Every three months, Pamela Bryant, 50, stops eating food for at least 10 days to clean the gunk out of her body. When she's hungry, she drinks a concoction of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup, laxative tea or saltwater.
The popular liquid detox diet, known as the Master Cleanser, has few nutrients and is ridiculed by most nutrition experts. But Bryant swears it helps her lose weight and reduce cravings for sugar, caffeine and marijuana.
When it's over, "you feel incredible," said Bryant, a Maui massage therapist. "You have way more energy, and all your vital organs are rested and detoxified."
Detox or cleansing diets can involve water, potions, fruit and vegetable juice, raw food, herbal supplements, nutraceuticals or a combination of approaches. Proponents say they're necessary because our bodies take a lot of abuse from modern life: overly processed food, alcohol, cigarette smoke, chemicals and environmental pollution.
But some cleansing rituals aren't safe if used for extended periods, and there's virtually no scientific evidence that they work. Conventional doctors, meanwhile, say the lungs, kidneys, liver and skin are perfectly capable of detoxifying on their own.
Tennessee internist J. David Forbes agrees that the body's natural detoxification system is usually adequate. But "we're constantly bombarding ourselves with toxic stuff, mostly in the form of foods we eat," said Forbes, president of the American Holistic Medical Association. "We have to give the body a chance to catch up."
At the very least, there may be an emotional benefit associated with starting over. Here's how to try one safely:
Plan ahead. A week before you plan to detox, reduce caffeine and sugar (including excessive fruit juices) to avoid withdrawal symptoms, said nutrition and diet expert Ann Louise Gittleman, author of several best-selling books on detoxification. "Drink a cup or two a day of dandelion tea to shore up the liver."
Don't stop eating. Fiber moves waste through the body, and we get that through whole grains, beans and vegetables, said Kathy Freston, author of "The Quantum Wellness Cleanse" (Weinstein, $14.95). Fasting also slows down your metabolism.
Choose plans that involve nutrient-dense foods. Fresh, raw and organic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds will be your best choices. The liver works harder when it's dealing with heavy, greasy, refined foods.
Skip the laxatives. The seven-day detox programs based on fiber and laxative pills with little or no food "only tax the body's systems," said Delia Quigley, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Detoxing Your Body" (Alpha, $18.95).
Time it right. Don't detox if you're overly stressed, said Laguna Beach, Calif., nutritionist Stella Metsovas. It adds more stress and can make you sick. Avoid liquid fasts if you have kidney or liver disorders, are pregnant, have an eating disorder or are on heavy-duty medications.
Take it easy. "You don't have to stop working, but allow plenty of time for rest and relaxation," said Gittleman. In the first four days, you might feel irritable, tired or have headaches, all signs that your body is detoxifying, she said.
Make it last. "Doing a 3- to 10-day detox diet and going back to smoking and eating McDonald's does nothing," said Dr. Melinda Ring, director of the Northwestern Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness in Chicago. "It's how you live your whole life."