Detoxification diets, or detox diets for short, are a group of short-term diets intended to release accumulated toxins and waste products from the body. They are based on a theory of digestion and elimination usually associated with naturopathy, an alternative medical system that emphasizes the role of nutrition in restoring or improving the body's own self-healing properties. In general, detox diets emphasize the following:
Detoxification diets as a general practice can be traced back more than 5,500 years to an annual ritual of bodily and spiritual preparation known as pancha karma, which is part of the practice of Ayurvedic medicine in India. Ayurveda is a traditional system of health care that dates back to about 3500 BCE; its name is Sanskrit for “science of long life.” Pancha karma is undergone for disease prevention, which in Ayurvedic practice requires spiritual renewal and the breaking of negative emotional patterns as well as physical purification. It has three phases: a preparation phase, in which the person eliminates sweets, caffeinated drinks, and processed foods from the diet, as well as spending more time in meditation and taking walks in natural surroundings; the cleansing phase, which includes bloodletting, emesis (forced vomiting), nasal cleansing, and the use of enemas and laxatives as well as a very restricted diet of grains and vegetables; and a rejuvenation phase, in which solid foods are gradually reintroduced to the diet. Practitioners of Ayurveda in Canada and the United States generally omit vomiting and bloodletting in the second phase of pancha karma.
In Europe and North America the most important factor in the popularity of detoxification diets is naturopathy, an alternative approach to health care developed out of the natural healing movement in Germany and North America in the late nineteenth century. Naturopathy is closely connected with vegetarianism, particularly its raw-food offshoot. Naturopaths of the twenty-first century use a variety of techniques in treating patients, including hydrotherapy, spinal manipulation, and physical therapy as well as nutrition and dietary advice. There has been a revival of interest in naturopathy in the United States since the 1980s.
Naturopaths frequently recommend detoxification diets as a way of ridding the body of various toxins that they identify as coming from several sources:
A third factor that has contributed to interest in detox diets since the 1990s is the environmental movement. Some people who are concerned about the impact on the environment of raising animals for food use detox diets as a transition into a longterm vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. In addition, growing awareness of the effects of exposure to industrial chemicals, pesticides, second-hand tobacco smoke, and other contaminants in the home environment as well as the workplace has led many people to consider detoxification diets as a preventive health practice to lower the risks of arthritis and other chronic illnesses.
Practitioners of alternative medicine generally recommend the warmer months as the best time of year for a detox diet, although some dieters prefer January, to counteract the effects of overindulgence in food and drink during the holidays. Many people suggest beginning a detox diet on the weekend or scheduling time off from work to allow time for extra rest if needed. Detox diets are usually used only once or twice a year.
Many detoxification diet books include a questionnaire or symptom checklist to help readers evaluate whether they need detoxification. The following list is typical; more than four “yes” answers indicates the individual could benefit from a detox diet:
Individuals considering a detox diet should prepare by cutting down gradually on caffeinated beverages a week to 10 days before the diet, as sudden elimination of these drinks often causes headaches. Dieters should also reduce their intake of sugary foods, chocolate, alcohol, dairy products, foods high in fat, foods containing wheat or yeast, and grains containing gluten (an elastic protein found in barley and rye). Recommended foods for detox diets (except the mono diets) include fresh organic fruits and vegetables; rice (both brown and basmati rice), rice cakes, and rice pasta; other grains such as millet, quinoa, and buckwheat; beans, lentils, and dried green or yellow peas; unsalted nuts; seeds; olive oil; and herbal teas. The dieter should plan to drink at least eight glasses of filtered or other non-tap water per day on a detox diet.
At the end of a detox diet, the dieter should return gradually to a full diet, perhaps vegetable soup or steamed vegetables the first day. They should not add raw fruits or vegetables until the second or third day.
Raw food detox diets consist of foods that have not been heated above 92° to 118°F (33° to 48°C). These diets are based on the belief that raw foods have higher nutrient value and contain enzymes that assist digestion, allowing the other enzymes in the body to regulate other biological processes. Raw foodists also believe raw foods prevent obesity by lowering excessive food consumption, and their high fiber content helps detoxify the body by speeding up digestion and elimination.
