The Master Cleanse: Crazy Detox or Beneficial Fast?

by Sarah Detoxification, Natural RemediesComments: 12

master cleanse ingredients

The first time I heard about the Master Cleanse (not to be confused with the Master Tonic) was while sitting on a bench at a playground over ten years ago. My oldest child was in Preschool at the time, and one of the Moms there was ecstatically describing to me how she wanted to try the Lemonade Diet, as the Master Cleanse is sometimes called, to lose weight and gain energy. Her husband was apparently already on it and dropping weight fast.

Intrigued, I asked her about the specifics of this wonder detox. As she described the ridiculously simple fasting regimen, I felt my eyes get so big that I’m pretty sure she must have thought they were going to pop out of my head.

How could consuming nothing but a mixture of water, fresh lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup 6-10 times a day for a recommended 10 days possibly be good for you?

Here’s the Master Cleanse three-phased program in its entirety if you are not already familiar (1):

  1. Ease-In and Ease-Out: 3 days before and after The Lemonade Diet that slowly removes or re-introduces complex, processed (C.R.A.P.) foods from your diet.
  2. The Lemonade Diet: “10 Days to Lose Weight Fast, and Feel Great At Last”
  3. Every Day Detox: Every day a Natural Detox Method must be engaged to eliminate waste such as an herbal detox tea, laxatives, or the Salt Water Flush.

While common sense is your first clue that the Master Cleanse is a very dangerous type of detox to consider if one’s long-term health is a priority (not just fitting into the skinny jeans as fast as possible for a weekend party), research will tell you this as well.

Oops, that is, if there was any research on the Master Cleanse!

You see, there is absolutely no scientific basis or legitimate research to be found on the detox cleanse and diet known as the Master Cleanse. A quick google of scientific literature sites will confirm this for you in a hurry.

What’s more, there is no traditional practice in ancestral cultures from around the world that mimics anything remotely similar. Given that there is no anthropological or scientific basis for conducting such a crazy, wild experiment on one’s biology, why do it?

Good question.

Gentle Detox Sans the Master Cleanse

The most optimal and safe approach to cleansing and detox involves not just eliminating toxins. It also must include proper nourishment of the body while the cleanse is occurring, especially the liver which is the body’s main detoxification organ. A nourished body with a liver that is getting all the nutrients it needs is going to do an infinitely better job than a starved body and strained liver that is overwhelmed by fat-soluble toxins that have been released into the bloodstream in larger amounts than normal in a short space of time such as what occurs during the Master Cleanse.

Elimination of toxins rapidly in the absence of any nutrition is an incredibly stressful event. Because of this, proper nutrition must be included in any detoxification or weight loss regimen so that permanent damage does not inadvertently occur during the cleansing process. Gentle is a key aspect of any safe detoxification protocol, never starvation or deprivation (1).

Anything else and run for the hills!

While doing the Master Cleanse for 10 days will probably cause you to lose some weight because you’re getting so few calories, most of the weight loss will be water that you will gain right back when you start eating normally again (2). In addition, the physiological stress from the cleanse will likely skyrocket levels of the stress hormone cortisol which may actually cause you to gain weight back more rapidly (and then some) once the cleanse is over (3). What’s worse, you’ll also lose muscle and bone and possibly damage yourself in the process.

Worth it?  Your call, but science and common sense would both say definitely not!

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Comments (12)

  • Taryn

    I’m so happy you posted this Sarah, thank you. My friend once did this cleanse although she used the Vibrant Health all in one supplement and it went horribly wrong. She got very bad sores in her mouth and was weak and when she asked the health store lady where she purchased the goods from, was told that she did the detox wrong!

    January 20th, 2016 2:46 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      So sad. That’s what the pat answer is when people get ill from these ridiculous cleansing diets or fad supplements … oh, you did it wrong! Really? No responsibility accepted at all that their approach and/or supplements were in fact dangerous.

      January 21st, 2016 9:12 am Reply
  • GLow

    I recommend reading the book ‘Clean’ by Alejandro Junger. He developed a gentle yet very effective detox program, which makes sure the body is appropriately nourished during the detox process, while also repairing the gut. It is a very good read. I haven’t tried the program yet (which is 3 weeks long), but will do so in the next few weeks, once I can fit it into my schedule.

    January 19th, 2016 5:08 pm Reply
  • Cindy

    Would you mind giving the scientific source for epsom salt baths and seaweed wraps and vinegar baths? The study you quote by the epsom salt council is not published anywhere and neither are most of Dr. Wilson’s suggestions. If those are your standards of “scientific literature sites”, I am sure that if you google harder you can find alternative practitioners who have had much success with their patients and their own unpublished results on the Master Cleanse.

    The pubmed link you include has nothing to do with the effect of the Master Cleanse on cortisol levels. You are simply hypothesizing (i.e., speculating) that this cleanse will raise cortisol levels. Which may be true. Or not. It would make sense to me to hypothesize that the physiological stress of sauna usage would raise cortisol levels as well. Which it can do short term. But scientific studies have shown it has a beneficial effect in the long term. It would also make sense to me to hypothesize that dry fasts or liquid fasts in general cause physiological stress which may cause an increase in cortisol levels. But ancient traditions have used these methods for centuries with beneficial effects. In your article on raw milk fasts, you do not hypothesize that such a diet can cause physiological stress which can cause cortisol to skyrocket and then you’ll gain weight — here, look at the pubmed link! The traditional way to perform that diet includes many components specifically designed to COUNTERACT the physiological stress of the diet itself (like staying in bed all day with lots of fresh air), so it seems likely that if you were to incorporate that diet into your ordinary modern-day life it could totally raise your cortisol levels, no?

