The Complementary Care Police are probably going to come and take my holistic health practitioner card away for saying this, but: I really don’t like detoxes.
I know that they’re all the rage and for good reason – the good ones, when done right, are great! But there are a ton of bad ones out there, and they’re usually done incorrectly or at a time that’s harmful to patients. It’s time that we, as a holistic community, have a chat about that.
It turns out our body is pretty good at detoxification.
If it’s not constantly battling an excessive amount of things it needs to process, our livers, kidneys, lungs, and skin do a great job of binding to, metabolizing and excreting substances that could do us harm. We think of these things as “toxins” and our mind jumps to organophosphates, soy, animal proteins, alcohol or any other number of natural or unnatural substances we encounter throughout the day.
But our body has to process naturally occurring substances too – estrogens and progesterone, testosterone and even vitamins and minerals.
This is why I hate the word “toxins” – it’s a buzzword used to sow fear and drive people towards the $11 billion self-care industry and the $64 billion diet industry in the interests of being “healthier.” Yes, technically if these substances accumulated, they could induce a disease state. But in general, they’re not, because our bodies are doing their job.
Answers in the wrong places
Most people look into detoxes for two reasons, weight loss and medical reasons.
Maybe they could lose a couple of pounds or they’re feeling sluggish, bloated and generally blah. Then a friend pops up with a shake, a smoothie, a juice or a diet that will help detoxify them and feel great.
That’s fine if their friend is a trained professional, but usually, these detoxes come from one place: the internet.
The Beacon of Truth
The most common place these days to get information is no longer friends and family members who are “in the know”. It’s the internet.
If you type in “cleanse” or “detox” into Pinterest you’ll get loads of recipes and infographics telling you what to eat to lose weight in three days and magically go from a bloated, puffy belly to a svelte model (who, curiously enough, has a completely different skin tone.)
But the internet is an extremely dangerous place to get health information. A few years ago, one post recommended combining bleach and ammonia for a “fun, crystal forming project for kids!” Do you know what that combination actually creates? Mustard gas.
Just two months ago, a video by Chubbyemu – a popular medical curiosity YouTuber – presented a case of a woman attempting a colon cleanse by soy sauce to lose weight. She is brain dead because she tried a cleanse she heard about from who even knows where with no supervision. Not everybody out there has good information or wants the best for you; some people are just assholes.
Most of these cleanses may help you lose some water weight and you may even lose some body weight simply because you’re eating a severely restricted, unsustainable diet.
Many even outright lie, including one colon cleanse claiming to help someone lose 30 pounds in 30 days. That sort of weight loss is incredibly dangerous and far exceeds the recommended .5-2 pounds of weight loss per week. I assure you, no one in the general population has 30 pounds they can lose in 30 days.
One step forward, ten steps back
I’ve talked before about how most Americans are in some way, shape or form liver qi stagnant. You can read more about the basics of the Chinese medicine metaphor here but basically, liver qi stagnation is sympathetic dominance – stress. This is typically considered an excess condition – too much liver qi collecting where it doesn’t belong because it’s not moving.
But the big picture of the American liver qi pattern is that it overlays deficiencies – qi and blood deficiency, spleen qi deficiency, heart blood deficiency, liver blood deficiency and of course, kidney deficiency. You may better know some of these conditions as chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS (or just chronic bloat and beer belly), depression, anxiety, and adrenal fatigue.
These patterns aren’t one to one correlations 100% of the time but these Western conditions often correlate with these patterns. And if you type in “detox+[condition]” or “cleanse+[condition]” to your search engine you are guaranteed a result.
But be careful what you ask for because even if you feel better in the short term, these cleanses typically exacerbate underlying patterns, opening the door for further health conditions down the road.
Overdrawing the account
In Chinese medicine we see our qi coming from three places: the air we breathe (da qi), the food and drink we consume (gu qi), and the qi that we’re born with (jing) and these three combine to create yuan qi. Yuan qi helps all of our systems function and when you think about da qi carrying oxygen, gu qi carrying macro- and micronutrients and our jing as the framework of our genetic expression it makes sense.
Yuan qi helps form blood, the yin component to qi’s yang. Blood carries the qi, qi moves the blood. We need both to function.
If we’re not breathing right, eating right, we have bad code or any combination thereof we are starting off with qi and blood deficiency. Not enough of either. This leads to feelings of fatigue, poor quality sleep, low appetite, bloating, dry hair and nails and more. All the sorts of things that would attract someone to a detox.
In a deficiency, we need to tonify or strengthen. For qi and blood deficiency a good bet would be sweet potatoes, rice, bone broth, steamed or lightly sauteed veggies, chicken and fish. Whole foods the body can break down into gu qi and transmute to yuan qi.
But the ingredients in many detoxes either are too moving, too cloying or tonify the wrong thing.
Combining cranberry juice, apple cider vinegar, and purified water may help clean out your colon by draining you but it will also drain your yin blood, leaving you susceptible to yin deficiency. If you’re already yin or blood deficient, it will be worse after the cleanse.