In a juice fast, the dieter is instructed to drink between 32 and 64 ounces of fruit or vegetable juice per day, in addition to six glasses of warm filtered water. Although some modified juice fasts allow a small quantity of steamed vegetables, most are short-term liquid diets. Some therapists recommend one or more cups of herbal tea each day in addition to the juice and water. The juice must be fresh, obtained from organic fruits and vegetables processed through a juicer or juice extractor. Prepackaged juices cannot be used for a juice fast because they have been pasteurized. In addition, fresh juice must be consumed within a half hour of extraction; it cannot be refrigerated.
Mono diets are detox diets in which the dieter consumes only one food, usually apples, grapes, or some other fruit or vegetable, or one liquid, for a period of 10 to 14 days. The oldest mono diet is the so-called Miracle Grape Cure, attributed to Johanna Brandt, a woman from South Africa who claimed that eating grapes cured her of stomach cancer. In a book she published in 1928, Brandt stated that she alternated 12 hours of drinking only natural (unchlorinated) water with 12 hours of eating only purple grapes or drinking grape juice made from purple grapes. Recent modifications of this diet recommend following Brandt's plan to the letter for five weeks, followed by one week of a raw-food vegetarian diet.
The best-known mono diet is variously known as the Master Cleanser, lemonade diet, or maple syrup diet. Stanley Burroughs is generally credited with inventing this diet in 1941, although he did not publish it in book form until 1976. His book, which is only about fifty pages long, is still in print even though Burroughs died in 1991. The Master Cleanser involves drinking a mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and grade B maple syrup for a period of 10 to 14 days. The lemon/maple syrup drink is then followed by drinking a “saltwater flush,” which is supposed to purge toxins from the stomach and bowels. This diet was popularized in the early 2000s by a book by Peter Glickman titled Lose Weight, Have More Energy and Be Happier in 10 Days, which is a modernization of Burrough's regimen. The Master Cleanser diet has been most recently popularized by Beyoncéand other celebrities.
Less stringent detox diets that allow some protein foods have been published; a typical example is a week-long detox regimen by Elson Haas. Haas begins with general guidelines for the dieter:
The daily diet plan:
An important part of many detoxification diets is the use of laxatives or enemas to cleanse the lower digestive tract. The removal of wastes is considered essential to prevent toxins in the intestines from being reabsorbed into the bloodstream. Some alternative therapists recommend mixtures of slippery elm or other herbs to cleanse the colon; others prefer saltwater laxatives, enemas, or colonics for cleansing the bowel. A colonic is a procedure in which a large amount of water, sometimes as much as 20 gals. (76 L), is infused into the colon through the rectum, a few pints at a time. It differs from an enema in that much more fluid is used; and a colonic is infused into the colon, whereas an enema infuses water or a cleansing solution into the rectum only. Mainstream physicians do not recommend colonics on the grounds that they are unnecessary, based on a nineteenth-century misunderstanding of the process of digestion, and very often uncomfortable for the patient. In some cases they pose serious risks to health.
Some therapists recommend the use of such dietary supplements as multivitamins, vitamin C, choline and methionine, milk thistle, or a laxative tea known as Smooth Move during a detox diet. These supplements are supposed to aid liver function and decrease such side effects of detox diets as headaches and nausea.
Many advocates of detox diets suggest the use of meditation, affirmations, yoga, and other spiritual practices to improve mental and emotional well-being. Others recommend undertaking the detox diet at a health spa, where such services as massage therapy, sauna baths, and whirlpool therapy or other forms of hydrotherapy are available.
The primary function of detoxification diets is physical purification—removal of toxic substances from the body, including the skin and respiratory system as well as the digestive tract—to raise energy levels; relieve such minor health complaints as poor skin, bad breath, or headaches; and improve the body's ability to heal from various diseases. These diets are not primarily intended as weight reduction regimens, although they can be used to kickstart a weight loss diet.
Some people undertake detoxification diets as part of a general religious or spiritual retreat. The first stage of Ayurvedic pancha karma includes extra time given to meditation and nature walks as well as gradual exclusion of stimulants and solid foods from the diet. Many people also report relief from insomnia or other symptoms of emotional stress as a side benefit of detoxification diets.
Detoxification diets are sometimes recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners and other proponents of alternative medicine for the treatment of specific diseases and disorders, most commonly arthritis, autoimmune disorders, type 2 diabetes, and depression, but they have also been claimed to be an effective treatment for severe infections (including AIDS) and cancer. However, practitioners of mainstream medicine believe that insufficient evidence supports such claims.
