The Dangers of a Salt Water Cleanse

Salt water cleanses, otherwise known as flushes or purges, have been touted in the health and wellness world as a way to lose weight, cleanse the colon and alleviate constipation. But do salt water cleanses really work and, more important, are there any salt water flush dangers?

Salt water cleanse can cause dehydration. Credit: Anna-Ok/iStock/GettyImages

What's a Salt Water Cleanse?

Salt water cleanses are touted as an easy, highly effective way to cleanse the colon., although there's no scientific evidence confirming the benefits of a salt water cleanse. Proponents of colon cleanses, such as salt water flushes, claim they can help "detox" the body, reduce bloating and constipation, shed excess weight caused by waste build-up and water retention and remove parasites from the colon, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A salt water flush will likely produce many urgent bowel movements over the course of several hours, so it's typically recommended that those undergoing a salt water flush remain in close proximity to the bathroom all day. It's important to note that salt water cleanses are effective in removing waste from the colon by producing numerous bowel movements, but there's no scientific evidence that they can "detoxify" the body by removing harmful toxins, waste or parasites, or that they can contribute to long-term weight loss.

Read more: Just Say "No" to That Detox Diet or Juice Cleanse

Risks Linked to Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluids than it takes in, and can result in serious health complications ranging from dizziness and headache, to kidney issues, seizures and shock caused by low blood volume. Most cases of dehydration can be treated at home, but severe dehydration, or dehydration in very young or very old individuals, may require emergency medical attention.

Among other causes, like vomiting, excessive sweating and frequent urination, severe diarrhea is a common cause of dehydration. The sudden, frequent diarrhea produced by a salt water cleanse can result in severe dehydration. If you choose to undergo a salt water cleanse, it's vital to replenish lost liquids with water or electrolyte drinks.

Be on the lookout for symptoms of dehydration, such as extreme thirst, dry mouth, infrequent urination, fatigue and dark-colored urine. If you experience severe symptoms, like the inability to keep fluids down, bloody or black bowel movements, or disorientation, stop your cleanse and seek emergency medical care immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that your doctor may recommend a rehydration treatment, such as drinks containing glucose, sodium and potassium, or intravenous fluids in very severe cases.

Read more: Is it Bad to Drink a Lot of Water When Dehydrated?

Risks Linked to Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that help your body maintain balance in its water and pH levels, deliver nutrients to the body's cells and support proper function of the brain, heart, muscles and nervous system. Electrolytes are extremely important to the healthy functioning of your body.

The sudden, frequent diarrhea produced by a salt water cleanse can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. Signs of an electrolyte imbalance are similar to those of dehydration, such as dizziness, fatigue and extreme thirst. The complications linked to an electrolyte imbalance include weakness and fatigue, muscle spasms, seizures and cardiac issues, like high blood pressure or irregular heart beat. Severe signs of an electrolyte imbalance include involuntary muscle spasms, seizures, and loss of consciousness, due to disrupted electrical messages to the brain and muscles.

You can prevent an electrolyte imbalance by replenishing lost body fluids with water or electrolyte drinks. If you experience severe symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Read more: The Benefits of Electrolytes in Water

Risks Linked to Sodium Overload

Although frequent bowel movements are the typical result of a salt water cleanse, not everyone will experience numerous, productive bowel movements. Not having a bowel movement after consuming several quarts of salt water can be extremely dangerous, and result in sodium overload, or excessive amounts of sodium in the body. Too much sodium in the body can lead to heart problems, such as high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat, while chronic high sodium can contribute to diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease.

Because there's a high risk of sodium overload linked to salt water cleanses, they're not recommended for people who have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney issues, or pregnant or nursing women. If you're taking medication that affects your body's sodium levels or causes frequent urination, talk to your doctor before starting any kind of cleanse. You may be at an increased risk of dehydration if you choose to undergo a salt water cleanse.

Read more: What is Normal for Blood Pressure?

Safe Alternatives to Cleanses

There are countless cleanses, detoxes and laxatives available today, but the safest way to detoxify your body is to boost the health of your digestive system, liver and kidneys — your body's built-in detoxification system. Some simple ways to promote digestive, liver and kidney health include:

  • Eating a balanced, fiber-rich diet that includes whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Getting 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise each week, as recommended by the American Heart Association
  • Avoiding smoking and reducing alcohol consumption
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight for your age, sex and activity levels

Read more: 10 Ways to Stay Fit & Healthy

Before undergoing any cleanse, check with your doctor to make sure it's safe for you and won't interfere with any regular medications you may take. If you're experiencing chronic constipation, your primary care physician or gastroenterologist can recommend safe, effective and scientifically backed treatment options that can help provide relief.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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