Detox Naturally and Simply
I’m sure you seen the ads for detox products and wondered if it’s something you should do. Or maybe you’ve seen someone at work who is doing anywhere from a strict, and sometimes extreme, 3-day to 21-day “cleanse.” I have nothing against detoxes and cleanses; so long as they are done the right way, for the right reason. But our bodies have natural detoxifying capabilities that we should be taking advantage of on a daily basis. This is by far the best way to go in the long run. Plus, there’s so much more to detoxifying your body than what you eat, or don’t eat.
The effects of a short-term cleanse are, well, short-term. In order to obtain the highest benefit from the body’s detoxifying abilities we need to allow the body to operate at this level on a daily basis. Last week I introduced you to the concept of clearing toxins out of our personal space. That is how it begins. You can do a detox or a cleanse, but if you are still piling on toxins, you’re wasting your time and money. You may feel better for a few days, but as the toxins start to build up again you will be right back where you started.
First off, I want to say that detoxing and cleansing are not modern fads. Throughout human history, cultures have engaged in behaviors, like fasting, that were used to cleanse the body and/or soul. Many were done for religious purposes, but the effect was still the same. The body was given time to focus on healing and regenerating, as opposed to digesting. The Rest/digest cycle is an important component to weight loss, blood sugar levels, cellular detoxification and general system maintenance. For most of us this occurs while we sleep so long as we are leaving around three hours of no food intake before bed time. By the time we go to bed, our dinner should have had a few hours to work through to the large intestine, blood sugar levels should be normal and we should be relaxed and ready for deep slumber. More on sleep later.
Resting the digestive system is part of detoxification because digestion is one source of toxins. Reducing intake gives the body time to eliminate. Let’s dive in and take a look at this aspect of detox.
We’re going to cover several areas for detoxification, but I’m going to start with the physical aspect of detox since that is what most people think of first when they think of detoxing. Don’t think this is the only or most important area. You can do everything right from a diet and nutrition perspective and still not achieve your health goals. And even within the physical component we will look at more than just diet and nutrition. So stick with me.
Our Built-in Detoxification System
The body has a built-in detoxification system. However, better living through chemistry and technology has taken its toll on our detoxification channels. Our bodies are able to evolve to face changing conditions in our environment; but the changes to our environment over the last 100 years have outpaced evolution’s capabilities.
Furthermore, every person’s exposure to toxins, and thus their toxic burden, can be very different and result in different health consequences. We have seen exponential growth in certain conditions that are tied to the bodies inability or decreased ability to balance hormones, from PCOS, PMS, menopausal symptoms, obesity, and infertility, to diabetes and cancer. The balancing of hormones is a delicate process that involves many different organs.
Some key systems at play in detoxification and elimination:
- Colon (gut)
- Lymphatic system
I look at the liver and lymphatic system as the filter and pumping system, respectively. The lymphatic system is composed of lymph nodes that house different types of immune cells. These nodes collect trash from the system, the white blood cells eat it up, and then send it out to the liver, kidneys and colon for elimination. Maintaining the lymphatic system is a huge part of keeping the body cleansed.
The liver carries a huge burden in balancing hormones and filtering toxins. The modern day toxic burden on our bodies stresses the liver’s ability to keep up. The liver is charged with filtering out chemicals, alcohol, and clearing excess hormones. However, when we are overloaded, whatever can’t get into the liver right away gets recirculated through the body instead of being sent to the colon or kidneys for elimination.
Since the colon is the large intestine, which is part of the gut, and we’ve been on this gut health journey since January, it makes sense that we look at the gut’s role in detoxification. If you’ve been following along, you will quickly see the link between the gut and how it affects our body’s ability to maximize its detoxification capabilities. (If you haven’t, I’ve included links (everywhere) to take you to the articles where I’ve covered some of these topics in more detail.)
- The gut experiences everything we take in through food and relies on our microbiome to assist it in breaking down, deactivating or changing toxins before they can get into the bloodstream. This is why it is so important to have a healthy microbiome.
- The gut and its microbiome are key to the digestion and absorption of nutrients necessary to the detoxification process. If you are familiar with phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification processes, you may already know these processes rely on the nutrients we obtain from our food to detoxify our cells and then remove the waste products so they don’t keep recirculating. If these nutrients aren’t absorbed via the gut, they cannot get to where they need to go to do their part in the detoxification process.
- As an organ of elimination for toxins, when gut health is compromised, toxins have the ability to re-enter the body and recirculate. This is why colon health is so important.
