Detoxification Therapy

A product of environmental concerns and nostalgia for the more natural lifestyles of the past, these treatments aim to free the body from a build-up of various artificial toxins. The poisons targeted by these therapies are not necessarily the high-profile carcinogens we’ve all come to fear. More often, they are unspecified pollutants and byproducts thought to have a generally negative impact on health.

Detoxification Therapy
Detoxification Therapy

Although the offending substances are frequently nameless and vague, advocates of detoxification believe that, as a group, these chemicals are somehow at the root of all disease. Eliminating them, proponents believe, eases the load on the immune system and gives the body a chance to heal itself. In this way, they say, detoxification can prevent cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes; lower blood pressure; increase vitality; improve mental function; and slow down the aging process.

Since no single, specific toxin is typically identified for elimination, it’s impossible to say whether the treatments have succeeded in removing it, or whether it was causing a problem in the first place. Most mainstream scientists therefore dismiss the whole approach as unproven–and unprovable. And there are, in fact, no clinical studies supporting the effectiveness of these treatments.

How the Treatments Are Done

Naturopathic practitioners and an assortment of maverick physicians have devised a number of methods to rid the body of the toxins we are presumed to build up. You’ll find the more popular of these approaches summarized below.

In all cases, you’re likely to be given a brief physical before treatment begins. The therapist will start by taking a complete history that covers both your own health and that of family members. He or she will then take your blood pressure; check your lungs, heart, joints, and reflexes; arrange for x-rays; and send a sample of your urine and blood to a laboratory for analysis. Some practitioners will also order analysis of a sample of your hair to check for the presence of heavy metals. Others may feel it helpful to analyze the contents of your sweat. You may also receive a battery of questions about your diet, your workplace, and your everyday activities.


This relatively painless procedure is the antidote for heavy-metal poisoning, and is also used in attempts to reverse hardening of the arteries. It usually takes place in a physician’s office or clinic. You will lie back in a comfortable reclining chair while the doctor or a staff member inserts a tiny needle in a vein in your finger or the back of your hand. An intravenous solution containing ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is then administered in hopes of preventing health problems or clearing excess calcium from the arteries. Each session usually takes between 3 and 4 hours. In most cases, physicians recommend between 20 and 50 treatments at a rate of 1 to 3 a week. For more information, turn to the profile on chelation.


These treatments aim to cleanse the bowel of purportedly toxic fecal matter, which is thought to build up and leak poisons into the bloodstream. The sessions may take place in an office, a special clinic, or a spa. During the treatments, a special colon irrigation machine pumps warm, purified water into the lower bowel to loosen and remove the built-up fecal matter supposedly clinging to the walls. These instillations are repeated until a total of 20 to 30 gallons of water have been washed through the bowel. Each session takes between 30 and 50 minutes. While some practitioners say only 1 or 2 sessions are necessary, others recommend 4 to 8, and a few insist that you should be treated every 3 to 6 months. For additional details, turn to the profile on colonic irrigation.

A variation of this approach is the coffee enema, a technique devised in the 1940s by Dr. Max Gerson to treat cancer, which, he believed, was caused by artificial ingredients, environmental pollution, sugar, starch, and salt. Today, this form of colon therapy is still practiced at the Gerson Clinic in Mexico, and in other clinics near Tijuana. The caffeine in the enemas is thought to stimulate the production of detoxifying bile. The enemas are usually given on an in-patient basis, one an hour for a period of weeks or months.


Whether you fast or follow a special detoxification diet (see below), therapists consistently recommend that during treatment–and after–you should avoid all chemicals, refined foods, food additives, sugar, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages. Many also request that you stop taking medications. (Because discontinuing certain medications can be dangerous, check with your doctor before you comply.) You will also be instructed to drink a great deal of filtered or mineral water.

There are two basic types of fasts: water fasts and juice fasts. The water fast is exactly what its name implies. For 24 to 36 hours you must drink not less than 4, nor more than 8 pints of water–and nothing else. This type of fast is usually done over a weekend. You may be allowed to take raw fruits and vegetables along with your water on Sunday. Some therapists suggest you fast this way every weekend for a few months. Others say you should start with three weekends a month and gradually reduce your fasts until your tongue no longer feels furry and you have no more headaches (see “Side effects” below).

