Cleanses – Do They Really Help?

by Gay Riley, MS, RD, CCN

cleanse-250pxCleanses have recently become popular as a means to improve health and energy, rejuvenate the body, lose weight and slow aging. According to Spins research, between October 2008 and October 2009 Americans spent more than $100 million dollars on cleansing and detox products in an effort to lose weight, gain energy and purify themselves of harmful toxins. Unfortunately, scientific evidence showing any health benefits of cleansing has yet to be investigated, therefore the use of cleanses to treat illness is not totally embraced by the medical community. However, many complimentary alternative doctors and practitioners use cleanses and detoxification programs to support whole body health.Cleanses typically involve some type of fasting or food elimination to let the organs “rest” and to flush “waste buildup” from the targeted organ.  They also may include herbal teas, enemas or colonics.  Physician Michael Picco at the Mayo Clinic warns of the dangers of fasting cleanses. “Fasting cleanses (abstaining from food) are not clinically proven and can cause extreme medical reactions or conditions. Your body may go into starvation mode and you may develop low blood sugar, anemia and dangerous electrolyte imbalances that can lead to cardiac arrest and coma.”  According to Geatano Morello, ND, who is a detox specialist and author of Whole Body Cleansing (2009), many popular cleanse regimes such as the master cleanse, a 10-20 day fast during which you subsist on a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup and water are so extreme that weight loss is nearly impossible to maintain once you go back to eating solid food.

The notion that fasting cleanses actually “clean” the body is more of a marketing ploy than sound science. The human body naturally expels toxins from the body via detoxification pathways in the gallbladder, liver, kidneys, digestive system, lungs and skin.  The gastrointestinal tract contains 70% of the body’s immune response and one of its major roles is to remove waste from the body. Currently, there is little research that waste build-up or constipation (straining to pass hard stools) causes cancer, health issues or disease.  However, it is widely believed in complimentary alternative and Ayurvedic medicine that 1-3 bowel movements a day is healthy and helps to expel metabolic wastes and toxins from being reabsorbed by the body. Some sources indicate that regular bowel movements range from 3 times a day to a few times weekly.  Therefore, the absence of a daily bowel movement is normal for many but may not necessarily be optimal.  Improving regularity can be accomplished by:

  • Increasing intake of fiber rich foods (whole grains, beans and lentils, whole fruit and vegetables)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Drinking adequate fluids

Popular Cleanses

Olive Oil Liver Flush from Dr. Hulda’s book, The Cure for All Diseases. This cleanse promotes diarrhea with a potion of olive oil, grapefruit juice, Epsom salts and fresh water and the passing of gallstones by stimulating the gallbladder to contract. Dr. Hulda encourages refraining from medicines and food after 2 pm. This cleanse appears risky for high-risk medical conditions should stones become lodged or complications occur.

The Master Cleanse by Stanley Burroughs involves complete abstinence from food and the consumption of a “lemonade drink” which consists of pure water, fresh lemon juice, pure maple syrup for calories and minerals, and cayenne pepper to break up mucus.  Water with sea salt or Epsom salts is consumed in the morning and laxative tea is taken at night to flush the colon.  This cleanse is popular with celebrities for rapid weight loss.  It is extreme and not recommended.

Quantum Wellness 21 Day Cleanse by Kathy Freston is a sensible plan with solid foods and the integration of healthy habits for life.  Vegetarian eating is followed for 21 days along with elimination of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, gluten, and sugar.  Quantum wellness is a good reference for healthy living and the basic foundation of the cleanse program is not extreme on the body.

Herbal Cleanses — Herbal formulas contain a variety of natural herbs designed to do more than eliminate the stress on the liver and colon. These herbal formulas use milk thistle, psyllium, licorice, peppermint, fennel and senna to help the liver produce bile and digest food. Herbs such as wormwood, black walnut and cloves help kill parasites. These formulas work best when consuming whole, unprocessed foods with moderate protein and high in fiber. These formulas should be done in moderation, as psyllium and senna in high quantities can be toxic.

The bottom line on cleanses is to avoid extreme protocols, especially if you have medical conditions, or you take medications that may be detrimental rather than beneficial to your health.  If you have high-risk medical conditions and want to cleanse, choose a doctor or health practitioner who understands integrative medicine (medicine that combines traditional care with alternative and natural approaches). In doing so, you ensure you have the most up-to-date and well-rounded advice. Cleansing should not be confused with detoxification although they are used interchangeably in the media.  Detoxification is much more involved in removing chemicals, alcohol, or heavy metals from the organ systems of the body such as dialysis or chelation therapy.  Detoxification programs are specifically designed to remove a particular  substance from the body and should be administered and monitored by an experienced healthcare professional.

What you can do
Adding any of the following strategies to your lifestyle is easy and healthy.

  1. Consume adequate calories and nutrient intake to prevent under-nutrition.
  2. Minimize added sugars such as soda and sugar-sweetened beverages.
  3. Eat a diet rich in fresh organic fruits and vegetables. These foods contain fiber, protective phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals.
  4. Consume plant oils and unprocessed nuts for anti-inflammatory oils and minerals.
  5. Eat adequate protein from high quality sources, fresh eggs, and vegetables. If you eat meat, choose sources that are humanly treated, free of hormones and antibiotics.
  6. For individuals with allergies, choose foods and supplements that are free of common food allergens such as gluten (from grains) and casein (from dairy). Eliminating these foods can improve energy and immune health in some people.
  7. Eliminate stimulants, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco products, modified food ingredients and chemicals.
  8. Drink adequate amounts of clean water free of contaminants.  For pure water consider a reverse osmosis filter system or RO water which can be found at many natural grocery and health food stores.
  9. Consume adequate fiber – 28 to 35 grams a day to promote proper bowel function and prevent constipation.
  10. Get enough restorative sleep (7.5 to 9 hours a night of sound sleep or stage 4 sleep is optimal)
  11. Make an effort to intake specific nutrients that have been found to support proper detoxification function, including epigallocatechin gallate from green tea, glucosinolates from cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and cabbage), resveratrol from grapes and peanut skins, isoflavones from soybeans or fermented soy, and polyphenols and anthocyanidins from berries.
  12. Try hot lemon water with cayenne pepper before breakfast to stimulate the liver.
  13. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in fresh water for the kidneys.
  14. Exercise enough to sweat which will help open the pores to release toxins through the skin.
  15. Try hot yoga to stimulate circulation and sweating.
  16. Try body brushing and rebounding to stimulate lymph function for the immune system.

Summary
There is no such thing as a quick fix.  The safest cleanse is lifestyle.  By committing to a healthy diet, supporting your body’s natural detoxifying systems with food, supplements, and reducing exposure to toxic chemicals you can trim fat, boost energy and lessen your body’s toxic burden. Some of the basic fundamentals of cleansing listed above can be exercised on a regular basis to enhance the body’s natural detoxification pathways. In doing so, you create a lifestyle that promotes optimal health and longevity without the risk of extreme and potentially harmful fasting cleanses.

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