detoxification therapy
What Is It?
Health Benefits
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
How To Choose A Practitioner
Evidence Based Rating Scale

What Is It?

Detoxification therapy includes a variety of techniques designed to assist the body in removing the buildup of potentially harmful chemicals and toxins. Practiced by many naturopaths, as well as some chiropractors, osteopaths, nutritionists, and holistically trained M.D.s, the purpose of the therapy is to improve the body's overall well-being through internal cleansing and purification. Diet and lifestyle changes--such as giving up caffeine and fast food, cutting back on sugar, and quitting smoking--are considered key to the treatment. In addition, other techniques, such as hydrotherapy, colon therapy, chelation therapy, or even a supervised fast, are often suggested as part of detoxification.


Practitioners who use detoxification therapy believe that each person has a unique but ultimately limited level of tolerance for the "toxins" that are the by-products of industrialized society--whether it's smog, pesticides, heavy metals, or the additives and preservatives found in many processed foods. When that tolerance level is exceeded, the body's natural waste removal process--centered in the skin, liver, kidneys, and large intestine--becomes overtaxed and incapable of functioning adequately. Signs that the body's natural detox system may be overloaded, proponents of the therapy suggest, include fatigue, headaches, poor digestion, unhealthy looking skin, joint and muscle aches, depression, and increased susceptibility to allergies and minor infections.


The concept of dextoxification is not a new idea. For centuries, different cultures have promoted dietary restrictions for therapeutic and religious purposes. And detoxifying spa treatments under medical supervision have long been offered in Europe. Even so, most conventional doctors in the United States are not familiar with detoxification, and many of those who are remain skeptical about its use, in part because of the lack of supporting scientific data.


Health Benefits

Though clear scientific studies have not been done on this whole area of therapy, advocates contend that when the various detoxification therapies are used properly, the benefits can include a strengthened immune system, enhanced mental clarity, increased vitality, and reduced blood fats and blood pressure levels. In addition, patients with a variety of chronic illnesses, including arthritis, digestive problems, and heart and lung disease, often report feeling significantly better after completing detoxification.

How Does It Work?

Embarking on a detoxification program involves dietary and lifestyle changes that reduce the intake of toxins and improve elimination of body wastes. Detoxification programs usually focus on the removal of chemicals, from sources such as processed foods, sugars, caffeine, alcohol, fats, meats and dairy. These programs also prescribe drinking extra purified water or caffeine-free herbal teas and increasing fiber intake by including more fruits and vegetables in the diet. Common elements of popular fasts include dietary changes such as the inclusion of green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, fiber, 100% fruit or vegetable juices, miso, or special elimination teas such as dandelion root. These whole and preferably organic foods administered for the length of your cleanse will help not only detoxify your digestive track but will also give you the essential nutrients to energize your physical and mental state.


The second common elements to a detoxification program, in addition to a carefully selected diet, are manual cleansing therapies. These may include enemas, saunas or steam showers, lymphatic massage, dry brushing (using a special coarse brush in the shower to stimulate and drain your lymph nodes), or various yoga asanas. While the prescribed diet cleanses you on the inside, sometimes it is necessary to do a little additional cleaning.


An enema works by flushing the toxins out of your rectum and colon. Enemas can range from the at-home variety administered with a warm water or, more recently suggested, coffee solution. Practitioners who prescribe coffee enemas do so in order to cleanse the digestive system through stimulation of the bile duct. Bile from the gallbladder draws out environmental and metabolic toxins, parasites, and other system irritants. Once dislodged, the toxins can be carried away by the colon. Coffee enemas also stimulate the liver to produce enzymes that clean the blood. Medical doctors are divided on the benefits of enemas for the purpose of detoxification. If you are interested in trying any of these modalities look for an integrative physician, naturopath, or holistic doctor who will support your decision and provide guidance on your choice and length of program. Coffee enemas, in particular, should be done only under professional guidance. Deaths have been reported from electrolyte disturbances and severe infections in some cases. (1, 2)


Saunas and steam showers are also prescribed during detoxification program to stimulate the release of built up toxins through sweat. This may not be possible for people with circulatory issues, heart disease or diabetes as high temperatures may adversely affect your condition.


For those wishing to get the same benefits without the heat – you may wish to try lymphatic massage or particular yoga postures. A licensed massage therapist trained in lymphatic massage can help stimulate the draining of your lymph nodes through gentle manual manipulation. Lymph nodes act as our bodies’ filters for bacteria, disease, and foreign bodies. They are the homes of lymphocytes which work to neutralize these threats to our body’s homeostasis. Lymph nodes are found in the underarms, groin, neck, chest, and abdomen. Simple yoga postures can also assist in the manipulation of the lymph nodes in a less direct way. Twisting postures can help gently stimulate the nodes located in the abdomen, groin and neck. Proponents also cite yoga as a sort of mental detoxification. With yoga’s emphasis on deep breathing and quiet concentration, this practice regimen is certainly a chance to become centered and aware of the processes inside one’s body and mind. All of the above modalities when used alone or in conjunction help you break out of the mold of the everyday routine and participate proactively in securing your own health and wellness.

