What are detoxes?

January is a great time to take positive steps towards a healthier lifestyle. But just because something claims to be a game changer for your health doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you.

Detoxes, sometimes referred to as “cleanses,” have maintained their popularity as a health trend for years. Devotees claim they help rid the body of toxins and give your digestive system a much-needed break. The intended results are feeling younger, healthier, and more energized.

Detoxes typically fall under one of three umbrellas:

  • those that replace foods with liquids
  • those that claim to support your body’s natural detoxification process
  • those that “cleanse” your digestive tract via the colon

“Detoxes are advertised as a means to rid the body of excess toxins, rest the digestion and immune systems, and restart [your] metabolism,” says Ashley Reaver, an Oakland, CA–based dietitian and founder of My Weekly Eats.

An unrealistic goal

The goal of a detox is to flush out the toxins that our bodies come in contact with every day — be it the toxins in the air, the food we eat, or the products we use. This is typically done by fasting, drastically restricting food intake, replacing solid foods with liquids, or drinking a ton of water — all which could have negative side effects on your health.

“Unfortunately, detoxes don’t [fulfill] any of these claims,” she says.

The truth is, there’s no evidence these detoxes, cleanses, or resets can actually improve your health — and because some of them are so restrictive, they may actually be doing more harm than good.

Still, you may have read blogs and articles that use scientific jargon to try to validate detoxes. So, we’re here to debunk the most common and popular detoxes.

These liquid-only cleanses, which are arguably the most popular, replace solid foods with a selection of fruit- and vegetable-based juices or smoothies. Typically, juice and smoothie cleanses last anywhere between 3 and 21 days — although some people go much longer.

There are tons of companies out there that sell these kinds of cleanses. You can also buy juices and smoothies from a specialized shop or make them at home.

Drinking fruit- and vegetable-based juices — as long as they’re fresh-pressed — and smoothies can definitely be healthy. These drinks are often packed with nutrients, especially if they go heavy on the veggies, and can be a great addition to your diet.

But drinking only juices and smoothies and depriving your body of actual food is where this detox veers into unhealthy territory.

“Typically, [liquid] detoxes remove the majority of protein and fat from the diet,” says Reaver.

Not only does the lack of protein and fat mean you’ll spend your entire detox feeling hungry, but it can also lead to a host of other negative side effects.

“These detoxes can lead to low blood sugar, brain fog, decreased productivity, and fatigue,” Reaver adds.

Though some people claim that there’s a difference between a detox and a cleanse, it’s difficult to differentiate between the diets because neither method has a standard, scientific definition. There’s also significant overlap.

Another hot trend in the cleanse world is what’s called “liver detoxes.” The aim of a liver detox is to deliver a boost to the body’s detoxifying system by improving liver function.

While this sounds like a great idea — it’s never a bad idea to eat a diet that supports healthy liver function — you don’t need a formal “detox” in order to do so.

“Fortunately, the liver is well-equipped to handle the toxins that we’re most commonly exposed to,” says Reaver.

“Instead of a ‘detox’ […] people should [focus on] eating a diet that’s rich in both raw and cooked fruits and vegetables; includes soluble fiber like beans, nuts, and grains; and limits alcohol intake. These are the essential building blocks that’ll allow your liver to operate at peak function.”

Another form of detox are ones that restrict certain foods or food groups as a way to flush the body of toxins and improve overall health.

Restricting or eliminating certain foods in your diet can be helpful under certain circumstances and if you do it the right way.

“Some people benefit from a cleanse because it removes food groups that may cause them discomfort, like gluten or dairy,” says Reaver.

The key, however, is to be strategic in your restriction.

“Instead of eliminating most foods, try to remove a type of food for a week and see if you feel better,” explains Reaver.

“Then, add the food back in and monitor your symptoms. If bloating, gas, intestinal discomfort, constipation, or diarrhea return, then it may be a good idea to remove that food group from your diet.”

However, eliminating too many foods or whole food groups at once, like some food cleanses require you to do, will not only feel overly restrictive, it also won’t give you any insight into what foods are negatively impacting your health.

If you suspect you might have food sensitivities, the elimination diet could help. It might be best, however, to try this diet while under the supervision of a doctor.

Most cleanses attempt to get rid of toxins through dietary changes. But there are also cleanses that attempt to flush the body from the other end.

Colon cleanses attempt to cleanse the digestive tract and rid the body of toxins by promoting bowel movements via supplements or laxatives. Colon hydrotherapy, also known as a colonic, removes waste manually by flushing the colon with water.

Either way, these cleanses work to remove built-up waste — which they claim will also remove toxins and improve overall health.

But not only are colon cleanses extremely unpleasant, but they may also be dangerous.

“Colon cleanses and colon hydrotherapy should be avoided unless done at the direction of a physician,” explains Reaver.

“They may cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting. More serious outcomes can include bacterial infection, perforated bowels, and electrolyte imbalance that can cause kidney and heart problems.”

Instead, Reaver suggests consuming a diet high in soluble and insoluble fiber to help clear out waste.

“These two types of fiber will effectively remove debris and undigested food particles from the colon that can cause bloating, painful excretion, and constipation.”

In theory, detoxes sound pretty great. But the truth is, they’re completely unnecessary.

“Detoxes aren’t the best way to improve your health,” says Reaver.

“The body [actually] has a built-in detoxifier — the liver. Its main function is to process ‘toxins’ and convert them into non-harmful compounds that the body can either utilize or remove.”

In other words, your liver does the grunt work when it comes to “cleansing” your body of the toxins in our environment.

But what about the results? Surely, detoxes must deliver on some level — otherwise, why would people do them?

Yes, you may see some positive results, particularly when it comes to weight loss, when you do a detox — at least at first.

“Many people judge ‘success’ by the scale,” says Reaver.

“People will likely lose some weight on detoxes because they aren’t eating foods. [But] the weight that’s lost is due to the body using stored energy and, in the process, releasing water. Once a regular diet is resumed, the ‘weight’ will come back as water is again retained.”

In a nutshell, detoxes are unnecessary — and they’re also ineffective.

If you’re concerned about supporting your health, there’s plenty you can do that doesn’t need to involve cleanses. Remember, weight loss shouldn’t be your only goal.

Holistic health comes from happiness, confidence, and understanding of yourself, your body, and what you need to live your best life.

Other options to support your health include:

  • drinking plenty of water throughout the day
  • eating a diet high in soluble and insoluble fiber
  • keeping added sugar intake to a minimum
  • incorporating more raw fruits and vegetables into your diet, which can help aid digestion
  • avoiding highly processed foods
  • making time for rest, recovery, and relaxation
  • practice deep breathing or meditation

Deanna deBara is a freelance writer who recently made the move from sunny Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. When she’s not obsessing over her dog, waffles, or all things Harry Potter, you can follow her journeys on Instagram.