Another change of season - another great excuse to do away with the old and welcome in the new...
Just as we aim to eat seasonal foods, living and working in accordance with the seasons of the year - and bringing in specific self care practices to support us in this endeavour - is a great way of fostering a sense of connection to the earth, acknowledging and surrendering to the cyclical nature of life.
Traditionally, autumn is a time of slowing down and preparation for the cold winter months of, ideally, rest and restoration. In Chinese medicine it’s connected to the lungs and large intestine - both key channels of elimination - so again, letting go of things that no longer serve us. As the weather gets drier and colder we are more susceptible to coughs and colds, and people with poor intestinal health may experience a flare up of gut issues during this time.
At any change of season, it’s always good practice to do a short detox to best support our pathways of elimination, enabling us to truly let go of what we don’t need, sharpen our focus, boost energy levels, improve immunity and hormonal balance. Below you’ll find loads of practical advice on how to go about detoxing - but first, let’s talk about what detox actually means, and why it’s important.
Detox vs detoxification
The word ‘detox’ has been bandied about on social media, exploited by the weight loss industry and dissected by the scientific press so much that we’ve become desensitised to it as a concept. But what does ‘detox’ actually mean?
Detox has become a popular term for a temporary change in eating habits that attempts to reduce our total body burden of environmental toxins. While this is an honourable feat, many detox ‘programmes’ focus on extreme food restriction without supporting the body’s natural processes of detoxification which are so important for continuing health.
This common oversight can lead to a worsening of symptoms following ‘a detox’, as the body can become overloaded with toxins that are not being efficiently eliminated. The aim of detoxing should never be weight loss - in fact, for most of the patients I see, I prefer to employ ‘nutritional detox’ methods instead of lengthy fasts and restrictions. More on this below.
In order to get the most out of our detoxing, we first need to understand what is actually involved in ‘detoxification’.
Detoxification: what is it?
Almost every organ in the body has its own detoxification processes - even the brain needs sleep to reboot and repair.
However, generally speaking, ‘detoxification’ refers to a specific 2-phase metabolic process that happens in the liver, which, when working optimally, breaks down internal and external toxins and prepares them for elimination.
Phase I first breaks down these ‘toxins’ - including hormones, drugs, inflammatory mediators, food-based and environmental chemicals - and temporarily creates even more reactive metabolites, known as ‘free radicals’, that have the potential to damage tissue if left unchecked.
Then, during phase II, other molecules are attached or ‘conjugated’ to these reactive substances to make them water soluble and ready for elimination, either via the kidneys or bowels.
What we need is a balanced amount of phase I and phase II activity - and both of these processes depend on essential nutrients that are deficient in many standard modern diets, including B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E, amino acids and selenium. So therein lies the first hurdle - optimal nutrition is essential for effective detoxification.
However, if it’s a natural process, and all we need is the right nutrients in the right amounts, what’s all the fuss about? Why do we need to think about ‘detoxing’ at all? That’s where the concept of body burden comes in.
‘Body burden’ and what it means for your health
There’s nothing new about detoxification. Our ancestors lived on wild plants full of phytochemicals that required efficient processing in the liver and, conversely, the nutrients present in the fruits, vegetables and animal protein they ate, enabled detoxification to occur smoothly and efficiently.
By contrast, many of us modern folks are not getting enough of these important plant chemicals - the polyphenols, glucosinolates and sulphur compounds to name a few - especially if we’re eating non-organic fruits & veggies. We’re also largely not getting enough amino acids from protein. So, whilst detoxification as a biological mechanism is as old as the hills, ‘detox’ practices and the concept of ‘body burden’ of environmental toxins is something of a modern phenomenon.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics and fungicides are more prevalent in our natural environments than they have ever been before. Scientists have identified over 200 toxins in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, and adults are thought to carry up to 700 different toxins in their bodies.
What does this mean for our health? Well, medical researchers are linking more and more conditions to the build-up of toxins in the body, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, fatigue, infertility, allergies, behavior and mood disorders, as well as neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Many of the chemicals found in our air, water, food supply, personal and household care products have never been tested in humans, and many of them have documented adverse effects. Bisphenol-A in plastics, perchlorate in tap water and phthalates in perfumes are just some of those that are known to contribute to some of the chronic diseases mentioned above.
The environmental load is so great that it threatens to overload our natural detoxification processes, which in turn are being significantly compromised by our poor diets. So, what to do about it?
Diets for detox
The first step is to think about what you’re putting IN your body. This will mean increasing your intake of beneficial nutrients from plants, upping protein if you’re vegan or vegetarian, and avoiding certain inflammatory and stimulating foods for a period of time.
