What Detox (Cleanse) Really is and How Does it Work?

Despite the controversy, the “Detox” or “Body Cleansing” treatments are surging in popularity.

Proponents claim that the reason for the increasing popularity of these “body cleansing” remedies is that they simply work!

On the other hand, the opponents argue that there aren’t enough scientific evidence to support the validity and effectiveness of these treatments. They also believe that our body’s detoxification system is completely capable of handling and eliminating the toxins we’re exposed to day in and day out.

I think, before jumping to any hasty conclusion about the effectiveness of these treatments, we really need to figure out what is detox (cleanse), how it works, and how it can affect our health and life.

So, without further ado, let’s see what is detox (or cleanse).

Detox Definition

The origin of the word “detox” is from “de-” which expresses removal and “toxicum” which is the Latin word for poison. So, this word literary means removing poisons (or toxins) from body.

A few decades ago, the word “Detox“, which is the short for “Detoxification“, used to be used for referring to special medical treatments which helped people addicted to alcohol or drugs give up their addiction.

But, in recent years, this word, as the “Oxford Dictionary” puts it, does not only refer to a substance abuse treatment but is more often used to refer to “the process of removing harmful substances (TOXINS) from your body by only eating and drinking particular things“.

I believe, this definition from the “Oxford Dictionary” is a rough definition of the word.

The reason for my reluctance to accept the definition of the Oxford dictionary as an exact one is that “eating and drinking particular things” are not the only known and effective methods for removing harmful substances (toxins) from your body.

In fact, there are a handful of different ways, other than drinking and/or eating, which may help you to get rid of accumulated toxins in your body.

Also Read: What Are Toxins and How Are They Affecting Us?

Ironically, one of the most effective methods to detox your body naturally is through NOT eating and drinking. As you may already know, we call this method fasting.

The other detoxifying methods include, but are not limited to, exercising, detox pads, detox baths, etc.

Another important point we need to pay close attention to, before refining our definition for the word “detox”, is that our bodies are always involved in an automatic detoxification process. In other words, our bodies do the detox automatically by itself without anything needed to be done from our part. This automatic detoxification process is done by our body’s detoxification system.

Also Read: What is Body’s Detoxification System and How Does it Work?

So, to be more exact, a “detox diet” or “detox bath” do not remove toxins from our bodies by themselves, but they support or accelerate the automatic detoxification process of our bodies and help it to get rid of toxins with less effort.

So, a more thorough, exact and up-to-date definition for “detox” or “cleanse” would be:

Detox Definition: A “Detox” or “Body Cleansing” is a program or tool which helps the body to get rid of the harmful substances (TOXINS) accumulated in its organs and cells by supporting and optimizing the body’s detoxification system and through healthy detox methods such as dieting, fasting, bathing, acupuncture, etc.

Note: Both words “Detox” and “Cleanse” refer to the same concept and are totally interchangeable. Since the literal meaning of the word “Cleanse” is straightforward (means to make clean, pure, etc.) and does not have multiple connotations like the word “detox”, we only scrutinized the literal and connotative meanings of the word “detox”.

How Does Detox or Cleanse Work?

There are many different types of detox programs, methods, and tools. Although they may be working based on different concepts, but at the end of the day, they all focus only on one simple goal i.e. helping your body to get rid of the toxins accumulated in your system.

Also Read: 4 Reasons Why You Should and Should Not Do a Detox

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve classified all detox treatments, based on how they work, into 3 different categories:

  1. Toxin-Based Detoxes
  2. Organ-Based Detoxes
  3. Full Body Detoxes

So, without further ado, let’s see what each category is comprised of and how they work.

Detox Programs, Products, and Tools

1. Toxin-Based Detoxes

The main goal of some permutations of detox treatments is to only target one special toxin (or substance) and help the body to get rid of it.

That special toxin, for the most part, is the one single toxin (or substance) which is taking a serious toll on the body and may lead to serious health consequences.

Some of the most popular types of toxin-based detoxes are: sugar detox, heavy metals detox, alcohol detox, and drug detox.

