While healthy eating is our birthright, for many of us it seems like taking the plunge into eating a whole foods-based diet is the equivalent to traveling to some distant land. But it doesn’t have to be such a scary or foreign experience.
In my work as a Functional Medicine Doctor, my priority is to guide each patient through a safe, simple, realistic and pleasurable (yes!) transition into healthy eating. Because whole foods-based diets remove all the sugary, fatty, chemical-laden, artificial stuff from the diet, they sometimes get called a detox or a cleanse.
Why is detoxification important?
When our bodies become “toxic,” it means that our natural means of ushering out metabolic waste from normal human metabolism, environmental pollution, and what has become known as the Standard American Diet (or SAD diet – funny, right!) have exceeded the threshold for what the body’s innate detoxification system can tolerate on its own. With this toxic load, every system in the human body can become affected. From our head to our toes and everything in between, toxicity makes us sick!
How do you know if you are toxic and need to properly cleanse?
Usually a constellation of complaints helps you determine whether or not you are toxic and to what extent you need to cleanse. Some examples of what might infer a toxic system are:
- Persistent headaches, muscle aches and muscle fatigue
- Eating a lot of swordfish, tuna, shark etc.
- Several mercury fillings and dental amalgams
- Food allergies
- Stubborn weight loss
- Hormonal imbalances and consistent use of hormone replacement treatments such as birth control or creams like progesterone.
- Consistent use of NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Skin abnormalities such as acne, rosacea or eczema
- A lifetime of consuming the SAD Diet
How long should you stay on a cleanse?
Typical cleanses that harness our body’s natural processes for filtering and removing waste tend to be gentle and can therefore be tolerated for longer periods of time than more extreme protocols. A safe cleanse is one which doesn’t make you starve yourself or take fancy pills, potions or expensive drinks.
Safety means allowing the body to do what it wants to do naturally, with a little assistance from some guided healthy eating, appropriate supplements and relevant lifestyle modifications. I usually have my patients do a cleanse for 7 days to 6 weeks, or even longer, depending on their particular needs. You should work with a trained medical provider to help you determine what length of time is right for you.
How can you prepare for a cleanse?
Like we would plan for any big trip to a new destination, we need to prepare, plan and set out some main goals for our journey. And by the way, as in all travels, it’s always a good idea to leave some room for the serendipitous excursions to occur. When handled properly, they can be the best part of a trip! So how can we plan for a safe and simple detoxification protocol?
Take some basic measurements before you begin so that you can track your progress as you go through your program. For example, if weight loss is your goal, measure your waist, hips and weight. If, migraines are an issue, determine the duration, intensity and frequency they currently plague you. Keep a journal, which will help you in more ways than one.
- Make lists! Organize your pantry, toss out the junk, gather recipes, sketch out weekly menus, make shopping lists for healthy foods you will be eating and formulate a cooking schedule to ensure you allot time to prepare your food for the week.
- Use journaling as a way to “cleanse” your inner world and relieve yourself of mental and emotional stress.
- Gather any supplements you need that have been advised for you to take by your medical provider.
- Think about the kind of exercise that will best complement your end goal and plan for it in your schedule.
- Detoxification requires you to slow down. Make sure you fit time for deep relaxation into your plan.
- Often, unsavory side effects appear in the initial phase of a cleanse. Two side effects to look for and keep track of in your journal are:
- Constipation: Move those bowels! Drink plenty of purified water. Try warm water with lemon first thing in the morning. Often, taking 300 mg of magnesium citrate is helpful, too. Or, try an epsom salt bath.
- Food allergies or sensitivities: These can be obvious or obscure. But chances are, as your body lets go of toxic waste, it will be easier to recognize a hidden reaction to gluten, dairy, soy or any of the other common food allergies.
Common Symptoms of “Withdrawal” from a Toxic Lifestyle
The following symptoms are very common at the beginning of the program and should dissipate within the first few days of your program. Don’t worry, these symptoms are indicative that your body is eliminating toxins and are a good sign!
- Bad breath
- Achy, flu-like feeling
- Itchy skin
- Offensive body odor
- Sleep difficulties (too much or too little)
These symptoms can occur for a number of reasons. First, eliminating food allergies and un-junking the diet causes reactions similar to withdrawal from other addictive substances like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine or heroin. Note: We are often most addicted to the foods we are allergic to! Getting off those allergens can cause a brief, flu-like achy syndrome that may last 1-3 days. Second, toxins in our digestive tract may make us feel ill if we don’t eliminate them. The best way to get relief from these symptoms is to follow the recommendations below.
How to Avoid Withdrawal Symptoms
Those who consume the most caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, and those who have the most food allergies, will have the most difficulty initially. Symptoms usually disappear after 3-4 days. It is best to slowly reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, white flour, and over-the-counter medications (except as directed by your physician) a week or two before you start your program.
- Make sure you drink at least six to eight glasses of filtered water daily. Stay away from plastic bottles, but glass bottles are okay.
- To prevent headaches, make sure your bowels are clean.
- Fatigue is normal during a cleanse, so allow more time for rest and sleep. To boost energy, exercise for 30 minutes a day. Walking outside in the fresh air is best. Roll up those sleeves and let the sun hit you with some vitamin D too!
- Take 1000 mg of buffered vitamin C with breakfast and dinner. Take 300 mg of magnesium citrate at dinner.
- Don’t wait till you are starving to eat! Balance your blood sugar by eating protein-based meals and snacks every 3-4 hours. Excellent sources of protein are baked or broiled fish, lean poultry and legumes, such as edamame or black beans.
- Heat is a great resource while cleansing as it helps draw out the toxins from within. Try a sauna or a warm bath with epsom salts for 20 minutes a few times per week.
While safe, these types of cleanses can still be stressful on the body and mind so remember to relax. Actively engaging your parasympathetic nervous system helps restore your energy, which your body needs to replenish itself. Meditation, deep breathing or any calming activity is good.
Eliminate all refined sugars, flours, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, gluten and any other addictive substance. By allowing certain triggers to stay in the diet, the body stays on the vicious cycle of cravings and addictive behavior. Reset your biology to eliminate all triggers.
Keep a journal and track your symptoms. You should feel better in 3-7 days. If you do not feel well at this point, please exercise caution and check in with your doctor.
Tune in to your body and listen to the cues it provides you. A cleanse is a great journey to learn more about understanding how to operate your very own owner's manual!