Detoxing, cleansing, fasting: it seems like everybody’s doing it. Although the term “detox” is most commonly associated with substance abuse, it is also linked to weight loss or dieting. In its most basic form, it means the elimination of negative elements that affect the body such as chemicals, additives in food or pollutants that can cause health issues. Detoxing can be done in a variety of ways from footbaths to juices to colonics and enemas. All of these detoxes promise to cleanse our body systems and keep us healthy, but do they really work? More importantly, are they safe?
You may find yourself wanting to try a detox because you’re looking to lose weight, decrease toxin levels or simply improve your overall health and well-being. However, make sure you do your research first. The outcome of any detox program can vary per person, so first ask yourself a few questions about what your expectations are.
If you’re expecting to get more energy from a detox, you might be in luck. “Having a lot of toxins in your body can decrease your energy levels,” explains Saira Gillani, ND, naturopathic doctor with Natural Health Atlanta. “You may feel so tired all the time that you don’t feel like doing anything. If you do a detox, your energy levels are typically restored, making you feel brand new with the energy.”
If you are looking for increased energy, though, you might need more than just a “quick fix” detox. The way to really cleanse your body and maintain any benefits you may see from a short detox is to cut out harmful foods and practices and replace them with healthy ones. Changing your eating behavior is a tried and true way to get the benefits that detoxes usually promise. “The benefits of eating clean are that it helps your liver, kidneys and colon function properly, can increase energy, decrease irritability and help you sleep better. Not to mention if you are eating clean foods to help you detox, you often lose weight,” says Shayna Komar, RD, LD, dietician with Cancer Wellness at Piedmont Healthcare.
So if a detox method does not require healthy eating, it is probably not going to help you on your path to a healthier lifestyle. There are a lot of “quick fix” detoxes out there, so it is important to do your homework and be realistic about your expectations. For example, an ionic footbath is said to rebalance your cells’ electrical charge by pulling toxins from the body into the water. It consists of putting the feet into a bath of water and salt containing submerged electrodes that give off a small charge. Some people claim to have experienced benefits from these baths. According to Dr. Karen Tedeschi, chiropractor and owner of Tedeschi Wellness Center, ionic footbaths have helped her patients who are going through menopause. “During menopause, footbaths will aid in the successful passage of excess hormones, relieving symptomatic discomfort.” She also notes that ionic footbaths are a way to flush the lymphatic system and support the body’s major organs. However, some research studies have shown that there have been no increased toxins found in the water after a footbath. Scientists who conducted some of these tests also state that the skin makes too strong of a barrier for large amounts of toxins to be pulled through it. Because of that, some people believe it’s unlikely that a footbath detox will have many long-term effects. Since everyone’s outcome from a treatment or service can be different, use your best judgment.
Another popular form of detoxing includes enemas or colonics given as often as every two hours to remove “toxic build-up” in the bowels. Despite claims of improved digestive health, colon cleansing does not really improve digestion or increase absorption of nutrients into the large intestine because most digestion and absorption occurs before the large intestine – actually in the small intestine, according to Alice Schuler, RD, LD with The Cancer Center at DeKalb Medical. What colon cleansing can provide, though, is relief from constipation, according to certified colon hydrotherapists Teresa Ducoffe and Candace Layer. So you might see some short-term benefits, “but the weight will come right back on if you do not exercise and start eating healthy,” Komar says.
Other types of digestive tract cleansing with laxatives, herbal or chemical, and vitamin overloads also do not provide health benefits, and sometimes they can even remove necessary substances like digestive enzymes, prebiotics and probiotics. “The use of laxatives and diuretics, even if considered herbal or natural, can lead to cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting,” says Jennifer Baker Lachnicht, RD, LD, CNSC in the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Department at Northside Hospital.
Detoxing Myths and Dangers
While some detoxing methods might be a waste of time, they’re relatively harmless. Don’t be fooled, though: Others can be downright dangerous.
Some colon detoxification methods “may cause fluid and electrolyte imbalances that can lead to symptoms such as dehydration, weakness, headaches, altered mental status, diarrhea and constipation,” Schuler says.