1.a. Sugar Detox

Sugar has been linked to many health conditions such as dental cavities, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression (, , , ).

But cutting the sugar intake is not as easy as it may seem. The reason is that sugar contains addictive substances which affect the brain as morphine or cocaine do. Consequently, cutting your sugar intake would lead to more cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

The most usual withdrawal symptoms are fatigue, depression, anxiety, nausea, and sleep disorders.

The goal of a real sugar detox program is to help you to break the sugar habit and overcome your cravings. They usually do it by helping you to drop processed and sugary foods. They may also provide tasteful and nutritional alternatives for sugary and processed foods to make the transition less taxing.

Some of the well-known sugar detox programs are:

1.b. Heavy Metals Detox

As it was elaborated in an earlier article, we’re exposed to different types of harmful heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromiumand, and arsenic. These toxins usually find their way into our bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, or the cosmetics we put on.

Limited exposure to heavy metals is completely safe, but regular exposure to them could lead to the accumulation of these toxins in the body, which may lead, in turn, to heavy metal toxicity or other complicated health conditions.

The average people usually do not need to be worried about heavy metals toxicity. But, those who are regularly exposed to heavy metals due to their workplace environments need to take extra care and make sure to always monitor their heavy metals levels and take treatment if required.

The symptoms of heavy metal toxicity are: headache, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, diarrhea, etc. Since these symptoms are very similar to other health conditions, such as thyroid disorders or autoimmune disease, the best way to find out if you’re really suffering from heavy toxicity is to take a heavy metal test.

There are several different types of tests which can help you to find out if you’re suffering from heavy metal toxicity. Some of the most popular types of them are hair mineral analysis and at-home heavy metal test kits. Nevertheless, the most reliable type of test you can take to monitor heavy metal levels is a simple blood test known as a heavy metals panel or heavy metal toxicity test.

For the mild cases of heavy metal toxicity, the most effective treatment is as simple as avoiding further exposure to heavy metal sources. The heavy metal source usually is a pollutant workplace environment or a toxic food such as fish or shellfish.

In more severe cases of heavy metal toxicity, the recommended treatment is chelation therapy under the supervision of a qualified doctor. This involves taking medications in the form of pills or injections. These medications, also known as chelators, bind to the metals and facilitate the process of their elimination.

There are also lots of heavy metal detox kits and programs advertised on the net. Sometimes, these programs may prove helpful where the toxicity level is low. But, in severe cases, the only recommended treatment is chelation therapy under the supervision of a qualified doctor.

1.c. Alcohol or Drug Detox

As it was mentioned earlier, purging the body of alcohol or drug is what the word detox was originally coined for.

When a person, who has used alcohol or drug for a prolonged period of time, wants to stop using them, he/she would experience symptoms such as trembling (shakes), insomnia, and anxiety. These symptoms are called alcohol/drug withdrawal.

The job of a good alcohol or drug detox program, known as rehab, is to make the withdrawal symptoms more tolerable.

Generally there are two types of rehabs:

  1. Inpatient Treatment – the patient should get hospitalized, usually for at least 4 weeks
  2. Outpatient Treatment – the patient can stay at home, but need to visit a clinic or facility regularly during the treatment

Warning: Alcohol or drug detox should only be carried out under the supervision of a qualified doctor. Unsupervised alcohol/drug treatments may pose serious health risks.

2. Organ-Based Detoxes

The main goal of some permutations of detox or cleansing programs may be to just help one organ to detox rather than achieving a whole-body cleanse. Colon cleanse, liver detox, and kidneys detox, just to name a few.

These programs are suitable for people who have a problematic or dysfunctional detoxifying organ. For examples, people who are suffering from bouts of constipation or irregular bowel movements may benefit the most from sporadic colon cleanses. Similarly, people who are suffering from a dysfunctional liver or kidney may get the most out of a liver or kidney detox.

Basically, I do not recommend an organ-based detox to a healthy individual with well-functioning detoxifying organs. Instead, they should follow a healthy lifestyle and a well-balanced diet to keep the ball rolling. They may also benefit a lot from sporadic full-body detoxes.

