Detox & Fasting
The Benefits, Methods and Challenges
Well, once again we are in the season of spring and with it comes beautiful warm days and sunshine. Spring is a traditional time to throw open the doors and windows to do spring cleaning around the home, but we can also be inspired to do some internal spring cleaning on our bodies at this time of year. This can take the form of a gentle cleansing programme with some simple dietary changes or a more serious detox or fasting regime.
Detox diets and all sorts of fasting programmes have become quite popular over the past few years – but in fact many traditional and natural health approaches have been employing detoxes and cleansing diets for hundreds of years. Most health traditions from different cultures include some kind of cleanse or detox aimed at promoting health and healing. These can be as diverse as native American sweat lodges and European alpine hydrotherapy spas to Indian Ayurvedic cleansing programmes.
So Why Do We Need to Detox?
In an ideal world with a good, clean environment and good nutrition, we probably would not need to. However, living in our modern society our bodies are often subject to an array of pollutants and toxins from the environment. Synthetic chemicals now pervade our food supply, cosmetics, medicines and other household products. This increased load creates a corresponding increased need for our body to metabolise and detoxify the chemicals to maintain good health.
Nutrients that help our body to naturally detoxify have historically been found in our food but unfortunately today’s food supply is often very low in much needed vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and trace elements. This has been due to the reliance by modern agriculture on synthetic additives like fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides that deplete the soils and leave residues in the food chain. Coupled with the large proportion of packaged, preserved and processed foods in the average diet, food cannot be relied on to solve, and indeed, is often the cause of ‘toxicity’. Our livers, kidneys and bowels are often overburdened by their daily detoxification and elimination jobs and can always do with a little extra support. Making some simple changes to the diet and giving our body a break by following a cleansing programme a couple of times a year can help our body naturally detox. Aside from simple cleansing, more comprehensive detox programmes have also been employed in the holistic management of all sorts of health disorders including cancer, fatigue, migraines, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disease and digestive problems.
There are many different approaches to detoxification. Some traditional methods involve fasting or limiting intake to fruit or vegetables. Modern approaches often focus on withholding carbohydrates from the diet to induce fat burning. Most of our toxins and waste products that our body cannot cope with get stored in fat cells. When we burn fat, fat cells get broken down and the toxins get re-released into the blood stream where, hopefully, this time they will be excreted.
Our liver is the primary organ of most pathways of detoxification. Once waste products are broken down through the liver, they are then shunted off to be eliminated primarily through the kidneys and bowel. Sweating through the skin is another way our body eliminates toxins which is also why saunas and steams have been traditionally employed in detox settings. Eliminating through sweat can be one of the most efficient methods for certain heavy metals such as cadmium, which can be hard to remove through the kidneys.
Intermittent fasting or timed interval eating is now a very popular way of stimulating the metabolic system to promote weight loss, reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy system. There are three popular ways of engaging with short term fasts that can become part of an overall healthy lifestyle plan. All of these mini-fasts include calorie restriction and have been shown to have considerable health benefits.
- 5:2 Diet – is one popular one where 2 days a week caloric intake is restricted to 500 calories and the other 5 days is a normal diet.
- 16 hour fast 8 hour eating – extending the overnight fast and limiting eating to 8 hours a day is another popular approach to intermittent fasting.
- Fasting mimicking diet – consuming 500 calories a day for 3-5 days is another way of getting the benefits of a true fast, without as much challenge as small amounts of food are still consumed.
Benefits of Fasting & Detox
Weight loss and improvements in metabolic function and anti-ageing mechanisms are some of the main reasons people are inspired to do a fast or detox protocol. Doing an extended fast with restrictions on eating (classic fasting) is another way of doing a deeper cleanse and provides a reset of the metabolic system. By restricting food, the body is forced into fat burning for energy as well as promoting many longevity pathways of the body that may be lying dormant. These pathways include immune activation, reduction in inflammation, cardiovascular benefits (reduced blood pressure), hormonal reset, decrease ageing processes as well as have anti-cancer actions. Most of these benefits occur after 3 days of fasting.
Being in a fasted state stimulates the body to kickstart pathways linked to survival which can, in turn start cellular repair, lower blood glucose and increase longevity. Many of our modern day chronic health issues from cancer and cardiovascular disease to obesity and diabetes are all favourably improved through fasting. Making the metabolic switch from using glucose for fuel to using ketones (or fats) for fuel stimulates an evolutionary pathway for health and longevity. See this research overview for more detailed info on the benefits of making this switch.
In healthy individuals, a simple detox or cleansing diet can be undertaken without supervision. For people with pre-existing health issues or those who want to undertake a more serious or extended detox programme, the guidance of a trained health professional is essential. Supportive measures from your naturopath or herbalist may include herbal or nutritional medicine to help with liver or kidney function to improve detoxification. Practitioners are also able to guide you in choosing the most suitable type of detox and then monitor your health throughout to ensure it is done safely.
When Detox is Not Appropriate
Patients often come to clinic and want to do a detox, but upon assessment, they appear run down and are nutritionally too weak to be able to successfully detox. We need a good nutrient pool to allow the body to successfully eliminate toxins. In these cases it is best to spend some time restoring the body to good health first. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid detox diets, as should children, the elderly or those who are sick with an acute illness. Your body needs lots of energy to do a good job of detoxifying, so planning to undertake a detox should ideally coincide with holiday or rest periods. Detoxification is not all about food.
What to Expect
During a fasting or detox programme, people should not only avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol but also avoid where possible the hidden chemical loads from cosmetics, fragrances, plastics, paints, cleaning products and non-essential medications. Likewise, taking time out for self care, gentle exercise and reflection on habits and attitudes can also be a good idea to do during your detox and allows you to embark on an emotional detox of sorts. This can be especially helpful in realising and releasing patterns of addiction, cravings and emotional eating that might still play out.
While people often report feeling a bit sluggish or tired during the early stages of a detox, they often feel much brighter and more energised by the end. Transient symptoms of nausea, dizziness, headaches and changes in bowel movements can occur during the first couple of days, but generally they are short-lived. By the end of the detox programme, digestion may improve, skin and eyes should appear clearer and general wellbeing and vitality is enhanced.
So hopefully this overview has inspired you to consider cleaning up your diet and lifestyle for better energy and health with a simple cleanse or some fasting! Check out my cleansing & detox programme for detailed advice on carrying out a cleanse at home (package includes a liver tonic and tea) or alternatively book an appointment to get a personalised plan and support for your detox.
* Images courtesy of freepik.com