Detox vs cleanse: what’s the difference?

“So how did you go about designing a detox diet?” I’m chatting with Samantha Gowing, head chef at Cabarita Ocean Health Retreat in northern NSW while she cuts pumpkin at the counter retreat’s large family-style kitchen — organic, locally grown pumpkin that smells like ambrosia. I’ve never thought consciously about the scent of pumpkin before and here I am trying to conduct an interview while veritably drooling over this raw squash. But I digress.

“This isn’t a detox diet,” says Sam, matter-of-factly. That sets me back in my line of questioning a little. I try another tack. “I mean the menu, for the detox retreat,” I ask, thinking it a fairly straightforward question and foolishly expecting a pat answer. “Detox is a clinical state,” she replies, going on to explain, “It takes months to detoxify the liver and kidneys, eating only food that has low or no chemicals, no additives or preservatives.”

“Then what are we doing here?” I think to myself. Clearly guessing my thoughts, Sam explains, “Cleansing is about taking the load off the body for a few days; detoxifying is about restoring the body to a natural, non-toxic state.”

A cleansing week at a retreat is probably as far as most of us go toward the long-term (perhaps lifelong) process of detoxifying. So, is it possible to live a detoxified life? That is, while still living in a world of commuting and Friday night wine and morning teas and school fete sausage sizzles and coffee and parabens and artificial flavours and … you can no doubt add to the list.

Of course it’s also a world of organic and biodynamic vegetables and gluten-dairy-sugar-free muffins and parabens-free cosmetics. In my opinion, the answer is definitely, “Maybe.” While the ideal of living a non-toxic existence is an attractive one, the downside can be a Little Miss Picky reputation with colleagues and friends, and Mr Mean with your kids. Of course, smoking, drinking and even eating meat can earn you similar outsider status, depending on your peer group.

“Common sense dictates that our diets and even the air we breathe may introduce substances into the body that have toxic potential,” says prize-winning medical doctor, author and speaker, Dr John Briffa, a leading authority on the impact of nutrition and other lifestyle factors on health and illness. “Many natural health practitioners recognise the concept of body toxicity: a build-up of potentially poisonous substances in the system that may spawn problems such as fatigue, headache, spots and bad breath.”

He points to drinking as one of the most obvious examples. “Enough alcohol, regularly enough, can damage the liver. As a result, the liver can fail to do its job properly, which can lead to the build-up of potentially toxic substances that effectively ‘poison’ the body. These things might overwhelm the body’s detox capabilities and therefore harm the body.” He suggests that improving hydration and nutrition will support the liver, help the body reduce the toxic load and enhance health and wellbeing.


Jane Hutchens, a naturopath, registered nurse and educator with a Bachelor of Health Science (Complementary Medicine) and a clinic near Penrith, NSW, says a tailored cleansing program can assist in the treatment of specific conditions such as fatty liver and food intolerance or be used in a general way to reinvigorate the body by gently revitalising the elimination organs (skin, kidneys, liver, bowel, lymphatic and immune systems). She cites increased energy, clearer thinking, less flatulence and bloating, clear skin and probably a drop in weight as the primary outcomes of a cleanse.

First of all, what is a cleanse? Generally, it involves cutting out a lot of the stuff that’s usual in our Western diets (wheat/gluten, sugar, dairy, alcohol, caffeine are the top five on the list) and replacing those foods with more vegetables. However, it’s also about reducing other toxic substances — stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol — and increasing healing activities such as sleep, gentle exercise, breathing and relaxation.

Cleanses come in various forms — fasting from solid food and drinking only juices or perhaps even just water, for example — but the point is that they are all temporary measures, as brief as a weekend, potentially up to a month or more. Regardless of length, it can be daunting to go cold turkey on anything you’re accustomed to having in your system. If coffee is a ritual, then caffeine withdrawal can bring on headaches for 24–48 hours. Those who are accustomed to eating meat at least once a day may find a vegetable juice protocol causes rapid changes to their usual digestive functions.

