Detox the Right Way
Raise your hand if you’ve ever dreamed of using a juice fast to lose your love handles or compensate for holiday excesses. You’re not alone. Between October 2008 and October 2009, Americans spent more than $100 million on cleansing and detoxifying products in an effort to lose weight, gain energy, or purify themselves of harmful toxins, according to market research firm Spins. The appeal is obvious: Multiday detoxes are advertised as if they were shops where you send your dinged-up old body to be detailed. When you get it back, it’s so clean and shiny, it might as well be brand-new. If only it were that simple.
Prolonged fasting can do more harm than good by slowing your metabolism, depleting your body of essential nutrients, and, ironically, recirculating toxins into your system, says Gaetano Morello, ND, a detox specialist in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Whole Body Cleansing (Active Interest Media, 2009). Plus, many popular detox regimens, such as the Master Cleanse—a 10- to 20-day fast during which you subsist on a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup, and water—are so extreme that weight loss is nearly impossible to maintain once you go back to eating solid food. So far, no science shows that fasting or subsisting on liquids for any amount of time will scrub a lifetime’s worth of toxins from your cells. (For more on fasting, see “Top 5 Cleansing Questions”.)
“There’s no such thing as a quick fix,” says Patricia Fitzgerald, DOM, a homeopath and nutritionist in Santa Monica, California, and author of The Detox Solution (Illumination Press, 2001). “The safest detox is lifestyle.” By committing to a healthy diet, supporting your body’s natural detoxifying systems with food and supplements, and reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals, you’ll trim fat, boost energy, and lessen your body’s toxic burden. The following plans can be revisited several times a year.
Detox Goal #1Lose Fat
Toxins and fat go hand in hand. According to a 2002 article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, solvents, and the plastic additive bisphenol-A (BPA) disrupt the body’s natural weight-controlling hormones, interfere with metabolism, and change your appetite. Because most toxins are stored in the body’s fat cells, dropping unwanted pounds will help you start whittling away at metabolism-thwarting chemical reserves too.
Start by eliminating the top calorie- and chemical-packed diet pitfalls—sugar, processed foods, and red meat. Aim for 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day primarily from organic produce, grains, and some protein. Think of it as training your body to run more efficiently on cleaner foods.
“Once you start feeling better, you’ll tend to want keep feeling better,” says Morello, who recommends doing a two-week detox three to four times a year, when seasons shift—a natural time to reevaluate your lifestyle and diet. “You’ve got to program yourself to change.” When the detox period is over, gradually increase your energy intake to about 2,200 calories per day from foods like lean protein and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, which will fill you up without piling on the pounds.
When you wolf down a sugary dessert, your body has to scramble to produce the hormone insulin, which causes a drop in blood sugar and creates what Frank Lipman, MD, author of Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Feel Great Again (Fireside, 2010), calls “a vicious cycle of craving, eating, and crashing.” Insulin may also increase fat storage in cells, according to a study published by the Public Library of Science. Cut out the obvious offenders—soda, candy, juice, and desserts—and start reading labels. You’ll be surprised at how much sugar and artificial sweeteners are in prepared salad dressings, yogurts, and condiments. Craving sweets? Eat a piece of fruit: Fructose enters the bloodstream slower than glucose and won’t spike blood sugar.
Quitting sugar cold turkey can leave you headachy and irritable for up to two weeks. To curb cravings, supplement with 1 to 2 grams of powdered glutamine divided into three doses throughout the day. The amino acid stabilizes blood sugar.
All told, you should be eating nine to 13 servings of produce—of which two or three are fruit—and 50 grams of protein per day. Choose organic when purchasing the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, including peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. If you eat meat, opt for organic poultry and organic, grass-fed beef, which is produced without hormones or antibiotics.
Keeping your tank full by noshing on minimeals every four hours is essential for regulating blood sugar so you don’t bonk and grab a Snickers. Start the day with a low-sugar protein smoothie: Blend 1 cup unsweetened almond or soy milk with 1/2 cup frozen organic berries and 1 scoop plain whey protein. Then eat your biggest meal—about 500 calories—midafternoon, when your body is at its hungriest and has ample time to digest before bed. Try a 3-ounce organic grilled chicken breast with fiber-packed veggies, such as broccoli and spinach, which help you feel full. Eat your last light meal at least three hours before bedtime.
