Are Detox Diets and Cleanses Dangerous?

Advocates of detox diets, cleanses and flushes swear they purge the body of toxins. But do they actually work?

January 7, 2013  |  

Photo Credit: © Bartosz Luczak/

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After a month-long national eating binge in December, Americans wake up on January 1 hoping to wipe the slate clean and start fresh in the new year. How do we undo the damage we did to our bodies with all of the eggnog and Christmas cookies? Many hit the gym. Others decide it’s time to detox.

Detox diets, sometimes known as cleanses or flushes, are often advocated as ways to purge the body of toxins. Some even claim to help you expel gallstones. But do these extreme diet regimes actually work? Or are they, in fact, ineffective and even dangerous?

Cleanses and flushes tend to take two main forms. The first, known as the Master Cleanse or the lemonade diet, instructs people to fast for 10 days while consuming only a special lemonade made with lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and cayenne. Additionally, one must take laxatives before bed and then drink salt water in the morning to induce a bowel movement.

The second, often called a liver flush or a liver and gallbladder flush, originates from the work of Randolph Stone. Stone was a natural medicine doctor who developed what he called Polarity Therapy in the 1940s. There are many variations of Stone’s liver flush around today, but most involve the same main components.

Some versions begin with a fast during which one consumes only apples and apple juice. Some also include instructions to drink water mixed with Epsom salts (a laxative). But all of the variations include two main components: drinking a mixture of lemon juice, garlic juice and olive oil followed an herbal tea. The herbal tea usually consists of flax seeds, fenugreek and fennel seeds, but may also include other ingredients like burdock root and peppermint. Last, some versions of the flush say to eat a special diet for the rest of the day. This procedure may be repeated for a period of days, and some versions instruct one to do the flush at regular intervals throughout the year.

What does one achieve with such a strange regimen of foods? Let’s just say you’ll spend some quality time with your toilet if you give this flush a try. Most of the core ingredients in the flush are laxatives or diuretics. Some Web sites claim you will actually excrete up to 2,000 gallstones with this flush.

As it turns out, you won’t excrete gallstones at all, although the flush will cause you to excrete what looks like little green “stones.” So what are they? “Saponified olive oil,” answers clinical herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt. Remember, you just drank a large amount of olive oil and lemon juice, and it has to come out the other end. The olive oil actually turns into soap inside your body. The soap absorbs bile, turning it green — although it’s been shown that when someone drinks red dye along with the liver flush mixture, the stones will be red on the inside.

When asked about the effects of Master Cleanse and liver flushes, experts like De la Forêt, herbalist Sean Donahue and registered dietitian Melinda Hemmelgarn are surprisingly consistent with one another — and frustratingly vague.

Donahue, who teaches at the School of Western Herbal Medicine at Pacific Rim College, feels that the impacts of these regimes “vary a lot according to the person’s general health,” adding that, “often people who are looking to these solutions are people who are already depleted. Really pushing the body hard to do things that are physically stressful for it under those conditions at the very least kind of saps your vital reserves and at the worst can really stress your vital organs.”