March 1, 2022 — Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently made headlines when he said he finished a 12-day detoxification process that is said to cleanse the body from within. But experts warn that this process — known as a Panchakarma cleanse — can have dangerous consequences should fans follow in his footsteps.
Registered dietitians who spoke to WebMD about the Panchakarma cleanse were quick to debunk it.
“There is no scientific evidence that supports a cleanse,” says Jessica DeGore, a registered dietitian and owner of Pittsburgh-based Dietitian Jess. “Our kidneys, GI systems, and liver all work to keep us healthy and rid us of toxins.”
The Panchakarma cleanse has roots in the ancient Indian alternative medicine approach known as ayurveda. Its 12-day approach includes such actions as self-induced vomiting; enemas; “nasya,” which means eliminating toxins through the nose; and even bloodletting in an effort to “detoxify” the blood.
All of it is misguided, says Alyssa Pike, a registered dietitian and senior manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council.
“Certainly, there are medical procedures that require a fast of some kind for an extended period, and some choose to engage in a fast for religious or spiritual reasons,” she says, “but those are both very different from doing a voluntary ‘cleanse’ or ‘detox’ diet for purported health benefits.”
In fact, the idea that our bodies are full of “toxins” is simply incorrect.
“There isn’t a real medical definition of the word ‘toxins,’” says DeGore. “If you really had toxins in your body, you’d need emergency medical care, not a cleanse.”
The entire notion of cleansing, whether Rodgers’s favored method or another, has gathered steam in the past few decades as celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow peddle their favored methods for health.
“It’s easy for people to buy into these ideas when they see beautiful celebrities touting their methods for taking care of themselves,” says DeGore. “But behind the scenes, they receive support we can’t see or access to keep them well.”
Fans of Rodgers, Paltrow, and the like easily forget that these public figures have no medical credentials to support what they are pushing. And the celebrities often profit from their claims in the form of books and products related to them, leaving them anything but an unbiased resource.
In the case of Rodgers’s Panchakarma cleanse, there are real health risks in following its principles, says registered dietitian nutritionist Tiffany Godwin, director of nutrition and wellness at Connections Wellness Group.
“From a medical standpoint, engaging in activities such as induced vomiting, forced diarrhea, and enema use pose a high risk of extreme dehydration,” she says. “When we vomit, or have diarrhea, we are not simply losing a mass amount of fluid from our bodies, but we are also losing essential electrolytes and minerals.”
Also, a cleanse that is designed to rid your body of toxins may introduce them to your body if you are using herbal medicines.
“Some of the products used in ayurvedic medicine contain herbs, metals, minerals, or other materials that may be harmful if used improperly,” Pike explains. “Ayurvedic medicines are regulated as dietary supplements rather than as drugs in the United States, so they are not required to meet the safety and efficacy standards for conventional medicines.”
When it comes to ayurveda, which is based on ancient writings that rely on a “natural” or holistic approach to physical and mental health, there is scant research or clinical trials in Western medical journals to support the approach. So people interested in following the practices should always consult with a doctor before trying them.
Rodgers’s approach includes a “nasal herbal remedy,” for instance.
“Tread very lightly with herbs and supplements,” advises DeGore. “We have the FDA to put drugs through a rigorous process before they approve them. These supplements are unregulated and don’t go through the same processes.”
Another danger is that when “cleansing,” you are starving your body of the nutrients it needs.
“When we vomit, or have diarrhea, we are not simply losing a mass amount of fluid from our bodies, but we are also losing essential electrolytes and minerals,” says Godwin. “Dehydration can lead to fatigue, headaches, and dizziness at best. At worst, it can lead to seizures, kidney failure, coma, and death.”
Instead, say the registered dietitians, you can help your body by feeding it what it really needs.
“Eating plenty of fiber-rich foods such as fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, and whole grains, for example, keeps our GI tract moving and grooving, creating an ideal environment for our gut to use the useful things, and get rid of the not so useful,” says Godwin. “These systems can be compromised in different disease states, such as liver disease, kidney disease, and other GI disorders like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. With these disease states, however, cleanses can be even more harmful.”
Cleansing practices can also be a very slippery slope for people struggling with disordered eating.
“When celebrities promote these cleanses, they often bring in impressionable people,” says DeGore. “These approaches are stripping your body of nutritional needs and inducing disruptive behaviors. Ironically, they will slow down your metabolism, eventually leading to weight gain when you return to normal eating.”
With the Panchakarma cleanse, the 12-day length of cleansing is particularly alarming, says DeGore.
“Even after 5 days, you cannot think clearly and will have nasty side effects,” she says.
At the end of the day, whether it’s Rodgers, Paltrow, or another celebrity, all of the dietitians recommend steering clear of their advice when it comes to health and nutrition.
“Be wary of celebrities, influencers, or anyone who tries to persuade you to try an extreme cleanse or ‘too good to be true’ diet,” says Pike. “These can be dangerous for your health, physically and mentally.”