Fifteen years ago, when I first wrote about detoxing, everybody laughed and said I was mad. Nowadays people think you’re mad if you’re not detoxing. Everywhere you turn, books and magazines are touting the “latest” or “best” detox. The drugstore shelves are heaving with products promising to squeeze out every kind of toxin, while spas have a barrage of treatments purporting to cleanse and rebalance your entire system.
There is no doubt we live in a toxic world, so a growing awareness of the issues and a desire to embrace a healthier lifestyle are certainly beneficial. But you have to wonder why detoxing, in particular, is so popular. My feeling is that it’s mainly about control. We live in an increasingly frightening world over which it seems we have little or no real influence. We may feel we can’t get rid of terrorism, or job insecurity or an uncertain economy, but that we can take control of the “nasties” within our own bodies.
Also, in a world where confusion and information overload reign supreme, there is a real psychological yearning for clarity and purity. We can see this in the desire for minimal design and for cleaner homes, as well as in the embracing of mind-body disciplines such as yoga, tai chi and meditation. But I sometimes wonder if we’re beginning to lose sight of the real value and purpose of detox beneath all the increasing layers of commercial greed and wishful thinking.
I’m not the only one to wave the red flag. Naturopath Roger Newman Turner, ND, DO, BAc, author of Naturopathic Medicine: Treating the Whole Person, has been lecturing and broadcasting internationally on naturopathy and detoxing for more than 40 years. He strongly believes that the detoxification fad has gotten out of hand. “We’re seeing a good many distortions of the principles behind it,” says Turner. Suzanne Duckett, author of Spa Directory, agrees: “There’s detoxing and then there’s ‘detoxing.’ For instance, some spas offer serious cleansing programs while others will just wrap you up in bandages and throw in a bit of algae. Basically they’re making a fast buck.”
We’re definitely witnessing the rise of what I term “detox lite”: treatments and supplements that promise to detox you without demanding any work on your part. Sorry, but all the wrapping and massage in the world won’t detox you on their own. You can’t expect a cleansing supplement, however pricey or fancy, to take the thought and effort out of true detoxing. Herbs and micronutrients can help the process, but if you’re trying to detox while continuing to load your body with the wrong food – or too much food – you’re simply wasting your time and money.
Even if you’ve committed to doing a serious detox, the choices can still be overwhelming. Should you go for contrast hydrotherapy or colonics? Fasting or liver flush? Should you eat just vegetables, just rice, or add in lean protein? It’s tempting to forget the entire detox idea altogether.
“People are always looking for an easy way,” says Carol L. Roberts, MD, of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA), noting that very few people do the research and are diligent enough to complete a formal detox program. “However, the concept of detoxing is still valid,” she asserts, “and even an inadequate effort in the right direction may be better than no effort at all.”
So don’t throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Detoxing is worth doing – you just need to sort the helpful from the hype.
Working the System
Despite detoxing’s popularity, there is as yet little scientific evidence for its benefits. So nobody can claim with total confidence that detoxing can cure you of any particular disease or improve your health. Yet the anecdotal evidence for detoxing is abundant, and naturopathy – which has advocated detoxing for more than 100 years – bases its entire philosophy on the need to detoxify the body. “There is growing awareness in the medical community of the role of toxins in many chronic illnesses,” says Roberts. “The science is definitely there but not widely used yet.”
A good detox works on all the major players in your body’s detoxification system: liver, lungs, kidneys, skin, intestines and lymphatic system. Detoxing can, in some cases, improve quite serious medical conditions, according to nutritional therapist Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the United Kingdom and author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible. “The liver is key,” he says, “and just about any allergic, inflammatory or metabolic disorder may involve or create suboptimum liver function. This might include eczema, asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic infections, inflammatory bowel disorders, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and hormone imbalances.”
A good detox works on all the major players in your body’s detoxification system: liver, lungs, kidneys, skin, intestines and lymphatic system.