The particulars of your detoxification program will depend upon the length of the program, your current state of health, and your commitment to the process. You should not choose a detoxification program that is beyond your individual capability. Consulting an experienced and licensed practitioner can help you assess your health goals and which program best fits your needs. Various programs can focus on different areas of the body, including the gastrointestinal tract, liver, skin, lymphatic system, lungs, kidney or bladder. 


An important aspect in considering whether or not to begin a detoxification program is timing. If you are currently experiencing high levels of professional or personal stress, than this may not be the most advantageous time to begin a program. Detoxification programs can be rewarding but they can also be tough – especially for beginners. Common side effects include irritability, fatigue, skin flare ups such as acne, increased flatulence, and temporary constipation or diarrhea. First time treatment candidates may want to try a detoxification program as a part of a holistic retreat. This will allow you to be amongst a group of like-minded people away from the stressors of your everyday life. For those who may not be able to afford a retreat, an experienced clinician can help by offering support and encouragement. The internet can also be a source of support. You can join diet and detoxification chat rooms or read other people’s experiences with detoxification in online blogs. Search on topics such as health, detoxification, or cleanse.


You are likely to encounter two different approaches to detoxification, depending to an extent on the practitioner and on the specific toxicity you’re trying to relieve. Oral chelation, the first approach, is recommended by some practitioners. In this method, you are instructed to take a medication that absorbs the toxins in your body and carries them safely out into your urine. The most likely medication to be used is DMSA (dimercaptosuccinic acid), which is approved by the FDA and proved effective in removing mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. (3, 4, 5) DMSA is used in various ways. One follows a cycle of 3 days on, 11 days off, for a minimum of 8 cycles; another follows a cycle of DMSA every other day for at least 5 weeks. On the off days, it’s important to follow your practitioner’s recommendations about replacing the important minerals that are also absorbed by the DMSA.


The second approach, a comprehensive program of detoxification, includes a short water-only fast (2 to 5 days), a low-allergy diet for 5 days (followed by reintroduction of foods one by one), and a month of saunas and hydrotherapy and nutritional supplements. This approach has been used to address a variety of conditions, ranging from hypertension to chronic pain and fatigue syndromes. (6, 7)

There is no research to support one of these approaches over the other, except for the specific studies of heavy metals in animals and humans.

How To Choose A Practitioner


Seek out a licensed physician (usually an integrative doctor), naturopath, chiropractor, or clinical nutritionist who is familiar with the concept of detoxification; such a practitioner is likely to know more than your primary-care physician about this type of treatment. Make sure to carefully check the credentials of the therapist before undergoing treatment.


For more information on finding a practitioner, you can also refer to the individual entries on Chelation Therapy, Chiropractic, Colon Therapy, Fasting, Hydrotherapy, and Naturopathy in the WholeHealthMD Reference Library.



Detoxification therapy should not be considered a substitute for conventional medical care. It can be dangerous for people who are underweight, or who have diabetes, hypothyroidism, or hypoglycemia. Anyone with a compromised immune system, including those who are recovering from surgery, should also avoid detoxification.


Other important things to remember are:


  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
  • You may want to add mineral supplements to your program to ensure that you are getting the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) during your program. Your practitioner can give suggestions as to which minerals may be lacking in your chosen diet.
  • After you have completed your cleanse, eat light, fresh simply prepared foods. Your body will need time to adjust back to your regular diet. Start by introducing things like vegetables, fish, and whole grains. It is wise to avoid caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars, and tobacco. 
  • If you have never tried a cleansing program before, you do not know how your body will react. You may need additional rest or relaxation as your body weans itself from a sugary and artificial diet. Heed your body’s needs while fasting to ensure a positive and rejuvenating experience.

See the individual entries on Chelation Therapy, Colon Therapy, Fasting, and Hydrotherapy in the WholeHealthMD Reference Library for additional cautions for each

Evidence Based Rating Scale  


The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements and therapies demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.








Heavy metal toxicity





Clinical trials support the use of oral chelation therapy for removing heavy metals.





Environmental toxins






Although detoxification is widely recommended and practiced, there is very little research into its safety and effectiveness.


  1. Eisele JW, Reay DT. Deaths related to coffee enemas. JAMA. 1980 Oct 3;244(14):1608-9.
  2. Margolin KA, Green MR. Polymicrobial enteric septicemia from coffee enemas. West J Med. 1984 Mar;140(3):460.
  3. Aposhian HV, Maiorino RM, Rivera M, et al. Human studies with the chelating agents DMPS and DMSA. Clin Toxicol 1992;30:505-528.
  4. Forman J, Moline J, Cernichiari E, et al. A cluster of pediatric metallic merciry exposure cases treated with DMSA. Environ Health Perspect 2000;108:575-577.
  5. Chisolm J. Safety and efficacy of DMSA in children with elevated blood lead concentrations. Clin Toxicol 2000;38:365-375.

Date Published: 03/29/2007
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