Salt water flushes — also called cleanses or purges — have been touted in the health and wellness world as a way to lose weight, cleanse the colon and alleviate constipation.
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But do salt water cleanses really work and, more importantly, is a salt water flush safe? Here, we explore if drinking salt water is bad for you and whether or not you should try a cleanse.
Drinking salt water or doing a salt water colon cleanse without the supervision of a doctor can be dangerous. Instead, talk to your doctor about alternative ways to accomplish the goal of a salt water flush, whether that's relieving constipation or losing weight.
What's a Salt Water Flush?
There are two common types of salt water cleanses, including:
1. Drinking Salt Water
One form of flushing involves drinking a homemade or store-bought salt water laxative to trigger bowel movements: In other words, yes, salt water does make you poop.
For instance, some claim that drinking salt water for constipation can help relieve discomfort. And indeed, some over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives contain different forms of sodium or magnesium salts — like Golytely and Milk of Magnesia — which may help soften stool to make it easier to pass, according to the University of Virginia.
However, salt water is also used to induce diarrhea for weight-loss purposes. This type of flush was in part made popular as part of the Master Cleanse diet, a "detox" plan that promises to help you lose weight fast and clear your body of toxins, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Part of the Master Cleanse involves quickly drinking warm salt water to encourage frequent bowel movements or diarrhea.
There's no compelling scientific evidence to support this salt water flush diet plan — in fact, it may be ineffective and downright dangerous (more on that later).
How Often Should You Do a Salt Water Flush?
Drinking salt water to lose weight can put your health at risk, per Harvard Health Publishing, which is why it's not recommended to follow a salt water diet in the first place.
If you're considering drinking salt water for constipation, it's instead best to talk to your doctor first, as they can help you find an OTC laxative and tell you how often to take it to ease your symptoms.
2. Salt Water Colon Cleanse
Colon cleanses are another version of salt water flushes.
Proponents of colon cleanses 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. It typically involves flushing large amounts of water into the colon using a tube that's inserted into the rectum.
It's important to note that while salt water cleanses may remove waste from the colon by producing numerous bowel movements, there's no scientific evidence that they can "detoxify" the body by purging harmful toxins, waste or parasites, or that they can contribute to long-term weight loss, per the Mayo Clinic.
The takeaway? It's typically safest to skip salt water cleanses of any kind.
Talk to your doctor if you're considering a colon cleanse of any kind, as it can potentially be harmful to people who take medications or have underlying conditions like kidney or heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Side Effects of Drinking Salt Water
It is typically not safe to drink salt water without doctor supervision, which is why there aren't any proven salt water flush benefits to speak of.
Instead, drinking or colon cleansing with salt water can produce side effects such as:
The sudden, frequent diarrhea produced by a salt water cleanse can result in dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluids than it takes in, and can cause symptoms like:
- Extreme thirst
- Dry mouth
- Infrequent urination
- Dark-colored urine
In severe cases, dehydration can also lead to:
- Black or bloody stools
- Kidney issues
Most cases of dehydration can be treated at home by sipping water when you feel thirsty. But severe dehydration or dehydration in young or old individuals may require emergency medical attention. If you or your loved one show signs of severe dehydration, seek care immediately, per the Mayo Clinic.
2. Electrolyte Imbalances
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, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). They're extremely important to your body's functioning.
The sudden, frequent diarrhea produced by a salt water cleanse can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, according to the NLM. This can cause symptoms similar to those of dehydration, such as:
- Extreme thirst
Per 2013 research in the World Journal of Emergency Medicine, electrolyte imbalances can also cause issues like:
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart problems
A severe imbalance in electrolytes can have serious health complications like seizures, muscle cramps, kidney damage or low blood volume, which can be life-threatening, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Sodium Overload
This can lead to high levels of sodium in your blood, a condition called hypernatremia, according to the University of Utah Health. It can cause symptoms like:
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle spasms
In extreme cases, hypernatremia can cause coma, brain damage or death, per the University of Utah Health. It can also lead to complications for people with underlying conditions like diabetes, hypertension and kidney, liver and heart disease, according to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.
As a result, it is not OK to drink salt water or try a salt water colon flush, especially if you have these conditions.
Seek medical care immediately if you show signs of hypernatremia.
4. Weight Regain
Although detox diets and salt water flush weight loss results are promoted by celebrities and TV doctors, there's no evidence to support the health claims surrounding them, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While salt water may help you lose weight initially by eliminating water from your system, most people regain the weight they've lost as soon as they resume their usual diet, per the NIH.
Salt water flush weight-loss diets also claim to rid your body of toxins and harmful substances. But there's likewise no evidence to back this assertion.
In fact, you never need to follow a special salt water weight-loss program or detox plan to help your body get rid of harmful substances. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, your body naturally detoxifies itself — all day, every day — and rids your body of the toxic substances through respiration, urination, feces and sweat.
Safe Alternatives to Cleanses
There are countless cleanses, detoxes and laxatives available today, but the safest way to detoxify your body is to support the health of your organs, particularly your liver and kidneys — the two most important pieces of your body's built-in detoxification system, per Texas A&M University.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, here's what you can do to promote organ health and overall wellbeing:
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Fluid and Electrolyte Balance"
- University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: "Sodium Overload"
- American Heart Association: "American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids"
- National Ocean Service: "Can Humans Drink Seawater?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Colon Cleansing: Is It Helpful or Harmful?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The dubious practice of detox"
- University of Virginia: "Treatment of Chronic Constipation"
- World Journal of Emergency Medicine: "General characteristics of patients with electrolyte imbalance admitted to emergency department"
- University of Utah Health: "Risks of Salt Poisoning"
- National Institutes of Health: "“Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "What's the Deal with Detox Diets?"
- Texas A&M University: "Organ Systems: Detoxification"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "What You Can Do to Maintain Your Health"