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We’ve arrived at the first few months of the new year, when the diet and fitness industry revs into overdrive. Instead of savoring the first blushing weeks of the year, we’re bombarded with advertisements and sales tactics, trying to help us burn off holiday guilt. Many people fall into this trap, trying to cleanse or detoxify their bodies without truly understanding how detoxing works or how to do it safely.
Some health professionals find detoxing and cleansing unnecessary, since our bodies have their own detox systems. While I’m constantly in awe of the magnificently intelligent human body, I think detoxification is vital to staying healthy in the modern era. Neither our genetics nor our physiologies have changed much in the past century, but our environment has — quite dramatically. Today, detoxing helps the body rid itself of the highest exposure to manufactured chemicals, viruses, heavy metals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), radiation, and other toxins seen by any generation.
From the toxic flame retardants sprayed onto our clothes and furniture to the phthalates in our shampoos, it’s impossible to list every potential hazard we’re exposed to daily. Some estimates on the conservative end cite that the average person is exposed to 129 unique chemicals each day, and other estimates on the higher end report chemical numbers above 500. Yes, our bodies have built-in cleansing mechanisms, but for the vast majority of modern humans, those mechanisms are overwhelmed. Our livers are burdened by food additives and toxic medications; our kidneys get clogged up with chemical and synthetic substances; and our lymphatic system, especially with infection and medications, can’t bathe and filter our body tissues, regulate fluid levels, or move white blood cells effectively. These strains can lead to pain, headaches, brain fog, fertility issues, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and more.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Our bodies simply can’t keep up with the modern onslaught of toxins and pathogens, so it’s important to give them a helping hand to avoid serious consequences down the line. Because of the prevalence of environmental hazards nowadays, I believe in creating a detoxification lifestyle, and maintaining safe and effective processes.
Our bodies use four main elimination channels to rid ourselves of the nutritional and metabolic wastes we create: The colon eliminates fecal waste; the kidneys and bladder eliminate toxins via urine; the lungs eliminate toxins through phlegm and the breath; and the skin releases toxins through sweat. Other organs, such as the liver, work in tandem with these pathways to shuttle out as much toxic waste as possible. But when these routes become blocked or stagnant, our ability to naturally detoxify becomes compromised. When this happens, we need to step in and help get things back on track. Here are some of the most common methods we can use to help our bodies detox more efficiently, as well as the pros and cons for each.
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Detox Teas and Herbal Supplements
Pros: Teas and supplements are easy to create and/or administer daily.
Cons: Many preformulated products on the market are fake, dangerous, expensive, or low quality. Some people may experience negative detox side effects or interactions with their current medication. (See “Detox Side Effects”)
Eliminating Processed Foods
Pros: It’s safe and relatively easy for most people to do, and unlikely to put major stress on your body.
Cons: EIiminating processed foods requires a huge lifestyle change for some, and may cause withdrawal symptoms.
Enemas and Colonics
Pros: These work well for bowel cleansing and may improve detoxification in general; coffee enemas in particular work well.
Cons: There’s risk of systemic disruption to your bowels and overall health. Consult a professional before any enema or colonic. Coffee enemas may be overstimulating.
Pros: These clean, vibrant, high-energy food sources reconnect you to “real” food, as nature intended.
Cons: Raw fruits and vegetables can be expensive and time-consuming to prepare, depending on the foods you choose.
Pros: The consumption of water alone is a simple, time-honored tradition for cleansing and spiritual awakening.
Cons: For individuals with adrenal fatigue or neurological disease, fasting isn’t advisable. Going long periods without nourishment strains the adrenal glands, causing a release of adrenaline and cortisol, which can further weaken people in this state. Make sure you work with a qualified professional before attempting any fasting. Also, consuming only water for 24 to 72 hours is too extreme for most people. This can cause severe detox reactions and be detrimental to those with severe fatigue or adrenal weakness, or neurological issues.
Safe & Effective Detoxing Tips
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As a health coach, I’m a firm believer in mindful, personalized detoxification. I’ve seen the tremendous healing power of these methods when applied correctly. If you’re undergoing any kind of detox program, these are my tips for making it as safe and effective as possible.
- Identify your purpose. I’ve found that people who approach their detox from a healthy, empowered place are more likely to have a good experience. If you’re forcing your body to detox because you’re trying to lose weight or punish yourself for indulging during the holidays, you’ll be more likely to turn to extreme methods and cause significant damage. Take a moment to connect to your deeper motivation for cleansing before diving in.
