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Harvard Health Ad Watch: What’s being cleansed in a detox cleanse?

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from patients and friends who are enthusiastically pursuing a “whole body cleanse” or “colon cleanse,” or a “detoxification cleanse.” And I’ve seen ads about these cleanses promising a number of health benefits, based on the general principle that every so often it’s a good idea to rid yourself of toxins that are undoubtedly accumulating within you.

Spring cleaning for your body? The idea goes back centuries. And sure, cleansing — or cleaning — is clear enough for bathing or mopping a floor. But how does a cleanse work in the human body? Do cleanses really deliver on their claims?

Let’s start with the name

Cleanses go by many names and descriptions, including:

  • Colon cleansing, also called a “colonic” or “colonic irrigation.” Large amounts of water and other substances, such as coffee or herbs, are flushed through the colon via a tube placed into the rectum.
  • Detoxification (or detox) diets with names like “Super Cleanse,” “Full Body Cleanse Express,” and “Antioxidant Cleanse.” These are specific, often restrictive diets that last a few days to a month and consist largely of liquified vegetables, fruit juices, and spices.
  • Periodic fasting to take a break from your usual (and potentially harmful) diet, which is presumed to include an array of toxins, synthetic chemicals, and other poisons. Fasting is often a part of detox diets.

Does it make sense?

If you’ve seen the ads I’ve seen, it doesn’t just make sense — it seems like something we should all be doing regularly! Cleansing means cleaning and who doesn’t like clean?

But it’s not that simple. The normal intestinal tract is teeming with bacteria. While dietary changes, medications, and even exposure to other people (and pets!) can change your intestinal flora, scientific reality dictates that you can’t “cleanse” your body through diet or “detoxify” your colon. It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.

Advocates of cleanses would argue it makes intuitive sense. You’ll find plenty of testimonials from people who report feeling better in a number of ways (see below) after completing a cleanse. Predictably, the answer to whether a cleanse is a good idea depends on who you ask.

What the ads say

Claims vary by product, but ads often promise a cleanse will

  • increase your energy level, focus, and sense of well-being
  • help you lose weight
  • improve circulation
  • reduce inflammation (and as a result, relieve arthritis pain and suppress autoimmune disease)
  • remove toxins from urine, stool, and sweat.

Some ads promise specifics, such as “strengthening the liver, blood, and colon.” What? There are claims about increased sex drive, better mood, and fewer cravings for junk food. According to the ads, the number of ways a cleanse can help seems endless.

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What do you think?

Written by Shobha

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