Deep cleaning

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The road to good health is littered with controversial body-detox strategies promising to melt pounds, boost energy and suck out toxins wrought by poor diet and modern living.

It makes sense that a cleaner body is healthier than a toxic one. But does a cleanse actually make your body less toxic? And is it safe?

The reboot theory

Our bodies detoxify themselves, filtering toxins through the liver, kidneys and intestines and expelling them through urine, bowel movements, breath and sweat.

The problem, detox proponents say, is that our natural detox systems can't keep up with the onslaught of toxins we are exposed to through processed foods, polluted air, stress and other trappings of everyday life. Simultaneously, our detox systems aren't getting enough of the right nutrients to function at full capacity.

As a result, toxins accumulate in our tissues and cells, some doctors say, which can contribute to a host of familiar ailments: bloating, gassiness, puffiness, fatigue, depression, poor memory, joint pain, irritability, sinus problems, headaches, itchiness, fogginess, allergies and skin problems.

The purpose of a cleanse is to give your body a chance to reboot and catch up.

"It's not about being extreme, it's just about giving a break to toxic exposure," said Dr. Myles Spar, medical director of the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine in Santa Monica, Calif., and a clinical faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It's about helping the body do its own work."

Not so fast

Many mainstream doctors aren't convinced. Clinical studies haven't shown that toxins are removed as a result of a cleanse. And if you severely restrict your calories, after two or three days your body starts breaking down its own cells and muscle.

"It is a claim that hasn't been proven," said Dr. Ian Yip, associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. "And it can be harmful."

The careful cut-down

But scientific studies have shown that decreasing overall calories can extend life and slow the aging process. And many people report that they feel much better after a cleanse.

Sarah Stuczynski, a 27-year-old who works for a hedge fund in San Francisco, said she lost 6 pounds and 8 percent body fat after completing a 21-day cleanse in January. Her cleanse, based on the "clean" plan formulated by Dr. Alejandro Junger (see his book "Clean" or, involved drinking specially formulated smoothies for breakfast and dinner and a lunch of vegetables, chicken or fish.

Stuczynski — whose diet before the cleanse consisted of daily coffee, heavy lunches, cookie snacks and wine with dinners — said she looks thinner, her skin looks better, she feels more energized and she's continuing to eat healthier now that the cleanse is over.

"You may find that your food cravings are more manageable, you have improvements in memory, concentration and functioning, and many people find that they're able to lose fat more effectively," said Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, editor of the medical textbook "Food and Nutrients in Disease Management" (CRC Press; $154.95) and an associate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Kohlstadt does not advocate detox cleansing as a weight-loss plan but says it can help prepare your body for burning fat and help your metabolism work at the best pH.

The typical American diet makes our bodies too acidic, and one way our bodies deal with that is to draw calcium away from our bones to neutralize the acid, leading to osteoporosis, Kohlstadt said. A detox cleanse that swaps out acidifying foods (meat, cheese, salt, bread, sugar) for more alkaline-forming foods (most fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs) can help restore the pH balance, she said.

Beyond the cleaning spree