When Dale Zarzana, 53, decided to try a juice cleanse, she hoped, at best, to wring off a few extra pounds. "I wanted to try something radically different," she says. After a short fast, Zarzana lost the weight, along with her allergies, joint pain and lifelong caffeine habit.

Trading food for nutrient-rich juices is becoming an acceptable shortcut to good health. And if shaking persistent fatigue or headaches isn't enough to persuade you, consider that most people who complete a juice cleanse claim a sense of clarity, calm and purity.

"Cleansing is an opportunity for people to clean up their diets and to simplify their lives for a time," says Laurel Vukovic, herbalist and author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall, 1998).

Your body is a diligent detoxer. Each night while you sleep, your liver, gallbladder, kidneys and intestines coordinate to remove free radicals and other metabolic byproducts from cells and tissues. In a perfect world, this efficient system would continue as long as you did. But it doesn't. Stowaway pesticides, herbicides and other toxins remain entrenched in fatty tissues. Indigestion and congestion abound. Why? Because your body's detox to-do list has become downright overwhelming.

The culprit is dinner. More precisely, too much dinner. Diets high in sugar, fat, caffeine, alcohol and a host of additives press the body's self-cleaning mechanism into a state of constant catch-up. Beleaguered by these everyday toxins, the body becomes vulnerable to illness.

"Juice cleansing gives your digestive system a rest," explains Vukovic. "It helps to bring your whole body back into balance." Given a reprieve from digesting dinner, the body will concentrate its energies elsewhere—namely, waste removal through the skin, kidneys and intestines. A diet of fresh vegetable and fruit juices not only enhances this cleansing process, but the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it delivers help repair damaged tissues as well.

Juice cleansing is the solution to what Elson M. Haas, MD, author of The Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 1996), calls obese malnutrition. "Most people eat a lot of refined and fast foods," he says. "They're getting high calories, but low nutrients." A juice fast does just the opposite and may also alleviate persistent health problems associated with poor diet. Foods such as wheat, dairy, sugar, corn and soy often trigger or exacerbate illness, says Haas. Briefly removing these foods from your menu may clear up conditions including acne, arthritis, headaches, indigestion and insomnia.

To Every Cleanse, A Season
Cleansing twice a year, in the spring and the fall, "is a nice personal healing ritual—a time to tune in to your body and nourish your well-being," says Vukovic.

Spring is the best time to cleanse with traditional purifying juices from apples, grapes, oranges and carrots. "The fresher the better," says Haas. Some water-soluble vitamins are lost soon after juicing, so try to avoid canned or frozen juices. Bottled juices still contain helpful nutrients, but not in as great a quantity as juice from fresh organic fruits and vegetables.

As the weather turns colder, it's important to keep the digestive fires burning, says Vukovic, who recommends hot broths made from root vegetables, winter squash and miso for autumn cleansing. For a cozy touch, add warming herbs such as ginger and garlic to a tonic soup. Try to limit the cold juices you drink during a fall cleanse, as they tend to cool the body and might give you the shivers.

If the thought of sipping broth makes your stomach growl, smoothies also fit the cleansing bill, even mixtures that contain chlorophyll-rich spirulina, chlorella or blue-green algae for extra nutritional support and energy during your fast. "They keep the body and the brain working a little better," says Haas, who advises against heavy smoothie additives such as dairy, protein powder or vitamins. Such ingredients are difficult to digest and tend to burden the body rather than give it the rest it needs.

Headaches, fatigue and irritability are common side effects of cleansing, but they generally fade with the first hunger pangs. If you have an entrenched caffeine or sugar habit, such symptoms may be more persistent, so be patient. They will generally subside after the first day of cleansing.

How long and how often per season to cleanse is up to you. Short cleanses of one to three days are safe to do on your own. But if you're planning to go without food for a longer time, it's best to seek supervision from a health care practitioner.

Create A Fasting Atmosphere
If you're a first-time faster, schedule your juice cleanse during a quiet weekend free of housework and errands. Doing so will ensure you get the most health benefit from your cleanse and aren't distracted by fatigue or mood swings. Have all organic fruits and vegetables on hand. Make broths ahead of time. Store up a cache of books and music. Turn off the phone.

"Be really gentle with yourself," advises Vukovic. "Choose a time when you're going to be able to slow down and enjoy the cleanse." Treat yourself to baths, reading and meditation. Drink plenty of purified water to help flush out toxins and exercise lightly by stretching or walking.

Zarzana admits she was pleasantly surprised by the added benefits of energy, health and calm from her quick "weight-loss" fast. In fact, those effects needn't end when your cleanse does. Think of it as a sneak preview to your life if you made a few simple dietary and lifestyle changes. Then make them.

Catherine Monahan is a health and science writer and frequent contributor to Delicious Living.