Most juice cleanses combine energetically cold foods, damaging spleen qi. While the loose stool of damaged spleen qi may look like your body detoxing, it’s actually your body’s function being overloaded by trying to metaphorically warm the food. After the cleanse is done, previous qi deficiency will be worsened, possibly leading to blood deficiency as well.
So why do people feel better on cleanses if they’re worsening their underlying deficiences?
They move qi.
Smoke and mirrors
Moving qi feels great. We love it because it’s a sign of vitality.
We move qi by exercising, laughing, having sex, and breathing right. If we’re unable to move qi healthily, either because we don’t have enough blood or we’re too stagnant, we turn towards the two great qi movers that keep our nation moving – caffeine and alcohol.
Caffeine and alcohol strongly move qi, specifically liver qi, temporarily elevating our moods and getting us moving. But when you strongly move qi over a backdrop of deficiency, it grinds away at the foundation of what’s left.
Think of it like a river in the low season – a little bit smelly, slow flowing and stagnant. Suddenly a huge storm rolls in and the torrent of rain swells the banks and it floods. Now it’s moving! But it’s also tearing away at the banks and changing the shape of the river.
Eventually, when the river recedes the water goes back to its stagnant levels but – uhoh, now the same amount of water spreads even thinner to fit the widened banks, moving even more slowly and creating more stagnancy.
This is what happens to a deficient patient when they strongly move qi. Everything feels great while you’re moving, but as soon as you stop things are different. It’s harder to get moving. Your qi becomes more stagnant and since you’ve worn away at your reserves without tonifying, you’re more deficient.
Most detoxes are just smoke and mirrors, with few to no benefits and miles of drawbacks.
Get your deficiencies sorted before you go on a detox. But if you do, you probably won’t feel like you need one.
The Whole Food solution
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”Michael Pollan
I remember when In Defense of Food came out, it was groundbreaking. The mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” could easily be the only dietary advice any of us need.
Thing is, this isn’t a detox or a cleanse. This isn’t overburdening your system with qi moving substances or depriving it of the things it needs to function. It’s cleaning up your diet.
Eating food means eating the things our ancestors would recognize, not boxed macaroni and cheese and ramen.
Making sure to not eat too much is a matter of paying attention to what and how much your body is craving.
Mostly plants is a reminder that only 10-20% of our calories need to come from protein, and not all of that needs to be animal protein. On a 2000 calorie diet, an absolute max of what we would need for protein is 100g. And it can come from quinoa or rice and beans.
The biggest issue here is the habitual addiction we have to things that aren’t food, and for that, we may need to bring in the professionals.
Health professionals have your back
Whenever you make a health change – diet, exercise, herbs or medication – it’s always best to consult a professional.
The internet is a useful place for a great many things like learning to crochet or stew recipes, but when it comes to your health is best to seek out a professional.
In 2015 the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism published a review about how practitioners actually prescribed cleanses and detoxes. Based off how our body metabolizes compounds, the review found:
Some caution is recommended, however, due to the limitations of current research…a whole-foods approach may, therefore, be prudent.
Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application
Therefore, it would seem that designing clinical recommendations to maximize the effects of food and reduce the impact of toxins is essential. However, it is not without caution and critical thinking that a detoxification protocol should be assembled for patients by trained clinicians.
Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application
Whole foods, not weird combinations of vinegar and cranberry juice, or maple syrup and cinnamon. Meals that you eat and that nourish you.
These types of diets don’t directly detoxify you. They limit your intake of things that aren’t food – artificial colorings and preservatives, industrial seed oils, etc – and give your body the building blocks it needs to function.
And when it’s functioning it’s naturally detoxifying.
Building your support team
If you honestly believe that a detox or cleanse is right for you, getting the right kind of support is key.
Finding a naturopath or trained nutritionist to guide you through a sustainable, whole foods change and work with you to create a long term plan will be your best bet. Because the thing with these one day, three day, and one week cleanses is you go back to the life you were living before.
Why? What’s the point? If that lifestyle was so toxic, what’s the point of cleaning it up for a few days only to go back to it?
This is why I support one type of dietary cleanse or detox: the elimination diet. When done properly, under the guidance of a trained professional, a good elimination diet will help you identify things in your diet that aren’t optimal (note – not toxins) so that you can create a better, sustainable lifestyle going forward.
The point of an elimination diet isn’t to force your body through a detox. It’s to remove as many stressors as possible and let it do its own thing. And guess what? It’ll take the whole month to feel better. None of this three day business, you have to commit.
Elimination diets, unlike detoxes, aren’t about doing things the fast way. They’re about doing things the right way.
Building yourself back up
Detoxes are popular because we want things now, but real health takes time to recover.
A supervised, whole foods diet will get you so much farther than a 3-day colon cleanse. It will be safe and you’ll have the support you need if things go pear-shaped.
But if you don’t have the time or money to find a nutritionist, make a plan with your primary care provider instead. And remember:
Eat actual food. Build your qi and blood. Trust your body to do its job.
Resources and links
NPR reports on another soy sauce adverse event
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommendations for safe weight loss
“How Self-Care Became So Much Work” – Harvard Business Review
Whole 30 and make sure to check out Food Freedom Forever!
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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