Body cleansing or detoxification is a treatment in alternative medicine which proponents claim rid the body of accumulated harmful substances that exert a negative effect on individual health.[1] Sense About Science argues that such cleansings are often unnecessary, and are based on questionable or disproved scientific claims.[2][3][4][5]


The premise of body cleansing is based on the Ancient Egyptian and Greek idea of autointoxication, in which foods consumed or in the humoral theory of health that the four humours themselves can putrefy and produce toxins that harm the body. Biochemistry and microbiology appeared to support the theory in the 19th century, but by the early twentieth century, detoxification based approaches quickly fell out of favour.[6][7] Despite abandonment by mainstream medicine, the idea has persisted in the popular imagination and amongst alternative medicine practitioners.[8][9][10] In recent years, notions of body cleansing have undergone something of a resurgence, along with many other alternative medical approaches. Nonetheless, mainstream medicine continues to view the field as unscientific and anachronistic.[9]

Various modalities of body cleansing are currently employed, ranging from physical treatments (e.g. colon cleansing), to dietary restrictions (e.g. avoiding foods) or dietary supplements. Some variants involve the use of herbs and supplements that purportedly speed or increase the effectiveness of the process of cleansing. Several naturopathic and homeopathic preparations are also promoted for cleansing; such products are often marketed as targeting specific organs, such as fiber for the colon or juices for the kidneys.

Detox diets

Detox diets are dietary plans that claim to have detoxifying effects. Scientists, dietitians, and doctors, while generally judging 'detox diets' harmless (unless nutritional deficiency results), often dispute the value and need of 'detox diets' due to lack of supporting factual evidence.[11]

"Detox" diets usually suggest that water,[12] or fruits and vegetables compose a majority of one's food intake. Limiting this to unprocessed (and sometimes also non-GM) foods is often advocated. Limiting or eliminating alcohol is also a major factor, and drinking more water is similarly recommended.

Methods to modify the diet for the purpose of detoxification include:

  • Eliminating foods such as caffeine, alcohol, processed food (including any bread), pre-made or canned food, salt, sugar, wheat, red meat, pork, fried and deep fried food, yellow cheese, cream, butter and margarine, shortening, etc., while focusing on pure foods such as raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, raw nuts and seeds, fish, vegetable oils, herbs and herbal teas, water, etc.
  • Master Cleanse, also known as the lemonade diet, terms that refer to the fasting diet advocated by Stanley Burroughs[13]

Some proponents of detox diets emphasize it as a lifestyle rather than a diet,[14][15]. Others have touted spiritual and psychological benefits of regular detox dieting.[1]


Body cleansing and detoxification have been referred to as an elaborate hoax used by con artists to cure nonexistent illnesses. Most doctors contend that the 'toxins' in question do not even exist.[16][17] In response, alternative medicine proponents frequently cite heavy metals or pesticides as the source of toxification, however no evidence exists that detoxification approaches have a measurable effect on these or any other chemical levels. Medical experts state that body cleansing is unnecessary as the human body is naturally capable of maintaining itself, with several organs dedicated to cleansing the blood and gut.[18]

Professor Alan Boobis OBE, Toxicologist, Division of Medicine, Imperial College London states that "The body’s own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile. They have to be, as the natural environment that we evolved in is hostile. It is remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven ‘detox’ diets, which could well do more harm than good."[11]

Highly restrictive detox diets such as Water fasting or the Master Cleanse are not the safest form of weight loss. These diets, if done improperly or for too long, may result in nutrient deficiencies. Of particular concern is lack of protein, which may result in wasting of muscle tissue, due to insufficient amino acids for repair.

Finally, while many testimonial and anecdotal accounts exist of health improvements following a "detox", these are more likely attributable to the placebo effect; where people actually believe that they are doing something good and healthy. Yet, there is a severe lack of quantitative data. Some changes recommended in certain "detox" lifestyles are also found in mainstream medical advice (such as consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables). These changes can often produce beneficial effects in and of themselves, and it is accordingly difficult to separate these effects from those caused by the more controversial detoxification recommendations.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Detox Diets: Cleansing the Body
  2. The Times - Detox diets are a waste of time and money, say scientists
  3. Washington Times - Scientists call detox fad waste of money
  4. BBC News - Scientists dismiss detox schemes
  5. The Guardian - Detox remedies are a waste of money, say scientists
  6. Alvarez, WC (1919). "Origin of the so-called auto-intoxication symptom". JAMA. 
  7. Wanjek, C (2006-08-08). "Colon Cleansing: Money Down the Toilet". LiveScience. Retrieved 2008-11-10. 
  8. Chen TS, Chen PS (1989). "Intestinal autointoxication: a medical leitmotif". J. Clin. Gastroenterol. 11 (4): 434–41. PMID 2668399. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ernst E (June 1997). "Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science". Journal of clinical gastroenterology 24 (4): 196–8. PMID 9252839. 
  10. Adams, C. "Does colonic irrigation do you any good?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Sense About Science | Detox press release
  12. BBC Staff (23 July 2008). "Woman left brain damaged by detox" (web). BBC News. Retrieved 2008-07-23. ""A woman has been awarded more than £800,000 after she suffered permanent brain damage while on a detox diet."" 
  13. The Master Cleanse, Stanley Burroughs, 1976, ISBN 0-9639262-0-9
  14. Gary Null, "Ultimate Lifetime Diet"
  15. Rose, Natalia. "The Raw Food DETOX Diet" (PDF). Retrieved 5 September 2008. 
  16. Berg, Francis. ""Detoxification" with Pills and Fasting". Quackwatch. Retrieved 2007-02-12. 
  17. Irish Examiner - Scientists warn detox fads are a ‘waste of money’
  18. Stamos, Jenny (2007-02-08). "Colon Cleansers: Are They Safe? Experts discuss the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansers.". WebMd. Retrieved 2007-12-20. 

Further reading

  • McGuire-Wien, Mary (2009). The Seven-Day Total Cleanse. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780071623742. 

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