Detox-arrhea and Other Pure-ific Trends! Should you “Cleanse”?

What Detox sounds like:

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What it can often be like:

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“Cleansing” or “detoxing:” Ten years ago these either implied potentially pH-offsetting genital washing with perfumed products or checking oneself into a hardcore rehab with people unable to brush their teeth without heavy narcotics, respectively. Today, it is the new chic thing to brag about doing.  Whether it’s giving up sugar / caffeine / anything that you like or swearing off all food except for a daily 42 oz dram of what appears to be reconstituted lawn trimmings, many people strongly feel they should follow some strict guidelines in order to get rid of all the “toxins” that they’ve been convinced their body is unable to process.

Before you rush out to join in on the colonic explosion party, let’s visit this land of envisioned virginal purity and see what the experts and research (or lack thereof) seem to say about it…

(Blog previously posted on nutrivise.tumblr.com!)

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Most variations on the detox diet involve severely restricting caloric intake and often have some highly concentrated concoction of vegetable and fruit juice for people to chug; this latter part plays a big part in the mental excitement of imagining you are binding toxins and ushering them out of your body.*  Some plans include some sort of colonic flushing through enemas or high fiber loads. The point of these magic smoothies is to rid you of toxins that supposedly build up in your body. The promised results range from such sexy ideas as beautiful skin, a rejuvenated metabolism, a better mood, and decreased bloating, to amazing overall health and well-being.

Most people start out thinking: OMG! My cells are overloaded with toxins! I must purify them!

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What research is there showing that these detox plans increase the concentrations of toxins being excreted in the urine? None. First, these detox diets don’t even identify the toxins they claim are plaguing you, they leave that up to the desperate consumer’s imagination. Secondly, not one detox diet scheme has ever measured the toxin excretion in urine or fecal matter and then compared the excretion using their magic powder. Finally, there is actually no basis in human biology that indicates anyone needs to fast or drink a magic smoothie to help your liver, kidneys, or lungs do their job.  Our body already does an excellent job of this.**

OK, so my liver and kidneys are awesome. But I really need to Brillo pad my colon!

No, you really don’t. The idea that intestinal waste products can hang out in your colon and poison your body has been around since ancient Egyptian times.  Gastroenterologists and other experts have since confirmed that irrigating and flushing out your colon is not only useless, but potentially dangerous.***  If not done under medical supervision, (and solely for the purpose of giving a clear tunnel for colonoscopies), side effects can include electrolyte abnormalities, infection, heart failure, and even bowel perforation (perforation means hole-making…yes, that’s as bad as it sounds!)

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OK, so maybe you don’t use coffee enemas, but instead choose to overload your system with a huge amount of fiber. But then you also are asking for a dehydrating and potentially immunocompromising situation. By intentionally giving yourself diarrhea, you could actually be killing off healthy bacterial strains in your colon, leaving you more vulnerable to bad bacteria and illnesses that accompany a weakened immune system.  So….back away from the Colon Blow cereal, and put down that Green Tea Enema. It’s not worth it.

I’ll nix the green drink and the fiber explosion. Instead, I’m going to go to a hot yoga class / sauna / track in the desert to run in a sweat suit so I can “sweat out” my toxins!

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Have fun!  But unfortunately, by exposing yourself to extreme heat either with or without exercise, you are going through a lot of physiological stress to dump buckets of water, not evil, from your system.   Unless your kidneys are hooked up to your skin and you are sweating out urine (Gyah!), your sweat’s only job is to cool you off. It is 99% water, and the rest is predominantly salt, potassium, and a tiny amount of urea, none of which are toxic.****  If anything, you are dehydrating yourself, and forcing your kidneys to hold onto more water instead of doing their job to excrete toxins in your urine.

You’re such a hater! I want to do some kind of detox just to kickstart my healthy eating regimen! What can I do that’s safe?

Fine. Even though cleansing or detoxing is not pumping evil toxins from your body, some people actually do glean great benefit and experience some sort of mental “kickstart” by going extreme healthy for a brief period, and this can give them motivation to adhere to a healthier lifestyle long-term. Think of it as promoting health or reminding yourself to take care of your body, rather than depriving yourself or cleansing out poison. If you must have guidelines, try these:

YAYNESS 2-day Health-Promoting but Not-Detoxing-Cuz-That’s-Not-True Plan 

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  1. Don’t starve yourself. It will only slow down your metabolism (another future blog topic).  Eat regularly (every 3-4 hours) and don’t skip meals.
  2. Swear off anything that comes in a package.
  3. Drink enough water so that you aren’t peeing Gatorade, but you also aren’t peeing something so identical to the bowl water that you can leavewithout flushing. Pale yellow is the goal.
  4. Try to aim for 10-12 (!) servings of fruits and vegetables each day.  This IS a good thing about some detox plans- some of them promote lots of fruit and veggies. They ARE NOT going to detox your cells. But they AREhealth promoting!
  5. If you choose to consume grains, eat only whole grains, not refined grains. Aim for 3-4 servings.
  6. Have at least one meal with legumes each day for a healthy source of protein and fiber.
  7. Sleep for 8 hours each night. (Yes, for these days actually plan it into your schedule! Sleep is critical!)
  8. Do something active each day.
  9. Relax. Your body gets rid of toxins just fine, and the stress of imagining it isn’t is only going to toxify your mind.  Spend these days just reflecting on your commitment to health.

Marily O.

MS, RD, PhD

* To clarify: I’m not talking about religious fasting. Many religions have some type of fasting ritual, and that’s not the scope of this blog. If you are interested in the effects of fasting on the body, recent researchers are actively studying this, so we can hit that topic up later.

** Absent of any disease…and in the case of someone with a compromised liver or kidney situation, these detox diets are even MORE dangerous.

*** Supporting colonics there are only theories and anecdotes.  Yet there is good evidence that colonics are associated with substantial risks.  For an excellent review about colonic irrigation, see:

Ernst, E. (1997). Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: A triumph of ignorance over science. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 24(4), 196-198.

**** Precise sweat composition can vary depending on the individual, hydration, exercise, state of health, where the sweat is on the body, and which type of sweat gland it is coming from. Sweat can contain lactate, pyruvate, glycerol, and serine, proteins and peptides, calcium, magnesium, and even an antimicrobial peptide—but none of these are toxic, either.  A nice summary can be found in the following:

Wilke, K., Martin, A., Terstegen, L, and Biel, S.S. (2007). International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 29, 169-179.

Shirreffs., S.M., & Maughan, R.J. (1997). Whole body sweat collection in humans: an improved method with preliminary data on electrolyte content. Journal of Applied Physiology, 82(1), 336-341.

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