How to detox for digestion
The human digestive system is remarkably sophisticated. It is central to our being. Essentially, from mouth to anus, the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is a tube contiguous with the outside world. Humans could even be considered as odd-shaped doughnuts. Digestion plays a crucial role in detoxification processes. Poor digestion can result in digestive or systemic problems, such as those seen with food intolerances. Less-than-optimal digestive function can contribute to toxic accumulation. However, impaired digestion can be remedied by many simple practices and natural aids.
Beginning with the stimulants of mouth-watering smells and gastronomical sights, the digestive process involves many enzymatic, chemical and mechanically mediated steps before one ends up on the toilet. The functioning of the GIT is an awesome symphony of interacting components that enable the digestion of materials to fuel, repair, rebuild or even create new human life. If something impedes this process or if one instrument is out of tune, the symphony plays out of key, leading to signs and symptoms of disharmony. Each part of the process relies on each other part for optimal breakdown, assimilation and excretion.
Signs such as bloating, flatulence, indigestion, heartburn, constipation and diarrhoea can all indicate sub-optimal GIT functioning and potential increased toxicity in the body. Fogginess of thinking, slight tremors, skin pallor and low energy, for example, are signs of toxicity that can often be resolved with good gut detoxification processes.
Meet your GIT
If flattened out, the GIT is up to 10 metres long and has a surface area of 300 square meters. This remarkable size is due to the stomach having folds called rugae, the small intestine having many finger-like projections called villi and the large intestine pouch-like havens called haustra, all of which increase the area available for nutrient absorption. Additionally, the function of digestion involves other organs outside the immediate tract, namely the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. The GIT boasts 100 million neurons, secretes at least 20 different neurotransmitters, produces 70–85 per cent of immune cells and provides lodgings for over 100,000 billion bacteria from more than 500 different species and strains.
The importance of the first phase of the digestive process is often overlooked. Known as the cephalic phase, it is influenced by smells, imaginations and tastes. Physiologically, saliva secretion is triggered in the mouth and hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach. These fluids are necessary for the chemical breakdown of nutrients. If they are not there in adequate quantity, you’re starting off digestion with a major handicap. The inadequate breakdown of nutrients leads to reduced absorption, thus less nourishment. Or larger compounds may be absorbed into the blood, which can burden the liver, incite immunological reactions and impede normal detoxification processes. Eat slowly and savour the flavours.
If you don’t have time to sit down, smell, admire, chew and enjoy your food properly, but rather are eating on the run, your nervous system is in all-systems-go or fight-or-flight sympathetic mode. This is not conducive to healthy digestive functioning. One detox tip for the digestive system is to simplify your intake when you’re unable to relax and enjoy food. Have a superfood smoothie. Nutrition packed, liquefied and delicious, these drinks are less taxing on an unprimed digestive system. Still, it’s important to remember the old adage: drink your meals and eat your drinks.
The process of ensalivation is paramount in digestion. Health experts such as Italian yoga master Vanda Scaravelli and Austrian detoxification expert Dr Franz Xavier Mayr suggest it’s not so much what you eat but how well you eat it. More specifically, how well your saliva mixes with the foodstuff and how well it is mechanically broken down by good chewing that enables acids and enzymes to work more completely on food particles further down the tract. Aim to masticate a minimum of 20 times per mouthful. Anywhere between 25 and 50 times is ideal. Refined food requires little chewing and is often swallowed after three or four chews, but even wholefood is all too often prematurely swallowed.
The enjoyment of a shared, relaxed meal goes well beyond healthy digestion and extends to healthy social experience and connectivity to the earth the food stems from. The religious traditions that emphasise saying grace before meals come from having gratitude for the energy of the earth, sun, soil, things and earthlings that contributed towards the production of the food. The Hare Krishna tradition makes their foods prasad, or blessed, before eating them, purifying them energetically before ingestion.
