Your guide to detoxes for wellbeing
Staying clean in a modern world can be a challenging task. More than ever before in the history of the human race, we’re exposed to an onslaught of poisons and pollutants on a day-to-day basis — in the air we breathe, in the water we drink and in the food we eat. We’re in constant contact with a vast array of micro-organisms and toxins that are becoming more dangerous to our health and resistant to our drugs. To make matters worse, we live under more consistently high levels of mental and emotional stress than generations before us, and are exposed to more negative information, brought to us daily via the news media. All these factors conspire to bring down our immune systems and destroy the delicate nervous system balance we require to enjoy good health and wellbeing.
The only way to achieve excellent health in a hazardous environment is to regularly put our systems through a naturopathic cleansing program, known as a detoxification or "detox". As part of the health maintenance I prescribe for my patients I recommend they carry out an annual detoxification program to eliminate the accumulated poisons of the year. The initial detox can be very challenging — as thorough as a car’s 100,000km service. Subsequent detox cleansing programs are less difficult and may be for a shorter duration — more like the regular service a car receives from the garage. I find this detox process not only wards off illness, it rejuvenates our organs and tissues. To feel that spring in your step and to have that sparkle in your eye are what you can achieve with detoxification. The word may conjure images of coming off booze or drugs, but in this context detox refers to the traditional naturopathic concept of cleansing our bodies of waste and toxins to improve our system’s function and energy production.
Summer is a perfect time to evaluate your whole health and feelings of wellbeing. The Christmas and New Year celebrations can challenge your liver if you enjoy too much rich food and wine. In summer, you may also have a greater opportunity to engage in more outdoor activities and exercise, which helps to increase your circulation and sweating, which helps to mobilise waste in your body. If you have a well-constructed detox program you’ll find it reasonably easy to undertake it in summer. It may be possible to socialise and entertain, to travel and to carry out your normal activities while undertaking a cleansing detox, especially if you’re reasonably fit.
If you have recently been ill, taken strong prescription medication or have recently had surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy, you’ll need to have your condition stabilised with your healthcare practitioner first before attempting a detox program. You then must choose a doctor who practises nutritional medicine and is familiar with detoxification programs to assist you through this detox process. With close medical supervision, it will be safe to cleanse your body after adequate initial preparation. However, if you usually enjoy a degree of good health, a naturopath will be able to give you an effective detox program.
Through detoxification, you’ll regain a metabolism that will be more efficient at generating energy and eliminating bodwaste and this recovery will last you at least one year if you follow up with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Step one — choose your detox supervisor
Find a practitioner who regularly prescribes detoxification programs and who is skilled in dealing with the consequences, such as a fully qualified naturopath. If carried out carelessly, a detox can make you feel quite ill and may even induce a "healing crisis" — a week or so of acute illness with headaches, nausea, vomiting, rashes or flu-like symptoms due to the release of toxins into the body’s circulatory system from silent storage in fat deposits. Although this experience can be quite distressing, it’s rarely dangerous to long-term health and usually results in a good recovery. However, there are more comfortable ways to cleanse your body!
You’ll probably need to take some herbal and nutritional supplements to detox efficiently and your practitioner will advise you in this regard. I’m not very fond of fasting programs, certainly not for any length of time, since they lead to loss of essential tissues, such as muscle and organ bulk loss, which will leave you feeling weak and tired. A nutritionally assisted detox is a more sophisticated way to rid your body of waste while conserving essential tissues and idealising your body composition of fat and fluid versus muscle and organ. Detoxification programs have three main goals:
- To eliminate from your diet foods that contain toxins, harmful chemicals and allergens.
- To optimise your nutritional status.
- To rehydrate and flush your blood and tissues, improving toxin elimination.
Step two — choose your detox program
There’s a vast array of products available to assist you with a detoxification program. Some are short detox packages, mostly aimed at purging the bowel, available through healthfood stores. These are generally quite gentle on the body and may be taken without supervision by a healthcare practitioner if your health is reasonably good. In these detox programs there are some nutritional and herbal powders that are used as meal replacements, packed with antioxidants that mop up the waste as they’re liberated from storage. They also have the effect of repairing the body’s digestive membranes to improve future nutrient absorption, as well as enhancing liver detoxification of the blood to more efficiently eliminate circulating toxins.