It’s also not uncommon to notice huge shifts in mood when you detox. These can be positive, or initially difficult. “Any changes we make on a physical level are likely to have an impact on our emotions and minds as well,” says psychologist and nutritionist Dawn Hamilton, PhD, coauthor of Super Energy Detox: 21-Day Plan With 60 Allergy-Free Recipes. “While we are cleansing the physical body, we can also experience an ’emotional detox,’ meaning that old emotions come to the surface to be released.”
Because detoxing involves cutting out alcohol and caffeine, you may also notice your energy levels balance out and your mind become clearer and more focused. Sleep often improves, as well: Many people find relief from even chronic insomnia during a detox.
Food intolerance is another issue. A good detox follows the path of an elimination diet (used to diagnose food sensitivities and intolerances). If you have undiagnosed food intolerance, you could well notice huge health benefits. In fact, as a result of detoxing, many people report having beaten or seen dramatic improvements in conditions such as asthma and eczema; headaches and migraines; hay fever and sinusitis; PMS; and palpitations and chest pains. On a mental level, food intolerance can cause depression, forgetfulness and confusion as well as irritability, aggression and hyperactivity. If you suspect you have food intolerance, it could be worth detoxing under the supervision of a professional so you can reintroduce suspect foods following your detox to determine which are causing you problems. (For more on this topic, see Fitness Fixes, page 36.)
Although detoxing should not be confused with a weight-loss diet, many people do experience some loss of excess weight. Although quantities of food are not usually limited on detox, the major causes of weight gain – excesses of refined carbohydrate, sugar, saturated fat and alcohol – are limited in most detox regimens. Detox also can help reeducate your taste buds and eating habits, making it easier to later stick to a healthy weight-loss plan.
But detox is no magic bullet. If you have a serious health condition, detoxing won’t cure it. It might help, but you will need to seek professional advice and have realistic expectations. Many people expect detox to miraculously change their lives – but it can’t. Only you can make that kind of shift. Still, a detox may get you started down the right path.
Pick a Program
There are a variety of detox programs and protocols from which to choose. On the whole, though, there are two major approaches: fasting (and variations thereof) and limited detox diets. Fasting is the original and perhaps most stringent detox. Fasts can last anywhere from 12 hours to seven days, and in their purest form, only water is taken.
“The physiological changes during fasting involve a wide range of metabolic factors, including levels of amino acids, hormones and minerals,” says Turner, who believes that periodic fasting can be useful for conditions like asthma, sinusitis and colitis.
However, he points out, you should check with your physician before, during and after fasting. (Fasting is not advisable for those with neurological disorders, cancer or hyperthyroidism.)
Limited fasts can include just drinking fruit or vegetable juices. Mono-diets (in which your diet is temporarily restricted to one particular food) also come under the banner of limited fasts. “Both of these have the effect of saturating the system with the particular nutrients of which the food is composed,” says Turner. Other variations of limited fasts include the “grape cure” (red grapes and juice only), which is said to be effective for high blood pressure and fluid retention, and the rice diet (boiled rice plus some fruit), which is sometimes used by naturopaths in cases of cardiovascular disorders or obesity.
Mono-diets should not be confused with fad diets like the “grapefruit diet” or the “cabbage soup diet” that promise quick weight loss. Although you will temporarily lose some weight if you undergo a water fast, mono-diet or limited fast, extended fasts and mono-diets are not a safe, or even effective, way to lose weight.
All detox experts agree that this involves cutting out alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, saturated fat, salt and processed food.
The majority of modern detox experts often avoid restricted fasts and opt instead for various limited detox diets, which are ideal for most people who want an effective, safe and easy-to-follow detox. “This type of regimen uses a low-toxin diet plus plenty of the key nutrients needed to speed up the body’s ability to detoxify,” explains Holford. In limited detox diets, you eliminate the foods and drinks that cause the most stress to the body’s detox systems, and then replace them with foods that are either neutral or that actively help detoxification.
