It's a compelling argument: The very veggies we eat, the air we breathe, even our drinking water is full of toxins. So ridding the body of toxins is surely a good thing, right? Not everyone agrees.
That's the premise of detoxification diets, better known as detox diets. For many people, detoxing is a ritual form of spring cleansing. However, while the theories behind detox diets may sound beneficial, they are controversial. Some experts say they're pointless, sometimes even dangerous.
"There's no scientific evidence to support the claims made for [detox diets]," says alternative-medicine guru Andrew Weil, MD, host of drweil.com and director of integrative medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But there are things you can do to rev up the body's own elimination systems," he tells WebMD.
Spring Cleansing: No Vacuum Needed
It's true that our bodies naturally eliminate toxins we ingest or inhale, explains Linda Page, author of the book Detoxification. "Detoxification is a normal body process of eliminating or neutralizing toxins through the colon, liver, kidneys, lungs, lymph glands, and skin.
"Just as our hearts beat nonstop and our lungs breathe continuously, so our metabolic processes continuously dispose of accumulated toxic matter," she explains.
Page has her own theory as to why there is a need for detox diets. She tells WebMD the environmental toxins of modern-day life that we're exposed to -- the pollutants, chemicals, other synthetic substances -- are more than the average body can handle. "The body doesn't know what to do with foreign substances, so it will store them outside of the regular elimination system, so we don't get poisoned. Those poisons start building up in our body fat."
Her weekend detox program involves drinking fruit juice -- a whole lot of juice and little else -- which, according to her, pushes these toxins out of your system, Page says.
She also recommends taking "cleansing boosters" such as herbal laxatives and colonics, as well as probiotics (that replenish healthy bacteria) and antioxidants during the weekend-long program. Relaxation techniques -- massage therapy, sauna, aromatherapy baths, deep-breathing exercises, walking -- help round out the cleansing, she says.
Vegetarian Eating and Fasting
Richard DeAndrea, MD, ND, has developed a 21-day detox program. During the first week, you follow a strict plant-based vegan diet -- no meat, no dairy. The second week is raw fruits and vegetables only.
The third week, you're drinking fruit juices and special smoothies some call "green sludge." According to his web site, the smoothies contain a "superfood" supplement specially blended for detoxification -- pulverized alfalfa, barley grass, algae, herbs, enzymes, and antioxidants.
But for purists like Chris Strychacz, PhD, a research psychologist at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, fasting ("water only") is the way to go. He's been fasting for at least 25 years now, an annual week-long ritual every spring.
Although there are no studies of juice-fasts diets, water fasting does have some scientific evidence behind it, "but very scant," he admits.
For some people, a detox diet might be a first step toward healthier eating, says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"If it means someone has decided to eat a vegetarian diet, the benefit may be that they're consuming more fruits and vegetables than they usually do, more plant-based foods," Moore tells WebMD. "But I wouldn't consider that to be detoxification."
It's true that pesticides are stored in body fat. "But there's no evidence that a detox regimen, which works on the GI [gastrointestinal] tract, is going to do anything to get rid of those stored pesticides," says Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences and professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
A healthy body needs no help ridding itself of toxins, Rosenbloom tells WebMD. "There's no reason to do any kind of detoxification. The toxins don't need to be forced out by some kind of fasting or laxative or enema regimen."
In fact, some measures -- such as colonics -- "can actually be dangerous, because you're introducing something foreign into your body that could cause infection or perforation of your bowel," says Rosenbloom.
Also, detox diets aren't a great way to lose weight, she explains. "All you lose is water weight." Stay on the diet too long, and you could lose muscle mass rather than fat -- which will slow your metabolism. That translates into no weight loss at all, she says.
Weil's Words of Advice
Forget detox diets, says Weil. "The best thing you can do is to stop putting toxins into your system.Eat organic foods, drink water that is purified, don't be around second-hand smoke -- the obvious things."