In addition to supporting proper digestion, drinking water aids kidney function, speeds waste elimination, curbs hunger pangs, and facilitates the body’s natural detox process by helping you sweat during exercise (see “Top 5 Cleansing Questions,” page 67), says Elson M. Haas, MD, author of The New Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 2004). Dehydration is also the main culprit behind daytime fatigue and headaches, and even mild dehydration can slow metabolism. Fitzgerald recommends drinking half your body weight, in ounces, every day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll need 75 ounces—or 9?1/2 cups—of water daily. To make sure you’re not taking in heavy metals and pesticides with your H20, check your tap-water purity at epa.gov/safewater, and buy a reverse-osmosis filter if necessary.
Bile created in your liver flushes toxins through your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. But without enough soluble fiber to bind to the bile and excrete it, toxins reabsorb into the bloodstream. Beans, legumes, and fruit are excellent sources of soluble fiber, or supplement with 5 grams in capsule or powder form twice daily, Morello says.
Include a multi
Take a high-quality multivitamin to make sure you’re not skimping on nutrients. Need help choosing a multi? Visit naturalsolutionsmag.com and type “Multiple Choice” into the search box.
Detox Goal #2 Relieve Body Burden
The human body detoxifies itself naturally in two stages, Phase I and II, which occur in the GI tract and liver. In Phase I, digestive enzymes convert toxins into forms that amino acids and glutathione can neutralize in Phase II, making them water soluble. At this point, the toxins get absorbed into bile and are transported out of the body. Morello likens the complex physiological process to working with oil-based paints. “You can’t wash oil paint off with water,” he explains. “You need to transform it and bind it and then get it off. The first step is taking the turpentine and binding it to the paint. The second step is taking the cloth and rubbing the paint off.”
The two-phase process works well to remove some toxins, but our exposure to industrial compounds, environmental pollutants, and chemicals is at an all-time high, and our bodies need extra help getting rid of them. Toxins are in the foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the household products we touch, and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and hormonal and fertility problems. “Every single cell is always detoxing,” explains Fitzgerald. “The question is how efficiently?” To give your liver and GI tract some much-needed support, reduce your exposure to chemicals, clean up your diet, and work in cleansing supplements and therapies.
Get your Cs
This powerful antioxidant counteracts the cell-damaging free radicals produced during Phase I. Morello recommends supplementing with 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily.
Eat your vegetables
When the liver converts toxins in Phase I, it also creates free radicals—unstable molecules that can harm healthy tissues. To prevent cellular damage, pack your diet full of foods, such as berries, grapes, and spinach, which contain free-radical-neutralizing antioxidants. In addition, sulfur in broccoli, artichokes, garlic, and cabbage aids liver function by increasing bile production.
Take stock of your toxins
Evaluating the safety of the products you come into contact with is one of the most important steps you can take toward reducing your body burden, or the amount of contaminants housed in your tissues. Swap conventional cleaning products with all-natural options; toss out BPA–spiked plastic containers; and opt for pure, mineral-based cosmetics. “Chemical cosmetics can be more problematic than chemicals in food because they bypass your liver and go straight to your bloodstream, where they stay and add to body burden,” Lipman says. For a printable list of beauty ingredients to avoid, visit naturalsolutionsmag.com/pdfs/toxic_ingredients.pdf.
Heal with herbs
“The liver can be compared to the oil filter in a car, and cleansing the liver is like an oil change,” Fitzgerald says. Milk thistle, one of the best defenders of liver health, reduces toxins’ effect in the liver, encourages regular bowel movements, reduces toxic accumulation, and regenerates liver cells, she says. Take 250 to 300 mg up to three times daily. Also try 150 to 200 mg of turmeric and 150 to 200 mg of artichoke extract daily to encourage bile flow.
Sweat it out
“Physical activity stimulates the release of toxins through your skin as you sweat,” explains Fitzgerald. “Regular workouts can also reduce fat reserves throughout the body, where toxins are stored.” Take a sauna or steam bath once or twice a week to help clear clogged pores so that chemical pollutants exit more efficiently through your skin.
Detox Goal #3: Increase Energy
Sad but true, the American diet’s cornerstones—wheat, dairy, sugar, and red meat—wreak havoc on our bodies, often without us knowing it. These foods are inherently difficult to digest, causing your GI tract to attack the proteins as though they were foreign antigens, wasting a whole lot of energy in the process, Lipman says. And because 70 percent to 80 percent of your immune system thrives in your digestive tract in the form of beneficial gut flora, poor digestion puts unnecessary wear and tear on your body’s basic defenses.