All detox experts agree that this involves cutting out alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, saturated fat, salt and processed food. Beyond this point, though, the naturopaths and nutritional therapists diverge, especially when it comes to animal protein.
“In my view, there is no place for animal protein in any detoxification regimen,” says Turner. “It just makes additional work for the liver and kidneys.” But Holford disagrees and advocates some animal protein because “your liver needs amino acids (from protein) for detoxing.”
The consensus? It’s really up to you. If you have serious health issues, though, or if you want more guidance, it would be worth putting yourself in the hands of a well-qualified naturopathic doctor. He or she might suggest a stringent form of detox, such as fasting or mono-dieting, but it would be carried out under supervision – either as an in-patient at a clinic or with regular physician contact.
If you want to detox on your own – and you don’t have serious health problems and are not on medication or pregnant – I’d strongly recommend you try the following seven-day gentler limited detox diet. This form of detoxification is ideal because you can maintain energy levels and are less likely to suffer other common detox side effects such as headaches and nausea. It’s worth noting that any limited detox diet should not last beyond four weeks, as avoiding certain foods entirely may set up intolerances.
Do You Need To Detox?
Naturopaths say there are several signs that your body’s natural detox ability is being compromised. If it takes more than two hours for the stimulating effects of tea or coffee to wear off and/or it interferes with your sleep, then your liver is not degrading toxic molecules effectively. The same is true if you are highly sensitive to smells, such as perfume or chemical fumes. If you tend to feel queasy after drinking alcohol or taking painkillers, it’s possible the second phase of detoxification (in which the liver combines toxins with carrier molecules) is impaired. The following are common signs of imbalance within your body’s detox system:
- Sluggish Lymphatic System: frequent colds and flu; tiredness; puffiness; dark circles under eyes; cellulite
- Overloaded Liver: bloating, nausea, indigestion, furred tongue
- Congested Lungs: congestion, runny nose, constant sneezing, clogged sinuses
- Stressed Kidneys: dark-colored, cloudy, scanty or strong-smelling urine; pain while urinating
- Overstretched Skin: cellulite, congested blotchy skin, blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, rashes
- Toxic Intestines: constipation, gas, headaches
If you suffer from two or three symptoms, you could probably benefit from a gentle detox. If you have the majority of them, you should consult a medical or naturopathic physician.
7 Day Detox Plan
Begin your detox on the weekend and, if possible, ensure you don’t have too many work or social commitments in the week ahead. Purchase and prepare all the foods and supplements you need in advance. Warn friends and family you will be detoxing so you don’t have sudden and unwanted temptations.
For the following program, you can eat whichever way suits you – three solid meals a day or smaller snacks. Just stick to the permitted foods and try to buy organic. Nonorganic food is often laden with pesticides, hormones and fertilizer residues, which can create toxicity in the body.
Eat in Abundance
These fruits are alkalizing plus they are naturally high in antioxidants and the amino acid glutathione. (Glutathione conjugates with toxins in plasma before being converted into mercapturic acid, which can then be excreted via the kidneys.) In addition, all berries act as potent blood purifiers.
Strawberries also play a role in helping to cleanse the lungs; they contain elagic acid, which reduces the effect of the carcinogen PAH, which is found in tobacco smoke. Melons (particularly honeydew and cantaloupe) are packed with minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which support the liver and balance the metabolism. Watermelon acts as a diuretic and has a strongly alkalizing effect on the body. But avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice, which contain a compound called naringenin that can significantly inhibit liver enzymes involved in detoxification.
All these vegetables are alkalizing and high in antioxidants, essential minerals and dietary fiber. In addition, artichokes contain plant compounds known as caffeoylquinic acids, which increase the flow of bile and help to digest fats. Beets contain betaine, which promotes the regeneration of liver cells and the flow of bile. Betaine also has a beneficial effect on fat metabolism. Broccoli and other brassicas (cabbage, kale, etc.) support the liver’s detoxification enzymes.
