Spring is the perfect time to turn your attention to detoxification. It's much better than the new year in fact, when your system is still in winter go-slow mode. In the springtime, most of us are naturally much more ready to get moving and to make changes. Think of the expansive force of energy in nature at this time of year - plants and trees are waking up and beginning to use the energy they have been quietly gathering through the winter. You can see little spring flowers literally forcing their way up through the hard, frozen ground, and the trees are forming buds ready to produce leaves and flowers. Just in the same way, your body needs to conserve energy in the winter so that in spring you're ready to move forward and have a natural clear out.
The truth is, detoxification is a process that happens all the time, not just when you make a conscious decision to clean up your act, but as your body is being exposed to more and more toxins than ever before, it’s a great idea to give nature a helping hand. By lightening the load through dietary and lifestyle choices, daily rituals and some carefully chosen supplements where needed, you can boost your ability to detoxify and enjoy benefits such as increased energy and vitality, clearer skin and brighter eyes, weight loss, improved digestion, fresher breath and fewer infections.
WHAT IS A TOXIN?
A toxin, broadly speaking, is anything that causes harm within the body. They can be produced internally, known as endotoxins, or can enter the body from the outside, known as exotoxins. Endotoxins include toxins created by the body’s own metabolic processes, such as hormones and antibodies, plus the substances generated by harmful bacteria or yeasts that may reside in the digestive system.
Exotoxins include food and drink, tobacco smoke, medical drugs, chemicals in the environment (plastics, metals, pesticides and fumes) and toxins from toiletries and beauty products – all of us are making, eating, breathing and absorbing toxins all of the time. This does take its toll on the body, in fact toxins can alter genetic expression, destroy enzymes, damage hormonal systems, interfere with energy production, impair the immune system, cause neurological damage and accelerate ageing.
SYMPTOMS OF TOXICITY
Most of us are familiar with the terrible all-over symptoms that follow a spell of overindulgence, but on a more day-to-day level there are a multitude of symptoms that can be related to sluggish detoxification, and when experienced regularly should be seen as a prompt to reduce exposure to toxins and support the organs and systems of detoxification. These symptoms include fatigue, headaches, water retention, cellulite, PMT, dull and dry skin, skin rashes and acne, indigestion, IBS, PCOS, irregular periods, regular infections, allergies, chemical and food sensitivities, puffiness around the eyes, insomnia, excessive sweating, joint pain and haemorrhoids. Additionally, research has linked many chronic illnesses with a failure to detoxify efficiently, including Parkinson’s disease, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome (or ME), premature ageing and cancer.
THE ORGANS AND SYSTEMS OF DETOXIFICATION
Detoxification involves many areas of the body that work together and are designed, given half a chance, to break down and remove harmful substances from the body.
First up is the liver, considered to be the primary organ of detoxification and the largest internal organ of the body, weighing around 3lbs and capable of storing 300ml of blood when necessary. The liver is incredibly forgiving and has the ability to repair and renew itself after it has been damaged, up to a point.
Perhaps the liver’s most important function is detoxification – liver cells, known as hepatocytes, actively detoxify drugs, heavy metals, chemicals, hormones and alcohol. They do this through two important steps: phase one detoxification, which involves the conversion of toxins using a system of enzymes called cytochrome P450; and phase two detoxification, which works by binding a toxin with a substance to make it water soluble and safe for excretion. Both processes rely on nutrient co-factors, amino acids and a plentiful supply of antioxidants, especially glutathione, known as the master antioxidant in the body. Certain lifestyle choices can interfere with liver detoxification, such as excess alcohol, sugar, medical drugs, environmental pollution and nutrient deficiencies.
The kidneys support the liver, helping to rid the body of water-soluble toxins. Approximately 180 litres of blood flows through the kidneys every 24 hours, most of it being reused by the body, but urine is also made to carry water, toxic waste products and inorganic salts from the body.
The lungs are next, and while they may not be thought of as organs of detoxification, the process of breathing is used to eliminate toxic gases from the body. They also contain cytochrome P450 enzymes to convert some drugs to water-soluble substances that can then be excreted by the kidneys.
The skin is your body’s largest organ, containing sweat and sebaceous glands that help to eliminate water-soluble and fat-soluble toxins, as well some of the enzymes necessary for the detoxification and metabolism of certain drugs by converting them into water-soluble toxins. The body may over-rely on the skin as a route of elimination if other detoxification organs are not working efficiently, resulting in rashes, spots, hives or exacerbation of existing skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis.
The bowel is closely involved in detoxification, being a major route of elimination for metabolised toxins, hormones and chemicals dealt with by the liver. Many people suffer from some sort of digestive disturbance or imbalance, which can increase general toxicity and put extra pressure on the body’s eliminatory systems. Constipation, for example, causes real problems for the detoxification system, with slow-moving waste matter feeding undesirable bacteria in the intestines, which produces more toxic waste. Slow-moving waste matter also allows toxins and hormones, such as oestrogen, that were on their way out of the body to be re-absorbed back into the bloodstream. This adds to the body’s toxic load, increases the risk of hormonal problems and encourages other symptoms such as food intolerance, allergies, fatigue, gallstones, headaches, haemorrhoids and varicose veins.
And last, but certainly not least, is the lymphatic system, which is a secondary circulatory system working alongside the cardiovascular system. It contains lymphatic fluid that circulates through a network of vessels, feeding every cell in the body by the transportation and delivery of nutrients and proteins. Lymph fluid also collects and carries normal cell waste, delivering it into the bloodstream, which then carries the waste to the kidneys, skin, lungs and digestive system for excretion from the body.
