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Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
April 2, 2024 ·  10 min read

Do Detox Diets and Cleanses Really Work?

Detox diets, or “cleanses”, have gained immense popularity over the last decade. Diets like these claim to clean your blood and eliminate toxins from your body, promising results like weight loss, increased energy, clearer skin, fewer digestive issues, decreased bloating, and lowered inflammation. Some even claim to help cure autoimmune diseases and allergies. Something that is marketed as a magical cure-all for what ails you, however, is bound to get at least a few people asking some questions, the main one being do cleanses work?

What is a Detox or Cleanse?

A detox is typically a short-term dietary intervention that is designed to eliminate toxins from your body. It often involves a period of fasting, followed by a very strict diet in which you only eat fruit, vegetables, fruit juices, and water.

Other detoxification programs may also include using dietary supplements, herbs, enemas, laxatives, or colonics, reducing environmental exposures, using a sauna, and exercising [1,2].

Detox diets will vary in intensity and duration, some lasting only a few days, some lasting a couple weeks or more.

Some programs claim to cleanse your entire body, while others focus on a specific organ, such as the colon. As an example, one of the most popular cleanses, that has been endorsed by several celebrities, is Stanley Burroughs’s Master Cleanse. This program, also known as the lemonade diet, involves consuming only three things: lemon water mixed with maple syrup and cayenne pepper, a saltwater drink, and an herbal laxative tea [3].

This diet, along with many other cleanses or detox diets, often do result in short-term weight loss because you are consuming so few calories, and temporarily eliminating water weight. But do they result in long-term weight loss? And do they actually “detoxify” your body as they claim to do?

Your Body is Already Eliminating Toxins

There is very little research that supports the claims made by these types of diets, and the few studies that do exist have significant flaws [4].

The truth is, there is no food that can eliminate toxins from your body- only your body can do that. Cleansing, or toxin elimination, happens through your liver, feces, urine, and sweat [5,6].

The liver is one of the largest organs in your body, and carries out many important metabolic functions, one of which is taking up toxic substances and converting them into harmless substances that can be eliminated by the body. Your liver removes alcohol, the by-products from the breakdown of medication, and ammonia from the break-down of protein, from your bloodstream and converts it to bile or urea to be excreted from your body as feces or urine [7].

Sweating, as previously mentioned, is also an effective way that we eliminate toxins that have accumulated in our bodies from environmental exposure [6].

While there are some chemicals and pollutants that tend to accumulate in fat tissue or blood and can be difficult to eliminate or remove, most of these products have been removed from, or at least limited in, commercial products today (PBA would be an example of this) [8].

Do cleanses work?

The problem with most of the detox programs on the market is that they make unsubstantiated claims, or claims that are extremely vague. For example, the “Master Detox” claims that it promotes “the elimination of every kind of disease”- a statement that conveniently lacks any kind of specificity [9]. 

This is not the only program that airs on the side of ambiguous. A report from 2009 that investigated fifteen different detox program manufacturers found that not a single one of them could provide a clear list of which harmful toxins were being eliminated. Additionally, every single program had its own different definition of what the term “detox” actually meant [10].

Will a Detox Diet Help Me Lose Weight?

The short answer is yes, but as mentioned above, any form of severe calorie restriction will result in weight loss, at least in the short term. This, however, is most likely due to a loss of fluid and carbohydrate stores, not fat loss. For this reason, any weight that was lost during the detox is often gained back once the individual begins eating again.

Certain types of detox diets or cleanses may have a similar effect to short-term or intermittent fasting, which can help people lose weight and various disease markers, however, this is not the case for everyone, and success is highly dependent on the individual. For some, prolonged fasting can actually increase stress hormones and have a negative impact on your health [11].

Read: 5 Ways to Keep Your Lymphatic System Healthy

4 Ways to Support Detoxification

Now that we’ve gone over some of the facts and misinformation surrounding detoxes and cleanses, we can touch on some major ways you can support your body’s own process.

1. Eating to Support Detoxification

While there is no food that can detoxify your body, that doesn’t mean that what you eat is not important. Your liver requires an immense amount of nutrients in order to function properly, and eating a nutritious diet that supports your liver will improve your body’s ability to reach its own peak efficiency and to keep continually detoxifying itself.

Vitamins & minerals such as C, E, B complex, magnesium, zinc, manganese, selenium, sulfur and amino acids like cysteine, glycine, taurine and glutamine, glutathione and innumerable phytonutrients found in plant foods are just a few examples of the vital nutrients your liver needs in order to do its job [12,13].

Liver detox tuberose 1024x703 - Your Ultimate Guide To Detoxing and Cleanses
Image Credit: Doug Cook, RDN

Another key nutrient involved in toxin elimination is fibre, particularly the soluble kind found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables. Fibre helps eliminate toxins two ways: 

  1. By binding bile and the toxins found within it.
  2. By feeding the bacteria in your digestive tract that create short-chain fatty acids and metabolites that increase the liver’s ability to excrete toxins [13,14].

