This time of year, many people turn their attention to a little spring cleaning. Along with emptying out the closets, sheds, and garages, some of us also look inward to do an internal spring cleaning in the form of a cleanse or detox.

There’s a lot of curiosity and plenty of questions about cleanses and detoxes. Why do them? How to do them? When, and when not, to do them? If you’re new to the idea of cleansing and detox, these 12 frequently asked questions (and answers) will provide a good starting point.

Q: What’s the difference between a cleanse and a detox?
A: The short answer is, there is no agreed upon definition of either term. They’re generally used interchangeably (which is how the terms will be used in this discussion for the most part).

A slightly longer answer is, some health care practitioners do differentiate between the two, designating a detox as being more targeted to removing an unwanted (and specific) waste product or substance from the body. In such cases, a detox may be advised after exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, overindulgence in alcohol, use of certain medications, or similar situations.

On the other hand, a cleanse provides more general support for the organs of detoxification, including the colon, liver, and kidneys, without a specific target for removal from the body.

Q: What exactly does a cleanse or detox involve?
A: There are a great many types of cleanses/detoxes. For the most part, though, they usually involve a combination of different dietary recommendations, herbal products, and lifestyle changes.

A change in diet focuses on removing foods that are considered problematic for the health of the particular person. This can include suspected food allergens or intolerances, processed foods, and products with artificial colours, flavours, or other additives. In some cases this also includes a period of fasting or the consumption of liquids only.

Natural herbal products support the main organs of waste removal, such as fibre and probiotics for the colon, and herbs and/or nutrients to improve the metabolism of waste products through the liver.

Rest and relaxation are recommended, as well as activities that help to promote waste removal from the body, such as infrared saunas, skin brushing, or colonics.

Q: How do I decide what kind of detox to do?
A: This is an excellent question to ask, especially if you’re new to cleanses. There are many “off the shelf” cleanses that are available in stores. Some of these are relatively good at gently increasing waste output through the colon (often using herbs with a mild laxative effect), and/or the kidneys (through herbs with a diuretic effect). Many include bitters, other herbs, and nutrients that are intended to support the liver’s detoxification functions.

However, before starting on any kind of detox, it is recommended you meet with a health care practitioner in order to ensure that a detox is the best step for you. If you have a significant health history, are taking medication, or have unusual symptoms, it is especially important to have these reviewed before starting any type of detox.

If a detox is appropriate for you, your health care practitioner can help guide you toward the techniques and products best suited for you, based on your personal health history, current medications, and health goals.

Q: When should I start a detox diet?
A: Once it has been determined that a detox is the right thing for you, the next step is timing. Popular times to detox include after the holidays, after a vacation, or after other periods of overindulgence in items such as rich foods, alcohol, and party snacks. Springtime is also the time of year that many choose to go on a cleanse. What better time for a little spring cleaning?

Less appropriate times for a cleanse include before a period of increased physical demand or emotional stress, shortly after an illness, or at other times when the body is more vulnerable to nutrient depletion, illness, or injury. If someone is feeling particularly weak or unwell, I also advise against detoxes until underlying causes of these complaints are properly investigated.

Q: Will I lose weight during a cleanse?
A: People frequently do lose weight during a cleanse. Much of this is due to a decrease in water retention that can occur once sugar, food intolerances, and excess carbohydrates are removed from the diet. This type of weight loss is especially noticeable around the face and tummy. Even if there is not a significant loss of weight, it is common to notice a reduction in bloating and an improvement in the way clothes fit, especially around the middle.

Q: Can I take my regular supplements, such as multivitamins, during a cleanse?
A: It depends on what you are taking, but in many cases, yes. It is best to talk to your health care practitioner about which supplements should be continued and which you may want to take a break from.

Q: Is a 100 percent juice cleanse healthy?
A: These are generally safe when done with adequate guidance for a limited time. However, it is important to consult with your health care practitioner to ensure that a juice cleanse would be appropriate for you. This is especially important if you are diabetic, taking prescription medications, or have serious or chronic health concerns.

Some people tolerate juice cleanses just fine, but many find them extremely difficult, especially if they are still trying to maintain a busy work or school schedule. A fluid-only cleanse for a day or two, followed by a period of cleansing that includes solid foods, is a more practical option for many people and is usually just as effective.

Q: Will my face break out during detoxing?
A: Some people do notice an increase in breakouts during a cleanse, particularly if they’re not having regular bowel movements. The skin is the body’s largest organ and one of the routes that the body will use to get rid of waste products, especially if they’re not leaving fast enough through the colon or the kidneys.

The risk of breakouts can often be reduced by ensuring adequate water intake, regular bowel movements, and herbal support for the bowel and liver. A flare-up in skin symptoms may occur initially before an improvement is noticed (skin may get slightly worse before it gets a lot better).

Q: Will my digestion be affected by a cleanse?
A: Digestion is almost always affected in some way, but usually for the better. While some people experience some tummy rumbling, gassiness, or mild diarrhea during a cleanse (often related to laxative herbs being taken as part of the cleanse), most people notice improvements in their previous digestive symptoms.

Symptoms that tend to improve include constipation, bowel urgency, and bloating. Improvements in digestion are usually related to a decrease in the intake of foods that would otherwise be triggering the symptoms. A dramatic improvement in digestive symptoms occurring during a cleanse should prompt some follow-up investigation into possible food intolerances.

Q: Can I exercise while cleansing?
A: Yes, but it should be in moderation. Sweating helps the body to detoxify, but during a cleanse the body also needs adequate rest, so don’t overdo it. I generally recommend that patients continue to exercise lightly but avoid strenuous activities during a cleanse.

Walking, stretching, yoga, and easy cycling would all be appropriate in most cases, but long runs, intense weightlifting, or intense cycling are generally too strenuous during a cleanse. If your cleanse includes fasting or significant calorie restriction, exercise capacity and performance can decrease considerably. It’s best not to push the body too hard.

Q: Will I feel lethargic or energetic while detoxing?
A: That depends on the person and the detox program being used. In most cases, there are some periods of fatigue, especially if there is a fast involved. Ideally, a cleanse should be combined with adequate rest and relaxation, allowing the body to focus on waste removal while also giving the mind a bit of a break as well.

Q: Is it safe for me and my baby if I detox during pregnancy?
A: I would not recommend detoxing during pregnancy. In fact, I would strongly recommend against it during both pregnancy and breastfeeding. We just don’t know what the effects will be, particularly when herbal products are involved.

Hopefully, the answers to these frequently asked questions about cleansing and detox will help to make the topic a little less confusing for those who are just starting to familiarize themselves with the idea.

For more information, or to get guidance on what would be best for you in terms of cleanses and detoxes, reach out to a natural health care practitioner in your area.

About the Author

Serenity Aberdour, ND, practises in Vancouver, BC.