There are a lot of fads and hype surrounding our health.
Some of this happens because people look for quick and easy solutions to health or weight issues.
One such idea is the concept of a water cleanse.
Can this really be a good way to get healthy – or is it just hype?
What is a Water Cleanse?
The term water cleanse is kind of vague and it doesn’t really refer to just a single concept.
Instead, there are a few concepts that tie into the general idea of a water cleanse.
I’m mostly going to focus on the idea of flushing and the way that this ties into colon cleansing.
But, before I get into that, I want to talk about a few other associated areas.
When I looked into, what is a water cleanse, I found that all three of these areas were considered answers.
You'd probably find that individual people promote one approach or another, depending on their own preferences.
A Water Fast
The name for a water fast is exactly what it seems to be.
In most cases, people literally do a water fast, which means they are consuming water and nothing else for the duration of your fast.
With this discussion, I'm going to specifically focus on the longer types of water fasts, like a 3- or a 5-day water fast.
Needless to say, this type of fast is pretty difficult and it can hard on your body.
The longer you do a water fast for, the more challenging it becomes.
Realistically, you should only ever do a water fast if you’re under the careful eye of a doctor for the entire time.
You are also putting yourself under severe strain, so this type of fast could potentially have some pretty negative impacts on your health overall.
Without a doubt, some people to swear by the idea of a water fast.
But, even if you felt better after the fast and had no long-term side effects, it’s debatable whether you did your body any good or not.
After all, you do tend to revert to normal eating patterns after you finish the fast.
Much of the ‘benefits’ of this type of fast come from the concept of detox, which I’ll touch on later in this post.
Before I move on, I do want to make a note about fasting.
The process of fasting itself has been linked to some improvements in metabolic parameters and it is one reason that intermittent fasting has become popular as a way of losing weight and improving health.
But, there is a big difference between doing some fasting, as part of intermittent fasting or something similar, and eating nothing for multiple days as part of water fast.
It’s very unlikely that the water cleanse offers any additional benefits and it may well harm your body.
After all, it’s reasonable to assume that our bodies are used to the idea of being hungry, but it seems unlikely that they are used to the idea of not eating for days at a time.
A Water Detox
With a water detox, the emphasis is on drinking a lot of water – but not exclusively drinking water.
Part of this comes from the fact that many people don’t get enough water in their diets anyway (3).
Now, there is some logic to this idea.
Water itself is healthy.
Making sure you drink enough water does certainly help in these areas.
So, increasing the amount of water in your diet may well help with your health, especially if you didn’t drink all that much before.
Water or Salt Water Flush
One idea that pops up a lot if you search water cleanse is a water flush or a salt water flush.
The general idea is cleansing your colon.
Advocates of this perspective focus on the idea that you should be getting as much fecal matter as possible out of your body.
Enemas are also promoted as a way of doing this and flushes are another.
Here’s one example of the rhetoric that surrounds this idea:
It bothers me that people believe claims like this.
The problem is that it sounds logical.
For many people, it makes complete sense that any waste left in the body would make you sick.
But, our body isn’t designed to work like that.
With a flush (or an enema) we are forcing our body to expel over and above the amount it would normally.
For example, a basic salt water flush involves drinking around 1 liter of warm water with salt mixed in. This is then supposed to force a bowel movement, one that will frequently resemble diarrhea.
In concept, a flush ‘cleans’ the body.
Some people argue that the process is similar to cleaning your teeth or having a shower.
After all, we clean the outside of our bodies, shouldn’t we be cleaning the inside too?
Our bodies are complex systems and we aren’t supposed to be clean on the inside.
One of the significant reasons for this is the microbiota.
Our bodies are teeming with microbes. Some of those microbes are unhealthy, some are pretty neutral, but others are absolutely essential for our health.
Any approach that cleans out our colons will have dramatic impacts in the microbiota (i.e. the community of microbes) in the area.
Here’s the thing.
People who promote water cleanses and flushes often argue that ‘caked on’ feces are breeding sites for the bacteria that make us sick.
Realistically, anything left in your colon is likely to promote healthy bacteria, rather than unhealthy bacteria.
The Obsession with Bowel Movements
Many people advocating water cleanses or similar approaches end up with a rather concerning focus on bowel movements.
For example, the idea that we should be having 2-3 bowel movements every day (yikes!) is pretty common.
Some sites even go as far as describing exactly what our bowel movements should look like if our colon is healthy.
Realistically, our bowel movements are influenced by all sorts of factors, especially what we eat and how much water we drink.
There is also a huge amount of individual variation.
I’ve even heard claims that we should be eliminating around the same amount that we’re taking in.
That concept is completely ridiculous.
The whole point of eating is because our body needs energy. Various components of what we eat are actually used in the body, so we are never going to expel the same amount that we eat.
Personally, the idea of paying close attention to each and every bowel movement sounds absolutely horrible.
That obsession could easily become scary and in some ways, it would end up resembling an eating disorder.
The bottom line is simple.
For most of us, our colons work perfectly fine naturally without the need for any type of colon cleanse.
Even if we are having issues with our colon, like bleeding in the stool or constipation, the answer isn’t to do a cleanse.
Instead, you need to talk to your doctor and you may find that you need to make some shifts in your diet.
