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Detox Diets: Cleansing the Body

Spring Cleaning

From the WebMD Archives

Set aside a weekend, it's time for spring cleaning -- more accurately, spring cleansing --even though it is already summer. Perfect for the procrastinators among us.

Spring cleansing means detoxifying your body, says Linda Page, ND, PhD, a naturopathic doctor, lecturer, and author of the book Detoxification.

It's a way to recharge, rejuvenate, and renew, says Page. "Anybody can benefit from a cleansing. The body is coming out of what might be called hibernation. It's a way you can jump-start your body for a more active life, a healthier life."

There's no vacuum or mop needed for this little "housekeeping" ritual. It means drinking juice -- a whole lot of juice and little else -- which pushes everything thing else out of your system, Page tells WebMD. You get the picture. You're clearing out all the tubes and pipes, as they say.

But to purists like Chris Strychacz, PhD, a research psychologist at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, Calif., fasting means "water only," he tells WebMD. He's been fasting for at least 25 years now, an annual weeklong ritual every spring.

"There's a big difference between fasting and dieting [as Page advocates]," Strychacz says. The effects on the body are quit different, he says.

Strychacz vividly remembers his first fast -- 17 days long. "It was extraordinary, a mystical experience. I felt like I'd figured out why Jesus and Plato and Socrates and Gandhi did it -- the clarity of thought, the peacefulness."

Fasting indeed has a long-standing spiritual tradition. "Almost every religion has some type of fasting ritual -- Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur ... the Hindus and Buddhists fast, too," says James Dillard, MD, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. He's author of Alternative Medicinefor Dummies.

"There's definitely a spiritual factor," Dillard tells WebMD. But he's among the skeptics. "Whether [fasting diets] have any physiological benefit, I'm not so sure."

A study of anthropology gives plenty of evidence, Page says. In Chinese medicine, fasting is part of preventive health care. For many ancient cultures, fasting helped people "lighten up" after a long winter, shed the extra winter fat layer that provided warmth.


Our bodies naturally detoxify every day, Page tells WebMD. "Detoxification is a normal body process of eliminating or neutralizing toxins through the colon, liver,

If you feel "congested" from too much food -- or the wrong kinds of food -- you may want to detoxify, she says. If your energy level is low, if you have been taking many medications that have not been eliminated from your system, a weekend detox may help you feel better.

While a "water only" fast is pretty straightforward, Page's cleansing is a bit more involved.

The diet starts on Friday night with a green salad, but Saturday's menu shows you what's really in store: Breakfast starts with plenty of vitamin C, then take your choice of fruit juices. "Because of its high water content, fruit will flush you through much quicker," she says. "Green things give energy, but sugars will wash the system easier."

"You're going to be drinking something every 90 minutes to two hours, so you won't feel deprived or hungry," Page tells WebMD. "As your body gets lighter and lighter through the weekend, you can feel what's going on. You're getting rid of toxins accumulated during the winter. Your body is starting to release fat, those extra pounds."

Dinner? That's miso soup with some chopped sea vegetables (like the Japanese nori, used to make sushi) snipped over top. Or you might choose a cup of brown rice with a few chopped vegetables mixed in. "Brown rice gives your body plenty of B vitamins, which is a stress reducer. It's very high fiber, will fill you up, will help you sleep, and will flush you out in the morning."

She also advocates "cleansing boosters," including herbal laxatives, colonics, probiotics (that replenish healthy bacteria), and antioxidants. Relaxation techniques -- massage therapy, sauna, aromatherapy baths, deep breathing exercises, walking -- help round-out the cleanse.

In evaluating Page's detox diet, Dillard says, "Certainly, the human body carries huge loads of petrochemicals. We know people usually die with the full burden of PCBs they've ever been exposed to -- from fish, animals -- stuck in their liver. DDT sticks around, too."


But can fasting remove these? "Theoretically, yes," he says. "When fat is mobilized, anything that is fat-soluble should be mobilized, too -- should, that is," Dillard tells WebMD.

Although there are no studies of juice fasts/diets, water fasting does have some scientific evidence behind it -- "but very scant," admits Strychacz.

In the book Triumph Over Disease, Jack Goldstein, DPM, outlines his true story in overcoming ulcerative colitis by sticking to strict water fasting and a vegetarian diet. Goldstein is one of very few people who has tested his own tongue scrapings, urine, feces, even perspiration during a water fast, Strychacz says. "He found that the contents [during a fast] are different than normal -- that toxins like DDT do get removed."

Strychacz would like to conduct a study of fasting's effects on atherosclerosis. "Look at Dean Ornish's low-fat diet. He claims not only to arrest but actually reverse atherosclerosis. That's huge. I would argue that if a low-fat diet will reverse it, then what about a no-fat diet?"

Some still consider fasting -- in any form -- to be "out there." "When I review diets that are not based on science, the question I ask myself is: Would I feed them to my family? In this case, the answer is a clear no," says Susan Roberts, PhD, chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.

But the psychological or spiritual effect can't be discounted, says Dillard. "People love the idea of cleansing, of purification rituals, going to the Ganges, to the spa. It has powerful psychological, religious, spiritual meaning. That has its own positive effect on health. But we need to separate that from saying this is science or good medicine."

Just don't look at water fasts or juice diets as a weight-loss solution. As with the Atkins diet, restricting carbohydrates causes you to lose weight -- but you'll gain it all back, says Dillard. "You're losing water in your system."

Juice diets do prevent your body from going into a state called ketosis, he says. Ketosis means your body has no carbohydrates to burn for energy, so it has to burn stored fat or whatever else is available, he tells WebMD. "You feel bad, even smell bad. That's what makes you feel like hell during a [water-only] fast. But is that because the toxins are coming out? No! You're going into ketosis. It's known physiology."


"There's nothing wrong with going on a juice fast for a few days," he says. "But it's not a great way to lose weight, because you'll gain it all back -- you yo-yo. It's just like the Atkins diet. The weight you lose is water weight."

Eating less -- that's definitely known to extend life, Dillard says. "The only reliable way to extend the lifespan of a mammal is under-nutrition without malnutrition. Studies show that if you cut back on 60% of the calories mice eat, they will live almost twice as long with much fewer tumors."

"The old-fashioned way of eating the right foods, getting exercise, clean living, keeping a positive mental attitude -- that's what works," he says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
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