Do Cleanses Really Work?

In the run-up to the holidays, many are focused on fitting into their festive finery. A quick fix: doing a cleanse.

Whether incorporating only juice or some actual food, cleanse programs are on the rise—sales of superpremium juice totaled more than $1.4 billion last year, up from around $1 billion since 2010, according to the consulting firm Beverage Marketing. But do these meal-replacement plans really help to shed pounds and eliminate toxins? One expert, Linda Lee, director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center in Maryland, explains why juicing can feel good and the perils of purging.

An Ancient History

In some nontraditional medical practices, such as Ayurveda, and in many religions, dietary restrictions are considered purifying, whether for the body, the mind or the soul. But in the Western medical community, “cleansing is not a term we use,” says Dr. Lee. While many patients may claim to feel good during or after a cleanse, “it’s not fully understood what it is that makes people feel better,” she says. “The term ‘cleanse’ is a marketing tool, and any claims of its benefits aren’t evidence-based at this time.” Dr. Lee says that no scientific studies have proven that a juice diet or food-cleanse removes toxins from the body.

Good Bacteria Vs. Bad Bacteria

Ahead of a colonoscopy, patients are given laxatives to clear the large intestines, but that is just called “colonoscopy prep,” not ‘colon cleansing,’ Dr. Lee says. Other than achieving some temporary relief from constipation and allowing doctors to better see polyps during an exam, “there is no evidence to suggest that purging the colon is beneficial.”

To control the trillions of bacteria that live in the colon is a good idea, in theory, says Dr. Lee, since some bacteria are related to disease, “but we don’t yet know how to manipulate the population of bacteria that lives inside us.”

The Glow Factor

If you’re an average 50-year-old woman, you need about 1,600 to 1,700 calories a day to maintain your weight, she says: “So if you were to go on a cleanse, you’re probably running on fumes, since you’re probably eating fewer calories.” Because of that, juice-cleansing with or without chewable food will likely result in weight loss, says Dr. Lee. Anything that can’t be absorbed passes to the large intestines, where the bacteria ferments it. This can result in a laxative effect. “I have a lot of patients who say they feel better because they are totally empty,” Dr. Lee says.

And, she adds, after a few days of caloric restriction, which likely results in dehydration since much of the body’s water intake comes from food sources, a person probably won’t be at optimal health. You can also become nutrient deficient, she says.

The Right Way to ‘Cleanse’

Rather than embark on a painful, expensive cleanse, patients should keep a food journal and monitor what they put in their mouths, says Dr. Lee.

“I always advocate being mindful of what you’re eating and how much,” she says. Recently, she used an online resource to keep a food log, and entered everything that passed into her body for three days. “I was shocked,” she recalls.

Stick to a healthy diet and make better choices, she says, and there will be no need for a starvation cleanse that could cause more harm than good.


By HEIDI MITCHELL on The Wall Street Journal