2. Decrease Your Exposure to Known Toxicants

Another way to help lower the number of toxins in your body is to limit your exposure to them altogether. Avoiding exposure to airborne pollutants like smoke, smog, and chemical fumes can improve your health in general and take some of the load off of your liver.

People who live in rural areas tend to have less exposure to environmental pollutants, but if you live in an urban area there are still steps you can take to reduce the number of toxins present in your home, such as ensuring your home or apartment is properly ventilated [15].

Additionally, if you live in an area with a lot of smog, you may want to consider wearing a facemask when you’re outdoors to prevent the inhalation of air pollutants. Lastly, consider quitting smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.

Another way to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins is through the food you eat. While pesticide residues on foods are highly regulated in the United States, it is always good practice to thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them, and peeling and cooking them whenever possible, even if they are organic [16]. 

3. Exercise

There are many reasons why exercise is important for your health, and one of them is reducing inflammation. While some inflammation is necessary for your body to fight infections or to heal injuries, too much impairs your body’s systems and organs from functioning properly- including your liver.

Regular moderate to vigorous exercise can reduce the levels of systemic inflammation in your body, thereby allowing your liver and the rest of your detoxifying system to function optimally [17].

4. Supplementation To Support Detoxification

Supplementation is optional, but there are some compounds in plant foods that have been shown to upregulate your liver’s detoxification process. One of these compounds, sulforaphane, which is found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, reduces oxidative stress, thereby improving liver function [18].

There are some supplements that are supported by strong evidence from human studies to support liver health:

  • Milk thistle: this herb contains a group of active ingredients called Silymarins that promote liver health, particularly after a liver injury [19].
  • N-Acetylcysteine (NAC): this has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that promote liver health and detoxification [20].
  • S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe): this is a compound that circulates in the blood and helps to maintain metabolic reactions [21]. 
  • TUDCA: this is a water soluble bile acid that helps treat bile acid backup in the liver, and can help protect and rehabilitate the liver [22].

It is important to note that as a consumer, you should be wary of any supplement that claims to detoxify your body. The claim isn’t necessarily false, but the term is misused so frequently that your should always do your research before spending money on a supplement that may not work.

Read: The Best Things You Can Do to Optimize Brain Function Now

Are Cleanses or Detoxes Safe?

Thousands of people try doing a detox or cleanse every year, and many of them experience few side effects aside from hunger and possible irritability. That being said, there are some serious risks associated with a cleanse diet, and they are potentially more harmful for some than others.

Not all cleanse or detox programs are created equal, and the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken action against a number of companies selling detox products that contain illegal ingredients, were marketed with unfounded claims that they could treat a specific disease, or sold devices that were marketed for an unapproved use (such as for a colon cleanse) [23].

Other problems that have been associated with detox or cleanse programs are programs that include unpasteurized juices that could be harmful to people with weak immune systems, or juices that are high in oxalates that could increase the risk for kidney problems.

Severely restricting calories or consuming only water and herbal tea can also lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances, and deprive your body of the nutrients that it needs for proper functioning. Any programs that involve the use of laxatives or colon cleansing procedures can also lead to severe electrolyte imbalances, and can be dangerous for people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease.

Additionally, anyone who has specific medical needs or has to follow a specific diet, such as someone with diabetes, should follow the diet program recommended by their healthcare team [23].

A Note on Chemophobia

Chemophobia is essentially the fear of chemicals or chemistry. In general, it stems from a misunderstanding of chemistry. “Chemicals” essentially means everything in the material world, from fuels and plastics to human bodies and baby oil [24].

A common problem is that chemophobes confuse the chemicals that make up a product with the product itself. For example, TBHQ is an additive found in certain food products. You can find blog posts on the internet that claim that “TBHQ is made from butane- a toxic gas”, however this ignores basic rules of chemistry. It is essentially the same thing as saying water is dangerous because it is made from hydrogen, which is a very flammable gas. One of the first rules of chemistry is that when atoms combine and form bonds with each other they lose their individual properties [24].

Individuals who are chemophobic may be more likely to try a detox or cleanse program in an effort to rid their bodies of the chemicals they have absorbed from their environment, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support their efficacy. 

While there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to avoid processed foods and the chemical fertilizers and pesticides associated with conventional agriculture, and in fact that is likely better for your health, turning to drastic, unproven measures to “rid your body of chemicals” is ineffective and does more harm than good. Remember, when it comes to toxicity, it is the dose that makes the poison.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there is no one food that can “detoxify” your body, and there is no evidence to support the efficacy of any cleanse or detox program. While there may be certain instances, such as in the case of a disease or intestinal issue, where a doctor may recommend a cleanse-like protocol, these are typically done over a very short period of time and are medically supervised.

Although these programs do not provide the benefits they claim to have, you can (and should) adopt a lifestyle that supports the healthy and proper functioning of your liver, kidneys, and other detox pathways so that your body can eliminate toxins as efficiently as possible. This means eating a healthy diet that contains lots of fruits and vegetables and is low in processed foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising regularly.

Your body is incredibly adept at taking care of itself, so long as you provide it with what it needs to function properly. A consistent, healthy lifestyle is always a better option than a drastic, “quick fix” diet. Long term actions, usually lead to long term results.