The only time that you should be doing any type of cleanse is if such an approach is prescribed by a doctor.
For example, people often have to do a cleanse before they have a colonoscopy (which just makes sense, really).
The Overall Concept of Cleansing
Both a water cleanse and a water fast tie back to the same general idea – the concept of detox.
Detoxing is the idea that we can dramatically reduce the toxins in our body by following a diet or doing something else (like an enema).
At first glance, the idea makes sense.
After all, we do take in a lot of junk and chemicals on a daily basis.
But, our body does have mechanisms for taking care of toxins, all on its own.
There isn’t a lot that a detox or cleanse could do that the body itself doesn’t already do.
That brings me to a second point.
The whole idea of detoxing is that you’re getting rid of toxins.
But, you’ll notice that any cleanse can’t actually tell you what toxins you’re getting rid of.
If you truly were getting rid of toxins, I would expect that to be the first piece of information you’re told.
Realistically, if you could measure the amount of a toxin before and after a cleanse, you’d have some idea of what (if anything) that cleanse actually did.
Without that information, we’re left in the dark.
In general, the concept of a detox or a water cleanse is almost entirely hype.
The terms have become a fantastic way to promote products or concepts like a water cleanse – and people often believe what they are told.
This is actually a topic I cover in more detail in a post on the 1 week detox diet.
In general though, there isn’t any science suggesting that detoxes are effective.
Instead, detoxes are just hyped up ‘quick fixes’.
If you want to improve the functioning of your body overall, a detox isn’t going to do that.
Instead, changing to a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods will offer many more health benefits.
Dangers of a Water Flush
Water cleanses really aren’t necessary to start off with and they can actually be dangerous.
That's not really the case for water detoxes, where you are basically just adding water into your diet.
But, it is certainly the case with water flushes and water fasts.
This is true for enemas too and some deaths have been linked to the use of enemas (15).
One major issue with water flushes is that they can contribute to dehydration.
This happens because most water cleanses are specifically designed to clear out your colon and you end up clearing so much water out from your body.
This process also has an impact on the electrolytes in your body. Changing your electrolyte balance can potentially be dangerous, especially if you have a health condition.
Additionally, cleanses can result in perforations in the bowel and can increase the chance of infection (16).
Finally, you’re altering the balance of microbiota in your body.
We’re only just beginning to understand the full impacts of microbiota, but we do already know that the microbes in our body can affect our susceptibility to disease (17).
As you can imagine, none of those issues are particularly pleasant, and they could cause serious long-term harm.
And… I haven’t even mentioned all of the less significant side effects, like nausea, cramping and vomiting.
Research has also shown that colon cleansing may cause significant harm (18).
So, there is a whole host of risks associated with a water cleanse and no proven benefits.
Remind me… why is a cleanse a good idea?
Why All the Hype?
Any form of water cleanse involves a whole lot of hype and very little scientific backing.
Why are these approaches so popular and why do so many people ask, what is a water cleanse?
The hype itself is one reason.
There are a lot of companies and bloggers that benefit from promoting a water cleanse.
For example, some companies sell products or books that talk about the concept of a water cleanse and how to do it.
Bloggers might also sell products that promote this type of cleanse, or they might use discussions as a source of traffic.
Manipulation also plays a role.
Some of the anecdotes and testimonials that you hear about water cleanses are entirely made up or they are exaggerated.
At the same time, people who have a bad experience often won’t post that information.
This pattern is actually pretty common in the health and nutrition field.
One reason for this is bullying and shaming.
For example, if you wrote a post on how you tried water cleansing and it didn’t work, you might have comments from people telling you that you didn’t do it right, that you should have done it for longer or some other variation on that theme.
Also, if you tried a given approach and it wasn’t effective, you might feel like you failed.
That’s another reason why you might not share your experiences.
The end result is that there are many more people online claiming the approach works than there are people who say it doesn’t
But, all of this is only part of the story.
There are a lot of people out there that are honestly convinced about the benefits of these types of cleanses.
This is something that happens with many natural remedies.
Individual people decide about approaches like this based on observed effects.
For example, if you noticed less joint pain after doing a water cleanse, you might become a strong advocate of the idea.
But, anecdotes are a very poor form of evidence.
Here are just a few reasons why you have to be very careful about trusting any effects that you observe (or effects that other people observe).
- The placebo effect: The brain is powerful and people can convince themselves that a treatment worked. In some cases, this can even contribute to an improvement in symptoms.
- Natural recovery: If you were naturally recovering from a condition anyway, it can look like the water cleanse caused the recovery, even though it would have happened no matter what.
- Psychological factors: Some illnesses are connected to neurosis or are psychosomatic in nature. If this is the case, then a cleanse can appear to cause improvements even though the cleanse itself did not have any significant effect.
As you can see, you need to be very careful about the perspectives that other people promote and even about how you view your own experiences.
Water cleanse is a complex topic, partly because there are a few different approaches promoted under similar names.
In general though, the underlying idea is that we need to detox our bodies and clean them from the inside.
That perspective is simply not supported by science and it can potentially be dangerous.
This becomes pretty obvious when you take a step back and look at the logic behind the idea of these water cleanses.
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