Detoxification is growing increasingly popular. The basic premise is that your body accumulates more toxins in the modern world than its natural detoxification system (your liver, kidneys and lungs) can get rid of. Proponents say that chemicals from pesticides, chlorine, bleach and ammonia, and carbon monoxide build up over time and cause disease.
Dr. Tanya Edwards, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, often starts patients out with a change in diet. Because Americans tend to have diets that lead to constipation, a change in diet can accomplish the same thing as many herbal detoxification products that are really just laxatives.
People are ideally supposed to have one or two bowel movements a day, but many people go two or three days between eliminations. The normal pathway for toxins to move out of the body is through the liver, which converts harmful chemicals into water-soluble molecules that can be flushed out in the urine or feces. If there's a delay in elimination, however, those toxins remain in your system longer.
Tamara MacDonald, a naturopathic physician, uses detox techniques because some people aren't able to detoxify chemicals naturally -- their systems aren't working well for one reason or another. But MacDonald is wary of poorly researched techniques like foot baths and colonics, and thinks that people should steer clear of fasting techniques like the "Master Cleanse," a 10-day detox plan that consists of nothing but lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper.
"One of the worst things that you can do for your body in terms of detoxification is doing a fast," she says. "That was the idea about 20 or 30 years ago, but we know now that your body actually needs specific nutrients to be able to perform its job of detoxification."