There are also "medical foods" that can be specifically prescribed by your healthcare practitioner according to your specific health situation. If you have ever had glandular fever, regularly drink alcohol, work with volatile chemicals or have had several anaesthetics, you need to go very carefully with the liver cleansing phase of a detox. If you have insulin resistance and problems with metabolising glucose, you’ll require specific nutrients in your diet to support your recovery, such as chromium, vanadium and lipoic acid. If you have irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, you’ll require probiotic assistance by taking digestive organisms, such as lactobacillus acidophilus. If you have recurrent infections or multiple allergies, you’ll require extra zinc, vitamin A and vitamin C in your diet, and you’ll be amazed at how you can become more resistant and far less reactive to your environment and certain foods after a detox cleanse. Most healthcare practitioners will assess your toxicity status before recommending a suitable program. This may be via symptom analysis, iridology, examination of the tongue, checking for signs of nutritional deficiencies or blood analysis. Your progress during the detox may be monitored in this way as well, since everyone’s body clears at a slightly different rate. Most intensive detox programs can last up to 12 weeks, whereas a light cleanse may take only a couple of weeks.
Special considerations of a detox program
It’s possible to take some medical foods if you are allergic to rice, since the rice protein concentrate has been produced by removing the allergy-causing components of rice. However, I do see some patients become intolerant to formulations if they have been on the program for a very long time, at which time they need a change of carbohydrate and protein source in their diet to another gluten-free alternative, such as corn, potato, tapioca, quinoa, buckwheat, millet or lupin.
Diabetes and hyperglycaemia
If you are insulin-dependent you must continue to take your insulin during the detox. If you are taking oral hypoglycaemic agents for your diabetes, it’s safe to do a detox with medical supervision. If you have an elevated blood glucose level that you can manage with diet and exercise, you’ll find your condition responds very well to a detox and in most cases the detox will reverse the hyperglycaemic state.
Detoxification is beneficial for lowering blood pressure, since it usually causes weight loss. However, improving your liver function may also increase the clearance rate of any antihypertensive drug(s) you may be taking and your dosage may need to be monitored and adjusted each week of the detox program by your doctor. Usually this involves needing less drug, not more.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
It is not recommended to detox while pregnant or breastfeeding. The toxin release will affect your baby, who will then need liver support and nutritional therapy to remain in good health.
If headaches occur during the detox it’s preferable not to use paracetamol for relief, since this drug interferes with liver function. Aspirin would be a better choice, although the headache usually responds to simple measures that reverse the cause, such as taking fluids, vitamin C or alkaline salts. Herbs such as feverfew and white willow/white poplar bark are both natural pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory agents. Feverfew can be used to both treat and prevent migraines. Liver cleansing directly improves migraine status, reducing future episodes.
Antibiotics are to be avoided during a detox since they eradicate the body’s normal intestinal flora and leach out nutrients necessary for healthy tissue maintenance. If unavoidable, antibiotics can be taken with probiotics ("friendly" gut bacteria) and nutritional support (fructo-oligosaccahrides).
On the detox program it’s common to experience food cravings. You may crave foods that contain the nutrients you need, but you may also paradoxically crave foods to which you are allergic to or that encourage a problem such as candidiasis, so you may crave sugar and yeast, for instance. The best way to deal with cravings is to ignore them if you can and you’ll gradually be desensitised to those foods, which takes about two weeks.
Tips for detox success
- Drink plenty of purified or spring water throughout the day (never chilled).
- Drink diluted fresh organic juices, ideally blending vegetables and fruits. If you are buying your fruit juices, choose fresh (not reconstituted) juices.
- Eat meals regularly in a relaxed way, chewing your food well.
- It’s important not to go hungry and to eat as much as is satisfying, without over-indulging. Over-eating leads to gut fermentation, which adds to the body’s total toxin load, making you feel sluggish and unwell.
- Avoid glutens (wheat, rye, oats, barley), dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, refined/processed/high-fat/high-sugar foods during your detox.
- Avoid eating foods which you know cause you any sort of reaction, either allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. Avoid all chemical food additives.
- Your meals should contain approximately 50 per cent raw food, 50 per cent cooked food. This balance is important for optimal nutrient and fibre supply. You can choose to eat entirely raw food in warmer weather, but during the cooler seasons some of the diet should be warm to help digestion ("digestive fire", according to Ayurvedic medicine) and energy flow ("qi" in Chinese medicine) in the body.
