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Planning a Detox? Take it Slow

American culture prizes speed. We championed fast food, instant coffee and microwave cooking. But as you’ve probably noticed in these examples, the fast way is not necessarily the best way. This is particularly true when detoxifying the body.

Sadly, today’s modern age can be characterized by the abundance of toxic substances in our environment: Heavy metals, pesticides and agricultural chemicals, flame retardants, plastics, household cleaners, even radioactive isotopes. In many cases, these health-robbing pollutants accumulate in our bodies faster than our natural detoxification systems can carry them out.

Once inside, these toxins can wreak havoc by increasing inflammation, disrupting hormone and cell signaling, scrambling DNA, and interfering with critical immune function. These and other degenerative effects translate into increased risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, joint problems, autoimmune issues and allergies, headaches and respiratory infections — even mental illness. Obviously, we should be making concerted efforts to keep toxins from building up in our critical organs and systems.

However, rapid detox, like rapid weight loss, is often less effective and can even be costly to your health in the long run. This is because aggressive detox programs can trigger the release of a bunch of toxins all at once from wherever the body was storing them (i.e., fat cells). Suddenly, the body becomes overwhelmed with the high level of pollutants in circulation, resulting in numerous uncomfortable symptoms and potential damage to long-term health.

Proceed with Caution: Common Detox Pitfalls

The whole point of a detox program is to feel better. We want to increase energy, reduce inflammation, improve digestion, balance immunity, accelerate metabolism, enhance cognitive function, clear up skin, and reduce aches and pains, among other benefits. However, if we’re not careful with our detox program, we can end up feeling worse.

Often times, when people start a detox with aggressive methods such as fasting, strong herbal formulas or radical dietary changes, they’ll experience what many call a “detox crisis.” This happens when the body reacts to the rapid release of toxins into the circulation. Symptoms can include severe headaches, weakness, loss of mental acuity, constipation and digestive issues, insomnia, flu symptoms and other problems. These side effects are very unpleasant and can spur people to stop their detox in its tracks – the wrong thing to do. Once we’ve released numerous toxins into the blood stream, they need to be eliminated completely or we risk redistribution to other critical areas, including the brain.

However, a detox crisis is not a normal consequence of detoxification. While some people believe that uncomfortable reactions are evidence of a detox program beginning to work, I disagree. We shouldn’t have to feel terrible before we can feel great. Uncomfortable detox symptoms mean that we’re moving too fast. It took a long time for the body to accumulate toxins, and likewise, it will take time to gradually clean them out.

Furthermore, drastic cleansing diets such as juice fasts generally don’t provide enough calories or nutrition to energize the body’s detoxification systems. The complex process of removing toxins and repairing damaged tissues requires a lot of energy from high quality nutrition. Remember, the idea is to improve health, not impair it. Don’t fast or starve yourself for days on end; instead, emphasize nutrient-dense whole foods such as organic whole fruits, vegetables and high quality protein.

Another pitfall is dehydration. This isn’t unique to detox programs; many of us are chronically dehydrated. But the issue is emphasized during detox because we need enough fluid in our bodies to flush out toxins. Again, inadequate hydration during detox puts us at a half-way point, where toxins may have been pulled out of organs, but they’re not flushed out of the body entirely.

The Cost of Colonics

Before we move on to gentle detox strategies, I’d like to focus a bit on colonics. While the colon is high on the list of organs needing detoxification, how we proceed makes a big difference.

Ancient detoxification approaches were designed to bring balance to a person slowly and holistically. Unfortunately, Eastern approaches can be adulterated by Western impatience. A good example is colonics. While they can be beneficial, colonics need to be used strategically within a more comprehensive detox program, rather than being the sole detox treatment.

One shortcoming behind isolated bowel cleansing using colonics is that the process generally doesn’t benefit other organs. Toxins can be stored in the brain, kidneys, joints, lungs and other tissues, but a colonic won’t do much if anything to cleanse these areas. Furthermore, frequent colonics can weaken bowel muscles, instead of strengthening them the way we can using the right foods and nutrients. In the worst case scenario, colonics can introduce pathogenic bacteria deeper into the colon.

