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When her chronic stomach pain and cramps were diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Newell Freivogel, a 34-year-old business owner in Chicago, decided to try a cleanse. "I didn`t want to take medicine if something natural would help," she says. While she sipped veggie smoothies and nibbled salads, her stomach issues disappeared. But, she says, "I got splitting headaches and was can`t-get-off-the-couch tired." And the minute the two-week cleanse ended, her IBS symptoms returned. Working with her doctor, Freivogel realized she needed to change her diet for life, not stop eating for a couple of weeks. "What had made me feel better wasn`t the cleanse [itself]," she says, "but that I`d eliminated certain trigger foods, such as nuts and pasta. When I identified those foods and cut back on them, I got better for good."
THE BIG BUSINESS OF CLEANSING
You`ve probably tried juice as a health move too. Extolled by Gwyneth and Blake, sold at juice bars and even at national drugstore chains like Duane Reade and Walgreens, detox juices are now a $5-billion business, projected to grow 4 to 8 percent a year. Of course, there`s nothing wrong with enjoying a "greena colada." Although eating whole fruits and vegetables is healthiest (you get all the vitamins and minerals plus the added benefit of fiber), juices "are not bad," says Stella L. Volpe, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition sciences at Drexel University. "However, to use them as cleansers is not necessary." Never the less, the makers of juice cleanses--generally one- to five-day all-liquid diets--have upped the ante and are making some grandiose health claims with little evidence or oversight to back them.
Beyond weight loss, flooding your insides with raw fruits and vegetables can wash away just about any health problem, suggest companies with such names as JuiceRx. Their websites claim to help maladies like abnormal sugar levels, acne, addiction, allergies, anxiety, bad breath, bloating, cancer, cell damage, colds, contamination with chemicals, depression, diabetes, fatigue, headaches, heavy-metal contamination, hormone dysfunction, indigestion, lack of focus, liver disease, liver stones, memory loss, and Parkinson`s disease. "[A cleanse can] reset your body and support its being able to fight and cure whatever the illness is," says Tim Martin, founder of celeb favorite iZOcleanse. "It can help the body heal anything."
The BluePrintCleanse site promises that cleanses are "the perfect partner" for antibiotics and that they "fight off degenerative diseases." The site also promotes long-term cleanses as a good idea for the truly sick, saying clients "using [the cleanse] in cancer therapy have continued on a cleanse indefinitely, until they are healed"--never mind that unpasteurized juice could introduce harmful bacteria to people with compromised immune systems. BluePrintCleanse referred our questions to company nutritionist Julie Ruelle, RD, who initially responded that "we don`t make any medical or health claims." Confronted with these examples, she explained: "We`ve changed our website several times."
But if health conditions truly improve by drinking liquid salads spiked with spices, why isn`t every doctor in America prescribing cleanses? Because--despite the plethora of blog posts, Yelp reviews, and website testimonials describing total body transformations via cleansing--there is exactly zero scientifically supported evidence that they work to prevent or cure any illness, says David Seres, MD, director of medical nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center. Moreover, there is plenty of proof that swearing off food when you`re sick is a terrible idea. "Given the multitude of experiences we`ve had where dietary alterations such as these have actually proven harmful, I think that the buyer needs to beware," says Dr. Seres. While juice is full of nutrients, he notes, "there are plenty of instances in nutrition where some is good and more is worse. All vitamins and minerals have some toxicity."
The fact that doctors disapprove can be part of the appeal. Women are frustrated with the pharmaceutical cures doctors rely on and love the idea of something natural, says Jayson Calton, PhD, a nutritionist in Sarasota, Florida, who works with patients with an array of health conditions, including osteoporosis and diabetes. "It combines all these things that people think are innately good for them...If I take juice and greens and vegetables and fruits, which I`ve been told over and over are healthy, well, how can that be bad?" And for people battling disease, there is often a "What do I have to lose?" mentality. "Sick people stumble upon these websites that say they can be cured with juice--they`re willing to try anything."
Martin doesn`t think that his cleanse is medicine or that it has magic ingredients that target maladies. But he does think it makes the body healthier overall and puts people in a better position to fight illness. And some people should clearly not cleanse, says Martin, such as those battling advanced stages of disease and those with eating disorders. He includes that information in a medical release of liability, which customers must agree to before they can order iZOcleanse online. Still, even he worries that people may take the trend too far--that vulnerable people could end up trading, say, chemotherapy for a cleanse. "I think it could happen very easily where someone thinks they can ignore a medical doctor`s advice and just cure themselves completely by cleansing," he says. "And then they die. I`m surprised it hasn`t happened yet."
