What is a Detox?
The definition of detoxification from the Cambridge dictionary is a period when you stop taking unhealthy or harmful foods, drinks, or drugs into your body for a period of time, in order to improve your health. Or a medical treatment in a special hospital to stop someone from drinking too much alcohol or taking harmful drugs.
Quite literally, detoxification means riding the body of toxins.
When I or other holistic health providers talk about a doing a detox or cleanse, it generally means setting aside a period of time, typically somewhere between 3-14 days, to cut out any processed foods and harmful products you may be ingesting on a regular basis. This time is best used to focus on incorporating new habits and shedding those that aren’t serving your best interests. A smart detox will focus heavily on healthy food, not strictly juices, smoothies or drinking only broth. Meditation, gentle movement like yoga, tai chi and qi gong, sleep hygiene and other stress management strategies can also be explored during this time.
There are two answers to this question. The first has to do with the physiology of the Liver and the health of our microbiome. (if you are unfamiliar with this term, read my last blog, Your Brain and Your Belly: What’s The Connection?) Your liver acts as your main biochemical synthesizer and detoxifying organ. It's responsible for cleaning toxins and wastes from your blood, and separating out the useful nutrients to synthesize hundreds of biochemicals that your body needs for daily functioning. Your liver also activates and regulates important hormones. After your digestive system has broken down your food, the small particles enter your blood from the intestine and are routed to your liver for filtering. There your liver separates the nutrients needed for building blocks from the waste chemicals that need to be removed from circulation. The liver converts amino acids into proteins to build lean muscle mass and enzymes. It produces bile that moves back out through your gall bladder into your intestinal tract to digest fatty foods. The liver also stores energy from sugar as glycogen for later release.
Out of the hundreds of functions your liver performs, ensuring toxins are safely removed from your blood is one of its most critical jobs. Toxins enter your body when you are exposed to harmful substances like pesticides, but they also result from normal digestion. For example, when your body digests protein, ammonia is released and your liver converts it into the less toxic substance called urea that is eliminated through your urine. Any wastes your liver cannot use are converted and either carried out by bile into your small intestine or carried by the blood to your kidneys.
Your liver also breaks down or deactivates certain hormones - like insulin, estrogen and cortisol, the stress hormone - and clears them from your blood. Your liver also converts Vitamin D, which is actually considered a hormone, into a more useable form that activates the immune system, supports calcium absorption and other crucial functions.
Your Liver also functions as a insulin regulator. When carbohydrates are broken down during digestion, a type of simple sugar called glucose is created. Glucose is the main source of energy for your cells. When the liver filters your blood after you eat, it converts the left-over glucose into glycogen and stores it for future energy needs. Your liver quickly changes the glycogen back into glucose when you need a quick burst of energy, sending it out into circulation once more to feed your cells.
So now that we know how the liver does its magic, it is important to recognize that we now live in an overly toxic world where we are constantly bombarded with chemicals every without our knowing. Studies have shown that babies 200+ petrochemicals at birth and that adults have 300+ stored in various mucosal and fat cells. Some of the biggest culprits include pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, flame retardants, water and air pollution, medications, food additives/preservatives/colorings, plastics, meats (factory farmed), household cleaners, lotions, toothpaste, deodorants, detergents, and more. While our bodies are resilient and have the capability to eliminate toxins via breath/sweat/stool/urine, as collective whole, we are overburdened with these toxins more than ever before. While all people can tolerate a certain amount, prolonged stress, an acute illness, an overexposure to a toxic substance, or high amounts of medication are all examples of possible triggers that can cause our immune systems to go in to overdrive. If our detoxification pathways are not working optimally, we can become very sick.
How to Detox?
I will begin with this caveat, I am not a fan of juicing or smoothie only cleanses. If you are living your normal daily life, busy and hectic, it can be tempting to not have to make any food at all. However, it can also be very dangerous and uncomfortable, causing insulin to ride a rollercoaster, severe headaches, anger/irritability, rashes and more. Even a safe and smart detoxification can cause symptoms. However, they are reduced and manageable with smart food choices, eating regularly, and staying well hydrated.
Detoxing your system can be anywhere from 3-30 days depending on why you want to detox and how you’re feeling. The best time of the year for a longer detox (more than 3 days) is in the Spring! According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is when our Liver’s are most active and available for change. We also have the availability for more fresh foods and are able to spend more time outdoors.
Fundamental to detoxification is removing toxins. This includes not only eating organic and locally grown foods but changing what we are putting on our skin, what we are washing our cloths with, and cleaning our houses with. It takes a savvy shopper to work your way around product labels. A good first start is the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org. They are an immense resource for what to absolutely buy organic and what products are safe to use topically.
Another key to detoxification is filtered water. If we are eating well and using safe products but drinking tons of heavy metals and carcinogens, it defeats all of that intention. Get a water filter. You can use a countertop pitcher, a faucet filtration system or invest in reverse osmosis. Drinking lots of water is imperative to getting the toxins out!
During the time of detoxification, it is important to either start a movement/exercise routine or modify the one you currently use in order to keep your detoxification pathways open. Optimally, you want to move your body 20-30 minutes per day with gentle to moderate movement. If you are just starting out, walking or stretching or gentle yoga is perfect. If you already exercise, consider toning it down. Stick to walks or hikes, yoga, biking, and swimming. Check in with yourself regularly and find out what feels good.
Food. Yes, food. We are meant to eat, so I say eat. However, taking out ANYTHING toxic is vital. This means all processed and packaged foods. Anything with sugar, flour, soy, corn, dairy, eggs, meat, alcohol, and caffeine. So what do I eat? Fresh food! There are lots of options like soups, stews, salads, and so on. Roast, stir fry, sauté and blend.
Another helpful support during a detox are supplements. Some of the best include magnesium citrate to keep our stools soft and moving easily. Cleanse support for the Liver and Kidney detoxification pathways like Innate Detox by Innate Response or Premier Cleanse by Pure Formulas. A green supplement is also helpful to support cleansing the blood and to increase energy levels like Spectra Greens by Davinci Labs or Green Juice by Organifi.
If you are interested in a cleanse, consider joining Red Lotus Wellness for our 2017 Spring Cleanse starting Friday May 5th, sign up by May 3rd. This is a 14 day cleanse-detox that includes a private Facebook group and support from Dalite Sancic, L.Ac., MS.