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Detoxes and cleanses: Are they doing more harm than good?

Lana Bandoim's picture

Detoxes are all the rage with dieters, but will a detox or nutritional cleanse make a difference in your overall health?


Detoxes are popular, but your results will depend on the type of detox you do and what you hope to accomplish. The most successful detoxes are those that understand your body is not full of awful toxins. Instead, they take a systemic approach that focuses on improving your overall health.

One word, many programs

When people say they are doing a detox, it is not immediately clear what they mean. This is because there are hundreds of different detox plans on the market with each claiming to melt away excess weight and rid your body of illness-causing toxins.

There is Mark Hyman’s Blood Sugar Solution that states sugars and carbs are addictive, so you need to break free from these cravings. There is the Scientology detoxification program that uses exercise, saunas and vitamins to eliminate toxins. There is the famous Master Cleanse that consists of a lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper blend and is basically an unpleasant diuretic. There are also the more mundane detox waters that at least help you stay hydrated. However, these are only the beginning, and you will find hundreds of others.

Detox assumptions

There are multiple reasons that drive people to try a detox. For many, there is a conscious or unconscious belief that doing a detox, which often comes with restricted eating, will help them to jumpstart a diet. Others believe that they will be unable to diet successfully unless they first get rid of the toxins inside their bodies that are preventing them from losing weight.

In the case of the first belief, the opposite may actually be true. If you detox for too long, your body will go into starvation mode and begin hoarding calories while making it harder to lose weight. If you have chosen a cleanse that is diuretic in nature, you may lose a lot of weight at first, but it will all be water weight and not body fat.

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As for the second belief, it is not true that there are toxins in your body that will prevent you from losing weight. Although toxins are not to blame, your body may not be working as well as it could be. Many detox or cleanse teas include ingredients that improve liver function, and this will help your body eliminate harmful things more effectively. You can also accomplish this by eating other foods that are high in antioxidants.

Cleanse the spirit

It is not enough to think about cleanses as simple physical processes. It takes great internal resolve and willpower to start a cleanse, and many people find they offer emotional and spiritual benefits. In an Ayurvedic detox, there are several phases, including ingesting oils, spending time in a steam room or sauna, and a later phase that includes natural foods, meditation and yoga.

Those who have done this type of cleanse say that they experience greater emotional balance, reduce their anxiety and get moments of clarity and insight that are otherwise beyond their reach. This alone is enough of a reason to try a cleanse, and those moments of insight may be helpful in the later phases of a diet.

Reset, rehydrate, resume

Ultimately, if you are going to do a cleanse or detox, there are a few steps you can take to make it a more beneficial process. First, choose a cleanse that is heavy on water, so it will boost kidney and liver function. You should probably be drinking more water than you currently do, regardless of your dieting status, so this will help your overall health. As for water additives, you want to pick something motivating or nothing at all. Adding cucumbers, mint or oranges will not make the cleanse more effective, but if they will help you drink more water, then that is a good reason to use them.

Another good approach to dietary cleanses is to make them part of an elimination diet. If you think your digestive system is not working well, then you may have a food intolerance or sensitivity. Common food intolerances include wheat, soy and dairy, so eliminate them, and slowly add them back one at a time. If you notice changes in how you feel, such as a drop in energy or increased bloating, consider eliminating that food permanently. By dropping trigger foods from your diet, you may find you have an easier time losing weight.

Cleanses and detox programs are not perfect, so it is important to carefully assess your goals and needs when choosing one. If you do a cleanse with the goal of improving your entire health, instead of only focusing on weight loss, you may find you are more successful.