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Diet bolsters body's detox systems

Each night the liver, gallbladder, kidneys and intestines coordinate to remove free radicals and other naturally occurring toxins from cells and tissues. In a perfect world, this efficient system would continue uninterrupted. But it doesn't

Catherine Monahan

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Diet bolsters body's detox systems

Simplicity is in. Literally. In addition to scaling back schedules and clearing out closets, natural foods shoppers are opting to take a break from eating, trading their three square meals a day for fresh juices, steamed vegetables and filtered water. It's called detox or cleansing, and if the number of books on the subject is any indication, minimalism is about to get overwhelming.

"Cleansing is an opportunity for people to clean up their diets and to simplify their lives for a time," says Laurel Vukovic, herbalist and author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall Press, 1997). "It's like doing a spring cleaning in your house."

The body is a diligent detoxifier. Each night the liver, gallbladder, kidneys and intestines coordinate to remove free radicals and other naturally occurring toxins from cells and tissues. In a perfect world, this efficient system would continue uninterrupted. But it doesn't. Stowaway pesticides, herbicides and other toxins remain entrenched in fatty tissues. Indigestion and congestion abound. Why? The body's detox to-do list has become downright unmanageable.

The culprit is dinner, lunch, breakfast and everything in between. "The secret to longevity is consistent undereating," says Elson M. Haas, M.D., author of The Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 1996), "yet most of us overconsume." Diets rich in sugar, fat, caffeine, alcohol and a host of additives press the body's self-cleaning system into a state of constant catch-up.

Detoxification and cleansing programs are designed to even the score. Whether based on citrus, fiber, juice or total fasting, all detox diets have the same premise—to reduce toxin intake and increase toxin elimination. Nutritious, easily digestible cleansing foods such as fruit juice, rice and steamed vegetables provide energy without creating extra work.

"Cleansing gives your digestive system a rest," Vukovic explains. "When your body doesn't have to take so much time to detoxify, it allows healing to occur." Much of the healing includes stepped-up waste removal, especially through the skin, the body's largest elimination organ. According to cleansing proponents, when the body is deprived of food, it also goes into immunologic overdrive, releasing hungry hordes of white blood cells on lingering bacteria and viruses.

Studies suggest fasting helps treat a number of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, depression and psoriasis. One oft-cited study regarding fasting and toxin release involved people who had eaten PCB-contaminated rice oil. After a seven- to 10-day fruit and vegetable juice fast, patients reported improvement in symptoms such as headaches, coughs, lumbago and skin problems.

It's likely fasting also corrects persistent health problems associated with poor diet. According to Haas, foods such as wheat, dairy, sugar, corn and soy often trigger or exacerbate illness, and many people find briefly removing them from their diets clears up conditions including PMS and acne.

One thing that is known about fasting is that those who forgo food drop a few pounds. If they manage to keep them off, they're ahead of the game. Losing as little as 10 percent of body weight has far-ranging benefits including lowered total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein, blood pressure, blood glucose and triglycerides, and slightly increased high-density lipoprotein.

"Although people will lose weight when they do a cleanse, it isn't a weight loss program," says Marge Roman, licensed nutritionist and general manager of Spartan Health Foods in Las Vegas. A cleansing diet is, however, an excellent way to start a weight loss program because it tunes the digestive system. "You're not going to diet and lose weight efficiently if you don't assimilate your food and eliminate waste properly," she says.

Spotting A Detox Candidate
Most customers who qualify for a detox diet generally complain of vague digestive problems, Roman says. And although they suffer from bloating, constipation or gas, few connect the discomfort to their eating habits, and that's why cleansing is crucial.

"Many people don't understand the importance of elimination, and the idea that we are beings who ingest, absorb and eliminate," she says. In fact, most don't even understand how their digestive systems work. "A lot of people think they have stomach problems, but when they point to where they're having a problem ... it's nowhere near their stomachs." It's closer to the colon.

No surprise then, colon-cleansing kits are Roman's biggest detox sellers. The products, often recommended to accompany a cleansing diet, are generally a combination of soluble and insoluble fibers—"absorbers and scrapers," says Roman, that help move material out of the body more efficiently. Most of the capsules, tinctures and teas are designed for people who need to work while detoxifying. They're easy to use and gentle on the digestive tract.

How often and how long to cleanse is a matter of choice. Short juice and water cleanses of one to three days are safe for people to do at home on their own. Planning to go without food for a longer time requires medical supervision. The same holds true for customers with existing health conditions or those uncertain about their health status.

Headaches, fatigue and irritability are common side effects of cleansing, and if not prepared for them, customers may cut their programs short. "Personally, I find I can't do a complete fast and work," says Roman, who detoxifies at least twice a year. Encourage customers to detox during a quiet weekend when heavy exercise and hard thinking aren't on the agenda, and if they have to work, to choose a cleansing program that suits their schedules.

Fasting is a big behavior change, so suggest customers consider what they find appealing. Do they like to drink water or do they prefer juice? Do they enjoy steamed vegetables? Setting realistic goals will increase their odds of sticking with a fast and enjoying the latest shortcut to good health.

Catherine Monahan has published more than 150 articles on health, medicine and nutrition. She can be reached at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 28, 34

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 34

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