- Keep food preparation simple during the detox — steaming, baking and grilling are preferable to microwave and barbecue preparation (the latter can produce carcinogens — cancer-causing compounds — in the food).
- Choose at least one serving of dark green or orange vegetable and one raw vegetable each day of your detox. The brassica family of vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, mustard greens) support detoxification with their high sulphur content. Artichokes cleanse the liver, while dandelion greens, asparagus and celery support the kidneys’ elimination.
- Rotate your food choices daily — choose new fruits and vegetables, a new grain and a new protein each day on roughly a four-day rotation basis.
- Eat foods in season and preferably organic, as much as possible. Wash fruit and vegetables well with a mild acid (vinegar) or soap to remove chemical residues if not organic produce.
- Focus mostly on vegetarian protein choices over animal protein, since they are more digestible, although some people don’t digest beans and legumes very well. If eating animal products, they should be free-range, organic or biodynamically produced. Lamb and turkey are "cleaner" meats than beef and chicken. Low-fat versions are best, except fish, which is better if it’s oily and caught in cold waters. Shellfish are not recommended during a detox due to their allergy potential and being bottom scavengers ("unclean").
- Rest whenever tired or feeling toxic. Sleep as much as necessary. An afternoon siesta is a good idea during a detox.
- Exercise only lightly in the initial phase of the detox, increasing intensity according to your energy and stamina. If you have muscle pain and exhaustion lasting overnight after exercise, reduce its intensity and rest well between exercise sessions.
- Enjoy the benefits of the increased wellbeing!
- Additional therapies that can aid your detox include herbal and mineral baths, body wraps, steam baths, spas, saunas, massage and colon hydrotherapy.
Oxygen is an essential nutrient and, unfortunately, oxygen levels in our atmosphere have been steadily declining this century, particularly since the introduction and combustion of fossil fuels. In 1907, air was 24 per cent oxygen in cities; in 2003, it has dropped to 17 per cent in cities and even lower in indoor environments, particularly office blocks. When we breathe in oxygen, however, 20 per cent is converted to detrimental, pro-oxidant compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and ozone, as well as the free radical substances superoxide radical, hydroxyl radical and nitric oxide. These are the tissue-rampaging, damaging molecules that cause oxidative stress in our bodies, the level of which itself is the measure of how quickly we age.
Impaired liver detoxification pathways impact on our health, causing chronic symptoms and diseases, such as chronic fatigue, environmental sensitivities, arteriosclerosis, allergies and inflammatory joint disease. Understanding and assessing the process enables the holistic practitioner to open you to new recovery possibilities for chronic health problems.
The process of detoxification by the liver occurs in two phases: Phase I and Phase II detoxification. Phase I is controlled by the cytochrome P450 enzyme system and is responsible for the degradation of toxic molecules into smaller, but highly reactive, metabolites. These molecules are then conjugated with a water-soluble carrier molecule (usually a sugar and a protein unit) during Phase II detoxification for transport to the kidney where they will be excreted in urine.
There are certain nutritional co-factors that need to be present in the liver for Phase II detox systems to work well. They are cysteine, N-acetyl cysteine, methionine, taurine, inorganic sulphates, glycine, glutamine, glucuronic acid and glutathione. These nutrients are found in our diet predominantly in wholegrains, meats and sulphur-containing vegetables like the brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower).
Liver detoxification is impaired by the taking of many prescription medicines, which interfere with the cytochrome P450 enzyme system, such as ranitidine, paracetamol and all antidepressant drugs; by taking hormones (such as oral contraceptive hormones and hormone replacement therapy); and by drinking alcohol on a regular basis. The process is also slowed by eating grapefruit or drinking its juice, due to the action of naringenin in this fruit which inhibits the passage of chemicals through the detox pathways. Other factors that weaken detox capacity are allergies and food intolerances, candidiasis (intestinal yeast overgrowth) and moulds, dietary hydrogenated oils, hereditary errors of metabolism, a leaky gut, microbial toxins, toxic chemicals and pollutants.
Your detox capacity
How well do you clear the caffeine from a cup of tea or coffee? If it takes you more than two hours for the stimulating effects to wear off and it interferes with your sleep, you have a problem with Phase I detox. If you are very sensitive to the volatile smells, such as chemical fumes or perfumes, you also have liver impairment at the Phase I stage. If you experience a tenderness over your liver (under right lower ribs) after taking a drug, alcohol or anaesthetic, or if these chemicals cause you to feel queasy and vomit, you have an increased (up-regulated) Phase I and reduced (down-regulated) Phase II ,which allows the toxic metabolites to store longer in your liver, inflaming it. If you can eat fat, drink coffee or alcohol and take paracetamol without any problems, you have good liver clearance for both Phase l and Phase II detox pathways.
