One of the biggest fads in health and wellness right now, "cleanses" and "detoxes" are a massive industry, with all kinds of juices, teas, and programs being advertised from magazines to YouTube to giant billboards. While "cleanse" and "detox" seem to be words used interchangeably, they are actually slightly different concepts with an important mission in common - to eliminate toxins from your body so that it runs better. But what are toxins, and how are cleanses and detoxes designed to tackle them?

What Are Toxins?

Toxins are the traces of chemicals we're exposed to on a daily basis that act as pollutants in our bodies. Common external toxins like smoke, smog, mold, pesticides, metals, and ingredients in processed foods and cosmetics can make their way into your body via diet, inhalation, or absorption through the skin. Toxins are harmful because once they make their way into your body via your skin, lungs, kidneys, and/or liver, they lodge in cells, soft tissues, and muscles and accumulate to slowly clog your system. This causes your body to demand more energy to function than it would if things were running smoothly, making you feel tired, anxious, depressed, giving you headaches, muscle and joint pain, and/or mood swings.

Our bodies naturally produce internal toxins when we burn energy, but we burn energy so often that our bodies have automatic ways of eliminating the waste created by those toxins to prevent build-up. Internal toxins become problematic when they accumulate instead of getting naturally disposed of, and begin gathering near cells and organs and bogging them down. Cleanses and detoxes generally aim to filter the external toxins from your body, since they're the ones that make it difficult for your system to do its job in automatically flushing out internal toxins.

pictures of different toxin types

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What Is A Cleanse?

A cleanse (or "cleanse diet") is a diet which is designed to clean out the digestive tract of built-up toxins. Cleanse diets eliminate junk food and replace them with nutrient-rich meals that are typically high in fiber and protein, but low in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. Cleanses aim to improve digestion, boost nutrient absorption, help with constipation, and improve overall health. The most common foods cut out in a cleanse are processed foods, dairy, eggs, soy, gluten, corn, refined sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

What Is A Detox?

A detox (or "detoxification") is designed to boost the health and effectiveness of the kidneys and liver, the two organs naturally responsible for filtering toxins from the system. When the liver is overworked with filtering out medications, alcohol, caffeine, junk food, and environmental toxins, it makes it harder for your liver to process the actual nutrients the systems need to operate optimally. Without the ability to fully absorb the nutrients from your food, many find they have less energy, difficulty losing weight, and a lower immune system. Detoxes are associated with detoxifying beverages like teas, juices, and smoothies, and detox diets typically include supplements to help in turning those toxins to waste. Technically the foods are not doing the detoxing - it's the liver and kidneys doing the work with the diet's assistance. Successful detoxing is associated with increased energy levels, improved sleep quality, better skin, and reduced belly fat.

bottles of juice with vegetables on table

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Cleanse Vs. Detox

Cleanses and detoxes are both about trying to get your organs working at their most efficient, with cleanses targeting the digestive system and detoxes taking aim at the kidneys and liver. Cleanses tend to be about taking in more nutritious foods and cutting out junk, while detoxes are more about excreting out the toxins you've been storing. Cleanses involve actively adding good things to your body to make it work better, and detoxes aim to help boost your body's natural ability to detoxify itself.

Cleanses are the preferred method if the aim is general weight loss, since the high protein intake encourages muscle mass retention and the high levels of fiber in cleanse diets promote frequent bowel movements. Cutting down on carbs also discourages your body from storing water, giving you that leaner look.

Detoxes are favored following a hangover, since binge drinking leaves significant accumulations of chemicals in the bloodstream that are so toxic that in some cases they cause alcohol poisoning. The liver and kidneys are what filter out those chemicals, and studies show that herbal detoxes reduce hangover symptoms and speed up the body's natural rate of alcohol excretion.

woman displaying water bottle with lemons and cucumber

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What To Expect

Before starting a cleanse or a detox, it's a good idea to think about whether your current lifestyle at the moment allows you to realistically dedicate the resources and discipline that a properly executed regimen would require. The main goal is to see results, and when you cheat your regimen, you're only cheating yourself. Cleanses and detoxes range most commonly from 3 days to 10, so it's important to pick a time frame where you don't have big meals or lavish events planned in which you would feel pressure to eat or drink anything from the forbidden food groups. Similarly, it's a good idea to pick a set of days where you can reasonably predict what your schedule will look like since both cleanses and detoxes involve fairly strict consumption routines that you'll be more likely to deviate from if you're stressed out or running around on a hectic schedule.

Do think about how many raw ingredients you'll require if your cleanse or detox is a week or 10 days long - you may end up needing to go back to the store more than once for the freshest fruits and veggies. You'll also find that many plans include a significant amount of smoothies and juices, so if you don't already own a juicer or blender, it may be a good idea to invest in a good one beforehand. Expect days filled with lots of lemon water, juiced fruits and vegetables, non-dairy based smoothies, herbal teas, simple soups, and basic broths.

woman putting fruit in juicer

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What Does A Cleanse Look Like?

Depending on the difficulty of the cleanse, and whether you're laying out the plan yourself or following a program, your cleanse may start off easier and get more difficult over time. There is no standardized cleanse, and cleanses can be more liquid-based or solid-based, though the ones that include more solid food are generally healthier. A more structured cleanse might look like three health-conscious meals in a day, in addition to the allowance of one or two smaller snacks. Cleanse meals have rules to them, like only eating whole foods with no processed ingredients. Basically, if you wouldn't recognize it in a grocery store and can't pronounce it, a cleanse wouldn't let you consume it. A single meal is likely to consist of lean protein (though there are some cleanses that will nix eating meat altogether), a whole grain portion, and a component of healthy fat. Typically cleanses don't allow alcohol, caffeine, soy, or dairy, but you are allowed to make substitutions within the guidelines. For example, swapping out dairy for rice milk or almond milk, or drinking a caffeine-free tea with honey.

Example of Daily Cleanse

Breakfast: One serving of banana, pear, and kale smoothie.
Lunch: Bowl of vegetables and quinoa with hummus.
Dinner: Four servings of tofu cabbage wraps.
Snacks: Carrot sticks in the morning. Unsalted almonds for the evening.

healthy juices and smoothies with vegetables

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What Does A Detox Look Like?

Like cleanses, the difficulty of the detox regimen you choose makes a huge difference to what your experience will be. Some detoxes completely forbid solid food in favor of juices and broths, while others allow small, very specific types of meals. Detoxes won't allow processed foods, and generally aren't keen on meat consumption. Foods like ginger, lemons, green tea, beets, kale, and apple are common in detox plans. Fasting is a common feature of detox plans, and detoxes have a reputation for being painfully specific, and ruthlessly strict. Because detox plans can be so intense, many participants actually take vitamin supplements to make sure they're getting their necessary vitamins and minerals for the duration of their regimen. Moreso than cleanses, detoxes are about giving yourself opportunities for your body to excrete toxins, which means frequent trips to the bathroom, fiber supplements, and even visits to saunas for those with access.

Example Of Daily Detox

Breakfast: One type of melon of your choice. (As much as you want.)
Lunch: One type of fresh fruit of your choice. (As much as you want.)
Dinner: Mixed green salad with a vinaigrette dressing.
Snacks: Organic carrot juice.

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