Eat in Moderation
The following foods make detoxing easier by providing extra energy and important amino acids.
- Grains – organic brown rice, corn, millet and quinoa. No more than two portions a day.
- Oily Fish– wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna. It’s fine to eat after the first three days, but then no more than one portion a day.
- Nuts and Seeds– one handful a day of raw, organic, unsalted nuts and seeds. Choose from almonds, Brazils, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and flax seeds. (Avoid if allergic.)
- Oils – use a little organic extra virgin olive oil for cooking in place of butter or margarine. Use cold-pressed seed oils for dressings.
- Potatoes and Bananas – both foods quickly raise blood glucose levels. Try to limit to one portion every other day.
Water is vital because it helps to flush waste through your system. Drink at least eight large glasses of filtered, bottled or spring water daily. Sip it slowly through the day rather than drinking with meals (which can dilute digestive juices).
If you enjoy hot beverages try herb teas and dandelion “coffee.” Both are alternatives to caffeine and can actively help detoxing. For example, dandelion is a natural diuretic and an overall tonic for the liver and digestive tract.
Avoid the Following
- All wheat products
- Meat, eggs and dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, cream)
- Salt and any foods containing it
- Sugar (cakes, candy, cookies, etc.) and artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, etc.)
- All processed and fast food
- Foods containing additives and preservatives
- Hydrogenated fats
- Alcohol and caffeine (this includes tea and sodas)
Supplements and Herbs
Many detox experts believe you can enhance the detox process by taking nutritional supplements and herbs. The detox mechanisms of the body all require nutrients to perform their work, and while you get many from diet alone, supplementation ensures optimum levels. Consider the following supplements (after first checking with your physician):
A Good-Quality Multivitamin and Mineral Complex – supports the liver and digestive system, ensuring optimum levels of micronutrients.
1,000 mg Vitamin C (once a day) – a powerful antioxidant, which supports the whole body, especially the liver. It also helps to decrease headaches and nausea.
1,000 mg MSM (once a day) – MSM is a form of sulfur, which supports the liver, digestive tract and skin. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and also has a mild laxative effect.
A Good-Quality Antioxidant Complex – look for one that includes selenium, anthocyanidins, glutathione, lipoic acid and CoQ10. Antioxidants are vital to the detox process as they help “mop up” free-radical toxic waste. For instance, glutathione and selenium are crucial in creating and sustaining one of the body’s key detox enzymes, which helps detox car-exhaust fumes, carcinogens, toxic metals and alcohol. Lipoic acid is a fatty acid that acts as a potent free-radical scavenger and liver support.
Aloe Vera Juice – 1 tablespoon at breakfast and dinner. Aloe vera boosts the cleansing powers of the digestive tract.
You don’t have to refrain from all exercise while detoxing, but you need to avoid strenuous activities. Instead, opt for more gentle movements, such as walking at least 15 minutes a day or doing yoga or tai chi. Spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine may feel especially good, but avoid getting overly cold or getting too much sun. Be gentle with your body so that it can devote the majority of its resources to healing and cleansing itself.
Finally, examine your overall toxic load. Other factors that compromise proper liver function include cigarette smoke, recreational and medicinal drugs, dioxins, organophosphate fertilizers, paint fumes, exhaust fumes and barbecued meat. Consider how you might reduce your exposure to these factors in your life.
This detox plan does take commitment and a liberal dose of willpower, but it really does work. Stick with it and within a week you should notice a huge difference. You will have more energy and should be feeling brighter and clearer in both body and mind.
Ultimately, as you’ll no doubt learn through firsthand experience, a good detox is not about self-denial or self-indulgence. It’s not about downing pills or wrapping oneself in seaweed. It’s simply about creating a blueprint for healthy, sustainable living.