“Many of us have become used to mild indigestion, irritated bowels, bloating, and gas, and think they are normal parts of aging,” Lipman says. In reality, these symptoms are signs that your digestive system is out of whack. “No matter how healthily you eat, if your digestive system does not work well, your food does not nourish you well,” he says. And without proper nourishment, it’s almost impossible to fire on all cylinders. During this detox, you’ll reboot with quality sleep, energizing herbs, and foods that won’t sap your strength.
Get rid of gluten
According to Beth Reardon, RD, director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in North Carolina, 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans are sensitive to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. When the body is unable to fully metabolize gluten, it attacks the unprocessed proteins—a systematic response that stresses the immune system and is a huge waste of energy. To get the satisfaction of grains sans gluten, Reardon suggests eating at least three servings of quinoa, millet, or amaranth per day.
Step up your superfoods
According to Fitzgerald, green foods such as spirulina harbor dense concentrations of antioxidizing phytonutrients, which boost the body’s energy production. Lipman recommends taking a phytonutrient and probiotic formula. Try 1 scoop daily of Powdered ProGreens with Advanced Probiotic.
Ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, and eleuthero are adaptogenic herbs that help your body deal with physical and psychological stressors, Lipman says. He suggests taking 2 to 3 grams of nonstandardized rhodiola root per day to help balance the stress hormone cortisol, 100 to 200 mg of standardized ginseng extract per day to strengthen the body’s immune response, and 2 to 3 grams of dried eleuthero per day to aid concentration. Or ask your herbalist for a formula that combines all three.
To avoid the post-coffee slump, gradually downshift to a half-regular, half-decaf brew—or even better, sip green or white tea, which contain about a third as much caffeine as coffee and “have a mild stimulant that helps calm your mind,” Reardon says. “It’s fabulous for focus.”
Take it easy on dairy
Even if you’re not lactose intolerant, cow’s milk can be a chore for your body to process because you may be allergic to milk proteins. Replace it with yogurt, kefir, and cottage cheese; the fermentation process breaks down lactose, making the dairy easier to digest. Goat’s milk products, which contain proteins different from those in cow's milk, are less of a burden on your body.
Drink in the sunshine
Anyone who experiences an annual slump during winter’s dark days knows that lack of sunlight can affect your mood and energy level. Why? Depression and low energy can ensue when you don’t get enough vitamin D, which the skin produces in response to ultraviolet-light exposure. Reardon advises supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily.
Sleep is the ultimate restorative detox. Most people need between seven and a half and nine hours a night: Too much or too little may leave you lethargic. Prime yourself for quality z’s by creating what Lipman calls an “electronic sundown.” Shut off your computer, cell phone, TV, and radio at least two hours before bedtime to signal to your body it’s time to sleep. And don’t exercise within two hours of crawling between the sheets—endorphins released during physical activity may get you too hyped to fall asleep.
Santa Fe, New Mexico–based writer Katie Arnold is the former managing editor of Outside magazine.
Top 5 Cleansing Questions
When should I detox? Feeling sluggish, constipated, or gassy are good indications your liver and gastrointestinal tract could use a break from excess, says Elson M. Haas, MD, author of The New Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 2004). Pregnant and nursing women, and people with chronic immune disorders should consult their doctors before starting any cleanse.
Should I take laxatives? Beth Reardon, RD, of Duke Integrative Medicine, warns against using laxatives as a weight-loss tool because they can strip away good digestive bacteria, make you susceptible to illness, and result in dependency.
Do I need a colonic? Colonics, or enemas, can facilitate detoxification, but if done too frequently, they also flush healthy bacteria from your gastrointestinal tract, undermining immunity. Check with your healthcare provider first.
Can I exercise? Definitely, though when trying to gain energy, limit exercise to gentle, restorative workouts, like mellow yoga and walking. These low-impact activities give your body a boost without running it down, says Frank Lipman, MD. In general, shoot to exercise at moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes five times a week.
Is fasting—for any length of time—safe? Diets based on extreme deprivation can drain your body of essential nutrients and destroy your focus and stamina. Consult your healthcare provider before undertaking any type of fast.