The state of cleansing

Where experts stand on the still-trending topic of detoxification

The days after indulgence, it's only natural to want to detox. Trendy though it is, people have been doing it for years. Even ancient civilizations practiced forms of purification, says Robin Foroutan, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an integrative dietitian at The Morrison Center in Manhattan.

Despite their continued popularity, critics say cleanses are unnecessary. “The liver is your detoxification organ. It breaks down 'toxic' compounds to begin components so that they can be recycled or excreted from your body,” says nutritional consultant Mike Roussell, Ph.D.

So what are we to make of activated charcoal, green juice, and everything in between? As of now, there’s no one consensus amongst nutrition professionals let alone scientific professionals on the topic of cleanses, says Sheila Dean, R.D.N., an integrative medicine nutritionist and an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa. The answer you’ll get depends on who you ask.

The Detoxing Debate
Says Roussell: “There has never been any good data to support the use of 'detoxing' in any of the ways that people generally offer it commercially.” Says Foroutan: “Certain foods and certain supplements and nutrients aid the body's own detoxification mechanics.”

But the takeaway might not be so all-or-nothing. If a detox means cleaning up your diet, it has perks. A five-day juice or veggie cleanse, for example, may cut out problematic foods, like wheat, dairy, and artificial ingredients, flooding your body with antioxidants, says Foroutan.

Sometimes, though, it's misguided. Foroutan says she’s picked up bottles of retail "detox" formulas or "cleanses" and found nothing in the ingredient list that aids in detoxification. And while a juice cleanse might have its benefits, you’re not getting any protein, notes Foroutan. You might also deplete your body of its main detoxifying protein, glutathione, she says.

There has been emerging research in the field. Since scientists sequenced about 30,000 genes through The Human Genome project, an area of science called nutrigenomics—still in its fledging stage—has emerged. Its gist: genetic differences can affect the way we respond to nutrients, Dean says. While certain people might respond well to one diet (or cleanse), others won’t.

What's In Store
“We’re entering this era of personalized medicine,” Dean says. And that means present and future cleanses may mean working with a nutritional or medical professional to make sure yours is personalized and safe.

In the meantime, a simpler, safer bet might be looking at the big picture, fueling up on foods and nutrients that can help even the fittest bodies function their best. For example:

(1) Score some sun (supplements):Between 30 and 60 percent of the U.S. population could be deficient in vitamin D.Fueling up through a supplement or foods like seafood is key. We have vitamin D receptors on almost every cell, says Dean.

(2) Make sure you get magnesium: Not only can many medications deplete your supplies of this major mineral, but magnesium is also a major player when it comes to detox, says Dean. “You need to be eating at least five servings of greens a day to get a good robust amount to saturate your tissues.”

(3) Load up on B: “Nutrients like B vitamins, certain minerals, and amino acids are required for detoxification, so if someone becomes depleted in those nutrients, their capacity to detox is reduced,” says Foroutan. In a stressed-out society, we also chew right through our supplies of energizing Bs like folate, adds Dean. “Our needs are probably higher than ever before.”

(4) Thinkanti-inflammatory: “It's not enough to cut out certain foods, you have to eat lots of the good foods, too,” says Foroutan. Ones that reduce inflammation—non-starchy vegetables, organic protein, healthy fats, cruciferous vegetables, artichoke, asparagus, watercress, berries, turmeric, green tea, parsley, cilantro, and lemon—are all good bets, she says.