Claimed benefits of detox diets include higher energy levels, increased mental clarity and ability to concentrate, clearer skin, improved digestion, and more restful sleep. Many of these improvements may simply be due to better hydration because such diets encourage high fluid intake. Some people also lose weight on detox diets, but those who use these diets emphasize that weight reduction should never be the primary purpose of following one of these regimens.
In general, anyone considering a detoxification diet should consult a health professional beforehand. Some serious diseases, including cancer, may have minor symptoms at onset, including headaches, low back pain, and fatigue. These symptoms can easily be misattributed to stress or poor eating habits. Some therapists recommend requesting blood, urine, stool, and liver function tests from a physician before undergoing a detoxification diet.
Some people should not undertake a detoxification diet:
Prescription medications should be taken as usual during a detoxification diet. The dieter should not discontinue medications or reduce dosages without consulting a physician.
Anyone on a detoxification diet who feels faint or dizzy, develops an abnormal heart rhythm, feels nauseated or vomits, or has signs of low blood pressure should discontinue the fast and consult a doctor at once.
The major risks to health from detoxification diets include metabolic crises in patients with undiagnosed diabetes, sudden spikes in blood sugar levels due to the high concentration of natural sugars in fruit juices, flare-ups or worsening of stomach ulcers, dizziness or fainting due to sudden lowering of blood pressure, diarrhea that may result in dehydration and an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, loss of lean muscle tissue, and protein or calcium deficiencies from unsupervised long-term juice fasts. Some people develop dental erosion from raw-food detoxification diets.
Side effects reported include headaches (often caused by sudden withdrawal from caffeine), fatigue, constipation (from extra fiber combined with inadequate water intake), acne, irritability, dysmenorrhea (painful periods) in women, and intense hunger.
Raw-food detoxification diets increase the risk of contracting parasites or other foodborne illnesses caused by organisms normally destroyed in cooking or pasteurization. In addition, some raw vegetables, such as rhubarb leaves and stalks, buckwheat greens, kidney beans, kidney bean sprouts, and raw potatoes that have turned green are toxic, particularly if consumed in large quantities.
People on detoxification diets who undergo colonics are at risk of allergic reactions to the substances in the fluid used to flush the intestine, of incomplete absorption of medications taken by mouth on the day of the colonic, of contracting an infection from improperly sterilized colonic equipment, of serious illness or death from electrolyte imbalances in the blood, or of serious illness or death resulting from perforation of the intestinal wall by improperly inserted equipment. Colonics can also worsen the symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
Detoxification diets are generally dismissed as fads by such professional organizations as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and other mainstream medical groups, although some research on juice fasting has been conducted in India by practitioners of Ayurveda. In North America, most research on detoxification diets is carried out by naturopaths. According to the only published survey of naturopaths practicing in Canada and the United States, 92% of respondents reported that they used clinical detoxification therapies with their patients.
Most mainstream physicians in North America and Europe point out that the human body is a remarkably efficient organism that can rid itself of toxins through normal digestion, respiration, and excretion without elaborate diets or the assistance of enemas and laxatives. In addition, some fruits and vegetables may contain more toxins than meat, fish, and other protein-rich foods usually condemned by proponents of detoxification diets. Lastly, many physicians object to the naturopathic view of the digestive tract as a source of illness or toxicity.
Although mainstream physicians do not believe detoxification diets are necessary, some do suggest using such a diet can have health benefits. These diets can increase fruit and vegetable intake; lower consumption of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt; and help to kickstart a diet or a healthy eating regimen.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following steps to support the body's natural detoxification processes:
See also AIDS/HIV diet and nutrition ; Cancer ; Electrolytes ; Fad diets ; Fat flush diet ; Juice fasts ; Liquid diets ; Obesity ; Raw food diet ; Veganism ; Vegetarianism .
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American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), 818 18th St. NW, Ste. 250, Washington, DC, 20006, (202) 237-8150, (866) 538-2267, Fax: (202) 237-8152, https://www.naturopathic.org .
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National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), 9000 Rockville Pike, NIH Campus, Bldg. 31, Bethesda, MD, 20892, (888) 644-3615, https://nccih.nih.gov/tools/emailnccih , https://nccih.nih.gov .
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD