Cayenne pepper, maple syrup and lemon. Beet-apple juice. Green smoothies. These are just some of the concoctions celebrities have knocked back and publicly endorsed over the years, claiming they not only help you lose weight, but also rid your body of toxins.
But do these so-called “cleanses” deliver? The answer, say medical experts, depends on how well your body’s natural detoxification process works, your daily exposure to toxins and the particular regimen you choose.
Your internal detox system—the liver—already has you on a 24-7 cleanse, says Dr. Susan S. Blum, founder and director of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, N.Y.
“The liver takes toxins and moves them through, renders them a little more harmless and then sends them to the gut or kidneys,” she says.
But like any machine, your body may sometimes need a tune up. Everyday toxins—mercury from fish, hormones from meat and dairy, plastics, pesticides and more—can overload your body and cause symptoms like fatigue, lack of concentration and digestive problems. Factor in a genetic vulnerability—or resistance—to toxins and the healthfulness of your diet and lifestyle, Blum says, to help determine whether a cleanse is appropriate.
“There’s an equation: Genetics plus exposure to toxins might be the burden your liver is under,” says Blum. “But then that’s balanced by what nutrients you take in.” A person may work in an environment that exposes them to a high level of toxins, for instance, but if they eat a healthy, balanced diet, they may not need to undertake a cleansing regimen.
In his book Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind, Dr. Jeffrey A. Morrison offers a symptom survey readers can take to help estimate their potential toxicity load. “If they score above a 50, I recommend they work with a health care provider,” says Dr. Morrison. “Below that I think it’s safe to do on their own.”
Most experts, though, recommend against extreme cleanses that are little more than thinly disguised liquid fasts. If you decide to try a detox diet, remember that the body’s detoxification system is a multi-step process involving the liver, kidneys and colon. Most products marketed as colon cleanses—which are often just herbal laxatives — only address the second part of the process, and aren’t offering support to the liver, which needs nutrients like B vitamins and antioxidants to do its job.
The best and safest approach to an at-home cleanse is a 3- to 4-week diet regimen that focuses on organic produce and lean protein and eliminates dairy, gluten, eggs, soy and corn. If you’re set on the idea of a liquid cleanse, even just for a few days, make sure you add protein powder to your drinks.
“The amino acids from protein bind to the toxins and pull them out of the body,” says Blum. “If you’re not giving the body the amino acids to do the final step, the machine gets turned on and it’s rolling, but then everything piles up and stops.” This is why people often feel bad a few days into the regimen, she adds.
If you do a detox right, though, you’re likely to have more energy and possibly even shed a few pounds, which motivates many to clean up their diet for good.
“Once a person makes this commitment and then starts feeling better, they want to continue to feel great,” says Morrison. “Doing the short-term program often leads to the long-term lifestyle.”