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Do I need to detox to feel healthier?

‘Your skin will clear; your stomach will shrink’ – experts say there’s little evidence to back these claims

On social media, diet enthusiasts claim that a sludge of papaya seeds can fight off parasites. A TikTok user whose account is devoted to weight loss says that a whirl of lemon juice, pineapple, ginger and cucumber, blended until frothy and consumed twice daily, can help you melt off 10 pounds in a week. Bright “elixirs” pledge to rejigger your gut, while a set of six drinks each day (made of carrot juice, apple juice and green vegetable juices, among others) compose “the Skinny Cleanse”. Celebrities, too, have sworn by these sorts of diets, including Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow, who regularly advertises the “detoxifying” products of her lifestyle brand, Goop.

Every year, the wellness world hawks “cleanses”, often liquid diets that mainly consist of vegetable and fruit juices. A day or three (or eight) of drinking all your meals, and you’ll purge any toxins from your body, cleanse manufacturers say. Your skin will clear; your stomach will shrink. You will feel, more or less, pure.

But there is scant evidence to back any of these claims. “There’s no major research done on most of the cleanses that are out there,” Dr Melinda Ring, an integrative medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, says. However, some people do say that they feel better while on a cleanse – that they sleep better, have more energy or think more clearly. Nutrition experts say people who try cleanses may report positive benefits in the short term – but not because of the specific slush they’re drinking. And cleanses come with plenty of risks. Here’s what to know.

Do you need to ‘detox’?

The case for “cleansing” comes from the idea that harmful toxins build up inside the body, and that the secret to improved health is to release them. “People have this magical impression that what’s in the body are weapons of mass destruction, and somehow flushing them out is going to make them better,” says Dr Gerard Mullin, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine who specialises in gastroenterology.


But our bodies themselves have plenty of filters, says Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic’s Centre for Human Nutrition. Kidneys, livers, skin and bladders all work to remove toxins and waste. “People often forget that,” she says. “Our body’s such a beautiful machine that it self-regulates.”

There also isn’t robust research showing that the main ingredients found in many cleanses, such as lemon and apple cider vinegar, can speed up your metabolism or help you process waste faster, Dr Ring says.

Many cleanses take some form of a liquid diet, which consumers often mistakenly think will give their gastrointestinal tracts a reset, Czerwony says, enabling their bodies to absorb nutrients more effectively when they do go back to solid food and thus benefiting their overall health. That’s misinformation, she says, as your body will absorb the nutrients regardless; often, you need the fibre of solid food.

Why might a cleanse make you feel good?

There is a potential placebo effect that comes with being on a cleanse, Dr Ring says. If you’re convinced that a cleanse will make you feel better, you may convince yourself that you really are benefiting from it.

A cleanse may also keep some people’s energy levels more consistent, Czerwony says, because of what they are eliminating from their diets, as opposed to what they’re adding. When people opt for a cleanse, they tend to drink more water and consume less added sugar than they normally do, she says. If they typically eat heavy, processed foods and then swap those out for fruit- and vegetable-based smoothies, they might reap the benefits of cutting back on added sugars and fat.

Foods loaded with refined carbs, such as white bread and pastries, can make our blood sugar spike, and then our energy levels may crash as our glucose levels slide back down. But while some people may feel more energetic on a cleanse, others might be exhausted and struggle to get through the day because of how few calories they are consuming, Czerwony says. Some people experience headaches and become irritable; they can also develop diarrhoea or constipation.

There’s no science-backed, individual component of a cleanse that makes you healthier, Czerwony says. A 2014 review of past studies on detoxes found that the research was largely flawed; a separate 2017 review found that juicing and detoxification diets led to weight loss over short periods of time because of how few calories the participants consumed while on them, but they tended to experience weight gain once they resumed eating normally.

If you are going to try a cleanse, you should choose one that lasts no longer than three days, Czerwony says. The limited time frame is important so you avoid nutrient deficiencies and imbalances in your electrolyte levels. It’s also critical to make sure you’re not consuming dangerous levels of vegetables and fruits, which may seem counterintuitive. A few case reports have found that people on juice cleanses can develop kidney issues, because certain vegetables such as spinach are high in oxalate, and high oxalate levels can cause kidney stones, Dr Mullin says.

“They don’t just do one smoothie – they live on it,” he says. “Some people overdo it.”

And any supposed benefits from a temporary juice cleanse won’t counteract the toll of an unhealthy diet, Dr Ring says. To incorporate healthier habits for the long term, eliminate processed, packaged foods as much as possible, and make sure you’re getting the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, Czerwony says.

Opt for complex starches such as whole grains instead of processed flour, and stick to foods that are high in fibre, such as nuts, beans and apples, which can help regulate your GI tract. A moderate level of exercise and good sleep can also give you more energy throughout the day. But you don’t need to turn to a detox to feel better. As Dr Mullin says, “the body knows how to take care of itself”. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times