What is a detox? Do detoxes and cleanses work?

Chances are you’ve heard about detoxes or cleanses to help you reach “optimal” health. Maybe someone you know swears by detox cleanses for feeling or looking great. But do detoxes work? Are cleanses necessary for good health?

The short answer: No. You can skip detox cleanses and still be healthy. In fact, depending on what’s involved and your underlying health issues, detoxes and cleanses may be more harmful than helpful, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

What Are Detoxes and Cleanses?

Detoxes claim to help your body get rid of bad chemicals, or toxins, that you absorb from both the food you eat and the environment. The health claim: Getting rid of these toxins can help to ease health issues such as arthritis, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases. Detoxes also claim to reset your metabolism, so they’re popular for weight loss.

Cleanses come in different forms that can be used alone or in combination. Most involve short-term diets, often with fasting first. Some involve juice cleanses, specific nutritional shakes, or certain supplements or herbs. Others focus on cleansing your colon, through the use of laxatives, rectal enemas, or colon hydrotherapy, known as “colonic irrigation.”

Wellness detoxes aren’t the same as the medical detoxes used by doctors to eliminate dangerous levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons from the body. Doctors also use a chemical detoxification known as chelation therapy to remove heavy metals (such as mercury and arsenic) from the body.

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What the Science Says

Despite the bold claims and popularity, there’s little evidence that detoxes do anything to eliminate toxins from the body, according to the NCCIH. They aren’t recommended for eliminating toxins or for weight loss.

Not only is the science behind these wellness fads shaky at best, but also can be harmful to your health.

There’s a reason detoxes and cleanses can make you feel better at first or cause initial weight loss, according to the NCCIH. Detox diets often require eliminating unhealthy, processed foods from your diet. The immediate weight loss happens because detox diets or juice cleanses severely restrict calories. Once these diets end, research finds that the weight comes back on.

More Harm Than Good

Detox and cleansing products have not been proven to offer any health benefits, according to the NCCIH. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken action against companies for selling these products which may contain illegal or harmful substances. They have also taken action against companies for making false claims of health benefits for detoxes and cleanses.

Who should avoid detoxes and cleanses?

Detoxes and cleanses can be especially dangerous for the elderly, young children, and women who are pregnant or breast feeding. They are also dangerous for people who:

  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Are taking multiple medications
  • Have an underlying health condition.
  • Have diabetes (If you have diabetes, follow you doctor’s nutritional advice.)
  • Have an eating disorder

Potential harms of detoxes and cleanses

Because detox products are unregulated by the FDA, their safety hasn’t been established. Even homemade juice cleanses can have dangerous consequences. Side effects of detox diets and cleanses include:

  • Overdosing on vitamins and minerals
  • An electrolyte imbalance caused by fasting or drinking too much water, juice, or tea
  • Kidney problems caused by juice cleanses that contain high oxalate foods, such as spinach and beets
  • Bacterial illnesses, such as salmonella, caused by drinking unpasteurized products
  • Injury to the colon or bowel from enemas or colonic irrigation
  • Severe dehydration caused by use of laxatives or diuretics

Why Detoxes and Cleanses Are Unnecessary

Toxins occur in the body in two ways:

  1. They’re produced by our bodies during regular metabolism. These toxins include lactic acid, urea, and other waste.
  2. They enter our bodies from the outside. This could be from the foods we eat and drink, from the air we breathe, and by absorption through our skin.

The good news is that your body already has a built-in detoxification system. We naturally get rid of toxins through urine, feces, sweat, and breathing. Our liver and kidneys do the bulk of our body’s detoxification. That’s why it’s important to keep these organs functioning properly. Your doctor can assess the health of your liver and kidneys during your annual checkup through blood work. They can also recommend additional tests and imaging if the blood work shows something of concern.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. "Detoxes" and "Cleanses": What You Need to Know. National Institutes of Health. Link

National Poison Control Center. Chelation: Therapy or "Therapy". Link

About UPMC Nutrition Services

Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.