Detoxing can feel like a fruitless task. After a thrilling jump-start when we lose weight and improve our mood and energy, something shifts. After a month or two, weight creeps back up. Aches return. Mood and energy start to wane.
What goes wrong? Why does an approach that begins with so much promise stop working?
In my experience as a functional-medicine nutritionist, I believe most detoxes have little staying power because they address only specific issues, such as digestion or metabolism. They tell us what to take out, but not always what to put in. They deal with only the physical body, rather than the whole self.
Every time we’re upset by a relationship, an agitating personal situation, or a depressing day at work, our bodies take a hit. I’m talking about the release of hormones such as cortisol, which can disrupt sleep, cue weight gain, and raise blood pressure. I’m talking about heartbreaking grief, which research has shown can literally disrupt the workings of the heart. I’m talking about loneliness and boredom, which numerous studies have found correlate with chronic health problems.
We now have volumes of research showing that stress, boredom, frustration, and heartbreak aren’t simply psychological states. Rather, they are physical conditions that also significantly influence our health.
A happy, relaxed person is biochemically different from an angry, sad, or fearful one. Our bodies affect our thoughts and feelings, and thoughts and feelings affect our bodies. This interaction can be a significant disrupter of health — or a profound tool for healing.
So, when patients come to me asking for support with detoxification, I insist on treating the whole person. If I don’t, the same problems just keep arising. This is the approach that I use to get to the root — and, often, the roots — of most nagging health problems.
The Seven Systems Approach
Science has repeatedly demonstrated that our biochemistry crosses the boundaries between body, mind, and emotion. As such, my Seven Systems of Full-Spectrum Health examines the clusters of physical, mental, and emotional issues and presumes they are best addressed together.
I developed this concept using my knowledge of Western medicine as well as yogic philosophies of health. If you’re familiar with the chakras — the seven energy centers in the body — you’ll recognize that I’ve incorporated some of that wisdom here, too.
Each system represents a nexus of physical and emotional issues. It offers a way to address problems through nutrition, lifestyle (including mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects), and color (enlisting powerful physio-emotional effects as well as nutritional properties).
If you’re struggling with stubborn symptoms, frustrations, or pain, it’s often helpful to use this model to identify which system might be out of balance. It offers a tool for understanding the reason something that once worked might have stopped working, or to learn how you can keep evolving into better health, free of limiting symptoms and beliefs.
What follows is a brief introduction to each system and its corresponding qualities. For a more comprehensive explanation of the Whole Detox approach, read my book Whole Detox: A 21-Day Personalized Program to Break Through Barriers in Every Area of Your Life.
The Root System
The root system involves the basic sense of safety, survival, and stability. Because we focus on little else when we’re concerned about survival, I start any healing regimen by addressing root causes. These include any emotional issues involving familyand community, which provide our initial grounding in the world.
The root speaks to our basic identity as physical people. If we wish to be fully present in our bodies, we need to feel rooted and safe. Our adrenal glands kick in whenever we feel threatened, so these are part of the root system. Likewise, the immune system keeps our inner boundaries protected. Genetic issues are part of the essential biochemistry of identity and family, so these are also part of the root. Finally, the root involves our basic anatomical structure that keeps us planted on the earth — feet and legs — as well as the rectum and bones, muscles, and skin.
Red is associated with the root system, and so red foods can help nourish an imbalance here.
How to Restore Balance
- Consider addressing issues you might have with family and your community; if you’re unsure about how to do this, enlist the help of a therapist or other mental-health professional. (For options, see “Life Support”.)
- Eliminate foods and beverages (such as coffee) that stress the adrenal glands and immune system.
- Eat the protein, minerals, and red foods that support the root system. Strawberries, tomatoes, and red peppers are loaded with vitamin C, which helps the body manufacture stress-regulating hormones and support the adrenals. Proteins of all types, including those found in grassfed red meat, help stabilize and strengthen energy and balance blood sugar.
The Flow System
Flow focuses on the parts of the body that enable us to create new life. It involves the entire reproductive system as well as the cell-division process. It also includes the kidneys and bladder, which govern the movement of water through the body, helping balance our consumption of liquids and regulate hydration.
When we are in the flow, it means taking in and letting go with ease. Accordingly, the large intestine is also part of this system, as it allows us to pull water from waste before we eliminate it.
