Detoxing and Cleansing

By Parul Kharod

There are plenty of books, websites, and internet forums that suggest we should all be doing some sort of detox or cleanse on a routine basis. This is a big money-making business. There are several benefits touted for these regimens including weight loss.

But does our body need detoxing or cleansing?

It is important to understand that our body is built with its own natural cleansing and detoxing system. We have several organs that help prevent toxins from entering the body and help with removal of unwanted substances from the body.

The liver: Our liver is a detox machine! It is our body's main filter. The liver produces a family of proteins called metallothioneins which metabolize dietary nutrients like copper and zinc. They also neutralize harmful metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury to prepare for their elimination from the body. Liver cells also produce various enzymes which regulate the metabolism of drugs and are an important part of the body's defense against harmful chemicals and other toxins.

The kidneys: Our kidneys are remarkably efficient in filtering out waste substances and moving them out of the body.

The skin: Our skin is our first line of defense. It provides a barrier against harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, heavy metals and chemical toxins.

The respiratory system: We have fine hairs inside the nose that trap dirt and other substances. Mucus present in the airways can also trap unwanted substances.

The immune system: Our immune system has a network of defense mechanisms for prevention as well as destruction of harmful substances.

The intestines: Lymph nodes present in the small intestine routinely screen out parasites and other foreign substances before nutrients are absorbed into the blood from the colon.

Food is our fuel. If you put in the right kind of fuel in your body, these organs will do their work and the body will automatically clean itself. Problems happen when the body is clogged with excess fat, sugar, and salt and the organs are not able to do their work. So the goal is not to do temporary fixes and do cleanses or detoxes but to make long term lifestyle changes.

Safety issues with commercial detox/cleanse products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken action against several companies selling detox/cleansing products because they (1) contained illegal, potentially harmful ingredients; (2) were marketed using false claims that they could treat serious diseases; or (3) or were marketed for unapproved uses. Some detox and cleanse products may cause electrolyte imbalances. Harmful effects are more likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease.

Some benefits of detoxification

According to Ayurveda, when the bodily systems are not working efficiently, there is buildup of Ama. Ama results not only from dietary issues, but also from emotional, mental, and spiritual imbalances. Removing the Ama is the main goal of cleansing. Ayurveda also recognizes the importance of bringing the systems back into balance. There are Ayurvedic regimens such as Panchakarma and Purvakarma that are done as detoxifying cleansing process. However these are best done under the instruction of a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner who can personalize the treatment based on your individual doshas.

Fasting or Upavas

The concept of withholding food for a certain number of hours is present in various religions. In Hinduism, there are various days in the year where abstinence is observed. In Jainism, people fast for anywhere from eight hours to eight days. In Islam there is fasting done during Ramadan. Fasting is practiced by many as a ritual for detoxifying the body. Fasting is practiced to maintain self-control from the pleasures enjoyed through the five senses, and to gain control over the mind. Fasting allows our tissues and organs to cleanse through a mechanism called autophagy which allows old cells, toxins, and even cells that may be prone to becoming cancerous or dysfunctional to be degraded and cleared-out of our system, essentially detoxifying our bodies.

Intermittent Fasting

The recent popularity in Intermittent Fasting is also based on these above mentioned principles. The ideal way to do intermittent fasting is to eat within an eight hour period and let the body rest for the remaining 16 hours. This fasting can be done daily or on alternate days or for 1-2 days per week.

It is important to remember that our body is equipped to cleanse itself. There are proven methods to clean and detoxify the mind and body as needed. But what should be avoided is marketing gimmicks that try to sell detoxing or cleansing books, programs, and supplements. Cleansing or detoxing should not be done for weight loss or for any quick fixes. It should be done mindfully. The goal should be not just to remove physical toxins, but to also restore the mind-body system to a healthy state of balance and harmony.

Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at