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Do Detox Cleanses Really Work? Are They Healthy?

Do Detox Cleanses Really Work? Are They Healthy?

, by Dr. Jeff Pearl, MD, 5 min reading time

Do Detox Cleanses Really Work?

These days, you can’t surf the web without ads popping up for the latest detox, cleanse or colon cleanse. Perhaps your interest is peaked and you can’t help but wonder if you really need to detox. Similar questions soon follow – if you do need to detox, what are you trying to get rid of exactly? Let’s get those questions answered.

Do I Need To Detox?

To start with, there’s no scientific evidence that people need to detox or that the body needs help getting rid of toxins. This doesn’t mean that toxins don’t build up over time; they can and sometimes, do. But, the ability to aid in toxin removal through certain diets or cleanses is not proven.

I imagine that some interest in detox and cleansing may have developed from the medical therapy of Chelation. Chelation is occasionally used for patients with iron depositions disorders (a genetic disease) or perhaps to aid in a mercury overdose. Chelation is a medical procedure which often involves taking absorbents orally and then, filtering the blood and plasma.

Anyway, despite the lack of scientific data, there’s still a great deal of interest in detox and cleansing diets, drinks, plans and the alike.

For those who’ve followed my blogs, you know that as, or perhaps in spite of being both an M.D. and a Surgeon, I am a believer in nutrition, vitamins, supplements and healthier, more natural ways to treat the human condition without always relying on a prescription drugs.

I also realize that not all treatments—holistic or medical—are supported by overwhelming objective data, yet they seem to work and the theory behind them makes sense. Unfortunately, in the case of many cleanses and detox diets, there’s simply little to no evidence of a benefit, and in many circumstances, the reasoning for a detox is not consistent with basic human physiology and the established principles of biochemistry.

Key Point: There’s no scientific data to suggest benefits of detoxing or cleansing. The ability to aid in toxin removal through certain diets or cleanses is not proven.

The Dangers of Detoxing or Cleansing

I know there are people who swear by their detox or cleanse routine, and I am sure many feel better afterwards, but the actual benefit may be quite small at best. Furthermore, when a detox is taken to the extreme, they can be potentially harmful. Common problems include:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte Imbalance
  • Malnutrition

While there are too many detox diets and cleanses to address here, I would like to mention one area – the colon. The colon is the main target of many detox diets and plans.

How Do I Keep My Colon Healthy?

A good, high fiber diet, plenty of water intake and fruits and vegetables should take care of the colon pretty well. The most common disease of the colon, other than colon cancer, is Diverticulitis. This is an inflammation of out-pouching in the colon wall. This disease is more prevalent in Western Society, typically related to a diet lacking enough fiber. In countries where they eat high fiber diets, there is minimal constipation and virtually no Diverticulitis. Some of the best ways to protect your colon is to:

  • Eat a high fiber, healthy diet
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Take probiotics to maintain healthy intestinal flora

The Truth about Colon Cleanses

Now, those in favor of colon cleaning often suggest that despite normal bowel movements, there is residue that sticks to the colon wall and builds up over time. They think this supposed buildup contains toxins and unhealthy bacteria. Well, anyone who has looked into a colon during a colposcopy following a mere 24 hours bowel prep, as I have, can attest to a very clean, healthy looking colon with no residue stuck to the wall. Mind you, this is after only 24 hours of clear liquids and then, 12 hours or so of taking a liquid osmotic laxative. I am not sure how some cayenne pepper-based liquid fad cleanse is going to do better than that.

The thought that putting certain fluids into the colon can help pull out toxins from the blood stream is not based on physiologic principles either. The colon generally is designed to absorb water from the stool and not really secrete or exchange other substances.

There are some crazy colon cleanses out there! – Seriously, a coffee enema? My daily caffeine habit is already expensive for 16 ounces, I can’t imagine the cost for a colon’s worth. If it were me, I would skip the expensive products on whatever site you’re reading and just follow the post-cleanse diet they recommend—which by the way, is the same diet we discuss all the time: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, fiber—sound familiar? If you are still set on trying a post-holiday cleanse, do your research and know the risks, side effects and costs involved to see if it makes sense for you.

Key Point: Instead of doing a cleanse, follow a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and fiber.

Article By Jeff Pearl, MD

Article By Jeff Pearl, MD
Dr. Jeff is a trained general, pediatric cardiac, and transplant surgeon. Nutrition has always been an important concern for surgeons in regards to patients healing from surgery. He has had a longstanding interest in health, nutrition and supplements, and been an advocate of the use of nutrition and supplements in the hospital setting to aid in his patient’s recovery. He has a history of basic science and clinical research and a keen ability to interpret studies and statistics to determine their true significance. He is the father and step-father to several teenage athletes and knows firsthand the challenges they face in balancing their time, eating habits and use of supplements. He is adamant about trying to educate our youth about better nutrition. Dr. Jeff recognizes the challenges that healthcare faces and the need for people to take charge of their own health and disease prevention. He loves being outside and is one of those crazy few seen hiking or biking in the middle of the day in summer.


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