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Should I Cleanse?

  • The Truth about Cleansing and Fasting

  • Nobody wants toxins in the body – and we live in a world of potential pollutants, from the air we breathe to our processed foods. So the promise of cleansing the body is very appealing. Like a good, hot shower for the skin, we’d like to find an easy method to clean up our insides, as well.

    There are countless promotions for methods to clear your body of unwanted substances, from fasting to special diets; from herbal teas to colonics. Dr. Oz advertises a 48 hour weekend cleanseOpens new window and even Gwyneth Paltrow’s cleanseOpens new window made news. But are cleanses effective? Is fasting safe?

    We checked in with several MyLifeStages medical experts to see what they have to say about this trend. Here’s what they agreed upon:

    1. The body is perfectly designed to detoxify itself, if you treat it right.

    The primary detoxification systems of the body are the liver, the gastrointestinal tract, and the kidneys - supported by the lungs and skin. Their primary tasks are to process the substances you take in and remove the substances that you don’t need.

    “Nothing you can do externally can outperform what the body already does,” says Sacramento Internist Tom Hopkins, MD who focuses on nutrition and weight management. However, he notes that you can slow down the body’s effectiveness via bad habits and a bad diet.

    2. There is no scientific evidence supporting fasting or special “cleanses” as being beneficial.

    Sorry, but the evidence is not there for external cleansing products or procedures. Beyond temporary weight loss, there are no scientific studies that indicate any benefit to efforts to “detoxify” the body. “Many of these product promotions, featuring scary photos and extreme claims, are really scams,” says San Francisco Internist and MyLifeStages blogger Toni Brayer, M.D. of California Pacific Medical CenterOpens new window. Even herbs or herbal teas with claims of detoxification can be a waste of money, says Dr. Brayer. “Spend that money instead on organic produce and healthy grains.”

    3. Cleanses or fasts, taken to the extreme, can be harmful to your health.

    The doctors agreed that colonics – physical flushing of the colon with water – is not only unnecessary, but can be dangerous. There is the possibility of upsetting the balance of helpful bacteria that are meant to live inside the colon, as well as the remote but real chance of a perforation of the wall of the colon.

    In addition, they agreed that fasting – for too long – can be harmful, especially for people with conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. “A fast longer than a day or two can deplete vitamins, minerals and electrolytes,” says Dr. Hopkins. Dr. Maxine Barish, of Sacramento’s Sutter Center for Integrative MedicineOpens new window, adds that a fast longer than few days actually depletes the liver of proteins needed to deal with potentially carcinogenic substances.

    4. You can help cleanse your body. With food, water and healthy habits.

    Dr. Brayer notes that many people eat a diet high in fat and processed food, which can slow down the digestive tract, causing feelings of bloating, fatigue and irregular elimination. The cure? A healthy diet that focuses on fiber, fruit and vegetables, along with regular exercise (even just walking) to stimulate the body’s own processes.

    Water is also a hugely beneficial agent in cleansing the body. “Water helps you increase your body’s own natural methods of detoxification,” says Dr. Hopkins. “One of the best things you can do is provide your body with a consistent, adequate intake of water.” He also suggests eating more foods with high water content, such as melons and citrus fruits.

    Antioxidant foods are another natural way to support the body’s functions. Again, fruits and vegetables get high praise, as well as nuts – walnuts, almonds and flax seeds in particular, which also contain beneficial Omega 3 oils.

    If you’re hoping a fast or cleanse will kick start weight loss, skip a cleanse and instead fill your diet with these 10 best foods for weight loss.

    5. Eliminate your own sources of toxins – alcohol and caffeine.

    We may be dismayed to learn that some of our favorite things are actually toxins to the body, in the wrong amount. Caffeine, alcohol in all forms, fatty processed foods, too much salt and sugar can upset the natural functioning of the body. In large amounts, they are a form of “toxin” that the body must work harder to process and eliminate.

    Dr. Hopkins’ rules:

    All of our experts also agreed that a short, well-supported fast can be the boost some of us need to change our habits. “Many people who do a short juice fast do feel clear-headed and begin some weight loss that inspires them to continue healthy eating,” says Dr. Brayer.

    Beware of extending the fast too long, however, as it can send the body a signal of food deprivation – which actually slows the metabolism and will make future weight loss more difficult.

    Our experts agreed that a one-day fast can feel great, but extending beyond three days can begin to be harmful, especially if you have other medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. The fast should include at least fruit or vegetable juice and plenty of water.

    6. Develop a long-term plan for keeping your body “clean” and healthy. Start by taking our health risk assessment to find out where you might need to focus your attention.

    Dr. Hopkins reminds us of this common-sense rule:

    A short-term activity cannot provide us long-term health.

    From a fad diet to a cleanse day at a spa – the results will fade. Your approach to health must be sustainable for the long term. So, back to the basics to support your fabulous body and all of its essential functioning:
    • Drink adequate water – every day.
    • Eat a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods.
    • Cut down or eliminate potentially toxic food habits, including alcohol, caffeine, excessive salt and processed sugars.
    • Exercise, regularly.
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Find ways to reduce stress.

    7. Herbs may have a role to play.

    Ron Cotterel, M.D., with the Sutter Center for Integrative Health in DavisOpens new window, does recommend certain herbs to his patients to support the functioning of the liver and digestive system. Before grabbing the next bottle or box off the shelf, consider a consult with the alternative medicine practitionersOpens new window who work at various centers within the Sutter Health network. These experts can create a personalized recommendation for your own, unique body and lifestyle.

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