Below is a short list of the most common organ-based detox (cleanse) treatments:

2.a. Colon Cleanses

Colon is not the main organ of your body’s detoxification system. However, the popularity of colon cleansing programs, diets, and supplements has been surging significantly during the last few years. That’s due to the fact that our digestive health plays a crucial role in our health, wellness, and happiness.

The idea behind all colon cleansing programs is that the toxins accumulated in our digestive system may pose health risks such as arthritis or high blood pressure. On the other hand, a colon cleanse can improve your health by eliminating the toxins accumulated in your guts and enhancing your immune system.

There is a wide variety of colon cleansing methods. The most popular ones are:

  • Enema (Colonic Irrigation) – Enema is the procedure of injecting liquid (or gas) through the anus and into the large intestine in order to empty the content of the bowel. These contents usually include toxins and wastes. Enema can be performed either at home or at a medical office. It should be noted that enema is not a risk-free treatment and may cause injury to the colon, rectum, or anal canal. So, we do not recommend this remedy unless prescribed by a qualified doctor and performed under medical supervision.
  • High-Fiber Diet – Fiber is an essential nutrient which plays a crucial role in improving bowel movements and optimizing the functions of good gut bacteria. The best natural sources of dietary fiber are: berries, avocado, apples, bananas, beets, vegetables, legumes, dark chocolate, etc. Adopting a high-fiber diet can be an excellent solution for those who are suffering from any digestive dysfunction and is highly recommended.
  • Saltwater Flush – Saltwater flush is an intense colon cleansing technique which involves drinking a large amount of lukewarm saltwater on an empty stomach. A new research showed that a combination of saltwater flush and some yoga poses can greatly help to flush away the wastes and toxins accumulated in the colon. We only recommend this intense colon cleansing technique for special cases and those with acute constipation. Less aggressive approaches are recommended for the average Joe.
  • Juice (Smoothie) Cleanse – Juice cleanses are another popular colon cleansing treatment which involve drinking only juices for a short period of time, usually between 3 to 10 days. Despite all the hoopla, I believe juice cleanses are not healthy and have no scientific basis. The reason is that juices do not contain enough fiber, an essential nutrient for promoting digestive health. On the other hand, drinking a large amount of fluids may lead to water intoxication, a serious condition which is caused by drinking lots of liquids. The most popular types of juice cleanses are the master cleanse and juice fasting.
    Generally, smoothie detoxes are healthier alternatives for juice cleanses (). That’s due to the fact that smoothies contain lots of fibers because pulp and skin have not been removed from the blend. But smoothie detoxes still may lead to overhydration (water intoxication) or pose other health risks.
  • Colon Cleansing Supplements – There are tons of colon cleansing supplements on the market. Nearly all of them are claimed to promote digestive health and well-being. But, when it comes to your guts health, the reality is that no colon cleansing supplement can beat a healthy, well-balanced, and fiber-rich diet. All in all, nearly all colon cleansing supplements are nothing but laxatives with different formulas. It should be noted that colon cleansing supplements should not be used as a permanent solution for treating a dysfunctional digestive system. However, taking a gentle and all-natural supplement like Herbal Nitro may help to give your digestive system a boost, and a quick relief, during the bouts of constipation.

2.b. Liver Detoxes

As it was laid out in our in-depth article on body’s detoxification system, liver is the major detoxifying organ of the body. It filters the blood from toxins and all impurities and flush them away through urine and feces.

The main goal of a liver detox is to revive and revitalize the liver through expediting liver’s detoxification process.

They usually try to achieve that goal through providing liver the enzymes and compounds it needs to function optimally.

Some of the most important types of enzymes and compounds the liver needs for functioning optimally are: cytochrome P450 enzyme, antioxidants, sulphur, amino acids, and dietary fiber,

Basically, liver detoxifying treatments are mostly available in the form of either supplements or dieting programs. In fact, there are tons of these, namely liver detoxifying supplements and programs, out there on the market. But, unfortunately most of them do not deliver what they promise.

