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Deconstructing 'detox' diets

  • Story Highlights
  • Extended detoxing (more than three days) can rob your body of vitamins, nutrients
  • The real way to detox the liver is to limit exposure to toxins or skip them altogether
  • Lymphatic drainage on a healthy person is impossible -- there's nothing to drain
  • Instead of expensive colonic irrigation, consider a $3.59 box of All-Bran first
  • Next Article in Health »
By Alicia Potter
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Health

In recent years the number of diet developers and holistic healers hawking products to purge your body of harmful chemicals and foreign substances has exploded. But do your liver and lymph nodes really need cleaning? Some detox regimen -- like herbal supplements, spa treatments, and special diets that are designed to mop up pollutants, dietary waste, and even unwanted pounds --can actually do you some good. But how to know whether you should be trying any of them?

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Health checked with traditional and alternative medicine experts to find out which regimens might be worthwhile -- and which ones just aren't.

Detox? Maybe for a day

Pop music icon Beyoncé reportedly chugged a maple syrup mix to cleanse her famous curves and shed some weight for her role in "Dreamgirls." No doubt, she skipped the pancakes, and that's the point.

Detox diets -- whether syrup (which goes by the name Lemon Detox or Master Cleanse), juice (Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox), or protein shakes (Fruit Flush Three-Day Detox) -- often revolve around a fast that's heavy on liquids. Almost all pack a wallop of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that nutritionists agree delivers full-body benefits. But if you're tempted, think short-term. Victoria Maizes, M.D., executive director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, suggests a one-day fast of fresh-pressed juices. (Not juiced about DIY elixirs? Many health-food stores and juice bars press their own for $3 to $7.) Health.com: "New" diet pills

Definitely consult a nutritionist if you want to live la vida liquid for longer. Extended detoxing (more than three days) can actually rob your body of vitamins and nutrients.

Another option: Skip liquid diets altogether, and try a gradual approach to detoxing. Cindy Moore, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends adding one fruit and one vegetable a day until you reach the recommended daily allowance. You'll reduce the gassiness and discomfort that can accompany a sudden rush of roughage from liquid diets. Plus, by avoiding a quick fix, you'll up your chances of sticking with a healthy diet over time. After all, it's common sense: If you put lots of good things into your body, you won't need to worry about clearing bad things out. Health.com:The lowdown on more than 40 hot diets

Show your liver some love

It sounds gross, but every day your liver, with the help of your kidneys, filters toxins to be excreted through your urine and bowels. So it seems logical that detoxing this hard-working organ might keep it in tip-top shape. The herb milk thistle -- an ingredient common to detox teas and supplements -- is one popular option. But the liver doesn't need that kind of help, thank you very much. Health.com: 7 fad diets to forget

"A normally-functioning liver does quite well on its own," says Michael Picco, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Jacksonville, Florida. The real way to detox the liver, experts say, is to limit your exposure to toxins or skip them altogether.

Gregory Gores, M.D., president-elect of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, says to avoid excessive alcohol (no more than a drink a day for women or two for men) and to watch how much acetaminophen you take (generally, no more than 2,000 mg per day -- that's four extra-strength Tylenol pills). Why? Alcohol and acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

Leave lymphs alone

Many spas offer massages designed to detox lymph nodes, glands under the arms and other places. The goal: to relieve blockages that supposedly weaken the immune system. But doctors say it's impossible to perform lymphatic drainage on a healthy person, because there's nothing to drain.

"It's a medical massage for sick people that requires special training," says Ki Y. Shin, M.D., who uses the technique to relieve lymph-related swelling in patients at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Still, go ahead and book that 90-minute deep-tissue session if you need a relaxation Rx; you may not liberate your lymphs, but you'll decompress your stress -- which, if left unchecked, can definitely be toxic. Health.com: Former "fat girls" share their secrets

Be careful with your colon

It's the mother of all detox regimens: A tube inserted into the rectum flushes out the contents of the colon with warm or cool water. The stories of what emerges during a colonic (10 pounds of poop! Black liquid! Years of constipation!) are always dramatic -- but not necessarily truthful. What we do know: Colonics can lead to infection if nonsterile equipment is used, your colon or anal area is injured, or the billions of "good" bacteria that keep your immune system strong are washed away. And at $100 a session, you may want to consider a $3.59 box of All-Bran first.

A high-fiber diet (20 to 35 grams, according to the American Dietetic Association) will get you regular without resorting to anything radical.

"There's really no reason to speed up the emptying of the bowels," Moore says. Why not let nature do its job? E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

Boston-based writer Alicia Potter likes to detox with a chai and a good book.

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