A detox, in popular culture, is a regimen, product, or practice that supposedly cleans and rids the body of toxins. The idea is to purify the body of harmful agents and allow your digestive tract and other organ systems to reset. But proponents of detoxes aren’t clear on exactly which “toxins” folks should be seeking to remove from the body. They certainly aren’t referring to true toxins — a word that actually means potentially lethal poison.
Dig a little further, and — at worst — many detox trends are just dangerous crash diets in sheep’s clothing. Others are snake oil: worthless products designed to get you to spend big bucks for no reason. Some are harmless, while others can actually be dangerous, or just embarrassing and uncomfortable. Here’s the skinny on some common detox trends, plus how to actually support your self-cleansing body.
Detox Diets and Cleanses
A detox diet is usually just a short period of fasting, often involving some sort of expensive liquid bestowed with health powers. You spend at least three days consuming nothing but exotic fruit juice and an array of chalky powders from your spice cabinet. After that initial period, you add in some fruits and vegetables, before going back to actual eating. When you do return to solid food, it comes with a list of restrictions you’ll give up following within a month.
Each of these diets has different rules and recipes, but they all amount to the same thing. You’re practically starving yourself, giving yourself headaches, fatigues and dizziness, and increasing the likelihood of a food binge when the detox is over. Many detox programs — juice cleanses in particular — rely on expensive products. You could spend hundreds of dollars on ten days’ worth of juices.
A much better plan is to make slow, sustainable changes that get you closer to a more balanced diet. Incorporate more fruits and vegetables and eat fewer processed foods, added sugars, and saturated fats. Drink more water and less soda, caffeine, and alcohol, and consider adding vitamins and supplements as needed. As part of a balanced diet, prioritizing probiotics like those found in kombucha, yogurt, or ACV gummies can give your gut microbiome a helpful boost.
“Detoxing” by giving your body the right macro- and micronutrients allows your digestive system to function properly. With the protein, carbs, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals it needs, your organs can do their jobs and keep you healthy and strong. When you feed yourself right, your body is more than capable of removing toxins with its own natural detox plan: your liver and kidneys.
In medical practices, colon cleansing — also known as colonic irrigation or high colonics — is used to clear the colon in preparation for procedures like colonoscopies. A tube is inserted in your rectum, and liquids are pumped into the colon, flushing out whatever’s in there. Colon cleansing is typically only ever medically necessary in these instances, where, say, a camera needs to see inside your intestines.
Colon cleansing for detox purposes supposedly removes bacteria and toxins from the body. It’s said to boost the immune system, improve your mental state, assist with weight loss, and reduce the risk of colon cancer. None of these supposed benefits have been rigorously studied or demonstrated with scientific research. The dangers, on the other hand, are well-established, which is why you really shouldn’t get a colon cleanse if it’s not recommended by your doctor.
In practice, colon cleansing detoxes probably cause much more harm than good. They use large amounts of water, sometimes many gallons, sometimes combined with other substances including coffee or herbs. Detox colon cleansing often causes nausea, vomiting, bloating and other gastrointestinal side effects. It’s considered quite dangerous, and has been linked to infection, rectal perforation, and even death.
If you feel a pressing need to cleanse your lower digestive tract, consider a gentle over-the-counter saline enema. Or, if constipation is the issue, try drinking safe doses of olive oil, epsom salt water, or other natural laxatives. What you probably need, though, is a diet high in fiber and to stay well-fed and well-hydrated. To keep your colon clean, eat more protein, fruits, and vegetables and drink plenty of plain water.
Detox Patches, Pads, and Clay
Detox patches and foot pads are sticky pads you stick to your body — usually the soles of your feet. They purportedly draw out toxins, and supposedly turn black because they’re removing heavy metals from the body. Health claims range from cellulite reduction to headache relief to improving symptoms of diabetes and depression.
In actuality, the pads probably turn black because something in them interacts with your sweaty feet. In testing, the pads turned dark when placed in steam, suggesting a chemical reaction with heat and moisture. The FTC has actually banned the sale of at least one brand of detox foot pads for false scientific claims. There are absolutely no proven health benefits to using these, well, foolishly expensive gauzy stickers.
If you need to put something on your skin to “detox” your body, you might want to try a bentonite clay mask or bath. Bentonite clay can absorb dirt and oils from the skin and possibly treat certain kinds of skin conditions. You simply mix it with water, and apply it to the face or body like any regular mud mask. It might not detox your body or digestive system, but it can probably help cleanse the gunk from your pores.
When ingested by animals, bentonite clay has been shown to reduce or eliminate the toxicity of aflatoxins — actual poisons — in food. It’s also probably somewhat safe for humans to eat, since it’s been consumed as a natural remedy for ages. However, bentonite clay can cause intestinal blockages, and the FDA has found traces of heavy metals in some supplements. There really isn’t any reason to take the risk of ingesting it, when a functioning liver and a well-balanced diet is all you need.
How to Actually Detox Your Body
The only true detox is living a healthy lifestyle free from (or at least low on) the real toxins: cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. A balanced diet, plenty of exercise, and good quality sleep and relaxation are all your body needs to remove impurities. So let your liver and kidneys do the work, and save yourself the cash and potentially harmful side effects. Or, if drinking cayenne pepper lemonade makes you feel healthier, enjoy one with an actual meal.