Arazo Liver Cleanse and Vitaliver are two examples of quality liver detox supplements which have received lots of positive reviews and contain natural liver-supportive ingredients such as Milk Thistle, Artichoke, and Dandelion.

Liver Rescue is also a good liver detox program which contains a 9-day dieting plan for cleansing the liver and treating liver-related diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, diabetes, acne, gout, bloating, gallstones, fatigue, fatty liver, and weight issues.

2.c. Kidneys Detoxes

Kidneys play an essential role in the body’s detoxification system by filtering the fluids of the body.

In most cases, kidneys are able to cleanse themselves only by keeping the body well-hydrated and following a healthy and balanced diet. But, those with a problematic or dysfunctional kidney may take it to the next level by following a restricted detox program for a few days.

Most full-body detox programs such as juice cleanses, smoothie detoxes, or intermittent fasting may greatly help to cleanse and revive kidneys too. That’s due to the fact that these programs usually call for avoiding toxin-laden foods and consuming large amounts of fluids. Two factors which play a crucial role in maintaining clean, healthy, and well-functioning kidneys.

It should also be noted that, in most cases, the kidney-specific detoxes are just a reiteration of full-body detoxes along with kidney-supportive foods, teas, herbs, or juices for good measure.

There are some kidney detoxifying supplements available on the market too. I really haven’t tried any of these supplements, and cannot recommend any.

In fact, to improve the health and functioning of your kidneys you do not need to spend a fortune on supplements. Only by incorporating simple lifestyle changes such as increasing fluids intake and reducing salt (sodium) intake you can optimize the workings of your kidneys significantly.

There are also some herbal teas which are touted as kidney cleansers. Although the majority of these treatments do not live up to the hype, but the effectiveness of some herbal teas, such as stinging nettle, hydrangea, and sambong, have been approved by new studies (, , ).

2.d. Skin Detoxes

Skin, as a detoxifying organ and the most essential criterion of beauty, is a telltale sign of the health and cleanliness of the person.

The truth is that the toxins, which are present in the air, water, foods, and cosmetics, are taking a serious toll on our skin.

Generally, most types of full-body detoxes can, hands down, improve the look and health of the skin through eliminating toxins from our system.

But there are also some detox programs which have been specifically tailored towards skin. These programs usually try to rejuvenate and improve the look and texture of the skin by reducing the toxic load on your skin or other related organs.

Skin cleansing diets are the most effective type of skin detox programs. These diets usually require the person to cut out all toxic and skin-ruining foods such as sugar, coffee, soy, soda, etc. for a few weeks. In addition, you should also add skin-friendly foods such as leafy greens, lemon, parsley, cilantro, avocados, etc. to your diet during your skin cleansing diet. These foods would help your body to renew and revitalize your skin and improve its texture and look.

Facial detox masks are all the rage now. Some of these facial masks may benefit your skin via moisturizing your skin or cleansing the surface of the skin. However, a facial detox mask can never cleanse your skin on a deep level or deliver sustainable results.

Drinking green tea or skin detox teas on a daily basis can also help to cleanse and improve the health of your skin by providing it with antioxidants and other necessary nutrients it needs.

Armpit detox is another type of skin detox which its aim is to facilitate the transition from regular deodorants or antiperspirants to natural deodorants.

Full-body diet-based detox programs, such as a gentle and balanced intermittent fasting program, is my favorite type of detox for skin revitalization. This type of detox programs are able to cleanse your skin from inside out and remove all impurities, toxins, and pollutants. It would also renew and revitalize your skin by providing the required nutrients it needs for its reconstruction.

3. Full-Body Detoxes

A full-body detox programs is a detoxifying plan which it’s aim is not to just get rid of a specific toxin or cleanse an individual organ. Otherwise, the primary goal of a full-body detox program is to remove a wide variety types of toxins from the major organs of the body in order to improve overall health.

There are many different types of full-body detoxes. Below is just a short list of the most important and common ones.