Phases and Stages

I always prefer to approach detoxification as a two-part process: First we cleanse the blood and gastrointestinal tract using diet and handful of key supplements; then we can proceed to major organs and tissues where heavy metals and toxins are deeply stored. By cleansing the digestive tract and circulation first, we prepare the body for more in depth detoxification.

Predictably, the first phase starts with diet. Gradually phase out and eliminate factory-farmed meat and reduce animal protein in general. Plant proteins, particularly sprouted and/or fermented plant foods, are often easier to digest and promote detoxification with an abundance of enzymes and nutrients. Choose organic foods to reduce exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and other potentially dangerous compounds.

Fiber is important, as this will help cleanse the entire digestive system. I recommend psyllium, rice bran, flax or chia seeds, but in moderation as these fiber foods can cause bloating and indigestion if we’re not used to them. Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchee are excellent sources of fiber, enzymes and probiotic bacteria to help detoxify the digestive tract.

Fruits and vegetables should be central to any detoxification program. They provide key nutrients, as well as critical antioxidants. The latter are particularly important, as detoxification can generate free radicals, the aberrant molecules that damage cells and cause more toxicity in the body. Alkaline vegetables, such as spinach, cucumber and avocado, counteract acidity and help the body release toxins. Also emphasize cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and kale, which help balance hormones and provide an abundance of detoxification compounds.

Phase out other inflammatory foods, such as sugar, salt, alcohol, refined/processed foods and caffeinated beverages. These can wreak havoc on metabolism, increase toxic body burden and dehydrate us. And of course, drink plenty of liquid—pure water, broth, herbal teas—each day. I also recommend hot water with lemon which helps alkalize the body and cleanse the lymphatic system. Don’t forget regular exercise. Improved circulation and breathing are critical aspects of a successful, gradual detox program.

First-Stage Supplements

In addition to gradually incorporating a cleansing diet, there are several key supplements that have been proven to remove heavy metals and toxins from the digestive and circulatory systems. My top recommendation is a blend of modified citrus pectin (MCP) from citrus peels and alginates from seaweed.

A special form of citrus pectin, MCP is small enough to absorb into the circulation where it binds to heavy metals and toxins, as well as the inflammatory protein galectin-3. Alginates are derived from brown kelp and are particularly good at eliminating heavy metals, pesticides and radioactive isotopes. In my practice, I recommend a formula called PectaClear, which combines both ingredients and is clinically shown to remove heavy metals from the body without leaching essential minerals.

I also recommend medicinal mushrooms, such as Reishi, Cordyceps, Agaricus, Umbellatus, Coriolus, Maitake and others. Mushrooms have an interesting relationship with toxins, since they tend to absorb them. Therefore, be sure to choose mushrooms that are organically grown in a controlled environment. I recommend a formula containing the six abovementioned species, specially cultivated on a blend of immune-enhancing herbs for additional benefits.

Liver and Colon

Early stage detoxification using a cleansing diet and preliminary supplements ideally lasts for about two to four weeks. At this point we’ve built a foundation for gentle, total body detox and can add more targeted supplements our program. This second, in-depth phase can last several weeks to months, depending on our needs. In this phase, we address deeply stored toxins, emphasizing the kidneys, liver and gallbladder. These organs play key roles in cleansing the body, which is why heavy metals and other toxins tend to accumulate there.

A variety of supplements can support detoxification in the liver, gallbladder and kidneys and other organs and systems. Top recommendations include N-acetylcysteine (NAC), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and alpha lipoic acid, as well as herbs such as dandelion, milk thistle, garlic, burdock, cilantro, fenugreek, astragalus and ginseng. These ingredients help remove deeply stored toxins, enhance the organs of elimination, and provide nutritional support for vital energy and antioxidant protection. They can be taken alone or together over time for gradual cleansing and repair of organs and tissues.

There are many approaches to comprehensive detox, but they all share one common theme: Move slowly. While there are a variety of products that claim complete detoxification after three or even seven days, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

On the other hand, if we proceed gently and mindfully, we optimize our own detoxification systems to work for us. As a result, we can gradually rid ourselves of the burden of heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins gently, without the stress of a detox crisis. The end results are worth the wait: Greater energy, vitality, and sense of wellbeing. We’ll be glad we took our time.