THE DETOX MYTH
When Jennifer, a 29-year-old lawyer in New York City, endured lingering stomach pains after a bout with salmonella poisoning that landed her in the hospital, she ordered a five-day BluePrintCleanse "excavation" juice cleanse to clear out her system and gently reset her body. She was lured by promises that its citrus "cleaners," as the website puts it, and green vegetable tonics would "rid [the] body of impurities" and "normalize digestion." But after five days of consuming nothing but juice, she felt run-down, sick, and exhausted. "I felt better with salmonella," she says flatly. The stomach pains continued until she used over-the-counter probiotics recommended by her doctor.
To people like Jennifer, resting the digestive system and strengthening the immune system--common cleanse promises--are claims that sound plausible and enticing. But they are "medically meaningless" and the explanations "fabricated," says Roger A. Clemens, associate director of the regulatory science program at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy.
Cleanse companies would have you believe that breaking down food and separating fiber--that plant part we`re constantly being told to eat more of--are tasks so strenuous that your body needs a time-out from them. "When you save energy in one department, you can expend it somewhere else," reads the BluePrintCleanse website. Not only is there no proof your digestive system needs a rest, there`s data that suggests resting the gut can be harmful, Dr. Seres says. In cases of bowel surgery--where the entire digestive system is kaput--doctors have discovered that patients do better the sooner after surgery that food is put into the stomach. It`s not totally fair to compare very sick patients to cleansing fans, says Dr. Seres, but research shows that the gut needs to interact with food to help preserve normal immune function in your body.
The idea that your body needs help ridding itself of toxins is also false. While digesting food produces toxins, the body is made to eliminate them. "The bowel cleanses itself," says Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition at New York University. Some cleanses rely on laxatives to clear you out, but even herbal varieties have the potential to damage nerve cells. (A safer way to keep things moving is fiber--the exact thing that juicing veggies and fruits removes.)
Fasting and a lack of protein--two hallmarks of cleanses--also deplete your liver`s store of the antioxidant glutathione, which is crucial fuel for the immune system and key in the detoxification of blood. The resulting decrease in liver function causes waste products to accumulate in your body, which is pretty much the opposite of what the cleanses claim.
What about nixing acidity in the body; surely that`s beneficial? "If you`re feeling achy, that`s one way of saying there may be a buildup of acidity in the body," says Denise Mari, who founded Organic Avenue in 2002. And Ruelle explains the benefits, saying, "Focusing on alkaline-forming foods helps to relieve the body of acidity."
These claims provoke actual guffaws from medical experts. "A slightly acidic environment in the stomach keeps you healthy," says Clemens, who teaches toxicology. "It means the organisms that cause disease can`t grow in there."
Organic Avenue`s Mari can`t identify any scientific studies that support her company`s claims. "I really do think they`re out there," she says. "I don`t have [the studies] myself. [But] when I was 100 percent raw for five years, I never got sick. Hundreds of thousands of people use this as a form of healing....Going to a doctor`s office wasn`t getting them well." Martin, whose iZOcleanse website features video testimonials of people sharing how energetic they feel while cleansing, says he plans to refute naysayers by commissioning a study and adds that he is already in the process of "coordinating with academia to conduct a variety of studies of the cleanse`s effects on people." He didn`t want to elaborate because the efforts are at "such an early stage."
Clemens, for one, would be surprised if any such study happens. No institutional review board--which monitor studies for possible harm--would approve one, he says, because "these types of regimens are unsafe. Nobody in the scientific community could come up with a valid hypothesis to test because there is no rational one."
Nor is anyone likely to check up on cleanse companies` more outlandish assertions. Technically, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)monitors truth in advertising and could punish companies for unsupported health claims. But in practice, officials can`t review every single ad, says Richard Cleland, assistant director of the division of advertising practices at the FTC.
It`s the same story at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: The agency can pull dangerous products, but its resources are so limited that it`s difficult to gather enough information even to issue a warning letter. "I think one of the big mistakes that consumers make is assuming, `Well, this product wouldn`t be advertised unless it was somehow approved by the FDA or some government agency,`" Clemens says. "Unless it`s a drug, there is no preapproval. Consumers have to act as their own regulators. Until somebody dies, action is not going to be taken."
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