Do Detoxes Really Work?
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Do Detoxes Really Work?

They're so popular, you’d think they must be helpful. Right?

With all that you read about “detoxes” and “cleanses," you’d think there must be a medical need to help rid your body of harmful toxins. But you’d be wrong. Frequently, the “experts” plugging detoxes aren’t qualified health practitioners, says Lauren Zimmerman, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Summerville Medical Center in Summerville, South Carolina.

“More often than not, these 'experts' are self-educated salespeople who are just pushing a product or service,” says Zimmerman. So, before you buy into an expensive cleanse or detox—whether it’s a product or a service—learn how your body performs these functions naturally, and whether it really needs the help.

How your body detoxes itself
When clients come to Zimmerman asking about a detox, she explains the body’s natural ability to cleanse itself, noting that many of our organs are involved in the complex process of waste management. “The lungs, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, skin, nose and throat all play a role in filtering out toxins," she says. For example, "When we breathe, our lungs take in air. We use the oxygen, but filter out other gases, such as carbon dioxide, which we get rid of as we exhale."

The liver is a major player in our internal detox system, acting as a filter to ensure that toxins are removed from the bloodstream. With help from your digestive organs and kidneys, these toxins are then expelled from the body through urine and stool, says Zimmerman.

Often, commercial detoxes claim to aid these natural functions—sometimes in an unsafe way. And that's where you can run into trouble.

Detoxes to avoid
Some detox programs rely on enemas and laxatives to cleanse your system. Steer clear of these, warns Zimmerman. Enemas involve your rectum being injected with liquid, and using them can become a harmful habit. “They may put too much pressure on the colon and cause physical harm leading to bleeding or infection,” says Zimmerman.

Laxatives are over-the-counter drugs that encourage bowel movements. Like enemas, they can cause your body to release too much water, leading to dehydration. This can disrupt your body’s chemical balance. Some people can become dependent on laxatives and can’t move their bowels normally without them, says Zimmerman.

Many cleanses may also be unsafe—especially extreme diet cleanses that purport to rid your body of toxins. “Most cleanses severely restrict calories, and that can mean your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to properly function,” says Zimmerman. You can end up with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, fatigue and impaired thinking, she adds.

Some detox or cleanse products are actually designed to fool you into thinking they’re working, says Zimmerman. “'Cleansing tablets' can change the color or consistency of the stool to make the user think toxins were pulled out when in fact, it was just a fake chemical reaction between the tablet and the stool,” she notes.

What you can do instead
Your body’s detox process is practically foolproof, and if it's functioning correctly, few products can improve upon the toxin-filtering work it performs as a matter of course. “A healthy 'detox' is allowing the body to work naturally—fueling it with whole foods, largely plant-based, that have been washed well and responsibly grown," says Zimmerman, who also recommends cutting back on alcoholic beverages.

Staying well-hydrated also helps the immune system and organs to work at optimum levels, which supports your body’s natural detoxification process. The fluids, fiber and antioxidants found in fresh whole foods bolster this activity. However, people who have a chronic disease for which they need to restrict fluids should beware of hydrating too much; speak with your doctor for more information.

Examine your reasons for detoxing
“When a client comes to me asking about a detox, I ask them why think they need to undergo one,” says Zimmerman. She also asks a few other questions:

  • Are you fatigued or sluggish?
  • Concerned about weight gain?
  • Feeling constipated?

When people have symptoms like these, they often need a lifestyle change—not a quick-fix detox. That means focusing on more than just food. “Perhaps you need to prioritize sleep, become more physically active, work on staying hydrated or make sure your diet contains plenty of plant-based, fiber rich foods,” she says.

If you do plan on changing your health habits considerably or restructuring your diet, speak with your doctor or another medical professional—especially if you have a pre-existing health condition. "It’s important to get your nutritional advice from a reputable source."  Zimmerman suggests a registered dietitian (RD), who you can find online at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The bottom line: your body is well-adapted to detoxing itself naturally. Adopting healthy habits—eating whole, largely plant-based foods (buy responsibly grown foods; wash veggies and fruits well), staying well hydrated, limiting alcohol and adding physical activity to your daily routine—can support your natural detox process. Products or services that claim to detox or cleanse your system could be harmful—and a waste of your money.