HOW TO SUPPORT DETOXIFICATION
Helping your body to clear out waste needn’t be complicated or expensive. Simply avoiding food and behaviours that clog you up and focusing on things that support detoxification and homeostasis can make a huge difference. It’s important to seek professional advice if you suffer from any health conditions or take medication. You may decide to drop some bad habits for good, but for now just commit to making these positive changes for a two-three weeks to put that spring back in your step…
What to avoid:
Wheat, dairy, sugar and sweeteners, margarines and other man-made fats, cooking oils in plastic bottles, alcohol, caffeine, fried and processed foods – they can undermine digestion, promote inflammation, lead to nutrient deficiencies, damage cells and organs and make it harder for your body to detoxify effectively. Cut down on caffeine gradually before stopping completely to avoid a withdrawal headache.
Red meat – while quality red meat can be part of a healthy diet, it can be harder to digest than other protein sources, so avoid it during detoxification.
Excess or intensive exercise – it elevates the stress hormone, cortisol, which upsets hormone balance and takes energy away from detoxifying.
Stress – like excess exercise, the stress response switches us into our fight or flight branch of the nervous system, which diverts energy away from digestion and detoxification.
Late nights – adequate rest and sleep are vital for effective detoxification.
Constipation – you want things to be moving well in this department during a detoxification programme, otherwise you may end up with a toxic backlog. The dietary changes will probably do the trick, but consult a nutritional therapist if the problem persists.
Chemicals in cosmetics and cleaning products – where possible, choose naturally derived products to reduce exposure to external toxins.
What to include:
Lots and lots of fresh vegetables, salads and fruits to boost vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and promote alkalinity – cover half of your plate at lunch and dinner time with colourful vegetables and salad. Ideally go for organic produce, free from chemical pesticide sprays.
Liver-friendly foods like onions, garlic, leeks, kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, beetroot, asparagus, artichoke, lemons and apples.
Light protein with every meal, choose from eggs, fish, beans and pulses, chicken, nuts and seeds. Go for organic poultry and fish to reduce exposure to pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
Wheat-free grains and pseudo cereals like rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, millet and amaranth.
Dairy-free milks like coconut, almond and hemp.
Raw nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, hemp and pumpkin seeds.
Healthy fats from avocado, coconut, olive oil and fatty fish.
Fresh cleansing herbs like parsley, coriander and mint.
Warming spices like ginger, cumin, coriander and fennel.
Small amounts of natural sweeteners can be included, like raw honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar.
Herbal teas like dandelion, nettle, ginger and peppermint.
Plenty of filtered or bottled water – about two litres a day to help flush toxins through the body.
Stress-reducing practices like deep-breathing, gentle yoga and mindfulness.
Walking – harness the relaxing, inspiring powers of nature by getting outside each day for a walk.
Rest and warmth – wrap up warm, snuggle under a blanket at home and when you go outdoors wear a scarf and hat to protect your head and neck from the cold.
Bear in mind there can be some temporary side effects when the organs and systems of detoxification are stimulated, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, aches and pains and skin outbreaks, but they should be short-lived, especially if you make sure that you drink plenty of water and sleep well.
These simple rituals enhance detoxification – pick out a few to try each day.
Warm water and lemon
Each morning make a cup of warm water with a few slices or a squeeze of fresh lemon. This tried-and-tested method stimulates the liver to produce bile, kick-starts the digestive system and encourages healthy pH balance in the body.
Dry body brushing
Dry skin brushing is a powerful way to enhance the detoxification process by stimulating blood and lymphatic circulation, plus it improves the appearance of your skin by eliminating dead cells. Here’s how… Using a natural bristle brush, start by brushing the feet, including the soles, moving up the shins and calves, over the knees using long strokes. Continue to brush up the thighs, including the groin area, and over the hips and buttocks. Then brush up each side of the abdomen, then around the front of the abdomen in a clockwise direction to avoid disturbing the digestive system. Brush up the back as far as you can reach. Finally, brush the arms starting with the shoulders, then put one arm up and brush down both sides towards the armpit and then move to the other arm.
Boost your detox efforts by making a smoothie packed full of greens, berries, coconut water and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add a scoop of greens powder for extra benefits.
If you have the time to make your own meat stock before your detoxification plan, you can benefit each day from extra minerals, amino acids, collagen and gelatin. Add some chicken or meat bones to a large pan or slow cooker, plus half a peeled onion, a carrot, bay leaf, garlic clove and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Add enough filtered water to cover everything, bring to the boil then simmer on a very low heat for 12–24 hours before straining through a fine mesh sieve and storing in the fridge or freezer. Drink as an alternative to tea or use to add nourishment and flavour to soups and stews.
Deep breathing only needs to take 10 minutes a day – see it as a priority because stress can sabotage any well-planned health programme. Take a moment to slow down your breathing and try to extend your in-breath for a count of seven and your out-breath for a count of 11.
Epsom salts baths
Epsom salts deliver magnesium and sulphur for relaxation and detoxification. Three times per week, add a cupful of Epsom salts to a warm bath and relax for half an hour – you should sweat as your body absorbs magnesium and releases toxins. Add a few drops of lavender oil to make the bath super relaxing. Make sure you drink plenty of water and rest afterwards.
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This article is written by Emma Rushe and was originally published in Walnut magazine. As well as being a part of the PH team supporting Prune's incredible work, Emma is a nutritionist and writer who has co-created the independent health and food magazine, Walnut, which she runs with her husband Dermot. To find out more about Emma, Walnut, and to access lots more recipes and articles, visit the Walnut website.