergies. Something that is marketed as a magical cure-all for what ails you, however, is bound to get at least a few people asking some questions, the main one being do cleanse work?
What is a Detox or Cleanse?
A cleanse is a short-term intervention that is designed to eliminate toxins from your body. It involves a period of fast, followed by a very strict diet of fruit, vegetables, and water.
Other detoxification programs may also include using dietary supplements, herbs, enemas, laxatives, or colonics, reducing environmental exposures, using a sauna, and exercising [1,2].
The intensity and duration of the cleanse will vary, some lasting only a few days, others lasting a couple weeks or more.
Some programs claim to cleanse your entire body, while others focus on a specific organ, such as the colon. As an example, one of the most popular cleanses, that has been endorsed by several celebrities, is Stanley Burroughs’s Master Cleanse. This program, also known as the lemonade diet, involves consuming only three things: lemon water mixed with maple syrup and cayenne pepper, a saltwater drink, and an herbal laxative tea .
This diet, along with many others, can result in short-term weight loss because you are consuming so little calories and not drinking much water. Do they result in a long-term weight loss? Is it true that they actuallydetoxify your body as they claim to do?
Your Body is Already Eliminating Toxins
There is very little research that supports the claims made by these types of diets, and the few studies that do exist have significant flaws .
The truth is, there is no food that can eliminate toxins from your body- only your body can do that. Cleansing, or toxin elimination, happens through your liver, feces, urine, and sweat [5,6].
The liver is one of the largest organs in your body, and carries out many important metabolic functions, one of which is taking up toxic substances and converting them into harmless substances that can be eliminated by the body. Your liver removes alcohol, the by-products from the breakdown of medication, and ammonia from the break-down of protein, from your bloodstream and converts it to bile or urea to be excreted from your body as feces or urine .
Sweating is an effective way to rid ourselves of toxins that have accumulated in our bodies from environmental exposure.
While there are some chemicals and pollutants that tend to accumulate in fat tissue or blood and can be difficult to eliminate or remove, most of these products have been removed from, or at least limited in, commercial products today (PBA would be an example of this) .
Do cleanses work?
The problem with most of the detox programs on the market is that they make unsubstantiated claims, or claims that are extremely vague. For example, the “Master Detox” claims that it promotes “the elimination of every kind of disease”- a statement that conveniently lacks any kind of specificity .
This is not the only program that airs on the side of ambiguous. A report from 2009 that investigated fifteen different detox program manufacturers found that not a single one of them could provide a clear list of which harmful toxins were being eliminated. Additionally, every single program had its own different definition of what the term “detox” actually meant .
Will a Detox Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
The short answer is yes, but it’s important to remember that any form of restriction on calories will result in weight loss in the short term. This is most likely due to a loss of fluid and carbohydrate stores, not fat loss. Once the individual starts eating again, they will usually gain back any weight that was lost during the cleanse.
Certain types of detox diets or cleanses may have a similar effect to short-term or intermittent fasting, which can help people lose weight and various disease markers, however, this is not the case for everyone, and success is highly dependent on the individual. For some, prolonged fasting can actually increase stress hormones and have a negative impact on your health .
Read: 5 Ways to Keep Your Lymphatic System Healthy
4 Ways to Support Detoxification
We can discuss some major ways you can support your own process after we went over some of the facts and misinformation surrounding the subject.
1. Eating to Support Detoxification
While there is no food that can detoxify your body, that doesn’t mean that what you eat is not important. Your liver requires an immense amount of nutrients in order to function properly, and eating a nutritious diet that supports your liver will improve your body’s ability to reach its own peak efficiency and to keep continually detoxifying itself.
Vitamins & minerals such as C, E, B complex, magnesium, zinc, manganese, selenium, sulfur and amino acids like cysteine, glycine, taurine and glutamine, glutathione and innumerable phytonutrients found in plant foods are just a few examples of the vital nutrients your liver needs in order to do its job [12,13].
A key component of toxin elimination is fibre, particularly the kind found in oats, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and some fruits and vegetables. Fibre helps eliminate toxins in two ways.
- By binding bile and the toxins within it.
- By feeding the bacteria in your digestive tract that create short-chain fatty acids and metabolites that increase the liver’s ability to excrete toxins [13,14].
2. Decrease Your Exposure to Known Toxicants
Another way to help lower the number of toxins in your body is to limit your exposure to them altogether. Avoiding exposure to airborne pollutants like smoke, smog, and chemical fumes can improve your health in general and take some of the load off of your liver.