Flow involves creativity, emotions, and relationships. It is crucial for creative output. When we’re in the flow, we become capable of sustaining profound relationships with our work, colleagues, friends, and intimate partners.
Orange foods, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, include carotenoids. These nutrients are associated with hormone regulation in both sexes. Citrus and other orange foods contain bioflavonoids, which keep blood vessels open, allowing blood to flow and preventing stagnation that can lead to varicose veins. Carotenoids and bioflavonoids also help prevent the growth and reproduction of cancer cells.
How to Restore Balance
- Cultivate creative practices such as playing music, painting, carpentry, and cooking to nurture creativity and keep emotions flowing.
- Focus on staying well hydrated and consuming adequate healthy fats from avocados, nuts, and coconuts.
- Enjoy more orange foods, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and citrus.
- Avoid heavy synthetic perfume, BPA plastics, and other substances that disrupt reproductive hormones.
The Fire System
The third system, fire, is associated with the solar plexus and the digestive organs: pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, and stomach. These all burn the food we ingest, turning it into energy, just as a fire burns fuel for life-giving warmth.
Fire ignites our drive to work, achieve, and compete. When this system is in balance, we feel full of energy, power, and confidence. When it’s overactive, we might lose the joy in accomplishment because we’re always burning to do more. If it’s underactive, we feel exhausted and burned out. My research and clinical experience suggest that this system of health tends to be out of balance in nearly 80 percent of my patients.
Yellow is fire’s color, and it’s also the color of many quick-burning carbohydrates, which can aggravate the system and lead to burnout. Slow-burning, low-glycemic, high-fiber carbohydrates can sustain a balanced fire. The system also requires a whole team of B vitamins to support healthy metabolism and absorb energy from our food.
How to Restore Balance
- Cultivate work–life balance and learn to harness the “fire in the belly” of ambition, energy, and drive.
- Enjoy more legumes and other high-fiber carbohydrates as well as fiery yellow foods, such as ginger and turmeric.
- Supplement with a high-quality B-vitamin complex.
The Love System
The Western tradition associates love with the heart, while Traditional Chinese Medicine views the lungs as the seat of grief. Love is the fourth system of health, and it resides in the kingdom of the heart and lungs.
Emotionally, this system governs compassion and service as well as our capacity for expansion, in the way that love in all its forms makes us feel larger, more generous, a “bigger person.” When love is out of balance, it often manifests as overwhelming grief and heartbreak that refuses to heal.
One of the main challenges of love is to make sure we are giving it to ourselves. Many of my patients find that this system has become unbalanced because they are always expanding outward to love others but rarely directing that attention inward.
Green is this system’s color, which represents healing. Many green foods are considered “heart healthy.”
How to Restore Balance
- Consider ways to expand your sense of compassion, generosity, and love — including self-love. This could include donating your time and resources to support others, as well as taking time to relax and restore yourself.
- Enjoy aerobic activities with expansive movements, such as dancing and running, to prime your cardio-pulmonary system for optimum function.
- Consume plenty of green vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and dark leafy greens, as well as spirulina and chlorella.
The Truth System
Moving upward in the body, we arrive at the truth system. It contains the thyroid, throat, and larynx, as well as the ears, nose, and mouth. The sensory organs help us take in information and then truthfully express our responses. Listening and speaking are integral to this system.
The truth system guides the image we present to the world, our sense of who we are. Authenticity, choice, and voice are all part of truth — and here “voice” means the physical act of speaking and the larger sense of self-expression. If we can communicate our most genuine thoughts and feelings, we have taken a powerful step to support this system.
Many of my patients struggle to express themselves. People who believe their metabolism won’t “let them” lose weight are often afraid to speak openly. Maybe they’ve been told all their lives to shut up, literally or metaphorically. I’m often struck by how finding one’s voice seems to be a liberating force for thyroid function and the creation of a healthier metabolism.
How to Restore Balance
- Practice speaking honestly and openly.
- Consume more sea vegetables — nori, dulse, hijiki, arame, and kelp. These are rich in the iodine the thyroid needs as well as selenium and zinc.
- Enjoy more soups, stews, sauces, and other liquid foods to nourish the throat.
The Insight System
The sixth system of health — insight — includes the pituitary gland, sometimes called the inner eye because it surveys a wide range of signals throughout the brain and body. The physical eyes belong here, too, as well as neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain cells, which process and interpret what we see.
