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?
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 cleanprogram.com), 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
The best way to look at a cleanse is not as a detox binge, where you go back to abusing your body once it's over, but as a springboard to a lifetime of better nutrition, said Dr. Alan Weiss, founder of Annapolis Integrative Medicine.
"The biggest mistake is when people go back to what they've been eating, because they're going to get themselves right back in the same boat," Weiss said.
If you want to try one
Consult with your doctor before beginning a cleanse. Once you do, here's a guide to a gentle, diet-based whole-body cleanse, drawing on advice from Spar and Weiss. It's optimal to do the cleanse for three or four weeks, but if you're struggling, try it for a minimum of one week.
Leading up to the cleanse
Identify what will be the most difficult things to give up (usually caffeine or sugar), and have a slow weaning-off period.
Be mindful of why you're cleansing and get excited about it. Do it with a friend.
Know that it will get worse before it gets better. People often feel sick during the first few days of a cleanse because they are withdrawing from chemicals and the release of toxins can cause skin breakouts and other unpleasantness.
During the cleanse
Remove foods from your diet that increase inflammation: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, processed food, artificial ingredients, corn, soy, gluten (wheat, bran, rye), nightshades (eggplant, bell peppers), eggs, dairy, cheese.
Eat a balanced diet consisting of organic fruits and vegetables, organic poultry, wild fish, quinoa, brown rice and healthy fats such as avocado, olives and canola, coconut and olive oils. Drink a lot of water.
Take supplements to aid your digestive and detox systems, such as fiber, probiotics, green powder (which consists of ground fruits and vegetables with minerals and antioxidants), green tea cathechins (antioxidants) and milk thistle (liver aid).
Fast for 12 hours daily, between dinner and breakfast.
Don't stop taking any prescription drugs, but avoid taking over-the-counter medications.
Exercise moderately, get massages, do saunas and scrub your skin with a loofah.
Coming out of the cleanse
Add foods back into your diet slowly so you can gauge how your body reacts. You could discover a food allergy or that certain foods don't sit well.
Take an inventory of what has changed in your health. Now you know what ailments could be related to your diet.
If you lost 10 pounds during your cleanse, the only way to keep them off is to make healthful diet choices.
Plan to do the cleanse every six months, or at least once a year.
Cleanses to avoid
•The "Master Cleanse," a 10-day diet of lemon water, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and laxatives, because it doesn't give your body fuel for detoxifying and it's unsustainable, Spar says.
•Juice-only cleanses, because they can be high in sugar, Weiss says.
•Water fasting, because the lack of nutrients puts a lot of stress on your body.