Detox vs cleanse: What’s the difference between a detox and a cleanse?

Detox v cleanse - difference between cleanse and detox

Detox vs cleanse? Cleanse vs detox? Detoxes and cleansing have become increasingly popular in the health/nutrition world in recent years, and I’ll confess I’ve never really understood the difference, nor have I understood the point, as I’m a great believer that the body is a pretty efficient well-functioning machine when left to its own devices. Until it’s not and you’re feeling crappy and rundown and that’s where a detox or cleanse may be worth investigating.

What’s the difference between a detox and a cleanse?

Detox is short for detoxification, and the idea is that when detoxing the body you are ridding it of toxins that you might be hanging on to not just from the food we eat but through a whole range of environmental factors we’re exposed to – pollution, chemicals in skin care, etc.

It can be particularly useful for eliminating something like sugar, wheat, or dairy, when you’ve done sufficient research to be reasonably confident that these food types are causing you issues. The type of health issues that might be evidence that you’re experiencing lead you to want to detox, are things like inflammation, bloating, headaches, cramps, bad skin (dairy for example is a known contributor to eczema), or persistent cold and flu symptoms.

A detox program would usually involve eliminating that food, or several different types, from your diet while possibly taking supplements to help turn toxins into waste. Detox benefits are supposed to be wide-ranging, from increased energy, better sleep, clearer skin, a flatter tummy… the list goes on.

A cleanse, however is more general and is a holistic cleaning out, designed to re-energise your digestive organs to work more efficiently so that when you start to reintroduce different foods back into your diet, your intestines, liver, bowel, kidneys etc, can more function more efficiently to ensure you’re extracting maximum nutritional benefit from those foods.  


what's the difference between detox and cleanse - healthy fruit and vegetables

Popular types of detox and cleanse

I googled both separately, expecting to find different lists, given sources do agree there is an (albeit subtle) difference between a cleanse and detox, however what I mostly found was lists that use the term interchangeably. Whether you search for detox or cleanse, there are a few that seem most popular.

The colon cleanse

A colon cleanse will come up pretty regularly in a google search on the subject. A colon cleanse is basically as described – a program of water, fibre and supplements – and probably not much else except maybe a colonic (like irrigation for your bowel – eww!) to flush out all the extra ‘crap’ (literally) that might still be hanging around inside your digestive system.

The benefits of the colon cleanse are in line with benefits from overall cleansing and detoxing, so it’s very difficult to say whether there would be a winner in any ‘colon cleanse vs detox’ debate.

The liver cleanse

The liver cleanse is also a popular one, the idea being that the liver plays a key role in ‘filtering’ out all the rubbish from what we eat or drink, and cleans our blood so therefore we need to take extra good care of it. You have to be super careful with liver cleanses though, as warns , and approach any promises of magic results with a healthy dose of scepticism and caution.

I personally wouldn’t do it unless a doctor advised it and there was evidence my liver was struggling. If I were to explore a natural liver detox, a liver cleansing diet is likely to include garlic, green tea and leafy greens. Sounds pretty easy! And although it’s probably obvious, kick the booze, and get juicing instead.

Detox vs cleanse - Omega J8006 Nutrition Center Juicer
Omega J8006 Nutrition Center Juicer – Great if you have the budget

Cleansing and detoxing doesn’t just have to be about what you eat or drink. The Merrymaker Sisters have put together a list of ‘10 Ways to Detox and Cleanse in 2016’ which looks pretty cool to me (and they’re using the terms interchangeably I think…. interesting).

In brief their list includes dry brushing (exfoliating basically), adding turmeric to things (this is on my list because it seems so simple and I’ve heard so much about it), eating lots of seaweed (interesting – sushi anyone?) and taking a daily probiotic (again so simple – I actually have some here but I forget to take it!). You can check their full list out here. 

Other benefits of detoxing or cleansing

Whether you’re interested in a detox or a cleanse, or both, I like what Andrea from ReplenishPDX has to say. “Sometimes the things we’re removing are foods and sometimes they’re more than foods. . . behaviors or beliefs, patterns and habits that are holding us back”. Detoxing and cleansing are for me as much about the mental/emotional relationship with food, as they might be about any health benefits.

To remove a certain food that we feel has a ‘hold’ over us, as I’ve done recently with both wheat and sugar, is incredibly powerful. This is not about playing power games with food or creating a dysfunctional relationship with it.  Instead I try to make it a fun challenge – ‘quit’ something, to prove to myself that I can, and experience the self-esteem high and the health benefits that can come about as a result.

My experience of detoxing or cleansing

In theory the first time I quit sugar, 4 years ago, was a sugar detox, so I experienced all the withdrawal symptoms that you might expect with that: cravings, mild headaches, being low on energy, etc, for a while until I started to really notice the benefits. And that ‘taste’ of the emotional power of a detox was what really got the ball rolling that eventually led to the total health and wellbeing makeover I’ve experienced in the years since.

Cutting out wheat has also been a detox of sorts, and although I’ve been reasonably strict, I suspect enough wheat has snuck through in occasional crumbed food, for example, that it wouldn’t qualify as a detox in the strictest sense. Regardless though, doing the two things together HAS brought about noticeable improvements in my health.

So would I do a total body detox and cleanse?

I’ve never seriously contemplated a cleanse, largely because I suspect they’ll all mandate giving up coffee (noooooo!!). Lately though, I’ve started to get curious about it, and have begun investigating different cleanses I might try. I’m still sceptical about detoxing, but an all over cleanse could be a good idea.

Why would I want to ‘cleanse’ my digestive system? To see what happens, mostly! Because although my diet is ‘pretty good’ and I’m in ‘generally good’ health, I still have this lingering feeling that I’m not in peak physical condition, and that my body is capable of improved energy, more glowing skin, deeper sleep, and of course, shedding body fat, which continues to be a bug-bear of mine. Also, I think it’s important to keep our bodies guessing, and doing the same thing day in day out it seems logical I’m going to get only the same results.

I found this fun quiz on that asks questions to then tell you what type of detox might be best for you. I answered mostly As and was informed that I’m ‘already a health guru’ (haha!) and was recommended the Perfect Health resort retreat program, which would immerse me in all the principles of Ayurveda. Just for fun, I might redo the quiz with different answers to find out what they recommend.

Although I still wonder if ‘detoxing’ (in particular) is a term naturopaths have made up in order to sell us expensive supplements, I do like the look of these because they seem very simple and non-invasive (and hopefully won’t make me give up coffee – haha):

Have you tried a detox or cleanse, and if so which ones? Would you recommend it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!


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