    For some reason, you decided that the Master Cleanse is a dangerous fad and you are defending your position with reasoning that could just as easily be applied to the practices you recommend as healthy. I think the reason you support some detox methods and not others is due to the people who are recommending them. Some you believe are trustworthy and have a good track record with long-term patient care and others you think are fad-mongerers. But don’t couch this in “science”, cuz there are plenty of dangerous fads that have all sorts of junk science to support them and plenty of healthy practices that are disparaged quite heavily in the respected scientific literature of our day.

    Personally, I have no desire to try this particular cleanse, and I am happy with a traditional, whole foods diet, with the occasional sauna and coffee enema. But I think it is a bit disingenuous to demand one standard of research for a cleanse you do like and another for a cleanse you do not. Most holistic practices are not supported by today’s accepted “scientific literature”. That doesn’t mean they don’t work. But let’s call a spade a spade and not apply double standards.

    January 19th, 2016 3:31 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      A raw milk fast is nutrient dense and sufficient in calories … I didn’t lose any weight on it (which was good because I didn’t want to lose any weight and wouldn’t have done it otherwise due to the bodily stress and increase in cortisol levels it likely would have induced). I think what you need to distinguish is fasting with nourishment (like a raw milk fast) and fasting without any nourishment.. i.e., inducing starvation like the Master Cleanse which would definitely spike cortisol levels for the 10 day period unlike a sauna which would be for just a few minutes. Also, you need to consider ancestral fasting with no food at all which was not practiced by the masses and was attempted by individuals who were using it for spiritual advancement rather than health improvement. This is similar to historical veganism .. it was never practiced by a society as a whole (because it would have eventually caused the society to die out from infertility and/or rampant infectious disease in a few generations) but only by a few individuals who were not having any children and were just doing it as part of a spiritual practice.

      The Master Cleanse is nothing short of idiotic. I’ve never met a single person in 10+ years who said they benefited long term other than a temporary reduction in a bloated stomach so they could fit into the skinny jeans for a week or two. And, most ended up fatter months down the road than they were before they started the master cleanse … a hallmark of a yo-yo diet/fad that harms rather than helps.

      January 20th, 2016 8:13 am Reply
      • Birdie Hill

        I have benefitted from the Master Cleanse! I follow the guidelines of Stanley Burroughs, it’s originator, and am healthier overall due to my twice a year cleanses. I DON’T just use it as a means to lose weight and “get back into my skinny jeans”, either! It is a twice yearly cleanse and reset for my body. I fast for 15 days following the guidelines set forth in Mr. Burroughs original book, Not the “easier versions” or alternate, commercial “buy the kit” versions. If you can’t follow the Simple Direction, yes, you can hurt yourself. I’m a grown-up and can accept responsibility for Not Following Directions. There is a Mental Discipline required that Some Folks are too Lazy to adhere to. It’s Not Easy. Sorry. Those 15 days clear out bad habits and cravings that slip into my diet and lifestyle over time. I have NO health issues requiring doctors or pharmaceuticals. My health overall has Improved in the 7 Years I’ve done twice yearly Master Cleanses. My friends and family no longer worry or send me articles like yours in attempts to discourage me.

        January 27th, 2016 12:50 pm Reply
  • delilah

    Would you mind discussing the benefits of fasting, which is certainly an ancestral practice in many cultures? Why would the master cleanse be any worse (or less effective) than the ancient tradition of fasting? Perhaps the number of days involved? Not all traditional methods of detoxing involved nutrient-dense “gentle” detoxification. While the maser cleanse is certainly a modern-take on the liquid fast, I’m not certain that automatically condemns it to quackery . . .

    January 19th, 2016 2:54 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Fasting with nourishment is fine as in a raw milk fast or a very short juicing cleanse. Fasting with no nourishment is not fine … especially in this modern age when people are already nutritionally deficient, toxic, stressed and exhausted before even starting the fasting cleanse!

      January 21st, 2016 9:14 am Reply
  • Joy

    Yes Sarah what would you recommend?

    January 19th, 2016 7:52 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Nutrient dense diet (including LOTS of bone broth) combined with gentle cleansing such as detox bathing or kelp wraps (many posts on this on this blog). The body knows how to detox itself just fine if you give it proper nourishment and stop eating/exposing yourself to the junk food and chemicals. Veggie juicing is also very good and a proven way to detox, but should not be done on its own unless it is for a very short time (1-3 days only). See the category “detoxification” on this blog as there are many posts on gentle approaches that are safe for internal cleansing that won’t damage body systems long term.

      January 19th, 2016 10:54 am Reply
  • Kay

    I like your approach, looking for evidence from (good) scientific research and/or anthropology. Whenever I hear advice that contravenes what people have been doing for thousands of years, I get skeptical.

    January 19th, 2016 7:29 am Reply
  • Mayra

    What would you recommend as a safe, well rounded cleanse. I have done a liver/ gallbladder cleanse and it works to eliminate stones, but I can tell it puts a lot of stress on my body.

    January 19th, 2016 4:35 am Reply

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