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The Truth About Cleanses and Detox Programs

May 8, 2014
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The world at large has become a remarkably dirty, polluted place. From the air we breath to the food we eat, our bodies are constantly bombarded with – and challenged by – all sorts of foreign substances. Many of these chemicals have not been fully studied and their impact on the human body isn’t yet completely understood. It’s understandable, then, that people feel compelled to take steps towards getting these toxins out of their systems.

Because of this somewhat frightening situation, detoxification (detox) and cleanse programs are one of the most searched for products in the health industry. But do these programs actually help? Most importantly, are they safe?

The huge number of cleanses out there, and the massive variety between them, makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the industry in its entirety. Some programs are simple, straightforward fasts that last just a few days while others are extremely restrictive and aggressive. A few of these programs even use laxatives, anemias and other supplements to increase the effectiveness of the cleanse.

The one common factor of these programs, though, is that they all feature an initial liquids-only cleanse phase that usually lasts two or three days. What follows after that differs from program to program but, most gradually begin to reintroduce solid foods. Most of the time, sugars and processed foods are excluded indefinitely. Things usually wrap up with a maintenance phase that prescribes an on-going diet you’re supposed to follow from then on. Many of these post-cleanse diets are vegetarian, vegan or raw.

According to the health and fitness experts at the American Council on Exercise, there is no evidence to suggest that these toxins even collect in noticeable levels in our bodies. Even if that were the case, and these chemicals did build up in our systems, toxicologists as a whole remain confident in the body’s built-in cleanup system.

In fact, toxicologist A. Jay Gandolfi told the L.A. Times that even if toxics were to build up, these detox diets wouldn’t really help. Along with Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency, Gandolfi explained that most toxins are fat-soluble rather than water soluble. This means that they are stored in fat and that consuming massive quantities of fluids wouldn’t change their levels at all.

There are, though, some toxins like arsenic that are water-soluble and can be flushed from your system through these cleanses.

Although the fact that toxins could get irreversibly lodged in your body fat might seem frightening, it highlights an interesting feature about our natural defense mechanisms: The most effective way to speed up your body’s built-in detoxification system is to lose weight. According to Birnbaum, people who have a lower body fat percentage are able to eliminate toxins from their systems more quickly than overweight people.

These programs also rely heavily on the assumption that raw foods, because of their high fiber content, are more effective at cleansing the digestive tract of toxins. There is no support for the thought that ingesting large amounts of fiber will help to clean out toxins any more effectively, however. It is possible, though, that this approach could help to remove certain substances from the liver.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

There are several potential dangers attached to these so-called detox programs not to mention the high cost burden which can put you up near the one-thousand dollar hole. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, any restrictive diet could be harmful by denying your body the fuel and nutrients that it needs to function properly. If you normally live an active lifestyle, you will likely find it difficult to keep up your normal activities.

This concern is amplified if the programs are drastic, last for a long period of time and involve flushing your system with colonics or laxatives. Among the most noticeable effects of this type of self-deprivation is a slowed metabolism and a loss of muscle mass, as your body tries to adapt to the lack of nutrients.

Many of the benefits that people notice when following these programs, though, are really just side-effects. For example, if you notice that you look slimmer it’s because you’re eating less than you’re used to eating and drinking more fluids. Likewise, the clearer complexion that many people report is a direct result of the increased hydration built-in to these cleanses.

All of this doesn’t mean that these programs are all dangerous and totally useless, though. A short fast, lasting a day or two, can be a great opportunity for you to perform a sort of dietary audit. Examine your eating and hydration habits and clear out unhealthy foods from your routine. When the fast ends, you should be left with a healthful, clean diet that you can stick to for years to come.

The truth, though, is that this routine won’t actually do much to remove any toxins from your system.

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