Alt-Health: Spring Cleansing?

juiceType the word “cleanse” into any search engine and splat! a glitzy array of advertisements will gush out of cyberspace with the force of an exploding soda bottle. A cleanse craze seems to sweep the country every spring, and there is no scarcity of celebrities to endorse them. It seems to make sense on an intuitive level — flush the system and energy will flow through. But is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

The fact is, there is no scientific evidence to back claims for successful weight loss. While it’s true that you can watch pounds disappear overnight and feel purged of impurities, the loss is just water and you’ll probably gain it all right back. In fact, the longer you stay on a severely restricted diet, the slower your metabolism gets, causing even faster weight gain the moment you start eating again. And as for ridding the blood of toxins? Alas, there is no measurable effect.

But let’s be fair; body cleansing has its place. If it was essentially harmful in nature, we would have figured this out 1,000 years ago. Fasting has been a part of ancient rites and rituals since time began. Earliest proponents used it as a means to enlightenment and healing, to bring fertility to the crops, as a means of averting danger and as penance for sin. Fasting for spiritual purposes still remains part of virtually every major religion in the world.

So, when did the body cleanse become such a fad for weight loss? This is indeed a modern phenomenon. The first popular diet was developed by the English undertaker William Banting in 1863. The first weight-loss book to become a bestseller was published in 1918 by American physician Lulu Hunt Peters, and Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution didn’t hit the shelves until 1972. Since then, body conscious celebrities and merchandisers out to profit from an increasingly obese population looking for a quick fix have glutted the market with products and programs.

There is a distinct psychological factor involved. The seeming success of a body cleanse is exaggerated by a psychological tendency we humans have to overestimate the effects of our actions. Psychologists call this the “illusion of control.” We want to believe that months or years of unhealthy habits can be alleviated by a purge, but both medical and holistic healers agree that the only road to sustainable health is through a balanced diet, an active lifestyle and a positive mental attitude. Fasting and body cleansing won’t bring those results and some of the extreme detox programs can be downright dangerous.

A water-only fast can send your body into a state of ketosis, wherein there are no carbohydrates for your body to burn for energy so it has to burn whatever stored crap is available. People begin to smell like dead rats and feel like hell. The idea behind it is that a state of optimal ketosis provides maximum fat burning. The problem is that if ketones build up too high in the blood it can cause ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition resulting in a possible coma or even death.

A more reasonable version is the juice fast, but this cleanse, like most, is low on protein. Consuming nothing but juices for three days isn’t harmful for a healthy person, but can still lower immunity to illness. Older adults may be more susceptible to infections because they may already have lowered protein stores. The Master Cleanse, one of the more popular versions on the internet, contains cayenne pepper, which can be a problem for those with irritable bowel syndrome. Other side effects include bad breath, dizziness and diarrhea. In addition, juice cleanses can lead to unstable blood sugar levels for people with diabetes; and people taking the blood-thinning drug Coumadin should stay away from green juices high in vitamin K because these can lessen the drug’s effectiveness.

Should the idea of a body cleanse be discounted altogether? Not at all. If one uses a little common sense, a spring cleansing can be a way to recharge and renew. After winter, we are all coming out of hibernation, and a short cleanse can be a way to jump-start your body into healthier life. If you are hoping that it’s going to flush away the 15 pounds you gained on comfort food and leave you ready for a bikini on the beach, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you have a solid plan to make healthy lifestyle changes, a cleanse can be great motivation to jump on the bandwagon and keep on going. Nothing encourages a positive mental attitude more than visible results. Just remember that humans are creatures of habit; if you don’t change the old habits, a 10-day detox is more apt to cleanse your wallet than your body.