You can see from what we’ve covered so far how the same toxins can have a different effect on different people. We know that our microbiome is important to our survival and also varies from person to person. These differences determine how we react to foods, bacteria and toxins. For example, the more permeable the gut lining, the weaker the gatekeeper, and the more toxins will get through the lining and into the bloodstream. And because the gut is home to the majority of the immune system, gut health determines the ability to fend off viruses, bacteria and pathogens.
What Gets in the Way
Again, everything I’ve just explained can be thwarted by lifestyle. So let’s talk about the variables that interfere with detoxification.
Diet and Nutrition Factors
Let’s stick with this topic a little longer and look at the ways this can go sideways on us even when we think we’re doing everything right.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of detox programs focus on fruits and vegetables. There’s a reason for this. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients; and if organic, free of additional toxins. For many people, a detox program is very helpful because it provides guidelines and rules. We have so many choices of what to eat it becomes difficult to stay on track when left to our own devices.
Here’s the thing. Even if you color in the lines, you may not get the results you seek. You may have heard the saying, “you are what you eat.” That saying has been updated to, “you are what you absorb.” If the gut lining is damaged, if there isn’t enough enzyme or acid production, or there isn’t a diverse community of good bacteria, there is likely some malabsorption going on. (Here’s another article that covers nutrient absorption.) For example, if there isn’t a sufficient amount of stomach acid, the process of protein breakdown and assimilation is compromised. Proteins must be broken down in order for us to obtain their constituent amino acids. Amino acids are then used by the body to create the proteins we need. Amino acids are the building blocks of life. Amino acids join in chains to create proteins in our cells that are responsible for cell maintenance and repair, DNA replication and enzyme production. Imagine the impact of a lack of absorption in the gut.
The enzymes produced by the pancreas are sent to the small intestine to further break down food and extract nutrients like B12 and fat soluble antioxidants. When there is a lack of enzymes, there’s a lack of absorption of these vitamins that are critical to protecting our cells from damage from internal and external toxins.
I’ll stop rambling now and get to the point. A detox program will be a waste of time, effort and money if the gut is not healthy enough to do its job of delivering these nutrients to the system to do their job. Healing the gut should come before trying to detox. If your gut is healthy enough to absorb nutrients, there are other factors that will get in the way of detoxing the body.
Sleep is NOT Your Enemy
How is your sleep? What have you been taught throughout your life about sleep? Do you work in a competitive environment where coworkers brag about pulling all-nighters? Do you live by the saying, “I’ll have plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead?” What is your attitude toward sleep?
Sleep is one of the most critical components to health. Once asleep, our bodies undergo a sort of system maintenance. The immune system is strengthened, healing of injuries occurs through overall tissue regeneration and repair, as well as memory consolidation and brain repair and restoration.
Optimizing this time by not eating within three hours of sleep, avoiding electronics and stressful situations close to bedtime, and creating a bedtime ritual that eases you into bed and sleep will help your body do what it needs to do during this time.
I mentioned blood sugar levels and bedtime earlier. Having digestion mostly complete before you go to bed allows more time for the body to engage in restorative functions during sleep. Your body can digest while your awake, but it can’t engage in many of the repair functions as efficiently while you are awake. Allow it this time.
Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress creeps into most of my topic discussions because of its impact on the entire system. That’s because stress shuts down the cleansing and repairing processes; even the digestive process.
Remember the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. One is active when we are stressed (fight or flight) and the other is active during rest and digest. When we are stressed, the liver is activated by the sympathetic nervous system to start converting stored glucose (glycogen) into sugar so the body can use it as a quick source of energy to get away from the charging tiger. The more stress we experience (both real and perceived), the more the liver is tied up trying to keep up while the toxins and hormones that need to be processed out, get recirculated instead.
Make sure and take time every day to engage is stress reduction activities like meditation, yoga or any activity that takes your mind down a few notches and increases your happiness quotient.
Lack of Movement
This is where sitting is the new smoking comes into play. I mentioned the importance of the lymphatic system to detoxification. But here’s the thing. This system has no automatic pump. The circulatory system (blood) has the heart to keep it moving. The lymphatic system only has movement to keep it going. And when it’s not moving, it’s not removing the trash it’s collecting, nor is it delivering the immune system’s white blood cells to where they need to go for fighting infection and healing.
Physical movement is one of the best ways to move the lymphatic system. Being sedentary causes the lymphatic system to remain dormant unless you daily employ methods to keep lymph fluid moving. Activities that will support the lymphatic system include brisk walking, running, high intensity interval training (HIIT), yoga and rebounding.
What is Detox for You?