There are so many diets out there for detox purposes and I like to tailor my suggestions for each person sitting in front of me, but essentially you want to avoid foods which stress the liver and inflame the gut, like alcohol, coffee, gluten, dairy and sugar, for a period of 3-4 weeks minimum, whilst upping beneficial foods.
Organic berries, fresh or frozen, are one of the best detox foods around. They contain proanthocyanins and other phytonutrients and antioxidants that support liver detoxification.
Next are purple grapes, pomegranate seeds and walnuts - these are full of ellagic acid, which promotes phase II detoxification and protects liver cells from damage.
Brassica vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, watercress, kale and collard greens are next on the list. These leafy geniuses contain glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which help protect our cells against damage from ‘free radicals’ and conjugate environmental oestrogens, lowering our risk of hormone-related disease and disorder.
Sulphur compounds in garlic and onion are also involved in phase II processes, and flaxseeds are a crucial source of lignans and phytooestrogens, which also protect against harmful environmental oestrogens.
Aside from these specific nutrients, a diet rich in good sources of animal protein, healthy fats, nuts & seeds provide us with essential amino acids, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, glutathione, selenium and choline amongst many others - all of which support detoxification in one way or another.
Herbs and spices
When you’ve got your basic nourishment nailed, add the herbs in. Simple culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, fennel, oregano and ginger all contain phenols and flavonoids that support detoxification.
More specifically, bitter herbs like artichoke, chicory and milk thistle as teas, tablets or tincture stimulate bile flow from the liver, regulate blood sugar levels, support detoxification and elimination pathways, and protect liver cells from damage.
Spices like turmeric increase glutathione - an important antioxidant in the body - and both turmeric and garlic are little-known chelators of heavy metals such as mercury and lead.
Heal your gut
The liver processes and cleans all the blood coming from the gut, and sends it back out into the circulation. An inflamed gut is therefore a major source of toxicity for the liver, and over time can really overload detoxification pathways.
This is a whole blog post in itself but, if you’ve been told you have leaky gut syndrome, if you have an autoimmune disease or any other inflammatory disorder, healing the gut will be your first priority.
Again, there are plenty of specific diets for healing the gut - Paleo, Autoimmune Paleo, Keto, GAPS or full on Carnivore. Working closely with a herbalist, naturopath or nutritionist is helpful and often necessary in these cases - although I have seen ulcerative colitis resolve completely simply with a good gut healing herbal tea, removal of gluten, dairy, sugar and alcohol, and some basic lifestyle changes.
For the average person with no known gut conditions, adding fermented foods to the diet such as sauerkraut & kombucha, as well as prebiotic foods like artichoke, onions, garlic, bananas, chicory etc, in addition to the steps above, should be pretty sufficient.
Detox your life
The next step is removing as many environmental toxins from your household as possible. If you haven’t already done it, I recommend a total ‘chemical clean-out’ of your kitchen cupboards, cleaning products, cosmetics and drinking water.
The basic rule is: if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it/ drink it/ breathe it/ put it on your face.
Stress directly affects liver detoxification, so making a concerted effort to ground and calm yourself daily, using whatever means you prefer, is a really important step - whether you have a ‘high-stress lifestyle’ or not. Even 5 minutes of meditation twice a day can kickstart a good habit and make a lasting impact.
Last but not least, turn your Wifi router off at night and aim to get a good 8-9 hours of sleep, especially if fatigue is an issue.
Putting it all together
As you have probably gathered, true detoxing is more of a gradual and permanent lifestyle change than a short-lived dietary regime - however, short bursts of detoxing can still help the body get back on track after an intense period of stress, poor nutrition or high alcohol consumption - and again, it’s good to do a short cleanse at each change of season.
One strategy from Traditional Chinese Medicine is to do a ‘clear bland diet’ for a period of just 3 days, as a digestive reset. All this involves is eating plainly and simply - steamed vegetables, white rice, small amounts of animal protein and fruit only. Taking a couple of capsules of activated charcoal, which binds to and clears toxins and unwanted microorganisms from the gut, in between meals for just 3 days is a nice addition to this approach.
Equally, experimenting with coffee enemas, castor oil packs, liver flushes, fresh celery juicing, juice fasting or intermittent fasting can also be really helpful for some people, especially if you’ve already significantly ‘detoxed’ your life and diet. It’s up to you which approach you take and how far you go with it… if you need any help working out the best approach for you, you know where to find me :-)