Raise your hand if you’ve ever dreamed of using a juice fast to lose your love handles or compensate for holiday excesses. You’re not alone. Between October 2008 and October 2009, Americans spent more than $100 million on cleansing and detoxifying products in an effort to lose weight, gain energy, or purify themselves of harmful toxins, according to market research firm Spins. The appeal is obvious: Multiday detoxes are advertised as if they were shops where you send your dinged-up old body to be detailed. When you get it back, it’s so clean and shiny, it might as well be brand-new. If only it were that simple.
Prolonged fasting can do more harm than good by slowing your metabolism, depleting your body of essential nutrients, and, ironically, recirculating toxins into your system, says Gaetano Morello, ND, a detox specialist in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Whole Body Cleansing (Active Interest Media, 2009). Plus, many popular detox regimens, such as the Master Cleanse—a 10- to 20-day fast during which you subsist on a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup, and water—are so extreme that weight loss is nearly impossible to maintain once you go back to eating solid food. So far, no science shows that fasting or subsisting on liquids for any amount of time will scrub a lifetime’s worth of toxins from your cells. (For more on fasting, see “Top 5 Cleansing Questions”.)
“There’s no such thing as a quick fix,” says Patricia Fitzgerald, DOM, a homeopath and nutritionist in Santa Monica, California, and author of The Detox Solution (Illumination Press, 2001). “The safest detox is lifestyle.” By committing to a healthy diet, supporting your body’s natural detoxifying systems with food and supplements, and reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals, you’ll trim fat, boost energy, and lessen your body’s toxic burden. The following plans can be revisited several times a year.
When should I detox?
Feeling sluggish, constipated, or gassy are good indications your liver and gastrointestinal tract could use a break from excess, says Elson M. Haas, MD, author of The New Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 2004). Pregnant and nursing women, and people with chronic immune disorders should consult their doctors before starting any cleanse.
Should I take laxatives?
Beth Reardon, RD, of Duke Integrative Medicine, warns against using laxatives as a weight-loss tool because they can strip away good digestive bacteria, make you susceptible to illness, and result in dependency.
Do I need a colonic?
Colonics, or enemas, can facilitate detoxification, but if done too frequently, they also flush healthy bacteria from your gastrointestinal tract, undermining immunity. Check with your healthcare provider first.
Can I exercise?
Definitely, though when trying to gain energy, limit exercise to gentle, restorative workouts, like mellow yoga and walking. These low-impact activities give your body a boost without running it down, says Frank Lipman, MD. In general, shoot to exercise at moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes five times a week.
Is fasting—for any length of time—safe?
Diets based on extreme deprivation can drain your body of essential nutrients and destroy your focus and stamina. Consult your healthcare provider before undertaking any type of fast.
What to Expect When You’re Detoxing
“By days five and six of a cleanse, you’ll feel wonderful,” says Frank Lipman, MD, author of Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Feel Great Again (Fireside, 2010). Adverse reactions to detoxes are usually mild and temporary, but, he says, some side effects may require you to stop. Here’s what to expect and when to worry.
What’s normal: You can expect to drop 1 to 3 pounds per week on the weight-loss detox. When to worry: If you’re losing weight rapidly and are nauseous and dizzy for more than the first few days, increase your food intake to 1,800 calories. If your symptoms persist, return to your normal calorie intake.
What’s normal: Caffeine withdrawal can cause pounding pressure in your temples that should go away after a few days. To avoid headaches, wean yourself off caffeine over the course of a week. When to worry: If your head constantly feels like it’s a watermelon splitting in half for more than three days, consult your healthcare practitioner.
What’s normal: If you previously suffered from achy joints or chronic inflammation, you may notice a dramatic decrease in pain when you eliminate allergenic foods like wheat and dairy. When to worry: If your pain increases or you start to experience severe body aches, consult your healthcare practitioner.
Constipation & Diarrhea
What’s normal: Generally, you should have one to two bowel movements a day without help from laxatives. When to worry: If you’re in the bathroom constantly or not at all, drink more water and adjust your fiber intake.
What’s normal: After several days on a detox, you may sleep more deeply because you’re no longer wired on caffeine, sugar, or processed foods. When to worry: If you’re fatigued all the time, you may be experiencing a too-rapid release of toxins or you may not be getting enough calories. Stop your detox, and consult your healthcare practitioner.