The idea behind a cleanse is conceptually very simple: the goal is to use a period of fasting, or of consuming specific types of foods and drinks, to reduce or eliminate the “toxins” in the body. The end goal for most cleanses or “detox” diets is for the participant to lose weight, reduce the risk of developing various chronic diseases, or simply to “feel” healthier.
But just how effective are cleanses for improving your health?
Types of Cleanses
There are many types of cleanses available, but the most popular are focused on the idea of removing toxins, which are purported to “build up” in the body, resulting in weight gain and an increased risk of disease. Cleanses like Isagenix provide a special assortment of nutritional supplements to consume in lieu of your ordinary diet, usually for a period of around 30 days. Others focus on consuming only water—or even reducing water consumption—over the course of a few days.
So are these cleanses truly effective in eliminating toxins from your body?
Your body already has mechanisms for cleansing itself of truly toxic compounds, including the liver and the kidneys; if they weren’t doing their job, you wouldn’t be alive. If you’re getting adequate fluid intake, eating balanced meals, and exercising and sleeping regularly, your body should have no trouble keeping itself free from disrepair. The idea that your body needs an outside source to clear itself of toxins is a myth.
Starvation and Dehydration
It’s important to realize that many diets focus on elements of starvation and severe calorie restriction to work as intended, or even dehydration. It’s true that starving yourself may help you lose weight in the short term, but it will result in the loss of muscle rather than “toxins” or fat, and will come with side effects of low energy, and possibly either illness or damage to your body. Not all cleanses involve starvation, but the ones that do will generally worsen your health, rather than improve it.
The trouble here is that extended periods of starvation do lead to actual weight loss, despite being unhealthy for your body and short-term in nature; companies can use this information to suggest their products truly work.
Setting the Stage
Some people like to use cleanses as a way to “clear the slate” and start fresh with a new eating regimen or workout plan. In these cases, cleanses can actually be beneficial. While there’s little to no evidence suggesting that conventional types of cleanses are effective on their own, if they have a motivating factor that encourages you to pursue a healthier lifestyle, they may be a wise investment. They may also introduce more fruits and vegetables into a person’s life, or introduce them to vitamins and minerals they may not be familiar with or understand.
Ending the Cleanse
It’s also important to note the psychological effects of ending a cleanse can make you feel as if the cleanse has been effective at improving your health. Even skipping one meal is enough to amplify your body’s reaction to eating food—which is why food tastes better when you’re hungry. When you go for a period of weeks, or even longer, restricting your caloric intake and limiting the variety of your diet, the rush of returning to a normal eating pattern can make you feel superhuman, even if the health benefits aren’t there to back that feeling up.
The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is the tendency for a drug or treatment to become more effective simply because it is believed to be effective. This effect is well-documented through scientific studies, and is so powerful that it can kick in even when patients know what they’re taking is just a placebo. If you believe your cleanse will give you more energy and clear your body of toxins, even if it has no measurable isolated effect, you’ll likely end up feeling marginally better when the cleanse is over.
The Bottom Line
All cleanses are different, so it’s difficult to make a generalization; some encourage you to eat healthier foods and find a better balance in your life, while others simply try to starve you to produce a favorable effect. Cleanses certainly aren’t necessary to preserve your health; maintaining a well-balanced, moderate diet and an exercise program are enough for that.
However, a cleanse could help you “feel” better for a short period of time, especially when the cleanse is over. If you decide to pursue a cleanse, make sure you choose one that doesn’t focus on starvation or dehydration as its main mode of operation. Instead, choose one to serve as a springboard into a moderate and balanced lifestyle that you can maintain indefinitely once the cleanse is over.