There’s a plethora of diets, juices and fasting combinations, but some of the options include juice fasting, water fasting, soup diets, the grapefruit diet, lemon detox diet, metabolism stimulating, alkalising, liver cleanse, elimination diets … the list goes on. So which are fads and which work? Of course, that’s a subject for an entire book, but there is scientific validity to many of the approaches. Some such diets are designed for very short periods of time while others can be safely and healthfully undertaken for long periods.

Laura Minford, general manager of Urban Remedy in Bondi, NSW, a company that packages and sends freshly squeezed juice, smoothies and soups all over Australia, explains that vegetable juicing helps to rebuild and cleanse cells simultaneously. While there are so many detox regimes around that aren’t sustainable because they don’t provide enough nutrition, Laura advises that any fast should be designed and monitored by a qualified nutritionist.

A simple and nutritionally balanced cleanse program will offer all-natural, nutrient-dense creations that maximise the body’s opportunity to cleanse, heal and repair. She also suggests that juices be made with cold-press or masticating juicers rather than high-speed commercial or home juicers, which juice at a very high speed, resulting in an oxygenated juice with a much-reduced nutrient density. Cold-press or masticating machines extract juice using an efficient, slow-speed pressing or chewing action, releasing and preserving more nutrients and producing “living” juice that is ideal for cleansing.

Ongoing detox habits

Aside from eating uncontaminated whole foods, drinking purified water and ditching alcohol and coffee as much as is humanly possible (that is, introducing fewer toxins into the body), there are practices that may suit your lifestyle on an ongoing basis to help your body to continue doing what it is designed to do — ie efficiently process and remove wastes. The examples listed below are all backed by medically based published evidence.

Apple cider vinegar

Jessica Ainscough, blogger, television presenter and holistic health coach, explains that apple cider vinegar is a famed digestion enhancer. The unique acids in the vinegar can bind to toxins and help the body eliminate them more effectively. She recommends adding a teaspoon to a glass of warm water before each meal or mixing it with flaxseed oil and honey to make a salad dressing.

Colon hydrotherapy

Colin and Olive Harris introduced colon hydrotherapy into their naturopathic practice in 1993. They had observed that where there was constipation or impaired elimination with their clients, there appeared to be challenges or delays in the expected response in regaining health and vitality, and that, following the addition of colon hydrotherapy to treatment plans, the time between presenting with compromised wellness and regaining energy and vitality was much shorter. Now instructors in colon hydrotherapy (also known as colonic irrigation), Colin and Olive describe the treatment as a safe and effective for cleansing the colon of accumulated waste material.

A colonic treatment usually takes around 30–45 minutes, with a practitioner operating the equipment for the duration of the treatment. During the treatment, warm, purified water at low pressure gently bathes the length of the colon, softening accumulated waste and dislodging stuck faecal deposits. Heat packs and external abdominal massage may be used to assist in the release of waste.


Daily exercise delivers a full-body service that effectively draws toxins from all the tissues. Key detoxification processes — perspiration, oxygenation, circulation, digestion — are all enhanced by exercise. Lymphatic waste removal, perhaps the body’s number one method of detox, can’t function without external motion. During exercise, body heat rises as the circulatory system works to get more oxygen to the muscles. Rising body temperature may even convince our bodies that we are experiencing a fever, and this causes it to focus on immune system enhancement — in particular, the filtering of lymph fluid to remove viruses and, at the same time, toxins.

Sweating is another natural way the body flushes out toxins and waste: as body temperature rises, the sweat glands in the skin release fluid to aid cooling through evaporation. Simultaneously, toxins collected in the fat cells just under the surface of the skin can be released through the pores with the perspiration. To improve elimination through the skin, regular exercise and hydration are keys to stimulate sweating.


Rapid changes in body temperature, which stimulate increased circulation of both blood and lymph, are a key attribute of a hydrotherapy circuit. Exposure to sessions of heat and cold is facilitated by therapies such as hot baths, cold plunge pools, high-powered jets of hot and cold water, wading pools, foot baths, steam rooms, wet sheet packs, the application of compresses and showers, to name a few.

