Are Cleanses Safe? A Dietitian Explains Safety and Risks

Is it safe to cleanse? This article helps you learn the risks involved using cleanses as well as safety from a registered dietitian’s perspective.

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There’s a lot of talk about cleanses going on. There are all kinds of cleanses that you can prepare on your own or invest in specific products, all designed to rid your body of toxins, reset your metabolism, improve your gut health, remove built up waste and so on. Are these cleanses really all they claim to be? In some cases, they very well may be. However, there are also cleanses being advertised that can do more harm than good.

This article is going to take a look at what cleanses are all about, and whether or not they’re a safe process to go through. I’ll discuss what the specifics of a cleanse are, why you might be tempted to use one, the claimed benefits of cleanses and some of the safety concerns that you should be aware of before embarking on this journey to a healthier you. Stick around at the end for some of my dietary-based cleanse tips.

What Is a Cleanse?

blending a cleanse drink

A cleanse utilizes different foods or supplements to remove a variety of toxins and substances from the body. The goal is to increase the number of bowel movements that you experience as a way of removal. Juice cleanses are very popular and harness the nutritional power of fruits and vegetables (with natural fiber) to cleanse the body. Herbal ingredients and other foods / extracts in cleanses may include inulin, clove, wormwood, aloe vera, flax seeds and spirulina.

People often use a cleanse as a way to reset their body if they’re not feeling quite like themselves. Low energy, frequent mood changes, bloating, irregular bowel movements, slow metabolism and a general lack of motivation are just some of the reasons you may be considering a cleanse.

Why Use Cleanses?

cleanse drinks

As a registered dietitian, I'm constantly getting questions about cleanses because let's face it – it's the easy button. And, although I don't always agree with them, let’s take a deeper look at some of the reasons why people choose to participate in a cleanse of some sort.

Weight Loss

Did you know that the human body can have anywhere from seven to ten pounds of built-up fecal material in it at any moment? Some people may even have more if they have been experiencing GI issues or problems with irregularity. A cleanse can help with weight loss by getting rid of these extra pounds. However, it can also help regulate your GI system, so you don’t feel so heavy and bloated all the time. This can increase your energy levels in a way that helps you focus on exercise and eating right.

Cleanses also function as a method of resetting your metabolism. As a beneficial source of probiotics, enzymes, nutrients and other herbal ingredients, you can speed up the process of metabolism in the body, so you experience more energy, and your body better utilizes the foods that you’re eating without an increase in fat development. When you’re feeling better and your cleanse has concluded, you may have an easier time figuring out what your trigger foods are so you can avoid them.

There are some really good weight loss cleanses out there that are worth checking out as well as colon cleanses for weight loss, but be careful on which products you choose and make sure you do your research.

Flush Out Toxins

A cleanse will improve the function of your liver and help speed up its function so that toxins can be removed from the body. We store toxins in various parts of our body, and they can remain there for years. Gradually, they build up and affect our health more and more. The liver will filter many of these toxins out of the body so they can be removed by way of urine or bile. Cleanses usually contain liver-supporting ingredients like garlic, citrus fruits, beets and milk thistle.

Get Rid of Bloating

When you perform a cleanse on your body, this reset helps repair the various damage that has been done by toxins that you’ve come into contact with. By getting rid of these nasty toxins, you can reduce bloat and inflammation in the gut. A cleanse also has the potential to reduce the number of bad bacteria in your gut and replenish good bacteria. This can eliminate bloating, gas and other uncomfortable symptoms that you experience after eating. While there are effective supplements for bloating, probiotics that help with bloating, and greens powders that relieve bloating, cleanses can also get the job done because cleanses have a lot of the same ingredients as supplements designed for bloating do.

Help With Constipation

Cleanses get your bowels moving, especially colon cleansers; eliminating much of the built-up waste that is inside of your colon and intestines. If you’ve been experiencing bouts of constipation, you may want to look for a cleanse that utilizes fiber and probiotics in addition to whole food-based ingredients. You will then be able to make smarter dietary choices moving forward that will prevent constipation from happening again.

Safety Concerns and Risks Associated with Cleanses

using cleanse to detox

It’s important to note that not every cleanse is safe or beneficial. There are many out there that can pose some pretty substantial health risks. Here’s what you should watch out for.

Unpasteurized Juices

Unpasteurized juices are incredibly dangerous for people who are at a high risk of developing a foodborne illness. Juice cleanses are healthy and can be beneficial, but you need to make sure that the juices have gone through the process of pasteurization and that they are packaged properly. People at an increased risk of health issues related to unpasteurized juices include the elderly, small children and pregnant women. Of course, pregnant women in general should stay away from cleanses while they’re still pregnant or nursing.

