Maybe you’ve just wrapped up an over-indulgent weekend and are intrigued by the idea of giving your body a reboot. Or, perhaps you want to lose weight and are trying to kick start your new health plan.
“What I need now,” you think to yourself, “is to do a detox or a cleanse.” The only problem is there’s so many to choose fromю
From celebrity-promoted detox plans to supplements, teas, and colon flushes, you can’t shake a stick in the health and wellness aisle without hitting a product that claims to purge your body of accumulated toxins.
But, what exactly is a detox? Is it any different than a cleanse? Are either necessary to enjoy a healthy body free of toxins?
To find the answer, we asked Dr. Morton Tavel, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine, at Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Snake Oil is Alive & Well: The Clash between Myths and Reality, Reflections of a Physician to help us understand the different claims.
Where Did the Idea of Detoxes and Cleanses Come From?
For most of the 20th century detoxing was to help treat substance abuse and wasn’t something you talked about openly, a “cleanse” more likely referred to household chores, and toxins were only a risk if you perturbed a poisonous insect.
However, the idea isn’t an entirely new concept. “The idea of ‘detoxifying’ or ‘purifying’ the body of harmful substances has been around for centuries and returns periodically to haunt the modern world,” says Dr. Tavel.
In the 1830’s, advancements in biochemistry and microbiology appeared to support the theory of autointoxication – the idea that your body can malfunction to the point of poisoning itself if left to its own devices.
The cause was thought to be built-up intestinal matter (stool) or other waste products of your metabolism.
By the 1920’s, mainstream medicine had disproved the idea that we could be poisoned by our own stool. However, the concept of detoxing has persisted within alternative medicine. But now that we know constipation, while uncomfortable, isn’t going to result in blood poisoning, what modern detoxes and cleanses are supposed to do is a little unclear.
Detoxes and Cleanses Both Claim to Flush Toxins from Your Body
To try and get a better sense of the purpose behind detoxes and cleanses, we headed to The Gut Health Project to learn more. According to their website, the difference between a detox and a cleanse is as follows:
- The purpose of a detox is to eliminate toxins such as cigarette residue, chemicals, heavy metals, and environmental elements from the body by turning them into waste. A detox involves a change in diet.
- The purpose of a cleanse is to clean out your digestive tract. This includes eliminating toxins, fecal matter, parasites, and fungi from your intestines. Cleansing involves eliminating certain foods such as dairy, eggs, soy, refined sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.
According to The Gut Health Project, both detoxes and cleanses should be considered if you are showing any signs of toxicity. These include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, food sensitivities, mood swings, anxiety or depression, high blood pressure, or constipation.
While detoxes and cleanses have slightly different definitions per the source above, they both revolve around altering your diet and appear to be used interchangeably to achieve the same results, at least on that particular website.
Detox vs. Cleanse: Is There a Difference Between a Detox and a Cleanse?
To accurately analyze the claims of detoxes and cleanses, we searched again in hopes of finding a definitive answer to the question. Another website, Womanista, states a slightly different definition of detoxes and cleanses:
“Detoxification is a metabolic process that converts the toxins in our bodies into waste. That waste is then eliminated, and that activity can be harsh on us. The point of a detox is to ease the release of toxins from our fat storage cells in order to enhance the body's detoxification pathways (especially the liver).”
Womanista then goes on to say that the purpose of a detox is to relieve symptoms of toxicity, which are the same as listed above.
“The purpose of a cleanse is to clear out the digestive tract. It’s a way to support and enhance your body's natural detoxification system. By eliminating toxic, compacted fecal matter, parasites, and fungi, we can leave our bodies sparkling clean.”
If we’re to take Womanista at their word, a detox is supposed to rid your fat cells of toxins by means of calorie-restrictive dieting or eliminating certain foods for a period of time.
In comparison, a cleanse utilizes liquid-only diets for a prolonged period to clear out your digestive tract and leave your body “sparkling clean.”
But According to Medical Professionals, Detox and Cleanse Claims are a Crock of Stool
One of the problems with pinning down exactly what a cleanse or detox is supposed to do is the vague terminology.
“The idea behind such cleansing schemes is to rid the body of some unknown substance(s)—usually vaguely specified—that have been absorbed from our environment or less-than-healthy foods we eat,” says Dr. Tavel.
It’s exactly that vagueness that proves to be a problem for consumers looking for answers.
Even if you don’t know how to diagnose diabetes, you can search multiple medical websites for a definition and not find a discrepancy. You could also read about proven and experimental treatments. But, because the definitions of detoxes and cleanses are vague, they’re difficult to support or refute.
Another problem? The definitions of detoxes and cleanses we’ve shared play on the incorrect idea that your body needs help to work properly.
