Photo of a woman forming a heart with her hands on her belly
Detoxing is about celebrating your health, not about depriving yourself - enjoy the experience!

A guide to gentle detox

12 April, 2012

Feeling a little sluggish? A gentle detox could do your whole system good leaving you feeling more energetic afterwards and giving your skin more tone and radiance.

What we call detox today was traditionally called a fast. In days gone by people fasted to attain discipline and spiritual enlightenment. Fasting has long been a component of traditional ethnic healthcare systems such as Ayurveda and is also used in naturopathy to detoxify the body and treat allergies, digestive problems, autoimmune diseases and even mental illnesses.

These days we have traded the idea of fasting for that of a detox or cleansing diet, usually done for less admirable reasons such as ‘staying young’ or as a form of crash dieting.

There are several different types of fasting. The water fast is the most traditional and extreme and should not be used over more than three to five days without supervision.

A more popular option is the juice fast, which allows (preferably) fresh pressed fruit and vegetable juices throughout the day. Because it provides nutrients and some calories, it is actually less of a fast and more of an elimination diet since it avoids common allergens such as wheat, dairy, nuts, eggs, chocolate, tomatoes and various food additives. In addition, during a juice fast the natural sugars in juice will be converted into energy by the body so you will feel less tired.

Another option is to follow a cleansing diet for a specific period of time. During this time you specifically avoid all processed food, meat, dairy produce, wheat, tea, coffee, alcohol, salt and sugar. Eat instead lots of fresh, organic fruit and vegetables and make sure you drink plenty of water each day.

Chemical overload

Today we are exposed to an enormous variety of chemicals and toxins. In the last 50 years, it is estimated that man has created over 5 million new chemicals, 75,000 of which are in everyday use. Out of all these man-made chemicals fewer than 10% have even been tested for safety!

These chemicals can enter our systems through various means: food and drink, household cleansers, fabrics, and even the air we breathe. Worryingly, many chemicals of these chemicals naturally accumulate in the fat within our bodies.

How does it work?

Detox is generally regarded to work in several ways. One of the first benefits of fasting is that it gives the digestive tract some rest. The process of digestion – breaking down food into its component parts – requires an enormous amount of energy. During a detox, while the process of digestion is largely suspended, more energy can be diverted to other bodily functions, such as elimination.

Of course, this elimination process, which removes wastes and toxins from the body is ongoing whether we are doing a detox or not. In a healthy person it is the job of the liver and kidneys to detoxify the body. Supported by a healthy lifestyle these organs are supremely capable of doing their job. But modern life can take its toll on the efficiency of the eliminatory organs leaving us feeling sluggish and ‘out of sorts’.

During a fast or detox the body continues this natural process of excreting waste material and stored toxins (such as pollutants and allergens). However, because no energy is being used to digest food, and the person is not taking in any new toxins, the liver and kidneys may be able to work more efficiently.

Supporting your liver

Many fasting and detox regimes specifically focus on assisting the liver in the detoxification process, for instance with the addition of herbal remedies.

This is because the health of the liver is essential to our overall health and well-being. The liver carries out a large number of important functions, including assisting in the digestion of fats, storing glucose for energy and detoxifying the body of excess hormones, drugs and poisons.

These days our livers are functioning under a lot of strain as they detoxify and process the increasing quantity of chemicals and additives in modern foods.

The good news is that the liver can regenerate itself and this is why embarking on a detox programme, which gives the liver a break for a period of time, can be extremely beneficial in boosting health and vitality.

A 10-day detox

For someone who has a very poor diet, who may be regularly ingesting allergens, and pollutants, a short fast may lighten the load on the digestive and immune systems. As the body is cleared of toxins and allergens, symptoms associated with toxic overload should also be reduced.

A byproduct of this process is that it can help improve a wide range of skin problems, and help the skin to look clearer and more youthful.

To do a proper detox you need to choose a length of time, usually a minimum of 10 days to eat a very clean diet and avoid all the things you know are bad for you.

This cleansing diet below is suitable if you are basically healthy but want to clear your system out. If you have a specific health problem then you should consult a naturopath to help find a suitable program for yourself and remember that detoxing is not suitable just before or during pregnancy.

Day 1

Fruit for breakfast, lunch and in the evening. Choose one fruit for each meal from the following: apples, pears or grapes. Eat as much fruit as you like at one sitting. Drink lots of mineral water during the day.