3.a. Full-Diet Detox Programs

The vast majority of detox or cleansing programs try to cleanse your body through manipulating your diet. These cleansing programs, mostly known as detox diets, usually call for abstinence from supposedly toxic foods (such as sugar, additives, or processed foods) and incorporating detox boosting foods into your diet, for a period of time (like one month), so that your body’s detoxification system have enough room to cleanse itself and get rid of the accumulated toxins in the system.

Full-diets refer to the diets which allow you to eat at least 3 meals, of different types of foods including both solid foods and fluids, per day.

So, a smoothie detox or juice detox cannot be considered as a full-diet detox program as they do not allow solid foods. All types of fasts cannot also be considered as full-diet detox programs, as they do restrict your meals to one or two per day.

There are many types of full-diet detox programs out there in the market, all promising to help you shed pounds, rejuvenate, increase energy, and etc. But, in real life, most of these programs do not live up to the hype, and even may do more harm than any good.

There are only a handful of these types of diets which I can recommend as safe and effective detox programs.

Clean is the name of a detox program which was developed by Dr. Alejandro Junger. This program can be considered as a great example of a well balanced full-diet detox program. In this program you’re only allowed to choose from the healthy and clean recipes represented in the book. These recipes include solid foods, soups, drinks, etc. You can also eat 3 or more meals per day.

3.b. Intermittent Fasting (IF)

Fasts are the oldest forms of detox programs. For thousands of years, people from different cultures and societies, have been using different forms of fasting as a simple treatment which would help them to cleanse, deal with ailments, boost energy, lose weight, and improve overall health.

Being an old age proofed is not the only perk of fasting. New studies also shown that intermittent fasting can benefit you greatly. For example, it can help you to lose weight (), enhance growth hormone secretion (, ), improve brain health (), and protect you against illnesses ().

In fact, the cumulative studies have linked a laundry list of health benefits to the practice of intermittent fasting. So, discussing all of the scientifically proven benefits of intermittent fasting is out of the scope of this article and may require several dedicated articles or even books.

Due to its effectiveness and versatility, and also the reasons mentioned above, intermittent fasting (IF) has become my favorite type of detox. Compared to other types of detox diets, fasting is easier to do, more flexible, more effective, and you may see tangible results more quickly.

The most popular types of intermittent fasting are:

  • 16/8 Intermittent Fasting: You fast for 16 hours and eat normally for the next 8 hours.
  • 18/6 Intermittent Fasting: You fast for 18 hours and eat normally for the next 6 hours.
  • Alternate-Day Fasting: You fast for 24 hours and eat normally for the next 24 hours.
  • Eat-Stop-Eat (24-hour Fast): You just eat water for 24 hours and eat normally then after.
  • The 5:2 Diet: You eat normally for 5 days of the week and fast only for 2 days (non-consecutive) of the week.

3.c. Juice Cleansing

Juice cleansing is a very difficult and intense type of detoxification. It involves drinking only juices from fruits and vegetables for one or more days. The number of recommended days which a person needs to follow a juice cleanse diet in order to complete the detoxification process differs greatly in different kinds of juice cleansing programs. Usually it’s between one day (at least) to 14 days (at most).

The lemonade diet also known as “The Master Cleanse” is a very popular form of juicing. It involves drinking a glass of salt-water drink in the morning, 6-12 glasses of lemonade mixture during the day, and a cup of laxative tea at night. You need to pursue this daily regimen for about 10 days in order to see results. The Master Cleanse is claimed to help you drop lots of pounds, cleanse the digestive tract, and boost energy levels.

There are many people who claim they have seen great results from going on a juice cleanse diet. But, I personally believe that juicing is not a viable and healthy detoxifying method.

Juice cleanses may pose health risks, especially if they’re followed for more than 2 or 3 days. The reason is that the pulps and fibers available in the fruits and vegetables are removed during the juicing process. These pulps and fibers help your body to remove the toxins accumulated in your colon and are essential for your digestive and overall health. So, the lack of fiber in a juice cleanse diet may lead to bowel obstruction and deter the proper detoxification process.

