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Purification, or just a purge?

Liquid fasts, colonics, pills, vegetables. Detox regimens that promise to remove harmful chemicals are wildly popular -- but the science behind them is scant.

October 23, 2006|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

PAST the desert scrub and cacti, at the end of a long drive to nowhere, sits a fenced-in oasis guarded by a big black gate. Press the secret code and you enter an exclusive paradise: a spa where the rich and beautiful flock to purify their bodies of the chemical excesses of 21st century existence.

"Between the stresses of everyday life (deadlines, relationship struggles, traffic) and the impurities found in processed foods, the body is full of toxins and the mind, tension," declares the website for the We Care Spa. "We Care is leading the new movement of detoxing the body and hence, the body and soul."

Guests here go without solid food for anywhere from three to eight days, subsisting on a liquid diet that supposedly helps flush their systems of pollutants and preservatives while still providing vital nutrients.

They gulp down 14 individually formulated drinks daily to boost their energy and loosen up stuck matter in their colons. They imbibe endless cups of fresh vegetable juice, gallons of blood-purifying tea and enough water to grow a tree in the desert.

Then, packed to the gills with fiber and herbal laxatives, they receive colonics, lymphatic massages and Korean skin scrubs to help flush out the toxins.

"The cleansing may be physical, but the results are much more penetrative and profound," proclaims the spa. "In five days, it can change your life."

A spa such as this, with a price tag that can run into the thousands, is definitely for the well-heeled. But its focus on detox is part of a larger alternative health trend that has been briskly growing in the last few years. Celebrities such as Beyonce and Angelina Jolie are said to have done detox regimens. Less wealthy health faddists do it too, often brewing up their cut-price detox concoctions at home (and sometimes blogging of their experiences in intimate detail).

Through scouring out their innards, drinking gallons of liquid and popping pills and powders, these enthusiasts hope to purge themselves of accumulated metabolic waste and man-made poisons -- fighting disease, sharpening minds, increasing stamina and (with all that intestinal flushing) flattening bellies.

A plethora of DIY detox books are available to help them in their quest: "7-Day Detox Miracle," "Purify Your Body," "Detoxification and Healing" and more. And a bevy of detox products exists too, on natural health-store shelves: Liver Detox, Detox Cleanse, First-time Cleanse, bentonite clay and psyllium husks, to name a few.

In fact, cleansing and organ supplements (largely consisting of herbal-based cleanse and detox kits) make up the fastest growing segment within the herbal formulas category, says David Browne of SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry. Last year's growth was twice that of the year before, he says.

Most people who do detox regimens speak of them with the zeal of religious converts. They can't wait to detox again.

But medical professionals urge caution. They say detox diets can be extreme and potentially dangerous. They also say there's no evidence that these diets do any good.

"The idea that foods are poisonous, or that we need detoxification, or a cleansing regimen to improve our health is without scientific merit," says Roger Clemens, a nutritional biochemist at the USC School of Pharmacy. "We have wonderful organs, great enzymes, a great system for eliminating toxins naturally."

Purification's past

Throughout history, people of almost every civilization have undergone periods of deprivation as a path to physical, emotional and spiritual purification. Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert. Buddha reached enlightenment after breaking his fast.

Even the current trend was seeded years ago. The perennially popular Master Cleanse, or lemonade diet -- in which people survive anywhere from three to 40 days on little more than a brew of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and lots and lots of water -- was created 60 years ago. And We Care has helped guests cleanse their bodies for 20 years.

But today's detox craze is something different, according to those watching the trend.

"What I think is new about it is the commercial component, the increasing economics of detox dieting," says Dr. Peter Pressman, an internist and attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who has written on the subject. "Over the last three years it has become an international industry."

Detoxing is based on the idea that people take in or absorb toxic chemicals such as pesticides, mercury, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and food additives through the food they eat, air they breathe and water they drink. When these chemicals build up to a certain level, the theory further goes, they can overpower the body's natural detoxification system -- causing fatigue, mental sluggishness and various "allergy-like symptoms."

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