It can also be dangerous to go too far in the other direction – instead of removing toxins, trying to add in too much of the good stuff can be harmful. “I encourage everyone to look critically at invasive procedures,” says Maziar Rezvani, MD, medical director at Avicenna Integrative Medicine and Avicenna Allergy and Asthma. “Harm comes when invasive therapies of mega doses of vitamins, herbs or minerals are introduced into the body.”
You also have to avoid the danger of treating a detox as a catch-all cure, because that might prevent you from getting effective treatment. “The belief that removing toxins can cure cancer has delayed some people with cancer from receiving conventional treatments that have been known to cure,” Schuler says.
Finally, detoxes are dangerous to the wrong groups of people. “Certain types of people should never use a detox diet. They include children of all ages, pregnant women and individuals with diabetes,” Lachnicht says.
Detoxing the Right Way
Among all the misinformation circulating about detoxes, Lachnicht says, “The biggest myth about detox diets is that they work! Your body is perfectly equipped to detoxify itself from everyday environmental toxins.” Basically, this means you shouldn’t rely on a detox as a necessary practice for proper health. Instead, redefine your understanding of what “detox” means. Many experts believe it should be more about detoxing our diet rather than quickly stripping toxins from our bodies.
“A person does not function well with lots of chemicals and preservatives in their food,” Komar says. “Therefore, eating clean, incorporating more whole foods, spices, herbs, fresh fruit and veggies is a great way to detox in a healthy way.”
For many people, turning to juicing has been a good way to kick-start a healthy eating plan. Brent Rodgers, owner of Roots Pressed Juices in Buckhead, incorporated juices into his regular diet and lost 30 pounds. “Enzymes are the key to pressed juices, and digesting food and keeping energy levels high,” he says. Adding fresh vegetable and fruit juices to the diet can be a painless way to begin incorporating more healthy foods. You may even choose to begin with a three- to seven-day juice cleanse, but don’t think of it as starvation. “It’s about giving your digestive system a rest. And if you find yourself getting hungry during a juice cleanse, you can always nibble on some raw veggies.” The result of a juice cleanse should be that you start on a new path to healthier eating. “It really is a reset for your brain, so by the end of your detox, you crave the foods that are in the juice.” That means craving beets and carrots instead of potato chips and sugary snacks, which is definitely a good thing.
“There are countless pros to changing to an organic, plant-based diet,” says Shannon Sliger, owner of Dtox Organic Juice and Junk in Buckhead. “I cured myself of allergies and migraines by changing the way I eat. I lost those pesky 10 to 15 [pounds] I never could on a high protein, high calcium diet by changing the way I eat.”
The way to cleanse your body and maintain any benefits you may see from a detox is to cut out harmful practices and replace them with healthy ones.
While juicing can provide a quick shot of vitamins and nutrients, it should not be a substitute for a well-balanced diet. Make sure you work with a licensed nutritionist or your primary care physician to see if your diet plan is on the right track.
“The best advice is to clean up your diet,” Lachnicht says. “Choose meals that have more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Instead of trying yet another short-term extreme fad diet, try to make healthful, long-term changes in your life.”
Whether you’re considering a long-term detox such as cutting out a certain food group or a short-term detox such as a 24-hour juice fast, make sure you know what your body can tolerate. While some cleanses and detoxing methods can have a positive effect on your health if followed properly and under the guidance of a qualified health professional, keep in mind that there’s no real substitute for clean, healthy eating and living.
Saira Gillani, ND - Natural Health Atlanta, www.naturalhealthatlanta.com
Shayna Komar, RD, LD - Piedmont Healthcare, www.piedmont.org
Jennifer Baker Lachnicht, RD - Northside Hospital, www.northside.com
Candace Layer, Teresa Ducoffe - Atlanta Colonic & Massage, www.atlantacoloniccenter.com
Maziar Rezvani, MD, FAAAAI - Avicenna Integrative Medicine/Avicenna Allergy and Asthma, www.avicennamd.com
Brent Rodgers - Roots Pressed Juices, www.rootspressedjuices.com
Alice Schuler, RD, LD - DeKalb Medical, www.dekalbmedical.org
Shannon Sliger - Dtox Organic Juice and Junk, www.dtoxjuice.com
Karen Tedeschi, DC - Tedeschi Wellness Center, www.tedeschiwellness.com