Myths, facts, and hype: Detox diets, colonics and cleanses

Aug 1, 2019 | 24 comments

According to, detoxification (detox) diets are popular, but there is little evidence that they eliminate toxins from your body. But, evidence never stopped hoaxers from marketing products as “amazing”, and “miraculous,” and it appears there is a growing desire for detoxifiers, both for diets and products and for unproven and possibly dangerous and archaic procedures like “high colonics”.

Ridding yourself of toxic wastes is an idea rooted in human history; “purification” rituals date back to the ancients who followed the idea of autointoxication and made the unsubstantiated but simpleminded intellectual leap that because foods, by their very nature, eventually spoil and putrefy outside the body, it meant that all foods eventually will produce harmful toxins inside the body and thus are a major cause of many, if not all, diseases. Periodic purging was, therefore, necessary for good health.

Laxatives, bloodletting, vomiting – medieval medicine was very preoccupied with purging the human body. And with reason, as little animals might be living inside of us… Credit:

According to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, by the 19th century, “colonic quackery” was all the rage but, by the 20th century, it became clear that the “cleanses” and other purging methods were not only found to be useless in preventing or treating disease but were downright dangerous.

Today, despite overwhelming evidence, it appears we’re regressing. Too many people are buying the bogus claims of colon cleansing “experts” and their pseudo-scientific jargon and anecdotes. I searched “easy detox diet” and got an astounding 52 million results for everything from a “lemon fast” to 24-hour to 7-day plans, from pills to cleanses, to colonic services. With numbers like I found on Google, it can be said, at least in this case, that that ignorance is triumphing over science.

But, we’re living in the 21st Century, and the pseudo-science is debunked by the best researchers in the field, including Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D., emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University in the UK. He writes, “There are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t. The respectable one is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks, and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”

Myths and Facts About Cleanses and Detox Diets

Myth: “Detox” your colon for better health:
Many “detox” regimens involve “cleansing the colon” with herbal supplements that promote or prod bowel movements. Citing “waste buildup,” they insist purging is necessary to free the body of “built-up toxins” and wastes – the gunk that accumulates in the colon. Many of these contain stimulant laxative ingredients, including senna leaf, which, although natural, can have significantly dangerous side effects. Overuse of senna may harm the colon and permanently change the digestive tract.

Some “detox” plans urge you to use “high colonics” which are akin to an enema on steroids: colonics that involve inserting a rubber tube into the colon. Debunked almost 100 years ago, experts call colonics, unless medically indicated, a “crappy idea”. This procedure runs the risk of colon perforation and permanent damage.

More importantly, your colon keeps you healthy! As advised by the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, there is no scientific support for colon “cleansing”. The colon is “a long muscular tube” and a key part of the digestive system. As food travels through the gut, the colon removes water, salt, and nutrients, and the remaining stool is moved along through the colon to be expelled. But what science has learned is that another critical job of the colon is to nurture bacteria, otherwise known as your microflora.

Robert Bresalier, M.D., a professor in Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the Center says that the only time you should clean your colon is to prepare for a colonoscopy. He says that “cleaning” the colon means disrupting your healthy microflora balance. “Your microflora plays a crucial role in protecting your body from infections … it may even protect against colon cancer.”

Credit: MIT ScopeWeb

But what about having that colonic before surgery? Is it harmful? Before bowel surgery, it is, of course, necessary to evacuate the colon complete to assure an efficacious and successful procedure. And although experts say that the gut microbiome will rebound after being flushed out, they are unsure how completely it will rebound, and how long it will take.

And what about that claim that a colonic will “remove mucus and toxins?” If you hear that claim, you know that the claimant is ignorant and living in the stone age. The mucus layer in the gut nurtures the microbiome and is a critical component in maintaining intestinal homeostasis. And by force-cleansing it, removing this essential component of health and immunity, you are messing with your balance and possibly endangering your health. To read more about the role of mucus layer from the Journal Microorganisms (August 2018) click here.

Myth: Detox “cleanses” potions and powders :
Always avoid the so-called cleanses that have you drinking vinegar or pepper! These diets may create an unhealthy nutritional imbalance or worse. Drinking vinegar can affect blood sugar, interact with medications and can cause damage to tissue and enamel. Cayenne contains high amounts of capsaicin and can cause burns, upset stomach and can interact with medications. As reported on, a “Master Cleanse” is a starvation diet, restricted to lemon juice mixed with maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper, as well as salt water and a laxative tea for 10 days. Vitamin deficiencies, muscle breakdown, and blood sugar problems — not to mention frequent liquid bowel movements — are some of the seriously unpleasant drawbacks to these plans, which are skimpy on solid foods and often call for laxatives.

Any long-term fast leads to muscle breakdown and a shortage of many needed nutrients. Prolonged lack of essential vitamins and minerals from food can impair the body’s natural immunity and increase the risk for inflammation.

If you insist on trying this and suffer any abnormal side effects while on the diet, seek medical treatment immediately.