First, as I always say, check with your doctor before initiating any program like a formal detox. It is critical to know where you are from a health standpoint before imposing upon your body any process that could make matters worse. Whenever you make changes that are not gradual it will cause the body stress. The body is incredible in its ability to adapt, but there are limitations. If the body is already stressed, be it leaky gut, adrenal fatigue, IBS, GERD, diabetes, obesity, thyroid disorders, etc.; making changes overnight can stress the body further, leading to the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Jumping into something your body isn’t ready for could have negative consequences that undermine your efforts.
Furthermore, if you engage in a restrictive fast or detox that is very calorie restrictive and causes quick fat loss, you can make matters worse. Toxins are stored in body fat. When body fat is lost too quickly it floods the body with these stored toxins. That’s where detox side effects originate from and can cause abandonment of the detox/cleanse. Going slow will reduce these symptoms and allow the body the ability to slowly process out toxins at a pace it can manage.
That being said, there are daily practices you can incorporate that will allow the body to gradually cleanse/detox itself with much less stress on the body. By adopting a detox lifestyle, and practicing healthy habits daily, you can make great strides towards better health without going to extremes. Let’s see what a detox lifestyle looks like.
Some of you may have already seen my Healthy Habits Guide, which you can grab on the home page in the freebies section about 2/3 of the way down the page. The guide provides 14 habits you can adopt that will assist your gut and your body toward the path of stress-reduction and detoxification. Here’s a short list of some additional tools:
- Limit overcooked meats and fats. Overcooked meats create toxins that release free radicals into the body, and can cause irritation, inflammation or damage to the digestive lining. Unstable fats like those from vegetable oils are damaged when overheated, create oxidative stress on the body’s cells, and are carcinogenic. They can also alter the gut microbiome.
- Reduce intake of refined flour. White flour turns to sugar in the body. It has likely been bleached and full of additives to increase shelf life. It has also been stripped of its natural fiber and nutrients. It’s not a whole food.
- Speaking of sugar, you can increase your health exponentially by limiting your sugar intake. Look for added sugars in food. Processed food has way more sugar than our bodies can handle. Additionally, excessive sugar contributes directly to metabolic disorders like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Sweetened drinks are one of the biggest contributors to obesity and type 2 diabetes, whether it be sugar or artificial sweeteners. Additionally, artificial sweeteners damage the microbiome.
- Eat more whole, unprocessed foods; especially those high in fiber. Adequate fiber and clean water intake is critical to supporting microbiome and colon health and regularity. As the colon is a huge execretory pathway for toxins, you don’t want it getting backed up via constipation. Fiber is also food for the microbiome. You can read more about supporting the colon/large intestine in the Healthy Habits guide, here, and here. Here’s a great recipe with healthy fats and fiber and no added sugar, along with antioxidant-rich cacao. Fiber-rich food is also a good source of probiotics and prebiotics, which support gut health, nutrient absorption, and aid in toxin elimination.
- Healthy fats and oils. Just as we want to avoid unhealthy fats, we want to bring in healthy fats. You can read more about the role of healthy fats in the diet here. Healthy fats and oils are a source of essential fatty acids needed by the body for energy and inflammation reduction. They help populate good gut bacteria, and may help reduce oxidative stress.
- Support the liver. If the liver is not healthy, you cannot be healthy. The liver is the main organ of detoxification. One of the biggest detractors of liver health is alcohol. Reducing your alcohol intake will greatly impact the ability of the liver to eliminate other toxins and clear excess hormones that could otherwise lead to estrogen dominance. Choosing organic whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and reducing intake of processed foods will support liver health. You can also ask your doctor about supplements geared toward supporting the liver.
- Ensure adequate micronutrient intake and absorption. I’m a big proponent of simple blood tests which can identify issues that can be addressed. What you are looking for: deficiencies in zinc, selenium, folate, and vitamin D, which are big supporters of the health of the gut lining.
- Sweat it out. We did not cover sweating here, but I did list the skin as a pathway for elimination of toxins. Saunas, again seemingly trendy, are actually a centuries-old method for detoxification. You can read more about my journey with my infrared sauna here.
I know!! That was a lot of information. For those of you who have been following the gut health article series, I hope this helped to bring it all full circle. I also hope it helped bring some insight into the detox craze. I believe it helps to understand the why before jumping into anything that affects health. For those of you who want to go back to where it all began, here it is.
Next week I’ll keep it short and provide you with some gut-healthy herbs and spices you can use to replace the chemical additives we’ve gotten used to in our processed foods. It’s time to head to the kitchen with some new tools.
By the way, my 30-day program is all about creating a detox lifestyle. Check it out.
Yours in Wellness,