I have often said that detox is the missing link in western nutrition and I have written extensively on this topic both in my books, such as The Detox Diet, and here in TotalHealth Magazine as in my January 2018 article on Seasonal Detox and my October 2017 article, Toxins Too Close for Comfort, on the hidden dangers in some of our personal care and home cleaning products—an often overlooked area of concern.
Toxins might be defined as chemicals and metals that get into our bodies from the air, food, water, even what we wear and we put on our bodies. These are not natural or needed by our body, so removal or avoidance of such substances is the simplest version of detox. However, this important therapeutic method has a number of different approaches, goals and potential healing outcomes so I want to explore it a little more deeply, which begins with my thoughts about the real causes of disease.
Cell Health Compromised by Deficiency and Toxicity
Optimal Cellular function is at the core of our health and so a primary cause for most disease is cellular dysfunction, which arises from two main sources: Deficiency—not getting all (or enough of) the nutrients our body needs, and Toxicity—intake of and exposure to toxins that affect enzymes and cell function.
Our cells require literally thousands of molecules that are part of the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. When bodies do not receive adequate supplies of high quality essential nutrients, the cells become deficient, which impairs function and can cause a decline in the health of tissues, organs and ultimately our entire body. This is why good nutrition is a cornerstone of great health.
We must also address Toxicity—the exposures of our cells to environmental factors such as mercury or lead, smog, cigarette smoke and damaging chemicals (e.g. pesticides, preservatives, cleaning agents and myriad consumer products) that come into our bodies from multiple sources. In addition, our cells create their own toxic chemicals, some of which are called oxidants or free radicals. Our cells have developed ways to remove these elements, but we need to provide them with appropriate antioxidants (vitamins C, A, E, and more) to facilitate the process of detoxification, which brings us back to essential nutrients. (See below.)
So at the most basic level the detox process is about avoiding toxins or working to remove them, but in addition to the more obvious environmental toxins we also need to address intoxicants. Alcohol and tobacco are probably the first things that come to mind, but many other common substances alter our physical, emotional and mental state and can have negative health consequences in the long term if over indulged. Caffeine is in this category, but so is sugar and processed sweetening agents like corn syrup, or artificial ones like aspartame, which the "food" industry seems to put in countless products.
Therefore, another type of detox is clearing from any substance habits or abuses, even addictions for some, which are a serious type of imbalanced relationship to one's true nurturing needs. This process encourages you to take a break, which may be temporary or lifelong, from such common habits as the daily intake of what I call the SNACCs—Sugar (as refined sugar and corn syrup), Nicotine, Alcohol, Caffeine and Chemicals, both in foods and our environment. To me, this is often the first step in health liberation, freeing ourselves from the emotional dependence on certain items to stimulate or sedate us. Related to this, I am launching my online course called Regain Your Natural Energy: Breaking the Stimulation-Sedation Cycle. This offers a guided one-week break from caffeine, alcohol and sugar and help rediscovering quality sleep and natural, high-level energy.
Food Reactions—The Sensitive Seven
All of these various methods are essentially forms of cleansing. The second level of the detox or purification process is identifying and addressing food reactions, which typically occur from the foods we eat most often and those most commonly available in our society. I call these the Sensitive Seven—Wheat, Cow's milk, Sugar, Eggs, Corn, Soy, and Peanuts. My book on this topic, The False Fat Diet, is about the many ways we react to foods and the great variety of health conditions caused by these reactions. I call it False Fat because many of us carry a surprising amount of extra "weight" that is actually bloating and swelling caused by our body's reaction to certain foods. Once we identify and eliminate these foods we can lose that weight in addition to feeling better overall. By following the healing dietary and supplement programs of specific avoidance and careful reintroduction of particular foods (an elimination diet) you can help uncover your specific reactions and individual needs. This personalization of our nutritional program is one key to optimal health.
Food reactions are generated through multiple systems in our body—digestive, immune, biochemical, and hormonal— causing bloating and swelling in the body and gut as mentioned, plus many other possible problems. These reactions caused by an allergic or depleted system also make us more sensitive to environmental toxins. Food reactions are surprisingly common and often result from digestive dysfunction as well as inherent allergy and over-consumption (regular/habitual use) of the particular foods. They can also change over time, so you can develop a new reaction or cease to react to a certain food. There are many factors that cause the breakdown in optimal function of the gastrointestinal tract. Overeating, too many different foods at once, incomplete chewing, drinking too much while eating which dilutes the digestive juices, and chronic stress, all of which weaken our ability to digest foods thoroughly.
Furthermore, many people have an imbalance of intestinal flora, because they have killed off their healthy bacteria from an overuse of antibiotics, which is common in modern medicine. Other irritating bacteria may flourish, or fermenting types of yeast organisms, or even parasites will take up residence within our intestines. These cause an irritation of the membranes, and this affects our proper absorption of nutrients, causing abnormal absorption of larger molecules, often referred to as "leaky gut" syndrome. Allowing 'toxins' to enter the blood stream can affect our brain function, mood, and energy level, and cause secondary immune and biochemical reactions to these toxins.
Note: Testing is available for both food reactivity and intestinal flora from various labs usually ordered by naturally-oriented physicians as well as some chiropractors, naturopaths and acupuncturists who have studied nutritional medicine, gastrointestinal ecology and function. Most conventional medical doctors haven't had the training in this area of health knowledge to be able to help in these more subtle and preventive (not-yet-diseased) states.