People who live in rural areas tend to have less exposure to environmental pollutants, but if you live in an urban area there are still steps you can take to reduce the number of toxins present in your home, such as ensuring your home or apartment is properly ventilated .
If you live in an area with a lot of smog, you might want to consider wearing a facemask outdoors to protect your lungs.
Another way to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins is through the food you eat. While pesticide residues on foods are highly regulated in the United States, it is always good practice to thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them, and peeling and cooking them whenever possible, even if they are organic .
Reducing inflammation is one of the many reasons that exercise is important for your health. Too much inflammation can impair your body‘s systems and organs from functioning properly, including your liver.
Regular moderate to vigorous exercise can reduce the levels of systemic inflammation in your body, thereby allowing your liver and the rest of your detoxifying system to function optimally .
4. Supplementation To Support Detoxification
Supplementation is optional, but there are some compounds in plant foods that have been shown to upregulate your liver’s detoxification process. One of these compounds, sulforaphane, which is found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, reduces oxidative stress, thereby improving liver function .
There are some supplements that are supported by strong evidence from human studies to support liver health:
- Milk thistle: this herb contains a group of active ingredients called Silymarins that promote liver health, particularly after a liver injury .
- N-Acetylcysteine (NAC): this has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that promote liver health and detoxification .
- S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe): this is a compound that circulates in the blood and helps to maintain metabolic reactions .
- TUDCA: this is a water soluble bile acid that helps treat bile acid backup in the liver, and can help protect and rehabilitate the liver .
As a consumer, you should be wary of any supplement that claims to help you get rid of toxins in your body. The claim isn’t necessarily false, but the term is used so frequently that you should always do your research before spending money on a supplement that may not work.
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Are Cleanses or Detoxes Safe?
Thousands of people try a cleanse every year, and many of them experience few side effects aside from hunger and possible irritability. There are some serious risks associated with a cleanse diet, and they are more harmful for some than others.
Not all cleanse or detox programs are created equal, and the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken action against a number of companies selling detox products that contain illegal ingredients, were marketed with unfounded claims that they could treat a specific disease, or sold devices that were marketed for an unapproved use (such as for a colon cleanse) .
There are programs that include unpasteurized juices that could be harmful to people with weak immune systems, or juices that are high in oxalates, which could increase the risk for kidney problems.
Consuming only water and herbal tea can lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances and deprive your body of the vitamins and minerals that it needs for proper functioning. Any programs that involve the use of laxatives or colon cleansing procedures can lead to severe electrolyte imbalances and can be dangerous for people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, or heart disease.
Anyone with a specific medical need or who has to follow a specific diet should follow the diet program recommended by their healthcare team.
A Note on Chemophobia
Chemophobia is essentially the fear of chemicals or chemistry. In general, it stems from a misunderstanding of chemistry. “Chemicals” essentially means everything in the material world, from fuels and plastics to human bodies and baby oil .
Chemophobes confuse the chemicals that make up a product with the product itself, which is a common problem. There are certain food products that have an Additive called TBHQ in them. There are posts on the internet that claim that butane is a toxic gas, however this ignores the basic rules of chemistry. It is the same thing as saying water is dangerous because it is made from hydrogen, which is a very dangerous gas. One of the first rules of chemistry is that atoms lose their individual properties when bonds are formed with each other.
The fact that there is no evidence to support the efficacy of a cleanse program may make it more likely for people who are chemophobic to try one.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to avoid processed foods and the chemical fertilizers and pesticides associated with conventional agriculture, and in fact that is likely better for your health, turning to drastic, unproven measures to “rid your body of chemicals” is ineffective and does more harm than good. Remember, when it comes to toxicity, it is the dose that makes the poison.
The Bottom Line
There is no evidence to support the efficacy of any cleanse or detox program, and there is no single food that candetoxify your body. In the case of a disease, a doctor may recommend a cleanse-like protocol, but these are typically done over a short period of time and are medically supervised.
Although these programs do not provide the benefits they claim to have, you can adopt a lifestyle that supports the healthy and proper functioning of your liver, kidneys, and other detox pathways so that your body can eliminate toxins as efficiently as possible. Eating a healthy diet that contains lots of fruits and vegetables and is low in processed foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising regularly is what this means.
Your body is able to take care of itself if you give it what it needs to function. A healthy lifestyle is always a better option than a diet that is quick and easy. Long term actions usually lead to long term results.
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