Both outer and inner sight are part of this system, as are sleep, moods, thoughts, and intuition. If you’ve ever noticed how a bad night’s sleep or a depressed mood makes it hard to see things correctly, or realized how sleep or a good meal made things clearer, you know the potential benefits of detoxing the insight system.
Indigo is the color of insight, so you can support this system with blue and purple foods. Berries and grapes, in particular, are good sources of resveratrol, the powerhouse antioxidant that helps protect your brain and nerves.
How to Restore Balance
- Get adequate sleep; for most of us, that’s around eight hours a night.
- Keep a dream journal to track what your “inner eye” might be observing.
- Listen carefully to your intuition and gut feelings.
- Eat more blue and purple foods that help promote neuronal plasticity, such as blueberries, blackberries, purple kale, and purple cauliflower.
The Spirit System
The spirit system includes some of our biggest challenges: connection, purpose, and — for lack of a better term — soul. This system allows us to recognize that we are both individual and indistinguishable from the whole. Spirit allows us to connect to meaning and purpose, and to the values, beliefs, and activities that embody what we consider important.
The organ of the seventh system is the pineal gland, that part of the brain that sets our circadian rhythms and distinguishes between light and dark. If your rhythms are off — you can’t sleep, you struggle to make the transition between seasons, or you feel lost and disconnected — your spirit system may need detoxification.
How to Restore Balance
- Spend time reflecting and journaling about your life’s purpose.
- Seek out awe-inspiring experiences that keep you feeling the joy of what it means to be alive.
- Consume nutrient-dense white foods: coconut, a good energy source; onions, garlic, cabbage, and cauliflower, which cleanse the liver; and white beans, which are high in fiber.
This originally appeared as “Whole Detox” in the May 2018 issue of Experience Life.
The Roots of Anxiety: A Case Study
Padma taught urban sociology at a university, and rumors of funding cuts that might affect her research had triggered a return of her college-era anxiety. She was uncomfortably tense and suffered frequent headaches that caused her to miss class and appointments.
As with all my patients, I asked about Padma’s physical, mental, and emotional states. I wanted to help her identify all her personal toxins, whether these involved food, relationships, or thought patterns. I knew these would hold clues to how I could help her.
I learned that, as a child of immigrants, Padma had long felt a disconnect between her Indian identity and her American one. Though she admired innovative thinkers, she was too fearful and obedient to let her own creative impulses flow. She was nervous about expressing her true opinions.
She also ate irregularly and not very healthfully. A vegetarian, she lived largely on lentils and rice, with a few vegetables and fruits, and she rarely drank water, so she was dehydrated. She was beginning to show signs of a thyroid imbalance.
Diagnosis: Based on my conversation with Padma, we identified three compromised systems.
Physical symptoms: Headaches
Lifestyle: Feeling ungrounded and uncertain about belonging
Nutrition: Too much caffeine, not enough protein, not enough minerals, not enough red foods (like beets, cherries, watermelon)
Physical symptoms: Anxiety
Lifestyle: Not allowing herself to be creative; feeling “outside the flow of life”
Nutrition: Inadequate fluids, not enough orange foods, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and citrus
Physical symptoms: Thyroid dysfunction
Lifestyle: Fears about speaking up, appearing different, and presenting new ideas
Nutrition: Not enough iodine or ocean foods (like sea vegetables); irregular eating
It’s difficult to say which of Padma’s issues was most important. In my view, they were all likely to make each other worse. But the good news was that whatever steps Padma took to address any of them could create healing on many levels at once.
Padma needed to let go of excessive caffeine and also get more iodine, protein, and fresh produce in her diet. She also had to abandon some of her fears about what others think while enriching her life with more community and connection. I encouraged Padma to pursue a variety of changes:
- Cut back on caffeine.
- Hydrate regularly throughout the day.
- Eat more sea vegetables in soups and broths (to simultaneously support her thyroid and hydrate), and get more protein and fresh veggies and fruits.
- Try some grounding yoga poses.
- Journal about what “speaking her truth” would mean to her.
Within a few weeks of adopting these new habits, Padma began to look, feel, think, work, and sleep better. She spoke out at faculty meetings. She had more energy. She noted that an article she was working on felt much closer to her true voice than any of her previous publications.
The Seven Systems do not prescribe a certain type of life or even a certain route to health. Rather, they are tools to help us make the best choices — and get to the bottom of stubborn health issues that can defy our best efforts to understand them.