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Do detox retreats and cleanse treatments actually help?

The popularity of luxury retreats that offer cleanse treatments is high. Lounge finds out more about these treatments and how they may help with your health

Do detox retreats and cleanse treatments help?
Do detox retreats and cleanse treatments help? (Istockphoto)

Retreats, mind-body reset, detox and cleanse routines buzzwords in the realm of wellness, fitness and health right now. An increasing number of people are signing up for luxury programmes and packages that offer these services for about  15,000 per day, in order to improve their health and wellbeing. 

The full range of services at these wellness retreats range from something as vague as “total cleanse” or “Ayurvedic detox” to yoga and diabetes management. In line with a growing interest in them, promoters of wellness centres claim that this is the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with people focusing much more on their health than before. 

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Most of the cleanse routines are structured programmes designed to help participants detoxify, rejuvenate, and revitalise their bodies and minds, says Dr. Pawan Kumar Goyal, senior consultant for internal medicine, Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh in New Delhi. “Wellness retreats are dedicated spaces where individuals can focus on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. The specific components and details of cleanse routines can vary widely depending on the retreat's philosophy and approach, but they often include elements such as mental cleansing, nutritional cleansing, colon cleansing, fasting, mindfulness and meditation, among others,” says Goyal. 

Nikhil Kapur, founder director of Atmantan Wellness Centre, says their most popular therapies are Ayurveda Panchakarma and the ‘Master Cleanse’ that helps one achieve a holistic cleanse. “Both these programmes are very popular because they are based on the foundation of traditional medicinal systems of India. The key ingredient of both these programmes is that they help eliminate emotional toxins as well. This is what truly makes the programme holistic,” says Kapur.    

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The actionable measures of such retreats range from reducing screen time to addressing social media overdose, to following a specific diet plan, eliminating processed foods, caffeine, smoking, alcohol. Some cleanse routines also incorporate fasting. Then there are packages that involve exercise, yoga, meditation, hiking, and other forms of physical activity. Meanwhile, wellness packages emphasise mental and emotional wellbeing, through guided meditation and mindfulness practices, to reduce stress. 

Some offer spa treatments like saunas, hot baths, or massages to facilitate the release of toxins through the skin. They also offer semi-invasive treatments like enemas or colonic irrigation procedures, to help remove toxins and waste material from the colon.

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However, do these detox and cleanse interventions, and treatments really clean you from the inside out as claimed? Depends on who you ask. While the stakeholders insist these interventions improves their clients’ lives, medical, nutrition and fitness experts are divided on this with many dismissing several of these offerings as a gimmick. Cleanse retreats that promise to cleanse the body frequently rest on shaky premises, says Chandni Haldurai, head of nutrition at Cult Fit. The human body already has efficient natural detoxification mechanisms in our liver and kidneys. A point of contention being treatments involving enemas and colonic irrigation procedures. ““This is a controversial practice, and its safety and effectiveness are debated within the medical community,” warns Goyal.  

These cleanse and detox routines do offer a break from unhealthy habits and provide a reset for the body and mind. While some people may experience increased energy and improved digestion, others may find them challenging or experience adverse effects, says Goyal. “It's essential to approach wellness retreats and cleanse routines with a well-informed perspective and realistic expectations. The scientific evidence supporting the idea that these programs effectively purify the body is limited. The human body has its built-in mechanisms for detoxification, primarily through the liver and kidneys. The idea of a ‘cleanse or ‘detox' programme dramatically improving these natural processes is often unsubstantiated.”

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One of the main reasons for the rise of such wellness programmes is the sharp rise of chronic illness and lifestyle diseases. “Since Covid, people are also choosing to proactively work on improving their health… whether it is their comorbidities or other compromised health parameters. Besides all this, people are consuming preventive healthcare information like never before and are thus also more receptive to healing holidays today,” explains Kapur. He admits there is skepticism among practitioners of modern medicine and even fitness professionals, but argues on behalf of traditional knowledge systems. “Today, healthcare is a multi-plural concept. One needs to have a 360-degree assessment and only then conform to a comprehensive framework to treat the said ailment. While acute conditions can be dealt with medically, it is alternative medicine that is most suited for chronic ailments,” says Sharmilee Kapur, co-founder and director, Atmantan. 

Goyal says that there is a lack of well-designed, rigorous scientific studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of cleanse routines, and that these programmes often lack proper scientific scrutiny. “Alternative science is not a recognized, or accepted term in the scientific community. Thus, the medical and scientific communities generally do not support the idea that commercial cleanse programmes are necessary for detoxifying the body,” says Goyal.  

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Sharmilee points out that at Amantan they work closely with doctors and not in total isolation. She also admits that not all wellness programmes are the same and there are some dubious ones out there, so one needs to be careful. But she adds that while doctors are definitely needed to treat serious ailments, non-communicable and lifestyle diseases can readily be addressed through alternative medicine.

However, these interventions aren’t cheap. At Atmantan, the average cost of using their packages is  25,000 per day. One should also consider Haldurai and Goyal’s warning that extreme cleansing regimens may interfere with the workings of our liver and kidney, which play a big role in flushing out waste and toxins from our bodies, resulting in nutrient imbalances and possible damage. Ultimately, the benefits you think you can achieve from cleanse routines depends on your research and qualified medical advice.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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