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The Truth about Detoxes

From using charcoal and juices to "cleanse" to cutting out sugar, alcohol, and carbs, here's everything you need to know about these trendy diets.

With so many "cleansing" and "detoxing" products on the market, all promising to rid your body of nasty toxins, it can be tough to know where science ends and voodoo begins. Pills and probiotics, juices and teas, laxatives and herbal remedies—what does your body actually need to stay healthy?

Some cleanses leave guys feeling lighter, more energized, and thinner. Others, however, can lead to severe headaches, dehydration, nausea, and even colon damage. We interviewed some experts—some cleanse practitioners, some not—to get a sense of the landscape.

What exactly is a detox or cleanse?

A detox can come in several forms. Elimination diets aim to purge specific chemicals—like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar—and thereby eliminate the adverse effects they have on the body. Cleanses, popularized by juice cleanses, often require participants to consume nothing but prescribed juices to jump-start a new way of eating. Other varieties, like coffee enemas and colonic cleanses, aim to flush any toxins that have accumulated in the body. “Toxin” is often used as a catchall term—and makes it hard to determine the clinical effectiveness of these products. Some cleanse and detox practitioners use it to refer to so-called “bad bacteria” that can disrupt the digestion process. Toxins can also include pesticides or chemicals we accidentally ingest, or even chemical compounds like alcohol—all of which the body naturally filters anyway.

The Body’s Detox System

The liver, colon and kidneys all work to flush unused chemicals from the body before they can cause harm—and that makes expensive pills and exotic herbal cleanses unnecessary, says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fit and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The skin also detoxifies the body simply by sweating, so saunas and steam rooms can help you sweat out the bad stuff, says Melinda Ring, MD, the Executive Medical Director of the Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago. 

Proceed With Caution

Be wary of aggressive cleanses, since they come with risk factors of their own, Ring says. People with diabetes, hypertension, or other health conditions that require a regular consumption of food should not try an extreme cleanse, she says. And people on prescription medicine need to consult a doctor first. “We know what we eat impacts absorption and metabolism of medications,” Ring says. “For example, somebody on hypertension medications may experience a significant drop in blood pressure on a cleanse, leading to lightheadedness or cardiac concerns.” The scientific evidence supporting trendy cleanses is thin, she says. Charcoal, for example, is starting to appear in products labeled for detoxing, but there’s very little evidence it does a body good. While there is research to support the benefits of intermittent fasting for insulin sensitivity and cellular aging, the scientific jury is still out on more exotic cleanses. Charcoal isn’t unsafe in small doses—it’s used to treat poison and overdose patients in emergency rooms—but it also absorbs a lot of nutrients, meaning that a charcoal cleanse could result in a nutrient deficiency. Ring's group at Northwestern is currently planning studies on juice cleanses. 

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