There are many scientific studies confirming the physiological benefits of gratitude, particularly in terms of longevity and depression. Perhaps saying grace, or at least reflecting with gratitude on your meal, has implications for digestive health and enhanced detoxification.
The tongue is used as a diagnostic indicator in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. During a detox, one can often wake up with a thickened mouth and lining on the tongue. This is a detox reaction. The best management of this is to scrape the tongue every morning. Use a tongue scraper, a specially designed bent, flattened metal, often made from copper or stainless steel. Never brush the tongue, as it merely moves the waste around. The idea is to remove it from your body entirely.
What’s in your mouth has an impact on the levels of toxicity. Dr Robert Gammal’s website provides a comprehensive, well-referenced overview of the perils of modern dentistry, particularly of amalgam fillings. Mercury is a heavy metal toxin that wreaks havoc in the body; it blocks numerous nerve pathways and is stored predominantly in the nervous system. If there are high levels of amalgam fillings, then every hot drink or hot meal, every bite down is potentially emitting small amounts of toxins that can be taken into the body. Ideally a gradual, well-managed removal of amalgams is a good detoxification step.
Your stomach is a pouch about the size of your fist situated in the centre of your torso near the bottom of your front ribs. If more than two fistfuls of food enter the stomach in any one sitting, the stomach is burdened. Its capacity to churn the food is impeded due to the excess inside it. This mechanical churning mixes the chewed food with the gastric juices to further their digestion. Eating less has enormous benefits to the digestive process and consequently digestion.
Gastric juices are secreted from the stomach to begin the breakdown of proteins and continue the digestion of carbohydrates. Often, gastric juice levels decline with age, meaning more flatulence, ingestion and bloating for some senior people. Some nutrition experts suggest this lack of secretion is due to the lack of enzymes available within the body to create sufficient levels of digestive enzymes.
The juice from half a lemon in water is a detoxifying delight first thing in the mornings. According to herbal understandings, the bitter stimulus helps to stimulate the liver after the night’s fast. This is backed up by the scientific understanding of constituents that support liver cell function and provide antioxidating action.
One old-fashioned remedy to enhance digestive juices in the stomach is fermented apple cider vinegar. Mix 30ml of apple cider vinegar (with the fermentation “mother” within it) in some water 20 minutes before eating to increase digestive secretions. Another old-fashioned remedy is Swedish Bitters, a blend of digestive herbs that enhances the digestive function of the stomach and small intestine. Angostura bitters are made from the bitter herb, gentian. With mineral water and a squeeze of fresh lemon it’s a delicious aperitif.
An aperitif before dinner prepares the body to digest. Derived from the Latin aperire, “to open”, aperitifs open the appetite. Or have a tart Campari with soda or vermouth and ginger ale. When alcohol hits the stomach, it triggers the production of stomach acid in preparation for food.
Alcohol is also absorbed through the stomach. Alcohol inflames mucous membranes, as it has the potential to damage the membrane of any cell it touches. Drinking neat alcohol or large amounts on an empty stomach is therefore not a good practice. A maximum of one standard drink per hour is the level at which the liver can process the alcohol safely.
Optimise digestion further by using fennel, caraway, ginger, dill, anise, chilli and watercress in cooking. Eat fresh pineapple with or after your meal to support digestive enzymes. Calming after-dinner digestive teas include ginger and cinnamon, peppermint and lemon balm, or fennel and chamomile.
Small intestine detox
The beginning of the small intestine is called the duodenum. Here, pancreatic juices are excreted, one to neutralise the acid from the stomach and others to continue the enzymatic breakdown of the food. Minerals are absorbed in this first portion of the small intestine, including iron, calcium and magnesium as well as chlorine and sulphate ions. Further down in the jejunum, simple carbohydrates, the water-soluble vitamins, proteins, the fat-soluble vitamins and, further down, fat, cholesterol and vitamin B12 are all assimilated into the body.
