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Spring cleaning: Detox vs. cleanse

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

The difference between a detox and a cleanse

Spring, a season of renewal and transformation, can inspire a sudden zeal to clean out our closets or undertake an attic-to-basement house cleaning. Spring is also an ideal time for doing a cleanse or a detox that helps the body rid itself of toxins (including pesticides, chemicals, xenoestrogens and stress) accumulated during the winter.
Woman drinking juice
Photo credit: Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images

Celebrity detoxes and cleanses are often synonymous with rapid weight loss in a short period of time. Sure, losing 15 to 20 pounds in two weeks is instant gratification, but fast weight loss (done improperly) can wreak havoc on your metabolism and energy levels, leaving you vulnerable to rebound weight gain — especially if you constantly cycle between doing a cleanse, then going back to a poor diet.

Since a cleanse or a detox can also flood your bloodstream with toxins, causing unpleasant side effects, it is advisable to work with a health care practitioner, such as a naturopathic doctor, to guide you before, during and after a cleanse or detox program.

While the terms are used interchangeably, there is a difference between a "cleanse" and a "detox."

Cleanse

A cleanse is a way to support and enhance the body’s natural detoxification pathways and systems. "A cleanse is like sending somebody in with a scrub brush to ‘clean up’ your insides and make them look pretty," says naturopathic doctor Andrea Maxim, author of MAXIMized Health: The New Intelligent System for Optimal Digestion and Hormones. A cleanse entails "cleaning up" your diet, modifying your lifestyle habits to include adequate rest and gentle exercise, and using herbal supplements if necessary (for example, in a candida cleanse), all of which allows the body to remove toxins more efficiently.

A typical cleanse will eliminate primary "trigger foods" that can cause allergies, sensitivities and digestive distress, including dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, corn, nightshade vegetables, citrus fruits, refined sugar, caffeine (coffee, soda), processed foods and alcohol. If you follow a simple, whole-foods-based cleanse — one that omits common trigger foods — you won’t be subject to relentless hunger or rigid calorie counting, nor will you need to take special pills or shakes.

Juice cleanse: Pros, cons and 5 healthy recipes >>

Detox

"A detox is a metabolic process (taking place inside the body) that converts toxins into waste that can be eliminated from the body," explains Maxim. The goal of a detox is to facilitate the release of toxins from fat storage cells and to enhance the body’s detoxification pathways, particularly, the liver, the main organ of detoxification located just beneath the right side of the rib cage.

A detox program typically incorporates dietary changes, lifestyle modifications and herbal supplements, as well as therapeutic sweating (saunas or steam baths). A detox might be recommended after chronic exposure to pesticides, certain medications, environmental toxins that we breathe (such as cleaning products), absorb (personal care products) or ingest (food and water), excessive alcohol consumption; or after the accumulation of heavy metals or xenoestrogens (synthetic compounds with estrogen-like effects) in the body.

Maxim recommends doing a detox at least once or, ideally, twice a year. "Stress and the toxins to which we are exposed in our air, food, water, personal care products and home, take a toll on the body — even if you’re the healthiest person on the planet," she says.

Signs of toxicity

How does toxicity manifest in the body? Signs that your body may be overwhelmed and may benefit from a cleanse or detox include:

  • Fatigue (general and chronic)
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Constipation
  • Headaches, muscle aches and muscle fatigue
  • Persistent skin conditions, including acne, eczema and rosacea
  • Hormonal imbalances and fertility issues
  • Weight gain and redistribution of weight (caused by overexposure to xenoestrogens). In women, this manifests as carrying more weight on the hips, buttocks and thighs); in men, think "man boobs" and more fat deposition around the hips.
  • Intolerance to caffeine
  • Intolerance to fragrance
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity, characterized by symptoms that a hyper-sensitive individual attributes to low-level chemical exposure to substances including fragrance, cigarette smoke, plastics, paint fumes, etc.

Guided detoxes are best

You can drop a few pounds with "detoxes-in-a-box," available online or at the health food store, because they contain laxatives. A proper detox, however, should be tailored to key symptoms that an individual is experiencing. "Generic cleanse packages take an assembly-line approach to detoxification, and that’s not how we should be approaching our health," says Maxim.

With a guided detox, you have the advantage of working with a health care practitioner who can help you manage any adverse reactions you may experience (usually with herbs or supplements that support the liver). During a detox, toxins are released into the bloodstream, triggering unpleasant side effects: constipation, flu-like symptoms, achiness, fatigue, fatigue, itchy skin or rash, irritability, nausea or difficulty sleeping.

A word of caution

If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, you should not do a detox. Most environmental toxins are fat-soluble, which means that they are stored in our fat cells. During a detox, toxins are knocked loose from their fat storage cells and released into the bloodstream, where they are carried to the liver, then filtered out of the body. Since blood passes through the placenta and provides nutrients to your breast milk (essentially, all fat), a flood of toxins released during a detox could potentially be transferred from mother to baby through the placenta or through breast milk.

Maxim also advises against doing a detox if you have:

  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Cancer:  "With cancer, I would not think about doing a detox without medical supervision; your cancer can actually get worse with certain detoxes," says Maxim.
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)

More spring wellness tips

Spring diet: Take the meatless challenge
Have your fittest spring yet
Natural ways to manage spring allergies

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