Cleansing and Detox: Fact, Fiction or Somewhere in Between?

Every month or so, I get a question about the value of detox or cleansing products and programs. Before giving an answer, it is useful to differentiate between the most common methods used and what risks, benefits and scientific validity exists.


All methods are based upon the same premise: over time, “toxins” accumulate in the colon and can adversely affect one’s health and well being.  What exactly are these toxins? They have never specifically been identified. Removing these “toxins” is said to promote a healthy internal environment and boost your immune system and energy levels and some even go so far as to say the practice can cure illness, allergies and other sinister diseases such as fibromyalgia.

Common methods

Detox and cleansing methods (going forward referred to simply as D/C) fall into two broad categories:

1. Oral supplements, shakes or dietary regimens (generally liquid- or juice-based)

2. High colonics, enemas, colonic irrigation

The first method uses special herbal preparations, fasting or special liquid-based diets. There are scores of products available online and in health food stores that claim to detoxify and cleanse. The one thing that is conspicuously absent is scientific evidence that either refutes or confirms their effectiveness.  So it is one of those if-you-think-you-feel-better-then-you-do scenarios. That is referred to as a placebo effect in scientific lingo. The one thing that is generally experienced is weight loss. Why? Don’t eat for a couple of days, add in some diuretic herbs and you may lose several pounds of fluid. Keep in mind that fluid is not fat, so it is often added back shortly after the cleanse is terminated. Most of these formulas are probably of little danger to the user; some may offer some healthy nutrients and some may contain potentially problematic laxatives.

Colonics (enemas or colonic irrigation) are where a solution is used to irrigate the colon, washing out the aforementioned toxins. Colonics are actually used as a preparation for colonoscopy and other medical procedures, but not for any health or medical benefit. There are regularly cases of infection brought about by unsanitary or reused equipment in nonmedical instances.

Things to Consider

Doctors point out that the body has a natural system of checks and balances and that the digestive tract and bowel naturally eliminate waste material and regulate bacteria. Adding a formulation that radically alters this internal balance can lead to dehydration and, at worst, seriously disrupt electrolyte balance and potentially cause serious problems in individuals with pre-existing medical issues such as kidney or heart problems. Most oral preparations used in D/C are likely safe, but it would be best to run them by your physician or health care provider if you are taking prescription medications or have medical issues. Better to be safe than sorry.

On the positive side, there is evidence that reduced calorie intake (and fasting will definitely do this) over time may have some anti-aging benefits. However, this may be offset by the nagging hunger and lethargy you feel due to a lack of food.

If you are using D/C due to constipation, consider using some less drastic remedies that you should be incorporating into your daily routines anyway:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water
  • Get enough fiber from whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise
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