Myth: Raw foods detox you naturally
What stimulated human evolution? The ability to utilize fire to cook food, which led to bigger bodies and brains. Back in 2008, researchers found that even chimpanzees will wait for food if it’s cooked, knowing that the taste of many raw foods is far enhanced by cooking.

No doubt, raw foods  — fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, are important sources of nutrition including antioxidants and fiber — but many, many foods have far more nutritional value when cooked. Good examples are tomatoes: yes, they’re wonderful raw, but cooking, especially with a little healthy fat (olive oil), will boost lycopene, an antioxidant that is enhanced by cooking. Limiting your diet to raw foods is boring; it diminishes the variety in tastes and textures that cooking provides.

Cooking tomatoes, especially with some olive oil, enhances antioxidant lycopene

Of course, overcooking decreases the nutrient value of food – read more about the nutritional value of properly cooking foods and more in my article on raw foods in Cuenca HighLife.

 Myth: By “detoxing” you can “stop your medications”:
Some detox programs say that after you’ve completed the regimen, you can “stop your medications”… isn’t that irresponsible? Never stop taking prescribed medications unless you speak with your physician. For example, if you’re prescribed life-saving insulin or your doctor has you on oral meds to help your pancreas secrete more insulin or to make your cells to become more insulin-sensitive, stopping your medications can be life-threatening. Heart regulation and blood clotting medications may be essential to your daily health and must be regulated closely by your physician.

By eating healthfully — eating more plant foods and ditching processed carbohydrates like white bread, flour and rice and sugar-laden beverages from your diet — you take firm steps on the road to better health.

And taking those steps, burning calories naturally, losing weight without unnaturally ‘lightening’ your body with a colonic or taking a ‘cleanse’ to evacuate your bowel, throwing the bad out with the good bacteria. Your blood sugars are likely to stabilize and your triglycerides and other markers of inflammation are likely to return to normal range.

However, weight is just a number on the scale, and weight loss is unfortunately not a guarantee that you’ll be able to stimulate your pancreas to produce sufficient insulin or that your blood fats will be normal. It is unlikely that a “detox” will undo a chronic disease.

Always check with your physician before quitting any prescribed medication. No doubt, all medications have side effects, and you may want to stop taking them. But consider the fact that not taking a medication that is necessary for your health could aggravate the condition…or far worse.

Detox Facts: “Detox” is marketing, not medicine
The human body is a natural detoxifier. The liver, kidneys, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems work together like a finely-tuned machine to detoxify your body daily. Even the skin plays a part in keeping your body healthy by providing a barrier against harmful substances including bacteria and viruses, heavy metals and toxic chemicals. The average person does not need a “neutralizing” diet. Better health is not available in an elixir, a pill, a powder or a potion. In the rare case that you do have heavy metal poisoning, your doctor will always confirm this condition with blood tests prior to treatment.

Your body detoxes naturally, daily!

Health happens daily and you are what you eat — and drink. The most effective substance to include in your personal purification diet is water: Cuenca has the purest public water supply in Ecuador. Stay hydrated to promote healthy elimination and clear-looking skin.

Eat To Live
If you drink soda and alcohol to excess and eat a diet high in sugar and fat, you’ll certainly feel like you need a detoxifying diet, but you don’t — instead, stay healthy, naturally.

Live within the boundaries for general good health by keeping treats and sweets as an occasional indulgence. Remember, rapid weight loss isn’t recommended; with fasts and cleanses you’re going to drop water weight quickly, but those who lose weight rapidly are just as likely to regain it quickly, too.

Resolve to eat more healthfully and allow your body a “rest” from junk food, processed foods, and added sugars. You will feel much better by avoiding excess sodium, additives, preservatives, and fried and fatty foods.

If you’re still not convinced, read The Detox Delusion, by registered pharmacist Scott Gavura, of Ontario, Canada. As  Gavura wisely points out, the word “detox” is a good example of a legitimate medical term being turned into a marketing strategy.

My personal philosophy: All diets ‘work’ because you ditch the type of foods and beverages that were making you overweight and sick, and typically start eating more foods that are healthful. You may even start exercising! But no ‘diet’ works permanently unless you adopt those new behaviors permanently.

Instead of ‘going on a diet’ resolve to ‘live it’! Create your own cleansing and ‘detox’ diet by choosing to eat healthfully, daily.

Sources: Detox is bunk; save your money for something useful, fun or pleasant!
Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science.
Journal Microorganisms. The interaction of the gut microbiota with the mucus barrier in health and disease in humans. Colon cleansing: money down the toilet. Do detox diets offer any health benefits?
MD Anderson Cancer Center. Colon cleansing: Health or hype? Experts warn of detox diet danger. Chelation: Therapy or “Therapy”?
Scientific American. Cooking up bigger brains.

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at

Our Cuenca Diabetes Support Group will meet this coming Monday, August 5. Contact me for more information.

Susan Burke March

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