The Elimination Diet
Allowing these reactions to quiet and clear can help those suffering from them to feel much better rather quickly. This means following an elimination diet, avoiding our habit foods, or commonly eaten foods, as well as the most reactive ones like the Sensitive Seven. As part of this article I have provided a simple elimination diet plan from my book, Staying Healthy with the Seasons.
After two or three weeks of removing foods you can then reintroduce them by eating one of the restricted foods at a time, giving it a while to check your experience of any untoward effects. Usually I have my patients watch three different time periods for these food reactions, since many responses can be delayed.
- First, watch immediately and over the first hour after eating the food.
- Second, pay attention later in the day, several hours up to six hours later.
- Third, observe how you are when you wake up the next morning.
Do you feel a little foggy or like you have a hangover? If you had any reaction to the food or substance, if you feel worse (fatigue, irritability, itchy skin, digestive upset, and mood or energy changes are some possible reactions) or have any of the symptoms you had previously experienced, you are likely reactive to that food.
How Do You Begin This Process?
First, make an honest self-assessment.
- What are you dependent on?
- What do you mostly not want to give up?
- Where's the most resistance? (that's often the culprit in not feeling optimal.)
- How ready are you to take a break from your habits/abuses?
Once you've made your decision, set up a plan and write it down, stating what you will do, for how long, and what you wish to achieve. Use a program you know or can read about clearly, as in The Detox Diet. It helps to find someone you know and trust who has done it before and talk to them. It's also great if you can find a friend or family member to do it with you, to help each other get through any hard times, and to have someone with whom you can share your success.
As I have noted each time I have written about detox, this isn't just something I offer my patients, but a fundamental part of my personal health plan. I know it has helped me to stay youthful and healthy, and definitely younger than my actual years. I hope it will provide the same benefits for you.
Essential Nutrients For Avoiding Deficiency
Proteins and amino acids, carbohydrates, fats and essential oils
Vitamins: A, C, D, E, K, B1, B6, B3, B12, CoQ10, Lipoic acid (Most must come from our diet, and a few the body makes, like CoQ10 and lipoic.)
Minerals: all must come from diet and include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, iron, manganese, selenium, iodine, traces of boron and others. And our soil must contain these minerals to be in our food, and much soil is depleted.
Phytonutrients: hundreds of plant substances, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, which give our fruits, vegetables, herbs and basically all foods their color, aroma, and add to their flavor.
Antioxidants: these nutrients protect us from "free radicals," the unstable molecules that can cause inflammation and damage; these nutrients include Vitamins A (and betacarotene), C, D, and E plus some B vitamins; minerals zinc and selenium, with protective activity also from iron and magnesium; coenzyme Q10 and alpha lipoic acid; and amino acid L-cysteine, which helps support glutathione.
Elimination Diet To Test For Food Reactions
Use this as a guideline. The number of days this process actually takes you will depend on how you set up your schedule and which foods you are currently consuming.
Make your own plan and write it down.
Keep a daily journal to track your reactions to foods as you let them go and then add them back to your diet.
For the days when you are adding foods back into your diet, test at least three different foods each day, and give yourself 3–4 hours to experience each one's effects. It is best if you eat one food at a time during these days so you can be clear about your reaction. However, if you need to include the previous day(s) foods, you may, but still do your testing.
Consume a moderate amount of any food you try. For example, eat 3 whole carrots, 4 oz. sunflower seeds, a bowl of brown rice, 4 oz. of cheese or a glass of milk at their appropriate times. And have a good time.
Day 1 Eat your normal diet.
Day 2 Eliminate all chemicals from diet e.g., food additives, drugs (non-prescription), as well as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine (tobacco).
Day 3 Eliminate all processed foods—refined sugar, white enriched flour and any products containing them (check food labels).
Day 4 Eliminate meat, poultry and fish products.
Day 5 Eliminate dairy foods—all cow and goat milk based products plus eggs.
Day 6 Eliminate nuts and beans.
Day 7 Eliminate seeds.
Day 8, 9, 10 Eliminate grains, eating only fruits and vegetables. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables in raw, steamed, or juiced forms.
Day 11, 12 Fruit and vegetable juice or broth only. No concentrates or cans—juices should be fresh or bottled, naturally squeezed.
Day 13, 14 Water only—spring or well—not tap water. These may be rest days.
Day 15 Add back fruit and vegetable juices.
Day 16 Fruit—one kind at a time (3–4 hours between kinds), one large or two small fruits.
Day 17 Add vegetables
Day 18 Add grains
Day 19 Add seeds
Day 20 Add nuts and beans
Day 21 Add dairy foods as listed above
Day 22, 23, 24 Add meat, only one kind per day and only if desired—you are now more sensitive.
Day 25 Add any processed foods—only if desired—hopefully you won't want to
Day 26 Add any chemicals or drugs—only if desired—hopefully you won't need to
Congratulations! How do you feel?
From my book Staying Healthy with the Seasons
Elson M. Haas, MD
Elson M. Haas, MD is a medical practitioner with nearly 40 years experience in patient care, always with in an interest in natural medicine. For the past 30 years, he has been instrumental in the development and practice of Integrated Medicine at the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (PMCM), which he founded in 1984 and where he is the Medical Director. Dr Haas has been perfecting a model of healthcare that integrates sophisticated Western diagnostics and Family Medicine with time-honored natural therapies from around the world.
This educating, writing doctor is also the author of many books including Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, 21st Century Edition, The NEW Detox Diet: The Complete Guide for Lifelong Vitality with Recipes, Menus, & Detox Plans and more. His latest book is Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine which integrates Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. Visit his website for more information on his work, books and to sign up for his newsletter.