Bile The main detoxification ally in the small intestine is bile. This is a substance stored in the gallbladder, which enters the digestive process near the next portion of the small intestine, called the jejunum. The primary job of bile is to emulsify fats so they can be absorbed into the body further along the small intestine. It is also a major elimination pathway for many waste products, particularly molecules that have both positive and negative charges, water-hating molecules and xenobiotics with high molecular weight.
There are two important elements that support bile as an agent of detoxification. First, a good flow of sufficient bile must be assured. Bile flow can be enhanced by certain amino acids, namely taurine, glycine, choline and methionine, and also vitamins B6, B12 and folate, lecithin and numerous cholagogue herbs, such as globe artichoke and dandelion root.
Second, the bile needs to be excreted from the body and not reabsorbed into it. To avoid reabsorption, bile needs to be bound to a good dietary fibre. Oatbran has been shown to be specifically effective in binding bile. Soluble fibre binds bile salts, preventing their reabsorption into the body. Other foods containing soluble fibre include beans, oats, barley, broccoli, prunes, apples and citrus fruits. Eat them regularly.
Large intestine detox
The bowel is an amazing organ of elimination. Controversy exists as to whether regularity is three times a day or once every three days. The late Bernard Jensen, a leader in detoxification therapy, suggested that defecation should occur every time we eat and said that autotoxification occurs if we don’t. Each time the digestive process begins, a peristaltic wave triggers a bowel movement. Individuality certainly plays a role in whether this movement is felt or heeded.
Faeces remove dead cells, bacteria, bacterial products and undigested food like fibre from the body. Psyllium husks can be eaten to gently scour the bowel, but ensure you drink plenty of extra water. Probiotics, like those in yoghurt or sauerkraut, should be ingested to continually restore bacterial populations.
Releasing old thoughts and patterns facilitates detoxification on a metaphysical level. Releasing mental excrement benefits us as much as releasing the physical matter. Interestingly, our language is filled with innuendo about the content of our bowels. Observe regular thoughts and habits and consider if they benefit or hinder your enjoyment of life; or, if they need to be released and new ones introduced, do that.
Irritable bowel syndrome and bowel cancer have a high prevalence in the West. Contemporary eating habits contribute to poor bowel health. Too few Westerners eat the minimum recommended daily intake of two pieces of fruit and three-and-a-half cups of raw and cooked vegetables (five serves). Eating fresh produce with whole grains and legumes provides the types of fibre needed for great bowel health.
Acid colon An acidic colon is a healthy colon, says naturopath Dr Jason Hawrelak from Goulds Naturopathica in Hobart. Eating a high-protein diet alkalises the gut. Protein breakdown, called putrification, forms many compounds that have detrimental impacts on the organism. These include phenol, indole, skatole and ammonia. The more protein one eats, the more of these toxic byproducts are created, explained Hawrelak. Eating less protein is one solution, or choosing vegetable proteins that have the inbuilt benefits of fibre will reduce the negative effect. If eating animal proteins, ensure they are accompanied by lots of vegetable fibre and even take a probiotic alongside it. Vegetables will help keep the colon acidic and will assist with the detoxification of the gut.
Inside the body, a high protein intake contributes to a more acidic pH, which sets the environment for disease within. So high-protein diets, while they may stimulate short-term weight loss, they do little for the long-term health of the body.
While we know that antibiotics affect probiotic bacterial strains of the GIT, do pesticides, hormones and antibiotics fed to animals affect bacterial strains? As yet, nothing is clear. “I am yet to see a study assessing the effect of any artificial food chemical on bacteria,” said Dr Hawrelak. However, one study from an agriculture journal involved kimchi, a fermented cabbage food, and pesticides. It showed that the final stages of kimchi fermentation, which involves the bacteria Lactobacillus plantarum, affected levels of pesticides. The study used conventionally grown cabbage, and the pre-fermentation levels of pesticides were markedly less than post-fermentation pesticide levels. This suggests that our 100,000 billion friends may be of more help than we already know.