Your Organs and Digestive Tract Work Perfectly Fine Without a Detox
“The basic concept of detoxifying is blatantly flawed,” says Dr. Tavel. “Our natural processes, especially liver and kidney function, cleanse our bodies far better than any extrinsic activities or substances could possibly achieve.”
Your organs are already designed to do everything a detox or cleanse claims to do. In fact, viewed from this perspective, the human body is a one big and fantastically efficient detoxing machine!
Just for kicks, let's take a look at how your body protects you from potentially harmful “environmental elements”:
1. Your skin, which happens to be your largest organ, provides an effective barrier to harmful substances.
Considered your body’s first line of defense, your skin provides defense against bacteria, viruses, toxins, parasites, and fungi.
Worried about heavy metals or cigarette residue? If you go ahead and try to jam some, or another one of the toxins listed above, into your body (please don’t), you’ll quickly realize that skin is a lot tougher of a barrier than it gets credit for.
In fact, microorganisms that live all over your skin can’t even get in unless you get a cut.
2. Your airways trap and expel noxious particles.
Your respiratory system has multiple methods of defense, including cilia which are the tiny, muscular, hair-like projections on the cells that line your airways.
According to a publication by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, any particles or debris that are trapped on this mucus layer are coughed out or moved to the mouth and swallowed.
3. Your digestive tract works in concert to filter out actual toxins.
The liver acts as your body's primary filter, digesting food and ridding the body of toxic substances. Your kidneys also filter out toxins, via your urine. Finally, your intestines screen out parasites and other harmful organisms while allowing nutrients to be absorbed into the blood.
In short, your body is designed to keep harmful stuff out. Healthy eating, sleep, and exercise habits help the machine to run optimally (and substandard ones compromise it), but there’s no basis for the claim that your body needs to be detoxed or cleansed to work properly.
Detoxes and Cleanses Can Actually Cause Harm
If we’re to follow Womanista’s definitions, a detox focuses on restrictive dieting. To which Dr. Tavel warns that there are real risks to surviving on minimal calories for days at a time.
“Plans that include lengthy or repeated fasts, or near-fasts, pose, in themselves, significant risks,” says Dr. Tavel. “These include developing nutritional deficiencies and blood-sugar problems.”
Using the same definition, cleanses focus on a liquid diet to “assist your digestive tract.”
According to Dr. Tavel, these plans restrict solid foods in combination with taking laxatives will result in frequent liquid bowel movements—diarrhea. (Literally, nothing about liquid bowel movements sounds “sparkling clean.”)
Dr. Tavel warns that, if a cleanse lasts for several weeks, it may lead to muscle breakdown and a shortage of many basic nutrients, depriving the body of the vitamins and minerals obtained from food.
“In contrast to the claimed benefits, a cleanse can actually weaken the body’s ability to fight infections and inflammation. Also, because most of these diets contain very little protein, it can be difficult to rebuild lost muscle tissue.”
It turns out that, while there are differences between a detox and a cleanse, there’s one glaring similarity: Both can do far more harm than good.
It’s also important to understand that sometimes the negative effects of a detox or cleanse don’t always disappear once you resume normal, healthy dietary habits.
The BBC reported on one British woman who will live the rest of her life with brain damage that resulted from a detox plan called “The Amazing Hydration Diet,” which merely instructed to drink large amounts of water and reduce salt intake.
“Less than a week into the regime, mother-of-two Mrs. Page had to be taken to Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon after suffering a severe epileptic seizure. Doctors diagnosed low salt levels in her body—known as hyponatremia or water intoxication.”
Mrs. Page is considered permanently “cognitively deficient” after less than one week on a cleanse—compared to the popular Master Cleanse method which recommends a similar liquid-only regimen for 10 days.
Some of the risks of detoxes and cleanses might not show until years down the line.
“Unfortunately, many of these plans include various herbal products that are not carefully monitored by the FDA,” says Dr. Tavel. “These various components have recently been associated with an increasing rate of toxic effects, most notably liver injury.”
Dr. Tavel warns that “because many crash diets can upset blood sugar, potassium and sodium levels in the body, they should be strenuously avoided by anyone with diabetes, heart or kidney disease or by women who are pregnant or nursing.”
Learn to Spot Pseudoscience to Be a Smarter Consumer
Is there a difference between detoxes and cleanses? Yes and no.
The difference is that “detox” was a legitimate medical term. In the setting of real medicine, detoxification means treatments for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons, like heavy metals.
But detoxification treatments are medical procedures performed by trained professionals. They’re not casually selected from a menu of alternative health treatments, or pulled off the shelf in the pharmacy.
Now the term “detox” holds the same weight as a “cleanse”: Both are marketing phrases to describe unnecessary and potentially harmful homeopathic treatments.
The bottom line is that, no matter what it’s called, these types of restrictive dietary plans are at best unnecessary, and at worst potentially harmful. An impressive body of scientific literature supports that a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise is all that’s needed to keep a healthy body functioning at peak performance.