Though the concept of a bathing circuit has been around since at least Roman times (with their use of the thermarium and frigidarium), many modern hydrotherapy practices are based on the techniques developed by the Bavarian monk, Father Sebastian Kneipp, in the late 1890s. It uses a program of hot and cold baths, steam baths and herbal wraps. An example of the Kneipp Cure is the very simple practice of standing with the feet in a shallow bath of hot water until they are warmed through, then stepping into a cold water bath until they cool down, repeating several times.

Far infrared sauna

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology reports that infrared sauna treatment significantly lowers blood sugar, increases circulation and induces weight loss. Neurologist Dr Dietrich Klinghardt found that the sweat of people using a conventional sauna was 95–97 per cent water while the sweat of those using an infrared sauna was 80–85 per cent water, the non-water portion being cholesterol, fat-soluble toxins, toxic heavy metals, sulphuric acid, sodium, ammonia and uric acid.

Lymphatic drainage

Joanne Norman, a registered naturopath with a comprehensive array of massage modalities who works at Xtra Health Wellness Clinic in Burleigh Heads, Queensland, says lymphatic drainage massage supports ongoing detoxification by increasing the capacity of the lymphatic collateral vessels. The massage can increase lymph flow up to 25 times the usual rate.

Lymphatic drainage massage is a manual technique that uses a range of gentle rhythmic pumping techniques of light pressure to move the skin in the direction of the lymph flow. This stimulates the lymphatic vessels that carry substances vital to the defence of the body and removes waste products. Sometimes, aromatherapy oils such as carrot, black pepper and sweet fennel are used for their diuretic properties.


Many types of seaweed (marine algae) are touted for their ability to detoxify and cleanse the body by binding to toxins and carrying them out of our systems. Jessica Ainscough says iodine, one of the key ingredients in seaweed, protects the thyroid gland from the effects of radiation and is essential for the production of thyroid hormones, which govern metabolism. She recommends taking chlorella, which has been proven capable of removing toxic substances such as cadmium, dioxins and heavy metals from the body by binding to them.

Seaweed is also considered effective when used outside the body. A weekly bath laced with concentrated seaweed, often Laminaria digitata (oarweed), stimulates the lymphatic system and aids in the elimination of waste and fluids. Seaweeds have been used in thalassotherapy on the Brittany coast of France (where modern-day treatment protocols using seawater and sea ingredients were made popular) for more than 100 years.

Naturopath and nutritionist Saimaa Miller, owner of The Last Resort Organic Detox Spa in Bondi Beach, NSW, says seaweed is often used in the form of a wrap in spas and clinics. The body is first exfoliated with a scrub or brush to enhance the absorption of a creamy mask made with a seaweed concentrate. Following this, the body is cocooned in an insulating material to retain heat and induce perspiration. She has found that the treatment protocol gently increases blood circulation to carry nutrients to the skin, and unblocks localised accumulations of cellulite caused by toxic build-up and poor circulation.

So, ultimately, is the use of the term “cleanse” rather than “detox” simply a matter of semantics? Really, no. The difference in the definitions provides tools for not only clarity of communication but also achievable actions that will all help lead the way to a healthier life.


How to clean up your act

Naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist Sarah Luck advises that, for ease of understanding, a diet and the food in it can be divided simply into acid-forming and alkalising, and for long-term detoxification the key is to reduce acid and promote alkalising foods.

She offers the following rules of thumb.

Acid-forming foods to reduce or avoid:

  • Sugar
  • Peanuts
  • Bread and flour
  • Soft drinks
  • Noodles and pasta
  • Hard cheeses such as parmesan
  • Cereals
  • Processed fruits in syrup
  • Processed meats
  • Excess red meats

Alkalising foods to add or increase:

  • Fruits and fresh fruit juices, especially bananas and apricots
  • Vegetables and fresh vegetable juices, especially spinach
  • Lemon juice and apple cider vinegar
  • Kefir, kombucha and tempeh (fermented foods)
  • Yoghurt
  • Nuts and seeds, especially hazelnuts
  • Mineral water (especially those higher in calcium)
  • Spirulina


Anne-Marie Cook writes about wellness in the forms of physical, emotional and spiritual health.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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