woman with green juiceShare on Pinterest
d3sign/ Getty Images

Short-term “detox cleanses” and “detox diets” rarely have lasting effects and can leave you less healthy than when you began. But seeking out shortcuts to health can be appealing, even if they don’t work well.

Detox cleanses can vary significantly. Some promoted types include:

  • using herbs and spices
  • drinking water or other liquids
  • restricting calories
  • using a sauna
  • using certain dietary supplements
  • eating only certain foods
  • reducing exposure to certain things in the environment

Commercially available detox plans are easy to find online and often make broad claims about what they can do for you. But they rarely mention with specificity the kinds of toxins that they remove or exactly how they work.

They also tend not to provide any kind of real evidence that their system works. This, in part, may be due to the fact that studies on detoxes are limited and mostly low quality.

Margaret MacIntosh, an acupuncturist and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in Canada, says that many of these extreme dietary shifts can do more harm than good.

Instead, she says that she’s more “in favor of a healthy diet and lifestyle based in whole foods.” She also notes that the body has its own built-in “processes to eliminate so-called toxins from the body.”

In fact, four different systems within your body work to get rid of potentially harmful substances. They include:

  • Kidneys: These filter your blood and remove toxins in your urine.
  • Liver: The liver helps to process nutrients and modify toxins to make them easier for the kidneys to eliminate.
  • Lungs: The lungs help remove airborne toxins.
  • Colon: The colon helps remove waste and toxins through bowel movements.

The best ways to support the organs that detoxify the body and their respective processes include:

  • eating a nutrient-dense diet full of fiber, vegetables, fruits, and lean protein sources
  • getting an average of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week
  • getting adequate rest
  • quitting, if you smoke
  • abstaining from or reducing alcohol intake
  • drinking enough water to stay hydrated

Are there benefits to detoxing?

Proponents of detoxing claim that it can eliminate toxins, help you manage or lose weight, and decrease inflammation, among other health claims. While some evidence suggests that reduced calories from detoxes may help with weight loss, only a small number of low quality studies support their use.

Instead, healthy organs in your body will filter out bad substances, so keeping your body as healthy as you can is your best bet for eliminating toxins.

Tory Tedrow, an in-house nutritionist for the healthy eating app SugarChecked, says that drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia. That’s when your blood contains too little sodium, which causes your cells to swell.

This can cause symptoms that include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • confusion
  • tiredness
  • muscle cramps
  • seizures
  • coma

These symptoms vary in severity but can quickly become life threatening and require medical intervention.

Evidence suggests that drinking excessive amounts of water and limiting caloric intake can lead to this imbalance of electrolytes.

While many experts advise against cleanses that could include a juice-only diet or laxatives, others suggest using a method of eating that stimulates autophagy.

“Autophagy is stimulated by fasting,” says Gin Stephens, author of “Delay, Don’t Deny: Living an Intermittent Fasting Lifestyle.”

Many cleanses are designed around intermittent fasting, which focuses on calorie restriction and nutritional supplements.

Unlike other forms of detox, evidence suggests that intermittent fasting can produce some benefits, including weight loss. Some evidence suggests that this approach to dieting can help train the body to use ketones from fat for energy instead of glucose. This change can trigger fat loss.

Other evidence, such as a 2017 review on different diet approaches, indicates that initial weight loss is possible, but long-term benefits are unlikely. This is because you’ll likely regain the weight lost once you resume more typical eating routines beyond the caloric restrictions of the detox.

However, this approach may not work well for everyone. You should talk with your doctor about your weight management goals and determine whether intermittent fasting may help you achieve them.

Dr. Erin Stair, MPH, a health consultant and author of “Food and Mood,” says that most people can’t define what a toxin is, let alone know which ones they’re attempting to rid from their bodies.

Still, she says, many will embark on cleanses using products that contain laxatives or cutting calories because “detoxing” sounds “sexier than ‘taking a dump.’”

Still, some of her patients who have experienced initial weight loss from these short-term solutions have been inspired to make healthier choices even after a cleanse or detox diet is over.

However, these results aren’t typical, according to a 2017 review of four dietary options for weight loss. The researchers noted that detoxes and juicing can lead to initial weight loss, but then a person will likely regain the weight once they stop the detox.

Experts say that you’re better off avoiding known toxins, like tobacco and alcohol, while maintaining a balanced diet and regular activity. Also, they advise getting an adequate amount of sleep and drinking a sufficient amount of water.

That way you’ll support your body’s own detoxifying systems, instead of relying on crash diets that may do more short-term harm than any lasting good.

The foods you eat can affect your mental health. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a growing body of research indicates that nutrition plays an important role in mental health.

In a 2020 study looking at how your diet affects your mood, researchers found evidence that suggests different ways of eating can influence your mood. They noted that the Mediterranean diet provided better support for mental health than a more typical Western diet that contains more highly processed foods.

They noted that certain foods can affect sugar levels, the gut microbiome, and your immune response, all of which can influence your mood. Still, more research is needed to fully show how changes in diet can affect mental health.

Detox diets and plans are not necessary to remove toxins from the body. Your body already has organs and systems in place to remove harmful or unneeded substances from your body.

You’re better off focusing on living a healthy lifestyle, including a diverse diet, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and alcohol.

If losing weight is a goal, some detox diets can promote initial weight loss. However, without long-term strategies in place, you’ll likely regain the weight once you stop the detox.

Instead, consider speaking with your doctor or working with a nutritionist or dietitian to determine the best dietary plan for your needs.