Why detoxes are terrible for you, according to dietitians

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  • Detoxes don’t work because your kidneys, liver, and GI tract already cleanse the body of toxins and harmful substances.
  • Going on a detox increases your risk of an electrolyte imbalance, spikes your blood sugar, and can cause long-term damage to your colon.
  • A healthier alternative to detoxes is eating a diet full of whole, nutritious foods.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Detoxes are purported to be a quick-fix after you’ve overindulged or a way to jumpstart your weight loss journey. However, going on a detox cleanse may not always be the best decision for your health — and could actually harm it.

Here’s what you need to know about why detoxes don’t work and the risks they pose to your health.

What is a detox?

Detox, in the original sense of the word, is the medical practice of eliminating toxic chemicals like drugs and alcohol from the body.

Currently, the only medically recommended and supervised detox is chelation. Chelation binds to a toxin, like lead, which allows the body to excrete it through urination.

“You need this kind of detox when the body has a build-up of something like lead, and the blood is filtering poison throughout your body,” says Denise DelPrincipe, MS, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian based in Midland, Texas.

A more recent and trendy use of the word “detox” or “cleanse” refers to eliminating toxins from the body that can build up from unhealthy lifestyle habits, like drinking alcohol or eating sweets.

These trendy detoxes claim to help:

  • Weight loss
  • Energy levels
  • Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Muscle soreness or fatigue

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate detoxes, meaning the ingredients have not been tested to make sure they are safe to consume.

Common types of detoxes

There are many different types of detoxes, each of which promotes specific health claims:

  • Fasting: This includes abstaining from eating for long periods of time. The idea behind this type of detox is that you “take a break” from consuming foods that may cause toxins to build up in your body.
  • All liquid diets: These detoxes usually consist of feeding yourself with only liquids or specific juices for a period of time. The motive behind this type of cleanse is usually driven by weight loss.
  • Over-exercising or frequenting the sauna: Have you ever heard the phrase “sweat it out”? Over-exercising or using a sauna to induce excessive sweating is one way that people try to rid their bodies of unwanted toxins.
  • Using laxatives: People may use laxatives to try to “empty themselves” and cleanse their colons.

Mainstream detoxes don’t work

Currently, no research has proven trendy detoxes or cleanses to be effective.

“Beyond meeting your basic daily needs of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain, there isn’t really any extra benefit to what a detox diet could do,” says McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN, a dietitian based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In fact, your body has its own detoxification system, which involves several organs to help flush out toxins. These include:

  • Gastrointestinal tract, which excretes waste products.
  • Liver, which is your primary filtration system that helps process and excretes waste from the body.
  • Kidneys, which excrete extra fluids that are removed through the urine.

Although some people may lose weight initially on a detox, this weight loss usually isn’t sustained because it’s not targeting the root of the problem, which is often unhealthy diets.Jason McKnight, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Medicine at Texas A&M University says that oftentimes, people with generally unhealthy diets may incorporate more vegetables into their diet and drink more water during their detox which may cause initial weight loss.

“A week or so later when you go back to your old eating habits, you’re just going to re-accumulate that fluid and gain that weight back pretty quickly,” he says.

McKnight says a good rule of thumb when it comes to weight loss is weight that is rapidly lost, is rapidly gained back and weight that is more slowly and sustainably lost is weight usually kept off.

Risks of detoxes

“Anytime you throw your body into these random bursts of shocks to the system, there can be long-term effects,” says McKnight.

Here are some of the health risks associated with detoxes:

Severe calorie restriction can cause a cascade of negative health effects

On average, adult men should consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories whereas women should eat between 1,600 and 2,400. Many all-liquid or fasting detoxes drastically reduce caloric intake.

When you are at a calorie deficit for a long period of time you can compromise bone health. It can also disrupt electrolyte balance, which ultimately helps muscles, like your heart, to contract.

“The heart beats because of an electrolyte balance, namely between potassium and sodium. When that’s disrupted, problems can happen,” like heart problems such as tachycardia, Delprincipe says.

While this may not be a problem when doing short-term detoxes, it can be if you find yourself repeatedly going on a cleanse multiple times a year.

Overusing laxatives can harm your colon

Overusing laxatives can trigger inflammation that disrupts the natural function of the colon, which absorbs water and breaks down food.

“From a microscopic and cellular level, we can actually see changes inside the colon of people that take laxatives on a daily basis to clean themselves out,” says Mcknight.

Overusing laxatives can also cause colon infections, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and may increase your risk of colon cancer.

Additionally, people that abuse stimulant laxatives — which induce bowel movements by stimulating intestinal contractions — can become dependent on them. “If they quit taking it, their gut function slows down and then they may not be able to have bowel movements regularly,” says McKnight.

Overusing laxatives can also be a sign of an eating disorder like bulimia. If you or someone you love may be dealing with an eating disorder, reach out to a doctor or contact a helpline.

Juice cleanses spike blood sugar

If you are on a juice cleanse, you are not consuming solid, nutrient-dense foods, which means your body has no long-term forms of energy. Rather, juices cause blood sugar levels to spike for a brief period of time before dropping.

These swings in blood sugar can be particularly dangerous if you have diabetes or a heart or liver problem.

Insider’s takeaway

Detoxes claim to provide users with many health benefits like weight loss and clearing the body of toxins. However, at most, they may offer short term, unsustainable weight loss and can end up causing serious health issues like colon infections. Fad diets are hardly ever a way to maintain weight loss or boost your overall health.

“An overall better recommendation would be just to adopt a healthier lifestyle by eating more fruits, vegetables, and fibre and not putting substances into your body that can be viewed as toxic,” says McKnight.

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