Short-term ‘detox cleanses’ rarely have lasting effects and can leave you less healthy than when you began, experts say.
Being healthy takes a lot of work, which is why finding shortcuts is often so appealing.
These efforts many times come in the form of “detoxing,” or ways to help the body heal with little or no effort.
One such method, perpetuated by a video on Facebook showing pictures of people with onions in their socks, has amassed more than 13 million views and 166,000 shares as of Monday.
“Attaching sliced onion to your foot will help cure your illnesses overnight,” the video begins, continuing on to mention the practice has been a “popular natural remedy since the 16th century and it actually works.”
The sliced onion method can allegedly, among other things, “detoxify the body” because the vast number of nerve cells at the bottom of the foot contact the brain, liver, and heart.
It’s one of the tamer and less drastic methods people have used in an attempt to “detoxify” the body, while rarely mentioning with specificity the kinds of toxins that would be removed. Or providing any kind of real evidence that it works.
Most detox methods, however, revolve around restricting calories, overconsuming liquids, fasting, and taking large amounts of nutritional supplements to get vaguely worded results.
Margaret MacIntosh, an acupuncturist, and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in Canada, says many of these extreme dietary shifts can do more harm than good.
One example, she says, is the turmeric cleanse. While turmeric is good in small doses, larger doses can cause symptoms such as increased anxiety or sleeping difficulties.
“I am in favor of a healthy diet and lifestyle based in whole foods as opposed to extreme cleanses designed to eliminate loosely defined toxins from the body,” MacIntosh said. “The human body has many processes to eliminate so-called toxins from the body.”
These include sweating and urinating as the body’s own means of ridding itself of things it doesn’t need.
The best way to support the organs that detoxify the body, and their respected processes, experts say, is eating a healthy diet, getting an average of 30 minutes of exercise a day, getting plenty of rest at night, and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.
But as with all things, too much of a good thing can be bad.
Tory Tedrow, an in-house nutritionist for the healthy eating app SugarChecked, said drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia.
That’s when your blood contains too little sodium and causes your cells to swell.
This can cause symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, tiredness, muscle cramps, seizures, and coma. These conditions vary in severity but can quickly become life-threatening and require medical intervention.
So was the case of a relatively healthy 47-year-old woman recently featured in the latest issue of BMJ Case Reports.
After last year’s New Year’s revelry, she turned to drinking large amounts of water and taking herbal supplements. She was later hospitalized after feeling confused and suffering from a seizure.
Researchers later discovered the woman — along with another man who was following a similar detox diet — weren’t consuming enough water to develop hyponatremia, but the valerian root supplements helped it progress.
Tedrow told Healthline that these kinds of detox diets aren’t necessary and should be avoided.
“Anytime anyone is going on a detox, they’re making a diet mistake. Our body is very effective at removing toxins on a daily basis, so detoxing — from food at least — is never necessary,” she said. “Most detox diet plans are glorified starvation diets that result in a temporary, water weight loss.”
Kelsey Ale, a nutritional therapy practitioner, and Paleo chef in California, says the majority of people living in the developed world — eating processed foods, surrounded by pollution, and using unnatural and chemical substances on their bodies every day — are living “in a toxic state.”
“On the other side of the argument, detoxes as they are sold today, are pretty ridiculous. Drinking nothing but juice and clay and eating raw veggies for three days isn’t going to solve the problem, and in many cases people who attempt these routines are left feeling worse than they did before,” she told Healthline.
The secret, Ale says, is finding middle ground to support the body’s built-in detoxification system.
While many experts advise against cleanses that could include a juice only diet or laxatives, others suggest using a method of eating that stimulates autophagy.
Autophagy is the process in which unnecessary components of cells are disassembled and recycled. Japanese cell biology researcher Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research in autophagy.
“Autophagy is stimulated by fasting. One of the hottest trends in health and weight loss right now is intermittent fasting,” Gin Stephens, author of “Delay, Don’t Deny: Living an Intermittent Fasting Lifestyle,” told Healthline.
Many cleanses are designed around intermittent fasting, such as WeightNot, which focuses on calorie restriction, natural foods, and nutritional supplements.
Alison Borkowska, WeightNot’s director of nutrition, research, and education, says this approach can be intense for some people, but it can be a more effective way to lose weight compared with other methods.
“Like most things, it really depends on the situation when it comes to the quality of a detox protocol. The majority of so-called ‘detox products’ are really not providing any great benefit to the consumer. Strategies such as ‘juice cleansing’ are not particularly beneficial,” she told Healthline.
Dr. Erin Stair, M.P.H., a health consultant, and author of “Food and Mood,” says that most people can’t define what a toxin is, let alone know which ones they’re attempting to rid from their bodies.
Still, she says, many will embark on cleanses using products that contain laxatives or cutting calories because “detoxing” sounds “sexier than ‘taking a dump.’”
Still, some of her patients who have experienced initial weight loss from these short-term solutions have been inspired to make healthier choices even after a cleanse or detox diet is over.
“So, in a society that thrives on speedy results, a safe detox might be a great way to jump-start a new commitment and mind frame to living healthier,” she told Healthline. “Unfortunately you can’t detox 365 days a year, and still need to develop grit for a more enduring change.”
Overall, experts say, you’re better off avoiding known toxins, like tobacco and alcohol, while maintaining a balanced diet and daily exercise routine. Also, they advise getting an adequate amount of sleep and drinking a sufficient amount of water.
That way you’ll support your body’s own detoxifying systems, instead of relying on crash diets that may do more short-term harm than any lasting good.