Try to Avoid High Oxalate Intake

Oxalate is a substance that is found in many different types of foods. Though its safe for many people, it can be dangerous for those who are prone to kidney stones. Small amounts can usually be expelled in our urine, but if cleanses contain ingredients that have a high oxalate composition, it may be difficult to get rid of it all. Foods that are high in oxalates include spinach, rhubarb, rice bran, buckwheat, almonds and miso.

Glycemic Control If You’re a Diabetic

While some people may feel a lot better after a cleanse, diabetics could put themselves into a dangerous situation. Their glucose levels could become unbalanced if any amount of dehydration occurs during the cleanse or after (1). Cleanses often limit the number of calories that you eat in a day, or they limit what you can and cannot eat for the time being. Diabetics have to pay very close attention to their food choices in order to maintain glycemic control. With the help of your doctor, you can still promote optimal health when you have diabetes. This might include upping your fiber intake or your consumption of certain vegetables each day.

Colon Irrigation

Hydrotherapy of the colon, or colon irrigation, utilizes special equipment to pass large amount of water through your colon. This process is geared towards flushing waste out of your body that might otherwise be hard to pass naturally. Unfortunately, colon irrigation can put you at risk of overhydration, creating an imbalance in electrolytes. It can also result in a perforation of the bowel or infection.

There are specific recommendations that prohibit certain people from undergoing colon irrigation. This includes people with existing internal or external hemorrhoids, people with Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis or colitis, people who have recently had bowel surgery or those with heart disease or hypertension.

Dehydration and Loss of Electrolytes

When you’re rapidly flushing waste out of the body, this causes a loss of fluid from the body. You’re encouraged to consume plenty of water when you’re partaking in a cleanse, but it just might not be enough. If the body ends up becoming dehydrated, it can lose precious electrolytes that are needed for proper heart and nervous system function.

Signs to watch out for if you’re worried about potentially becoming dehydrated include headaches, body aches, nausea and stomach cramps. Some people also experience a higher-than-normal heart rate.

The Final Verdict: Is it safe to use cleanses?

man drinking a green cleanse drink

What people don’t realize is that their body is always cleansing itself all on its own. Of course, there are some toxins and waste material that don’t always make it out in an efficient manner, but there’s some degree of trust that we have to put in our body being able to take care of itself. If you do insist on signing yourself up for a cleanse of some sort, try to stick with something that’s going to provide you with gentle relief that is extremely safe.

I also recommend doing a short cleanse to start out with. There are cleanses that can go on for days, or even a couple of weeks. Your risk of complications and side effects goes up the more time that you’re investing in this process. There are also healthy ways that you can boost your body’s own natural detoxification ability, which I’m going to share with you in my tips for success below.

You need to be realistic about what you can achieve with a cleanse. If you lose a number of pounds that came from built up waste in the colon, chances are you’re going to gain that weight back at some point. If you don’t make appropriate lifestyle or dietary changes after your cleanse, who’s to say that all of those unwanted symptoms aren’t going to come right back?

A Few Cleanse Tips from the RD

Now it’s time to take a look at some of my cleanse tips that you can utilize on a daily basis to boost your body’s own natural detox defense abilities. Remember, you don’t have to complete a drastic cleanse that limits your calories and keeps you tethered to the bathroom. You can make healthy choices each day that impact how you feel and how your body functions.

  • Load up on healthy fruits and vegetables that support liver function and promote detoxification. This includes things that are high in vitamins C and antioxidants, such as berries, oranges, apples, spinach and pomegranates. Just make sure that you’re choosing organic produce whenever possible, and always wash your fruits and vegetables before consuming them.
  • Support Optimal Gut Health
  • There are a number of gastrointestinal problems that can indicate you are in need of a detoxification. Bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea can all be balanced with the increased prevalence of fiber in your diet as well as the use of probiotics on a regular basis.
  • Eliminate the junk that you’re eating. Foods that are high in refined sugar will cause inflammation in the body. Highly processed foods can also result in inflammation and a higher BMI. Not to mention, processed foods are generally very high in sodium, which isn’t good for your heart or your body.
  • Sweating by way of exercise is a great way to eliminate toxins. Choose whatever kind of exercise plan keeps you interested and motivated. In addition to eliminating toxins from the body, you may even be able to drop some of those stubborn pounds that you’ve been hanging onto.
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Courtney D'Angelo, MS, RD

Courtney D'Angelo, MS, RD, earned her masters degree in Nutrition and Foods from the University of Georgia. She's a Registered Dietitian at Morrison Healthcare and has a strong passion in helping people improve their wellness!

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