3.d. Smoothie Detox

A smoothie detox diet is the same as a juicing diet, but the only difference is that you drink smoothies instead of the juices during the day. A smoothie is made by blending several types of vegetables and/or fruits. Unlike juicing, blending does not remove the pulps and fibers available in the vegetables and fruits. So, not only it does not affect your digestive health adversely, but it can promote your digestive health and boost the detoxification process too.

10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse” is a popular smoothie detox program which involves consuming only green smoothies (prepared from green vegetables) for 10 days. This program is claimed to promote weight loss, boost energy, and improve overall health.

3.e. Detox Baths

Detox baths are also the latest fads in detox industry. A detox bath generally involves soaking your body into warm water mixed with a detoxifying agent (like Epsom Salt) in order to promote detoxification through skin.

Epsom salt, apple cider vinegar, baking soda, clay, and mustard are the most popular detox agents which you can use in your bathtub.

Infrared saunas are a new type of sauna which are claimed to have great detoxifying benefits. The concept behind an infrared sauna is the same as an ordinary sauna which is making you sweat by heating your body. The only difference is that an infrared sauna uses light to create the heat.

Detox foot pads (patches) are another fad in detox industry. A detox foot pad is a pad which you put on your food during the night and is claimed to help remove toxins from your body through your foot skin. The effectiveness of detox foot pads is greatly under question and there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Niacin Detox is another type of detox which involves taking niacin, exercising, and taking an Epsom salt bath in order to cleanse your body.

In fact, there are not enough scientific evidence to prove that body can detox through the skin. Having a closer look at our body’s detoxification system also shows that detoxifying through the skin is most probably a concept far from the truth.

As a result, since all types of detox baths try to cleanse your body through the skin, I believe that they are not very effective and powerful detox methods. Still most of these detox baths are fun and completely harmless, and you can enjoy them as long as you do not count on them as your main detoxifying tool.

3.f. Detox Supplements

There is a huge market for detox supplements and, consequently, there are also loads of detox supplements available in the market.

These supplements purportedly would achieve detoxification through providing your body with the substances and nutrients it needs for detoxing.

Unfortunately the majority of these supplements do not live up to the hype and do not have anything to do with your body’s detoxification system, but everything to do with your pocketbook.

A large part of detox supplements in the market are in fact organ-based detox supplements. These supplements usually try to help an special organ, such as liver, colon, or kidneys, to cleanse and revive. I’ve talked about these types of supplements earlier in this article within the organ-based detox part.

In regards to full body detox supplements, I do not know of any supplement worth mentioning except the detox teas.

Detox teas are usually a blend of different herbals which may support your body’s detoxification system and promote body cleansing.

Green tea is one of the most commonly used teas for detoxification. There are many different types of green tea detoxes. Some of them may just require you to add several cups of green tea to your regular diet, while others may ask for minor or major modification of your diet during the green tea detox period.

Like other supplements, most of the detox teas available on the market do not deliver.

But not all detox teas are created equal! Below is a short list of quality detox teas which may help to boost your body’s detoxification system and improve overall health.

The Bottom Line

To put it in a nutshell, “Detox” or “Cleanse” refers to the process of eliminating toxins through boosting the body’s detoxification system.

There are many different types of detox programs and products which can be classified in many different categories. Here, in detoxopedia.com, we’d prefer to classify all types of detox programs and products in 3 main categories:

  1. Toxin-Based Detoxes
  2. Organ-Based Detoxes
  3. Full-Body Detoxes

I recommend you to always use your preferred type of full-body detoxes as your go-to detox treatment. Toxin-based and organ-based detoxes are only suitable for those infected by an special toxin or suffering from an organ dysfunction.

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is my preferred type of detox treatment. It’s completely safe and is not as strenuous as juicing or smoothie detoxes. It has a long history of thousands of years and can be backed by loads of scientific evidences. It’s also an amazingly effective and powerful detoxifying method which can support your body’s detoxification system, boost your energy, revive your health, and bring long-lasting results.

The last but not the least, take care not to be deceived by detox products and supplement on the market. The majority of these products do not live up to claims, and have just been created with the goal of taking money out of your pocket. So, the rule of thumb is not to buy any detox product or supplement, unless it’s recommended by an authoritative and reliable source.