- Slow down. Too often, people take on intense detox protocols, only to feel worse afterward. As a result, some people binge on junk food when they give up. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, make sure you know how to slow down your detox without giving up altogether. Ways to slow down detoxification include increasing your intake of cooked foods and fats, consuming fewer fresh juices, and reducing or eliminating herbal supplements. Allow yourself to experiment with these methods of slowing down, and find a pace that suits you.
- Rest. When you’re undergoing a cleanse or targeted detox program, it’s not the time to push yourself; don’t do intense exercises or fill up your calendar with extra work or social outings. Detoxing is a lot of work for the body, so make sure you don’t expend too much energy on activity or stressful situations. Plan to sleep more; this can mean taking afternoon rests, skipping hard workouts, taking calming baths, or staying in.
- Work with a professional. There are many DIY detox programs out there today, but consider working with someone who can personally guide you through the process. Many functional medicine doctors, naturopaths, and health coaches can supervise your cleanse, offer advice, and make tailored recommendations based on your unique body. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all detox!
- Stay hydrated. Detoxification is often a balance of “stagnation versus flow,” and if your cells and lymph fluids are dry and sticky, you won’t be able to move out toxins effectively. In order to free up these toxins and help them get out of the body, it’s critical to stay hydrated. Drink enough water or juice to keep your cells plump and free-flowing. Try coconut water or warm water with lemon if you need some extra flavors.
- Consider using binders. I often use tools called “binders” with clients. These are substances that bind to and “neutralize” toxins (typically in the gut). When used correctly, binders can reduce detox symptoms and eliminate more toxins in a set period of time. Some binders include bentonite clay, activated charcoal, zeolite, silica, modified citrus pectin, chlorella, and spirulina. Because binders can also bind to medications and supplements, and can slow gastrointestinal elimination, use them with caution and under professional supervision.
Detox Side Effects!
Sometimes during a detox, you may experience terrible side effects that accompany the change from your regular routine. A few reasons why you might initially feel worse during your detox include:
- Withdrawal. If you suddenly stop consuming caffeine, gluten, processed sugar, dairy, or meat, you’ll likely experience symptoms of withdrawal. Headaches, mood changes, or mild flu-like symptoms are common. These typically pass within a few days.
- Overwhelmed system. If you’re detoxing too quickly, you’ll overwhelm your liver and elimination routes. When you pull out toxins or kill pathogens, you’re releasing them into the blood, which can temporarily make you feel worse. This is sometimes called a “healing crisis” or a “Herxheimer reaction.” Don’t push through this phase; if your body is too clogged and can’t eliminate toxins fast enough, you can end up reabsorbing them. This is a sign to slow down.
- Hunger and Cravings. Make sure you’re getting enough calories during your detox, as prolonged fasting and caloric restriction can stress the adrenal glands.
- Fatigue. During detox, your body will devote more energy to “taking out the trash.” Rest your body, and your fatigue should be mild and short-lived.
Creating a Detox Lifestyle
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Whether you partake in the occasional cleanse or not, view detoxing as a lifestyle. Remember that your body is constantly bombarded with toxins, pathogens, and heavy metals, so continual detoxification support is a great idea. This is often more effective than attempting an aggressive cleanse once or twice a year. Here are my top tips for making your everyday routine one that’s cleansing and nourishing for your body.
Full-body detoxification doesn’t have to be stressful, expensive, or make you want to lose your mind. With these tips, you can embark upon a cleansing program with confidence, while making small changes to live a safer, healthier lifestyle.
Remember that you’re up against a lifetime of exposure to petrochemicals, heavy metals, food additives, household chemicals, and other toxins. I always remind people that you can’t detox an entire decade in a day. Go slowly, be patient with yourself, and be committed to the long haul, and your detox efforts will be a success.
Daily Detox Tips:
- Swap out your cleaning and beauty products for safer versions. The Environmental Working Group has great resources on how to do this.
- Increase your intake of fiber, especially from whole fruits and veggies. Buy organic produce as much as possible, to reduce your body’s burden of pesticides. Take deep breaths several times a day. (Remember that the lungs are an elimination route!)
- Practice regular, mindful movement, in whatever form you love. This will increase circulation and sweating, which are both keys to a healthy detox.
- Drink a glass of warm lemon water every morning. This will help flush your liver and kidneys, while preparing your stomach for digestion.
Melani Schweder is a certified health coach, reiki master and teacher, and guide for those who want to live life in full color, even through struggle. Her unique coaching process combines her knowledge of whole-food nutrition, reiki, mindfulness, herbal medicine, and positive psychology. Find out more about Melani at A Brighter Wild.