The Skinny on Doing a “Cleanse” vs. a “Detox”

by | Lifestyle | 0 comments

This post may contain affiliate links. Read our affiliate disclosure for more information.

Happy Spring!  Are you thinking about doing a spring cleanse or detox?  Or maybe you’re confused which to do?

In this Q & A, Dr. Andrea Maxim, Naturopathic Doctor and author of the forthcoming MAXIMized Health: The New Intelligent System for Optimal Digestion and Hormones, explains the difference between doing a cleanse vs. a detox; the benefits and goals of each; the toxins to which we are exposed; symptoms of toxicity; the advantages of doing a guided detox; and, if pregnant (or nursing) women should do a detox .

How does toxicity manifest in the body?  Seemingly garden-variety symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches or constipation may actually be signs that your body  is overwhelmed by toxins—and  can benefit from a cleanse or detox.  I detail the most common signs of toxicity in my article: CLICK LINK HERE.

KM:   What exactly is a cleanse?

AM:   A cleanse is the body doing a good garbage dump. You’re cleaning up your diet and your lifestyle habits, which, in turn, allows the body to clean itself out.  A cleanse usually lasts 7-10 days and can take different forms: a juice cleansing, an all-greens cleanse, or a whole food cleanse. The goal of a cleanse is to give your body the nourishment it needs to enhance its natural biological processes over that period of time.

KM:   How is a detox different from a cleanse?

AM:   A “detox” refers to the metabolic process happening inside your body that allows for the facilitation of toxins to be removed from the system.  Toxins are stored in your fat cells. With a detox, you are dislodging toxins from their storage fat cells AND enhancing the elimination of toxins from the liver. A cleanse enhances the elimination process, but it’s not actively going after toxins stored in fat cells.  A detox describes an actual biological process that converts toxins into waste that can be eliminated from the body.  That’s usually where medical supervision comes in.

The reason we hear about “liver detoxes” and “kidney detoxes” is because we actually use herbs or supplements to support those organ systems that naturally remove toxins through the body.

KM:   Aren’t the kidneys self-cleaning?

AM:   Yes, the kidneys help with elimination.  They can, however, can get backed up—for example, if we’re dehydrated, our urine will be more concentrated and darker in color—and the kidney is not able to eliminate as efficiently as it could.

If our skin is cruddy and dry; if our bowels are constipated; or, if there’s irregularity, we are less able to eliminate toxins through different avenues.

The liver, however, is really the main detoxifying organ that we focus on during a detox.

NOTE from The Nourished Epicurean: As the body’s second largest organ, the liver is a heavy-duty multi-tasker, performing many essential functions related to digestion, metabolism, immunity, and the storage of nutrients within the body.  The liver is a key, detoxifying organ, removing many potentially toxic substances from the bloodstream before they can reach the rest of the body. Enzymes in hepatocytes, the cells in the main tissue of the liver, metabolize many of these toxins, such as alcohol and drugs, into their inactive metabolites.  The liver will also metabolize and remove hormone, produced by the body’s own glands—for example, excess estrogen—to keep hormone levels in proper balance.

KM:   In your experience as a naturopath, what are the main things we need to detoxify from our bodies?

AM:   Toxins that are in our environment, air and drinking water; personal care products (shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and creams, makeup, etc.) and plastics; as well as pesticides in our food, heavy metals, alcohol and prescription drugs used over long periods of time, including painkillers, antivirals and antidepressants

KM:   If somebody is eating a diet that’s heavy in factory-farmed meats and processed foods—and has a sedentary lifestyle—would you have them do a cleanse or a detox? 

AM:   If a patient told me that they ate the diet you just described, I would absolutely put them on a detox because they’ve been exposed to toxins (pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, chemicals) in their food for so long that, most likely, these people are overweight to some extent.

The reason I like to do a full detox is because the detox process requires that you change your diet significantly. Once we start facilitating the removal of toxins, patients will notice that their energy improves and a reduction of symptoms.

Cleanses are nice for people who don’t have medical supervision: you’re basically cleaning up your diet to facilitate improvement to your health.  However, I find that, if people who do a cleanse aren’t monitored afterwards, they immediately go back to their old habits and way of eating—which defeats the purpose of doing a cleanse!

KM:   What do most people fail to understand about doing a whole food cleanse?

AM:   Most people like to put a time limit on a cleanse.  They’ll say: “I’m going to eat really well for 10 days; I’ll feel awesome, then I can go back to my old diet.”  People need to understand that after doing a whole food cleanse, you should be sticking to about 80% of the diet that you were following on the cleanse. A lot of people will do a quick fad cleanse to drop a few pounds for an event, go back to their old way of eating—then wonder why they are feeling crappy again.

Using a cleanse as a quick-fix approach—for example, doing a 7-day cleanse every month, then repeatedly going back to a poor diet—can throw off your metabolism and you can experience rebound weight gain.

Whole food cleanses provide a framework for a healthy whole foods diet that you should be eating most days, while a detox helps drive more long-term results.

KM:   What are the main advantages of doing a guided detox?

AM:   I like to establish a “before” and “after” detox profile for my patients.  Prior to beginning a detox, I have patients fill out a detox questionnaire. I also establish their baseline measurements, is such as weight, blood pressure and body measurements.  This helps keep them motivated because, very often, once people start feeling better, they forget just how bad they were feeling before!

During a detox, there will be days when you feel crappy. And, if you’ve never done a detox before, you may wonder: “Should I be feeling this awful?  Can I start eating potentially this food without ruining the whole thing?  Do I need to be taking more shakes to just get through this?”  If you experience uncomfortable symptoms, like severe headaches or bad indigestion, it’s reassuring to have access to a health practitioner who can answer any questions or concerns that you have.

When people follow a detox-in-box that they buy at the health food store, they may say “I didn’t feel anything”; “I felt really awful and had to stop sooner”; or, “The laxatives were so strong, I couldn’t go to work because I was in the bathroom all day”.  They don’t realize that a detox program can be individualized to suit your lifestyle.

KM:   Should women who are pregnant or nursing do a detox?

AM:   A woman who is pregnant or nursing should be eating a clean diet, but they should NOT do a detox. During pregnancy, the baby is taking every single resource that comes from the mother, including her toxins.  For example, moms who smoke before pregnancy will actually find the placenta is dark with all the nicotine and toxins because it’s all going out through the placenta.  For a woman, getting pregnant is like going through the ultimate detox because all toxins are pulled out from the mother’s body and they go into the placenta.  So, we want our bodies to be as clean as possible prior to pregnancy.

This is why we encourage women to do a detox three months before they think about getting pregnant and to have those toxins out of the body already.  When you do this, pregnancy is so much easier—no morning sickness or nausea!

Women who are nursing should also NOT do a detox because toxins are fat-soluble, and they are stored in fat, like the fat in breast milk, all of which goes straight to the baby.

A mother who is breast-feeding should keep her diet as hypoallergenic as possible—and omit eggs, gluten, dairy and spicy foods because she can transfer food sensitivities to the child. Once you’re done breastfeeding you can eat whatever you want.  But most babies will really be affected by the diet of the mom.  We don’t want to be having junk food and encouraging high sensitivities in the diet.

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

Subscribe to our newsletter for regular updates!