In ancient biblical times, fasting was a common method of cleansing the body to remove harmful toxins. Today, a host of detoxification methods—from increasing liquids in the daily diet and not eating processed foods to avoiding industrial pollutants, herbicides and chemicals—are used by millions. Other common forms of body purification include increased exercise and sauna use to promote profuse sweating, thus releasing toxins from the system.
What is Detoxification?
Detoxification is a natural process where the body rids itself of toxins through sweat, bile, urine or feces. A detox diet or cleanse refers to a specific way of eating and living, usually for a designated period of time, to potentially speed up this detox process. A detox diet is similar to a cleanse, although the word “detox” specifically refers to the removal of “toxins” from your body.
Is Detox Necessary?
Some nutrition experts claim that the body can detox on its own—your organs and immune system are constantly doing this work—and that you don’t need to follow a special detox diet. Other dietitians support the idea of detoxing with the help of nutrition therapy. Detox diet recommendations can range from short-term water-only (or juice) fasts to following a long-term, healthy, whole foods diet. I usually go “cold turkey” on simple carbs when I need to detox, eating instead a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with lean protein or legumes. The length of time is up to you.
Gastroenterologist and nutritionist Anil Minocha, MD, recommends detox in his book, the Seven-X Plan for Digestive Health, stating, “Our gut is subjected to loads of different foods, drugs, pollutants, and toxins every day. Just as we must do a “disk clean” to keep our computer working smoothly every few days, our super-charged gastrointestinal (GI) superhighway is no exception.”
Like Minocha, many integrative medicine professionals support the idea of short-term fasting and detox diet plans, while others simply encourage individuals to follow a nutritious whole foods diet for long-term benefits. A word of caution from Minocha regarding detox: “Always talk to your doctor before changing your diet, including embarking on any fast.”
In addition, pregnant and breastfeeding women, children and those on medications should avoid fasting and seek medical advice before dramatically changing their diets.
Starting a Detox Diet
A specific detox diet plan may interest you if you are looking to boost your immune system, recover from an illness or whenever it feels right to you. Florida-based Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Kasie Carlson, offers practical advice to her clients in the Gulf beach town of Safety Harbor. “An easy way to integrate detox or cleansing into the diet, especially for someone who is new to the concept, is to create a plan to eliminate one unhealthy habit per week,” Carlson says. A gradual progression makes it easier for your body to adjust. “For instance, in week one you eliminate caffeine. In week two, cut out processed foods. This slow introduction to eliminating toxins continues for 30 days or more, easing your body into the detox,” she explains.
While those suffering from sickness can benefit from detoxing, they need to be extra careful with their approach. “It's important to note that if you are already weakened from illness or trauma, detox needs to be done at a very slow pace,” Carlson cautions. “If you are very thin or extremely fatigued, detox can be healing, long term, but needs to be closely monitored in the interim, so as not to create more debilitating effects.”
A number of natural foods may support your body during the detox process. In addition to drinking plenty of water, consider adding the following nutritious foods to your diet before, during and after your cleanse:
-Foods with high fiber content (beans, quinoa, oats, and others)
-Onions and garlic
-Raw or cooked vegetables
Check with a nutrition expert to learn more about vitamin and herbal supplements that may help to support your detox cleanse, including B vitamins, glutathione, green tea and flavonoids. Carlson recommends using Chinese herbal formulas that work in harmony with the body to eliminate toxins. Also, support the body with strengthening herbs and offer cleansing benefits without weakening the body. Some of the most commonly used herbs in Chinese formulas include dandelion root, isatis leaf, rhubarb root, perilla, red clover and burdock root.
Colonic Irrigation and Detox
Some people attempt to boost the detox process with colon cleansing (also called colonics or colonic irrigation). A colonic is different from the usual colon prep physicians prescribe prior to a colonoscopy. While a colon prep involves drinking a lot of water and laxatives to help flush waste from the colon, a colonic involves inserting a small tube into the rectum. The tube flushes your colon with a large amount of water and possibly other substances, like herbs. The claim is that a colonic removes toxic substances from your colon, improving your health. At this time, however, science has not supported this idea and colon cleansing can have uncomfortable side effects, such as stomach upset, cramping and bloating.
If you have medical issues, seek medical advice before proceeding with colonic irrigation. According to Minocha, colonics, colon flushes and colon cleansers are recommended by practitioners every few months. “However, in my opinion, not only are they using harsh and unnecessary methods and laxatives, they miss the point,” he says. “While the gut gets cleaned out, evidence suggests that the gut bacteria reverses back to its fingerprint quickly within a few days. The body then has to live with the unhealthy gut all over again for months, waiting for the next unpleasant colonic experience.”
If you are interested in detoxing for health benefits, it’s important to pay attention to what you put on your body as well as in your body. Cosmetics, lotions, sunscreens and other beauty products may contain ingredients that are less than ideal for your health. The Environmental Working Group’s website offers in-depth product reviews and education on product ingredients and can help you update your beauty regimen, while eliminating chemicals from your daily routine.
When practicing a cleanse, work up a sweat with regular exercise to keep your body strong and healthy and to speed up the detox process. Eliminate unnecessary and unhealthy items from your diet, such as refined sugars, trans fats, saturated fats, food additives and preservatives. For lasting health benefits after your cleanse, focus on eating healthy, natural foods and avoiding processed foods for as long as possible. Many people who practice cleansing and detox diets find clean eating so beneficial and enjoyable that they continue to follow a natural, whole foods diet for the long-term.