Juice fasts include various forms of vegetable juices: carrot, celery, green bean, parsley, watercress, and zucchini are among the most popular. Some therapists also allow vegetable broths, herbal teas, miso (fermented soy paste), and powdered algae. One suggests you also drink a mixture of garlic, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and olive oil at bedtime. (The combination is thought to detoxify the liver.) Juice fasts usually last around 10 days. Since they are fairly long and restrictive, these fasts should not be undertaken too frequently, critics say.

For more information, see the profiles on fasting and juice therapy.


So-called “detoxification” diets usually emphasize organically grown, pesticide-free fresh fruits and vegetables (cooked or steamed); yogurt containing live cultures; whole grains and seeds; herbal teas such as mint, lemon, and chamomile; and plenty of water (at least 32 ounces a day). Some diets also allow beans, nuts, low-fat dairy products, fresh fish, or organically raised poultry. In any case, you will have to avoid all sugar, salt, saturated fat, coffee, alcohol, and nicotine.

Your therapist may also put you on a diet that restricts you to only one food (for example, grapes, apples, papaya), one type of food (whole grains, potatoes), or only raw foods. You will probably be told to eat slowly; chew well (some practitioners insist you must chew each morsel 30 to 60 times); finish your meals by 6:30 PM; cook only in iron, stainless steel, glass, or porcelain pots; and substitute natural remedies for synthetic drugs. To aid in detoxification, the regimen may also call for additional fiber or frequent enemas. Depending on the nature of the diet, it can end in a few weeks or go on for months or years.


All of these techniques assume that heat can detoxify the body. You may sit in a steam room or cabinet; take a sauna (hot, dry heat) followed by a cold shower or a dip in a cold pool; or soak in a hot solution of baking soda, sea salt, or even chlorine bleach. When undertaking these treatments, you must be careful to observe strict time limits, since excessive hyperthermia can be dangerous. Limit sessions in a Turkish bath or steam room to about 20 minutes, and remain in a steam cabinet for no more than 1 hour. If you take a sauna, you will need to take a cold shower or plunge into a cold pool every 5 to 10 minutes during treatment, and at the end of your session. You can stay in a detoxifying bath until the water cools. For more information, see the profiles on hyperthermia and hydrotherapy.


Your therapist may massage your body lightly in the areas where lymph glands are present, for example, around your ribs.


Therapists often recommend massive quantities of vitamin C for people undergoing detoxification. Other suggested supplements include vitamins A and E, the B vitamins (especially niacin), and minerals such as zinc, selenium, potassium, and magnesium. L-cysteine and methionine are also popular among detoxification practitioners, and some therapists favor herbs such as garlic, cayenne, and echinacea. They often suggest adding extra fiber to the diet, as well.

What the Treatment Hopes to Accomplish

In the “good old days,” say the proponents of detoxification therapy, the air was clean, the water pure, and the foods natural. Today, they warn, we have sealed our own doom with chemicals, additives, preservatives, and other forms of environmental pollution.

Overlooked in this flattering view of the past are the industrial dust, fumes, and soot that used to fill the air, the horse droppings that dirtied the streets, and the spoiled food that threatened illness at every meal. Nevertheless, many people now fear that the many synthetic chemicals we’ve used to improve our world could have unexpected consequences on our health.

To detoxification advocates, this is more than a danger. They firmly believe that we are living in an age of “toxic overload,” and that the herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, rancid oils, artificial colors and flavors, food additives, and preservatives we use or ingest every day eventually interfere with the normal functioning of our bodies. They find danger lurking in paints, household cleaning products, cosmetics, prescription and over-the-counter medications–even clothes made from synthetic products. The refined and processed foods in our diet pose additional threats, they say, along with our high intake of fat, caffeine, and alcohol.

Although the government has tested all these substances and certified them safe, advocates of detoxification therapy insist that these chemicals (or their by-products) can remain in the body for years, causing serious damage to essential organs such as the liver, kidneys, adrenals, and thyroid, and compromising the immune system. A healthy diet (no artificial ingredients or refined foods, and little fat) and a chemical-free home and workplace can, they say, get you started on the road back to health, but won’t fully undo the damage caused by years of toxic build-up. For that you need the treatments (or fasts, or diets) that they happen to prescribe.

While it’s clear that excessive intake of almost any chemical can have severe repercussions, few experts see any danger in the trace amounts we’re currently exposed to. They also dismiss the idea that unidentified toxins can build up in the body and cause ill health. They charge that many of the recommended treatments are ineffective. And they warn that many can be dangerous as well.

Chelation, for instance, is deemed effective only for removing heavy metals from the bloodstream. There is no proof that it stops the production of dangerous free radicals, opens up the arteries by removing calcium from artery walls, or increases blood flow. It has not been effective for reversing heart disease and other plaque-related problems.

