Let me paint my least favorite scene for you: “Ugh, I ate too much junk this weekend—I need to detox,” says fictitious coworker #1, clinging to a carrot. “Yeah, I’m doing a juice cleanse to detox my skin,” says fictitious coworker #2, sipping a pitcher of fruit juice. “I hate all of this,” says real me, standing atop my soapbox. Because I do. I hate the word “detox.”
Detoxes have been "cool" for as long as being skinny has been "cool" (yay, society!). And though they started out as a niche trend reserved for coastal kids who hung out in juice shops, detoxes have now become a mainstream movement, led by wellness "influencers" and health-obsessed celebrities. The only problem? Detoxes aren't based in science.
And though I’m cool with you doing and eating whatever you want, I'm not cool with perpetuating incorrect information. Which is why I got a doctor to tell the world, once and for all, whether or not detoxing actually works.
…That is, if you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol. “The only technical way to detox your body is to stop consuming things that are toxic to your body, like drugs and alcohol and allergy-related foods that are literally poisonous to you,” says Jennifer Haythe, M.D., a cardiologist and internist at Columbia University.
But that’s not the kind of detox your friends are talking about at brunch. Ninety-nine percent of the time, “detox” is flippantly used to mean “living healthier,” usually by eating better, cutting alcohol, and drinking lots of water. “It’s the idea that you treated your body poorly for a while, and now you’re going to ‘reset’ it by briefly, and radically, changing your dietary habits,” explains Dr. Haythe. This change, however, isn't actually any healthier, and it most definitely doesn't help "flush out" toxins, because...
As it turns out, your organs are already really, really good at detoxing all on their own. “Your liver, kidneys, and GI tract are always in a natural state of cleansing,” says Dr. Haythe. “A juice cleanse isn’t going to make your organs any more effective at doing their natural job—your body is going to excrete impurities the way it wants." At best, a cleanse, medically, will do nothing. At worst, "it can actually cause some problems," she says. Because...
“Oftentimes, when someone tries a ‘detox,’ they end up drinking tons of fruit juice or eating tons of fruit for days on end,” says Dr. Haythe. “So they’re just consuming huge amounts of sugar, which messes with their insulin levels, which can cause acne, fatigue, and hunger.” So, you know, the opposite of clean-body goals.
And sure, your detox may be a sugar-free, vegetable-only variation, but even still, “there’s no scientific evidence that drinking juices, even vegetable, will help you lose weight or ‘cleanse’ your body of supposed toxins,” says Dr. Haythe. In fact, you're likely missing out on key nutrients (like good fats and protein) by only eating fruits or veggies.
And if you’re detoxing for weight loss, Dr. Haythe notes that you may end up eating even more food post-detox to make up for the feelings of deprivation that you had while on the cleanse. And yet...
Yes, even if it’s technically medically bogus, and it can cause excess eating, and it can result in a sugar overload, a “detox” or “cleanse” or whatever you want to call it can make some people feel great.
“A lot of people may find their bloating is reduced and their energy levels are higher, solely because they’re eating smaller meals and healthier food, and their gut is processing it better than it would with a meal full of junk food,” says Dr. Haythe, “but that doesn’t mean your toxin levels are higher or lower.”
And to those people, we say congrats and godspeed. “The concept of detoxing doesn’t make a whole lot of medical sense, and I wouldn’t recommend it for the average person,” she says, “but if it makes you feel better and it’s only for a few days at a time, then more power to you.”