Some drink only vegetable juice. Others soak in Epsom salts. It’s all in the pursuit of ridding the body of months or years of accumulated toxins, said to be the cause of fat, fatigue, diabetes, memory problems and countless other conditions.
The question isn’t just whether these techniques work. It’s whether the body is overwhelmed by toxins to begin with.
The promises of liquid cleanses and other techniques have attracted legions of followers, celebrity endorsers and millions in venture capital funds. The trend has helped supercharge the U.S. diet industry, which passed $60 billion in sales last year. It has also made carrying gunky green juice a status symbol in fitness circles.
Consuming more vegetables is great, mainstream doctors and nutritionists agree. But they dismiss the detox claims as a confusing jumble of science, pseudoscience and hype. They argue that humans already have a highly efficient system for filtering out most harmful substances—the liver, kidneys and colon.
“If you’re confused, you understand the issue perfectly,” says Edward Saltzman, an associate professor at Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University.
“Nobody has ever been able to tell me what these toxins are,” says Donald Hensrud, an internist and nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Some detox regimens rely on what could be dangerous levels of calorie restriction if followed for long periods, these experts say. Other versions advocate “what many of us already recommend—eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer refined carbohydrates,” says Dr. Hensrud.
Detox proponents define toxins very broadly. Mark Hyman, a physician and author of six best-selling diet books, says the biggest toxic threats come from the American diet itself. “We are eating pharmaceutical doses of sugar and flour,” which have overwhelmed the liver’s ability to cope, says Dr. Hyman. He points to the overabundance of Americans with fatty liver disease, which leads to obesity, insulin resistance and other metabolic disorders.
He says Americans are also being assaulted by heavy metals (including mercury from large fish and old dental fillings) and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (including Bisphenol A in makeup and credit-card receipts) as well as “spiritual toxins,” such as loneliness and hostility. But he says people reduce their exposure and enhance their ability to excrete such toxins with the right balance of foods, vitamins and minerals.
This decades-old cleanse plan has gained traction again in recent years.
Dr. Hyman’s latest book, “The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet,” published in February, recommends avoiding all sugar, grains, dairy products, legumes, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. Instead, followers consume a fruit-and-protein shake in the morning, then vegetables and lean protein for lunch and dinner.
He also suggests they take a long list of supplements and drink water with PGX, a form of fiber that expands in the stomach, before every meal. The combination resets the metabolism and cleans out the digestive system, Dr. Hyman says. He has also argued that a detox bath with Epsom salts each night helps remove heavy metals through the skin and reduces stress.
Liver specialists say that up to 20% of adults have some form of fatty liver disease, in which excess fat in the liver leads to inflammation, scar tissue and eventually liver failure. Some cases are due to alcohol abuse. Genetics, hepatitis, autoimmune disease and medication use also play a role. It isn’t clear whether fatty liver causes obesity or vice versa.