Are juice cleanses a good 'detox' strategy?

“Detoxifying” juice cleanses have become the Atkins diet of this decade, with many people turning to days-long juice fasts to rid their bodies of caffeine and sugar cravings, sluggishness and extra weight. Some even advocate that you abstain from consuming food for ten days or more, which I would never recommend. So do juice cleanses do what they claim to do?

My take is this: there’s a chance that some of them might boost your energy in the short-term, but there are far better, and smarter, ways to detoxify than a juice cleanse.

First, let’s define what “detoxification” actually means—because many people are wrongly using “cleanse” and “detox” interchangeably. Your body is detoxifying 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no matter what you eat or drink. In today’s world, our bodies have to get rid of everything from pesticides and environmental pollutants to chemicals in our personal care products and pharmaceutical drugs. Not to mention all the processed foods with additives that are sold and consumed. Your lungs, intestines, kidneys, and skin play a role in detoxification, but your liver is the most important organ involved in this process. All day long, it works to make toxins, most of which are fat soluble, water soluble so that they can be easily excreted from your body (through sweat, urine, and stool).

So, the goal of any solid detoxification program is to enhance the liver’s own ability to detoxify. Detoxifying properly will often lead to more energy, clearer skin, weight loss, better moods, less sinus congestion, and overall improved health. And food plays an essential role in this process, for two reasons. One, adequate dietary protein, found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, and beans, contains the amino acids that your liver requires in order to perform detoxification. Two, nutritional deficiencies deplete the vital nutrients that your body needs in order to complete the detoxification process.

The problem is that most extreme juice cleanses not only fail to boost liver detoxification—they also deprive your body of these vital nutrients and proteins, essentially causing nutritional deficiencies. And what’s worse: some cleanses that are actually dangerous are purporting to be magic bullets for weight loss, such as the famed Master Cleanse which consists of water, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and lemon. You might lose weight from the severe calorie restriction, but most of what you lose is muscle mass, which is nothing to celebrate over! Indeed, with bottled cleanses it’s buyer beware: some contain too much fruit juice, which will make your blood sugar soar and could even cause insulin reactions or make you gain weight.

Look, I see the appeal: Going on a cleanse can certainly help you purge the junky processed, inflammatory foods you’ve been eating, such as gluten, dairy, and added sugar. And let’s be clear: if you do eat a lot of processed foods and choose a cleanse with fresh fruit and vegetable juices, you’ll probably be consuming more beneficial vitamins, minerals, and enzymes than you normally do. You might feel better and experience a short-lived energy-boost (if you’re not too hungry or cranky!). But put simply: you don’t need a cleanse to purge those inflammatory foods. I feel it’s a much better use of your time to adopt a long-term diet that aids in detoxification, while supplementing with some liver detox helpers.

The Best Way to Detox

Here are my top tips for boosting your body’s innate ability to detoxify. Most of my patients will do this plan for as little as three weeks, or as long as a lifetime.

1. Cut out some problem foods. Eliminate (or limit as much as possible) added sugars, alcohol, coffee, gluten, dairy, soy, egg, and peanut. Getting rid of these foods will decrease inflammation; plus, cutting them out is the only way to know if they are causing some of your symptoms. Ideally, you eliminate these foods for three weeks and then introduce them back one at a time and observe your body for reactions, including fatigue, weight gain, rashes, nasal congestion and joint pain.

2. Get enough protein. Consume at least 15g of protein at each meal, whether through a protein shake or lean proteins such as chicken, grass-fed beef, turkey, or fish. Protein provides amino acids, which aid in detoxification.

3. Get 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Doing this alone can help boost detoxification tremendously, and most Americans aren’t getting enough. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower have been shown to improve liver function.

4. Supplement with milk thistle and dandelion tea. Milk thistle may protect against liver disease, and dandelion tea is a widely used alternative remedy thought to stimulate the release of bile from the liver, which carries away waste. If you have medical conditions, talk to your healthcare provider to make sure milk thistle isn’t contraindicated to your medications or health issues.