Days 2-6

Fruit for breakfast. Choose one fruit each day from: apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, kiwi fruit or grapefruit. Raw vegetables for lunch. Make a mixture of at least 5 salad vegetables: mix roots (carrots, grated beetroot, etc), sprouts and leafy vegetables. In the evening eat cooked vegetables, preferable including onions. Do not add any salt or seasoning, and no frying! For maximum benefit, try steaming the vegetables lightly so they still retain a ‘crunch’.

Days 7-9

Breakfast as day 2, lunch as day 2, but in addition eat two slices of dry crispbread biscuits (choose rye over wheat). Evening – as day 2.

Day 10

Breakfast as day 2, lunch as day 7, evening as day 2, but in addition eat a baked potato with a small knob of butter if desired.

Practical Tips

Most people can safely follow a detox regimen for a short period without undue harm to their bodies. There are some things you can do to help this process go more smoothly. For instance there is some merit in preparing for your fast by cleaning up your diet and lifestyle a week or two beforehand. This could take the form of avoiding alcohol and cigarettes and adopting a vegetarian diet during this time.

At the very least try to prepare for yourself in this way the day before by making your last meal one of fruits and vegetables – indeed some authorities recommend that your diet in the day before a detox or fast should be vegan.

In addition:

Pure and simple foods only. In order to allow your body to eliminate any toxic residues that may have built up, it is important to eat and drink only simple foodstuffs that the body can easily tolerate. Don’t let yourself get hungry.

Stock up on fruit (organic if possible) and keep some with you throughout the day in case you feel the need to snack. It’s best to clear your cupboards of snacks, treats and other ‘bad’ foods before the detox as old habits can be hard to break! Needless to say, avoid alcohol, smoking, tea (except herbal) and coffee.

Drink lots of still mineral water. You may experience some side effects as toxins are released into the body for elimination, the feeling can be similar to a hangover. Drink plenty of still mineral water (ideally at room temperature) to flush out your system and alleviate symptoms. Many of us tend to live in a constant state of dehydration – it is important to drink at least 1-2 litres of mineral water a day; if you are exercising you will need to rehydrate more than if you are sedentary.

If you suffer from headaches during the first few days, which can be a common symptom of withdrawal from tea or coffee, try not to take pain-killers, but sit or lie quietly. You may find it helps to gently press your thumbs on area of flesh above the bridge of your nose (between the brows). Then gently press with your middle fingers at regular points along the brow line, beginning at the centre and moving out to the edge of your brows.

Take it easy. Because you may feel tired, it’s best to plan your detox program for a week when you can take things easy. If you usually exercise, relax your routine. You should find that after the program you have more energy as your system is working more efficiently, and without caffeine you should be able to sleep better.

Wrap up warmly. During a detox you may feel more sensitive to cold. Wearing layers is best as you can adjust your clothing as necessary.

Get some fresh air. If the sun is out try go get 10 to 20 minutes day of exposure each day.

Avoid exposures to chemicals such as those contained in toiletries and household cleaners as these add to your body’s toxic burden.

Remember also to be good to yourself. Reward yourself for the kindness and respect you are showing your body by treating yourself to luxurious mineral baths or hobbies and leisure activities you find relaxing. An aromatherapy massage can be a great addition to your detox plan; it not only benefits the body but delights the senses.

Detoxing is about celebrating your health, not about depriving yourself, enjoy the experience!

When you are ready to break your fast do so slowly choosing small quantities of food (fruits and vegetables are ideal) at room temperature. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. It is a good idea to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for the first few days.

Herbal help

There are a number of herbs that have been traditionally used as ‘blood cleansers’ and ‘liver cleansers’ that can be very helpful as part of a detox. They include dandelion, burdock, red clover, nettles, cleavers and to support the liver milk thistle.

Herbs like dandelion, burdock nettles for example can assit the process and can be taken as teas or tinctures.

Mineral-rich Dead Sea Salts have been long renowned for their therapeutic and deep cleansing properties. They are of excellent value if used as part of a detox program.

Other products that can assist a detox include those to stimulate the lymphatic system and decongest the skin. Body scrubs work in this way, as does skin brushing with a natural fibre brush. Used regularly use it can help to eliminate toxins from the fatty tissues of the body. For more on Dry Skin Brushing see our special Q&A here.