Colonic Irrigation, mainstream physicians point out, is based on a false assumption. Fecal matter rarely builds up on the lining of the bowel, and has never been shown to produce toxins. Furthermore, rather than curing diseases, this therapy can cause a host of health problems, including bowel dysfunction, infections, and even intestinal perforation.

Coffee Enemas, which are supposed to stimulate the flow of bile from the liver and thus carry toxins away, have never been proven effective, and could be dangerous.

Fasting, critics warn, does not clear out stored toxins and allow the body to heal itself. Indeed, they say, it can do the opposite. Fasting lowers blood sugar levels, so that the body is forced to get energy from the protein in muscle tissue. In a prolonged fast, this can raise levels of ammonia and nitrogen so high that the undernourished kidneys and liver cannot get rid of the excess. Uric acid levels may rise (leading to gout), and calcium and potassium levels may be disturbed (affecting the heart rhythm). Ultimately, the kidneys and liver could fail. The body’s ability to fight infection is also compromised.

Special Diets can also be dangerous. Programs that eliminate or severely restrict nutrients such as fats or proteins can weaken the system instead of strengthening it.

Hyperthermia, doctors point out, can relieve pain and improve circulation, but it won’t kill bacteria and viruses, and doesn’t rid the body of poisons or cure disease.

Vitamin C is also not a miracle cure, say most physicians. Detoxification advocates claim that vitamin C combines with and destroys toxins produced by environmental and chemical pollutants. Not true, physicians reply. A host of double-blind clinical studies have failed to prove that it cures anything, including the common cold.

Who Should Avoid This Therapy?

Do not take any type of detoxification therapy if you are pregnant, nursing, elderly, weak, or underweight. Also avoid all forms of detoxification if you have diabetes or suffer from ulcers.

Avoid chelation if you have kidney or liver problems.

Avoid colonic irrigation if you have Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or any other type of bowel inflammation. Avoid it, too, if you suffer from diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, or tumors of the large intestine or rectum.

Avoid fasting if you have advanced cancer, heart problems, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, lung problems, or tuberculosis.

Avoid hyperthermia if you have asthma, epilepsy, heart disease, high or low blood pressure, or multiple sclerosis. Also steer clear of this therapy if you are very young or very old, have recently had surgery, or have a history of blood clots.

What Side Effects May Occur?

Excessive use of chelation has been known to cause anemia, blood clots, bone marrow damage, fever, headache, insulin shock, irregular heartbeat, joint pain, low blood pressure, painful and difficult urination, inflammation of the area where the needle is inserted, and stroke.

Possible side effects from colon therapy include enzyme deficiencies or imbalances, general weakness, infection (if the facility is not sterile), bowel dysfunction, intestinal perforation, and alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea.

Early side effects from fasting may include headache and a furry tongue. An extremely long fast can end with anemia, body aches, decreased sex drive, depression, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, gout, irregular heartbeat, irritability, kidney or liver failure, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, lowered resistance to infection, nausea, osteoporosis, and weakness.

High doses of Vitamin C can cause diarrhea and other digestive problems and the formation of kidney stones.

How to Choose a Therapist

If you decide to undergo chelation therapy, select a physician (a medical doctor or osteopath) with several years of experience and specialized training and certification from a major professional organization such as The American College for Advancement in Medicine or The American Board of Chelation Therapy. (See addresses and telephone numbers below.)

When seeking colonic irrigation, look for a therapist certified by one of the following organizations: American Association of Naturopathic Physicians; American Colon Therapy Association; California Colon Hygienists Society; or the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy. (See addresses and telephone numbers below.)

To find an expert on fasting, you might want to check with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. (See addresses and telephone numbers below.)

When Should Treatment Stop?

If you develop an infection, feel weak, or have any other serious symptoms, stop treatment and see your physician.

See a Conventional Doctor If…

Check with your doctor before undertaking any type of detoxification therapy, and be certain to ask your doctor before discontinuing any medication. While undergoing therapy, seek medical advice immediately if new symptoms develop or you fail to make progress.

Do not undertake a long fast without medical supervision. Short fasts are usually safe for people in good health. If you have a heart problem, you may need frequent EKGs (electrocardiograms) to make sure the fast is not affecting your heart.

Do NOT rely on detoxification alone to cure any life-threatening disease, such as cancer or heart disease. There simply isn’t enough evidence in its favor to justify the risk.