Do Cleanses and Detoxes Actually Work?

To detox or not to detox...

Do Cleanses and Detoxes Actually Work?

Health crazes are nothing new, and neither are cleanses for that matter. Colon cleanses, juice cleanses, sugar detoxes, fruit detoxes – if you’ve ever read a magazine, watched TV, or scoured the Internet, than you’ve heard these names before. But what exactly are they and do they actually work?

If you’re relatively unfamiliar with cleanses and detoxes, you’ve still probably heard them in reference to celebrity fad diets. These popular trends promise to clean out gross toxins from your body and in turn, leave you an overall healthier human being. These are pretty tall promises. Let’s see if they measure up to the claims.

What the Heck is a Cleanse?

While there are a ton of different cleanses and detoxes, for the most part, they’re all relatively the same thing with 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 often promise to make you feel better as a result.

There is no specific definition of a cleanse or detox, but they normally involve limiting your food intake to juice, avoiding certain types of food, or drinking a concoction of juices that supposedly rids your body of gunk. These aforementioned toxins are rarely described in great detail, but generally referred to as pollutants or poisons. In the medical field, toxins can refer to anything from alcohol, to food, to medicines, to asbestos.

There are almost an unlimited variety of detoxes and cleanses to sort through, but I’m going to focus on the following 6 most popular, just to give you an idea of what they’re all about.

Colon Cleanse

Our colons have the important, albeit kind of gross job of taking digested food from our stomachs, pulling the nutrients out, and excreting waste. While for most of us, our colons perform their duties just fine, every once in a while you might feel like they need a helping hand. Colon cleanses come in many different types, methods, and prices, but the main idea is to use water, fiber, and/or supplements to flush all the gunk out of your intestines so you can start fresh.

Liver Cleanse

Just like our colons, our livers play an important role in ridding our bodies of unwanted toxins. The three-pound organ sits just under your ribs and is responsible for cleaning your blood. Some people believe that eating certain foods or taking certain supplements can help your liver perform better—or help it when it's overwhelmed by too many trips through the drive-thru. However, experts caution that most liver detox products don't work as advertised. Some can actually cause harm to your liver, as the organ is responsible for metabolizing any drugs, medications, or herbals supplements.

The Master Cleanse

While the Master Cleanse has been around for decades, it was Beyonce who made it mainstream. She used the diet to drop some serious weight for her role in the movie Dreamgirls. To do it, you drink a lovely sounding concoction of lemon water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper; along with an herbal detox tea, and nothing else—daily for at least 10 days. While it may work in the short term, experts say it isn't safe long-term.

The 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse

Pictures of green smoothies were probably all over your Instagram feed this past summer as this popular cleanse blew up on social media. Participants say they've dropped up to 15 pounds by drinking only smoothies made of blended fruits and veggies for 10 days. While the diet is high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, it lacks other important nutrients, like, ya know, protein.

Juice Cleanse

Juicing has long been used as a way to get lots of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables without having to, well, eat all those fruits and vegetables. So juice cleanses, of which there are many different types, take advantage of this vitamin lovin' by having people replace all (or part) of their solid food with specially formulated juices.

Dherbs Full Body Cleanse

Dherbs is a company that makes a line of proprietary supplements that claim to cure a range of illnesses and health problems. The Full Body Cleanse is a system of pills or liquid supplements you take on a daily basis for 20 days in addition to following a suggested raw-food diet. However, because of the limited information available on the company's site, not much is known about what exactly is in the supplements—or how they work. However, this surprisingly enough hasn't stopped people from buying it up by the bucketful.

While most of these cleanses and detoxes promote themselves as the only sure fire way to rid your body of all it’s unhealthy gunk, there does seem to be a dual aim when it comes to these diets: weight loss plus a notion that we have built-up toxins in the body that are slowing us down and possibly killing us. A typical cleanse 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 exist, but they may actually lie elsewhere.

What's Really Going on in There?

We’re told from a young age that fruits and vegetables are good for us, so logically a diet that consists of just fruit and vegetables must be really healthy, right?

Not so much. If you drink nothing but juice for a week, you’ll lose weight, but it’s not because you’re not eating and not because your body is detoxing. Water is regularly stored in your muscles. When you eat a low calorie diet, you use up that storage of water, and lose the water weight with it. You’ll gain that weight right back as soon as you return to your normal diet. You’re also missing out on all the other vital nutrients your body needs, like fat fiber, and protein. In fact, some cleanses suggest you even avoid exercise when you’re on them because your caloric intake is slow, which results in fatigue and dizziness. Doesn’t sound too healthy to me.

After a few days of this, your body is basically running on fumes, and without protein, your body might start to break down muscle tissue instead. Similarly, the lack of fiber in your diet can also impact the function of your large intestine, which might explain why people tend to describe their the feeling of their gut on a juice cleanse as being similar t the stomach flu.

Most importantly, a juice cleanse doesn’t do anything that your body doesn’t already do on its own. Our bodies are already pretty good at removing toxins on their own thanks to our kidneys, lungs, and liver. If they weren’t, and our bodies actually needed yearly detoxes, we’d all probably be dead.

While most of these cleanse and detoxes aren’t too dangerous, they can easily cause problems. Since juice doesn’t have much fiber, the body ends up absorbing more fructose sugar, which isn’t good for you. Another major flaw in all of this is that most commercial detoxes don’t list what a toxin is or what they do or give any evidence that their detox will remove said toxins. All of this being said: the only thing a detox or juice cleanse actually does to your body is make you hungry and nutrient deprived for days.

Other (Healthier) Options

So cleanses might not really do anything productive aside from making you cranky and exhausted for several days. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things you can to get your health back on track.

The essential idea of a cleanse is basically to just reboot your body and diet. There is something to be said for a “food reset”. That is, simply eating healthier (mainly whole, minimally processed, and largely plant-based foods) to re-accustom your taste buds to more subtle flavors. This shouldn’t, however, be so easily compared to a cleanse or detox. What you do for five or seven days out of the year is pretty inconsequential. Instead of worrying about detoxing or cleansing, try thinking about eating nutritious, healthy foods on a daily basis. The idea that three months of unhealthy eating can somehow be remedied by drinking nothing but juice for 72 hours is insane.

Health and nutrition might seem like an often confusing and overwhelming mess, but there's plenty of educational information out there if you look in the right places. Fad diets just aren't worth it. All you really need a healthy routine, not a gimmick, not a quick scheme, not a weeklong cleanse or detox. You need to pay attention to your body every day and provide it with what it needs.

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Alysha DePerna
Alysha DePerna
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Alysha DePerna

Book nerd and lover of all things cheese flavored. Highly skilled at Google and considers coffee medicinal.

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