Note: This post contains an affiliate link or two to some more information.
Somewhere along the line, the idea that periodic detoxification is a necessary component to a healthy life became a thing. Modern living does basically bombard the body with crap from every angle, so the idea that we’re all fleshy sacks of various toxins just waiting for various types of organ failure is a premise that makes sense on its face. So, people combat this by fasting, having detox diets, and concocting special recipes that allegedly help their bodies release the accumulated junk. I certainly did at one time. (*Cough* Okay, more than one time. I used to detox religiously, until I ended up sick anyway and realized continuing to eat a decent diet was probably good enough.) Hell, even Gwyneth Paltrow’s on the Master Cleanse bandwagon.
The Bad News
Cleanses sound like a good thing at first blush, but experts are divided on how– or even if– they work. According to the Mayo Clinic, “there is little evidence that they eliminate toxins from your body.” In fact, many of the most vocal detox-evangelists wouldn’t be able to tell you which toxins, specifically, they’re talking about– does fat store the same toxins as one’s liver? How about the gastrointestinal system? Or the brain?
The liver, intestines, and fat deposits seem to be the big three targeted by detoxing regimens. Many of them claim to help users look good, be healthier, and lose weight (often accompanied by gross pictures of the former contents of someone’s colon, provided as evidence for how well the cleanse works.) There are a few problems here, though:
- Unless you have jaundice, pain, or pale, fatty stools (in which case holy crap go to the hospital now), there’s no way to asses liver function outside of running actual tests. This is why, if you’re on medication that impacts your liver or have symptoms of a liver problem, the first thing your doctor will do is send you for a blood test to check your levels of liver enzymes.
- The long, blobby turd-snakes that are featured in pictures of colon cleanses? They aren’t actually evidence of mucoid plaque– mostly fiber and trapped gas (the kind of thing you might expect to see in someone taking a large amount of fiber). When it comes to handling various types of poo, colons probably don’t actually need much help.
- If you’re following a strictly regimented cleansing diet and triggering frequent bowel movements using laxatives or heavy-duty fiber products, you’re probably going to lose weight. Whether you’ll keep it off or be able to continue the regimen after the end of the cleanse is another story entirely.
- Cleanses, especially frequent ones, aren’t always safe. For some people, they may be triggers for (or manifestations of) orthorexia nervosa. Others may find themselves struggling to cope with cleansing side effects.
“But Jecca,” you may ask, “that’s the kind of thing a shill for Big Pharma would say!” That’s fair.
The trouble is, even if you look at this from the angle that medical professionals and Big Pharma aren’t actually interested in their patients’ well-being over money, these things still don’t add up. If cleanses worked, they’d patent them, package them, write prescriptions for them, and sell them to you at a markup. If iridology was a reliable way of diagnosing anything, medical schools would be able to charge tuition to teach it, doctors would be able to charge money to perform it, hospitals could use it to increase the number of patients they see every day, and it’d be a whole lot better for their overhead than having to store, process, and analyze biohazards like blood.
There’s no peer-reviewed research proving these things actually do anything, though, which is why this doesn’t happen. The stories of people who’ve thrived during and after cleanses don’t necessarily trump the experiences of people who have been injured by them or the research indicating that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.
It’s also probably a good idea to be skeptical of anyone pushing anything– pills, herbs, or otherwise. If there’s a price tag on it, the seller’s vested interest will always be in getting someone to buy it. In this context, does it make sense to trust a person selling a colon cleanse more than someone who took the Hippocratic oath? Why is it feasible that only one of these people would be attempting to profit from others?
The Good News
Is there harm in indulging in an occasional cleanse if it makes you feel better? Probably not. Do what makes you thrive, but make sure to do it smart– let your doctor know, pay attention to your body’s needs, and don’t be afraid to “break” your cleanse if you have to. Detoxing isn’t a competition, and there is no additional virtue to be gained from going on a longer, more extreme cleanse.
Your body, barring the existence of serious ongoing medical concerns, has a lot of ways of dealing with its environment on its own. This means that you probably don’t have to shell out a ridicubutts amount of money for the next cleanse, or deal with the unpleasant– sometimes even deadly— side effects. While cleanses aren’t a necessary component for good health, there are some long-term detoxifying practices that can definitely help.
So, what can you do instead of cleansing?
- If you’re insured or can otherwise afford it, get a full physical and bloodwork. Ask your doctor to check for vitamin deficiencies and heavy metals. After that, talk to a dietician or nutritionist depending on what your insurance will cover and whom you feel the most comfortable with seeing. Remember, the requirements for becoming a nutritionist are not the same as those for a dietician.
- If you smoke, try to quit. If you drink, do so moderately. Moderate amounts of alcohol have been linked to some health benefits, but a cleanse isn’t really going to make up for the detrimental impact of heavy drinking.
- Stick to the Dirty Dozen lists when food shopping. If you can’t afford organic produce, that’s fine! The list also tells you which conventionally-grown food crops have the least pesticide residue, or you can try Sustainable Baby Steps’ guide to saving money on an organic diet.
- Wash produce thoroughly, every time, no matter what. “Organic” generally isn’t synonymous with “pesticide free”, meaning there will still be residues that need to be cleaned off. I like making a vegetable rinse out of (very dilute) castile soap and some water.
- Consider trying an allergy diet to pinpoint which foods might be making you feel bad. Sometimes, when it comes to poor health, the calls are coming from inside the house. This is how I found out that oatmeal gives me severe heartburn every time I eat it.
Sorry parents, sorry Quaker Oats guy, sorry Irish forebears.
- Drink a lot of water. It’s best if you can filter your own, but, if you have to purchase it, skip “spring water” (which can still have junk in it from agricultural or industrial runoff) and “bottled water” (which is probably tap water) and go for “purified drinking water”. This is water that has been through at least some kind of filtration process, usually reverse osmosis. For men, the current guideline is roughly 3 liters per day. For women, 2.2.
- Eat enough fiber. For people eating a typical western diet, this will probably mean cutting back a bit on carbohydrates and adding in more vegetables and fruits. If you can’t change your diet, consider trying a fiber supplement. Psyllium seed husks can be stirred into juice, while oat fiber has been linked to lowered levels of cholesterol.
- Try meditating. It can help lower your stress levels and keep cortisol in check. Calm.com lets you take a timed meditation break for 2-20 minutes, and even has an app version.
- Invest in some air-cleaning plants and a good filter. The plants will help grab things like formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene out of the air, while the filter will trap pollen, dander, dust, and other particulates. You might want to skip salt lamps, though– they don’t really do much other than look awesome. (I personally find the pink light super pretty and relaxing, but haven’t noticed any difference in the air.)
- Try DIYing some house cleaners. Chlorine and ammonia are present in nature just like salt and vinegar, but salt and vinegar are a lot gentler on your eyes, skin, and lungs. You can also end up saving a pretty ridiculous amount of money when you cut your cleaner expenditures down to a box of baking soda, a gallon of vinegar, a lemon or two, some hydrogen peroxide, and some kosher salt.
That’s pretty much it. You don’t need a juicer, exotic ingredients, or expensive cleanses. Working with your body’s natural elimination processes (rather than trying to strong-arm them) is a sustainable practice that will yield even more benefits than intermittent cleanses.