Mental and emotional detoxing
It’s very important to consider that as you proceed with your physical detox cleansing program you may also experience cleansing on other levels simultaneously. Any toxic thoughts or feelings you are harbouring may rise to the surface and seek expression. Often this is the grumpy, irritable liver catharting, but other thoughts or feelings may become apparent. The best solution for this situation is to acknowledge the sentiments, work through them if you can and actively release them whenever possible for an overall feeling of wellbeing.
A word of warning: this process may then lead to a conflict with another person, particularly anyone with whom you have unresolved issues, such as a work colleague, relative or life partner. Try to be as honest and considerate as possible when dealing with the thoughts or feelings that arise. They have to be dealt with or they will recycle and deposit themselves once more in your tissues. A detox process can make or break relationships. Those that break were fragile in their bonding. Those that become stronger are often firm friendships for life.
Cleansing the mind with a detox
For brain detoxing there are some basic principles to attend to in order to improve your mood and mental health:
- Get plenty of refreshing sleep — whatever amount your system specifically requires.
- Exercise daily if possible, with aerobic or weight training, to relax your mind and improve oxygen levels in your tissues during a detox.
- Exercise your mind with study, reading, puzzles or learning another language. The more you use your brain, the more functional capacity you will have.
- Avoid stimulants in your diet and lifestyle — caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, Ecstasy, sugar, guarana.
- Avoid liver toxins while detoxing — alcohol, paracetamol and many prescription drugs.
- Practise relaxation of any kind for a brain detox, such as meditation, yoga, playing music, aromatherapy and so forth.
- Enjoy everything you do — your work, your study, your family responsibilities.
- Attack everything you do with positivity and determination — banish doubt and fear.
- Be kind to others — dare to open your heart.
- Be grateful for and aware of your gifts and privileges.
The detox brain diet
- Eat as many fresh, "alive" foods as possible (for example, freshly picked fruit and vegetables).
- Have a mainly vegetarian diet with meat and poultry only occasionally.
- Fish is brain food. Throughout history, races that lived on the coast and fished were more intellectually advanced.
- Wholegrains are a must — their B vitamins are essential for a healthy nervous system.
- Essential fatty acids in flaxseeds, macadamia nuts and avocado protect the nervous system against stress and improve communication between brain cells.
- Green tea (1-3 cups/day) has a strong antioxidant effect on our tissues.
- Flavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables, act as natural "calcium channel blockers" to facilitate NMDA receptor function in brain cells.
- Rosemary and oregano oils reduce oxidation when a sprig of either is placed in a bottle of olive oil. Rosemary is the most powerful of antioxidant herbs and its oil is used in aromatherapy to refresh the mind. It may be taken as a herbal extract or with melissa (lemon balm) to revive a tired or injured brain (after meningitis, for example).
Get started on your detox!
Plan your summer detox today. Contact your favourite natural health practitioner or holistic doctor and make an appointment to have your pre-detox assessment and prescription of your personalised detox program.
Carefully select a month in which there are not too many social commitments to tempt you from your detox project. Many people choose the month of January, for instance, to give up alcohol.
Prepare your pantry with enough healthy foods and snacks so you don’t succumb to unsuitable food choices when there’s little else to eat.
Enlist your partner, your flatmate or a friend to detox with you for moral support, as it’s easier preparing special meals for two.
Enjoy the results and plan your next detox well before you feel the effects of poor metabolism creeping back into your life. You may never experience poor health again!
How to maintain the benefits of your detox throughout the year
- Eat wholefoods rich in fibre.
- Avoid allergenic foods.
- Avoid food chemicals and additives.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods, such as the brassica vegetables.
- Chew food well, eat in a relaxed manner/environment.
- Take antioxidant supplements, including herbs (St Mary’s thistle, astragalus).
- Avoid antacid drugs.
- Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
- Take multi-probiotic supplement, such as lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus (digestive organisms) if digestion is poor or antiobiotics taken within the previous year.
- Avoid/treat yeast overgrowth/infections.
- Treat parasite infestations.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake.
- Drink plenty of filtered/spring water daily, away from meals.