Colon hydrotherapy involves washing the colon with warm water. The water is injected via a thin tube through the anus. A hydrotherapy apparatus and bed have been developed to increase comfort and hygiene for this procedure and many people find it quite relaxing. It is claimed to encourage the removal of waste matter that may have become hardened and impacted over time, as well as the removal of gas and mucus from the body. Records of using water to cleanse the colon go back many thousands of years. There are two major systems of colonic hydrotherapy: the open and closed systems.
The open system involves streaming into the colon gravity-fed water that is expelled around the tube through naturally occurring peristalsis or gentle conscious pushing motions. The large intestine is alternatively filled and emptied, taking with it excess faecal matter. The closed system has inflow and outflow capacity controlled by a colon hydrotherapist. The therapist is present throughout the procedure and provides counselling and manual abdominal massage in areas of congestion in the colon. As with the open system, water moves in and out of the colon but is controlled by the therapist.
Colonic hydrotherapy may be particularly beneficial for people with chronic constipation or who suffer constipation as a side-effect of medications such as opiates. In conjunction with good nutrition, hydration and exercise, patterns of chronic constipation may be resolved. Another element of colon hydrotherapy is said to be the tonifying influence on the colon, which over time may help with increased regularity.
People wanting to undergo a detox and who have had a history of living in the Western world may benefit from a series of three to six colonics to thoroughly cleanse the bowel before starting the internal detox. Both success coach Anthony Robbins and raw-foodist David Wolfe advocate this practice.
The mucoid plaque Anyone who has undergone an “Arise and Shine” or Bernard Jensen-style colon cleansing program will have stories about the mucoid plaque. The mucoid plaque is a long piece of excrement that is released with colonic hydrotherapy after a number of days using the bentonite and psyllium husk cocktail. Search the internet for photos depicting people’s prize poos. Whether these impressive faecal ropes are the result of a toxic sludge pried off the large intestinal wall or the product of congealed psyllium and the absorptive bentonite congealing along the bowel wall is still a matter for debate. I favour the latter but admit that releasing one does feel quite liberating.
The recorded dangers of colonic hydrotherapy are sepsis, caused by perforation by a roughly inserted tube into weakened tissue, and electrolyte imbalance caused by an excessive loss of potassium and other mineral salts. In practice, often people experience “detox” symptoms such as nausea or cold symptoms. When undertaking colonics, support the blood with algaes, herbs and antioxidant-rich foods, replenish beneficial bowel bacteria and eat good mucilaginous foods, such as chia seeds. In general, the amount of harm that can be caused by colon hydrotherapy administered by a professional therapist is minimal unless someone has one of the contraindicated conditions. In particular, it is not appropriate for someone suffering inflammatory bowel issues to undergo colon hydrotherapy.
The mucous lining of the bowel has a very important protective role against gut infection. It serves as a defence shield stopping both pathogens and potentially irritating food molecules from contacting the cells of the small or large intestines. Having a healthy mucous lining is important to decrease gut inflammation. An inflamed gut will create more mucus to deal with the inflammation and build a better defence. Mucilaginous foods and herbs support this mucous lining. Include linseed, slippery elm, licorice and fenugreek in your diet to maintain a healthy mucous lining, as well as the beneficial fibres and nutrients contained in vegetables and fruits.
The colon is the body’s waste disposal system. If the waste is allowed to build up, it will putrefy and ferment and toxic byproducts will be absorbed through the porous wall of the gut into the bloodstream. This is the process of “auto intoxication” first proposed by nature doctors and now confirmed by contemporary medical science.
* Any kind of colonics should only ever be undertaken by an experienced professional therapists because of the risk of damage to the lining of the bowel, which can have a disastrous outcome.
Knowledge continually unfolds. There are still many unknowns when it comes to digestive detoxification. For example, it’s unlikely that studies have been undertaken on how synthetic compounds are broken down by the digestive system. Being a highly specific enzyme system, it is questionable whether we have the digestive enzymes to break down synthetic compounds, such as preservatives, colourings and flavourings. Fat-soluble food chemicals have been shown to enter the body and can be stored in fat cells.