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  • Meera Shah, MS, RD

Are gastrointestinal cleanses/detoxes effective?

What are “detoxes” and “cleanses”?

Before it was co-opted in the recent craze, the word "detox" referred chiefly to a medical procedure that rids the body of dangerous, often life-threatening, levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons¹. A variety of “detoxification” diets or regimens - sometimes called “detoxes” or “cleanses" that are now being promoted to the health-conscious public are a different matter. They have touted ways to remove toxins from your body, lose weight, or promote health. These programs may involve a single process or a variety of approaches. These include:

  • Only consuming liquids

  • Fasting

  • Using dietary supplements or other commercial products

  • Eating only certain foods

  • Using isolated herbs

  • Cleansing the colon with enemas, laxatives, or colon hydrotherapy (also called “colonic irrigation” or “colonics”)

Gastrointestinal "cleanses" or the process of "detoxifying" continue to grow in popularity, and the associated products continue to boast of many health promoting advantages - but can we really "cleanse/detox" our insides? And are the health claims true? Let's take a look at common misconceptions and myths.

Myth 1: Your body is like a car and needs regular "maintenance & cleansing"

The truth is our bodies are remarkable and there is no need to "cleanse" or "detox" (see The Bottom Line below for ways to assist our bodies in a meaningful way). Our kidneys and liver work as the body's principal filter. Our kidneys are remarkably efficient in filtering out waste substances & excreting them out of the body. Liver cells also produce groups of enzymes that are an important part of the body's defense against harmful chemicals and other toxins. Secondly, there is no scientific evidence that any of these so-called cleanses actually clean or detoxify your insides. In fact, some of these regimens may do more harm than good as discussed below.

Myth 2: "Detoxing or cleansing" can help with weight loss.

The truth is a "detox/cleanse" may help tip the scale initially, but only because the diet is usually very low in calories. Diets that help us lose weight quickly by significantly reducing calories are generally unsustainable and lead to weight gain once we resume our regular habits. These "crash-diets" can hurt us in the long run; Research suggests rapid weight loss can slow your metabolism & deprive your body of essential nutrients. Some supplements boast of "boosting metabolism" or "burning fat" - despite the hype, supplements that are promoted as fat busters and metabolism boosters rarely if ever have a significant effect on weight loss. Your best bet is to follow science-based recommendations to lose weight and get a registered dietitian's help if you need it.

Myth 3: "Detoxing or cleansing" your colon can prevent chronic illnesses.

The truth is taking laxatives or other forms of colonic cleansing carry a risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, impaired bowel function, and disruption of intestinal flora. These means may be employed under medical supervision for issues related to severe constipation. Otherwise, as mentioned above, many of these methods will upset the gut balance. To manage or prevent chronic illness, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Focus your energy on maintaining a well-balanced diet and exercising.

Myth 4: A "detox/cleanse" can help you "fix" your body after a weekend of debauchery.

The truth is you cannot wash away a weekend filled with fast foods, junk foods, alcohol, and more. Before you dust off that juicer or take the first tentative steps towards a "cleanse/detox" keep in mind that what you consume most of the time will always matter the most. No "cleanse/detox" regimen can erase or cancel the foods you've already eaten and continue to consume. Now, trying to balance your overall diet during the week with nutritious foods is still a great idea! Consuming more fruits and vegetables (in whichever form you choose) as a part of a well balanced nutrition regimen will benefit you no matter how you think about it.

The Bottom Line

These "detox/cleanse" diets, while seductive, aren’t needed as your body has its own, highly efficient detoxification system. The human body can defend itself very well against most environmental insults and the effects of occasional indulgence. In addition to not needing them, there's no scientific evidence that they actually "detoxify/cleanse" our insides and sometimes they end up doing more harm than good. That said, you can enhance your body’s natural detoxification system and improve your overall health by concentrating on giving your body what it needs to maintain its robust self-cleaning system:

  • Balanced Diet with antioxidants, fiber, and micronutrients

  • Sufficient Sleep

  • Staying Hydrated

  • Exercising


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