Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Do you ever get that that gross feeling after you've returned from holidays or a massive weekend or Spring Racing Carnival or just an extended lunch? It usually follows activities that coincide with ingesting copious amounts of pleasure fuelled food and beverages - and maybe some candy. You say things to yourself like:
"I am NEVER drinking again..."
"Ugh, I am SO bloated..."
"No more pasta...!" (That was actually me a couple of weeks ago in Italy the day before I ate ....more pasta!)
Sometimes it's not even an exceptional event that precedes that feeling. Sometimes you experience it every day, albeit not to the same extremes.
That gross feeling is the surplus energy your digestive system is attempting to get through. It's like your body is working overtime and it's why you get tired after a big meal. You go to bed, you wake up still feeling gross. But, hey, no biggie. You know it will pass and you're determined to get back to feeling semi normal again. Note: this usually happens on the 1st of January on any given year or six weeks before your wedding day.
You grab an ageing copy of Dr Sandra Cabot's 'Liver Cleansing Diet' book and you eat and drink nothing but herbal tea and steamed veggies for two weeks. Or, you pay someone over $400 to deliver you a bunch of juice which you drink exclusively for seven days (I have actually done this and I do not recommend it). And a week or two later, ta daa! You're toxin free! You've just cleaned your liver. Your digestive system feels great. You dropped 5 kegs. Your skin is clear and your eyes sparkle.
And then two weeks later you feel like shit again. WTF happened?
Toxins are all around us. They're in the air we breath, the food we eat, the houses in which we live, the appliances we use - it is one of the unfortunate byproducts of a modern industrialised existence. Every day, we are constantly exposed to all types of toxins. If you live in a city - even a small one, you are breathing in toxins, all day, every day, even when you're asleep. Air pollution kills more than 6 million people a year and is the fourth biggest threat to human health after coronary, respiratory and diet related diseases. You can use this nifty tool from the WHO to see how dirty your city air is. Even Melbourne is right on the cusp of tipping over to the danger zone.
We're also ingesting toxins through food daily. It's used to fertilise and spray the crops we eat and it's injected into animals before they become they become meat and dairy products. You think that's bad? Even more shocking is that environmental toxicity has been linked to weight gain.
Most of us don't have the luxury of escaping to the countryside every weekend to get some clean air, nor can we enclose ourselves in a toxin free organic bubble every day, but there are a few things you can do to increase your body's own immunity against toxins. Whatever you do, make sure you introduce these changes slowly rather than subjecting yourself to a short term liver cleanse.
I would never recommend any change in diet or lifestyle that will put your body into shock like a juice or water fast. If you're pretty healthy and you eat a plant based whole foods diet, then a juice fast may not be such a great shock to the body. But if alcohol, meat, nicotine, dairy, caffeine or processed food and refined carbohydrates are part of your lifestyle, you are going to experience horrific withdrawal symptoms on one of these detox plans and your body will shut down. Plus, it only works if you stick to it and I don't know many people who could sustain a water or juice based diet for an extended period.
While physically and biologically these fasts have shown to be of huge benefit to many, the benefits are short term. What invariably happens is you go back to your pre-fast lifestyle and you're back to feeling gross in a couple of weeks or months. Then you do another juice cleanse and the merry-go-round continues. The reason why these diets are not sustainable is because they are socially extreme. Human beings are innately social and for millennia, food has been an integral part of social connection. Do not underestimate the social and mental strain of an extreme diet. The best way reduce your toxic exposure and increase your immunity is to eat in a way that optimises the functionality of the organs in your body whose job it is to expel toxins. Those organs are: the liver, kidneys, colon, lungs and skin.
Here are a few steps that will get you on the right track.
Step 1. Avoid processed food
Do I really need to explain this?
Processed foods - ie: the stuff that comes in plastic packages, jars, bottles or boxes and have ingredient lists that look like a chemical experiment - are laden with toxins and are nutritionally deficient. You'll get an intake of calories when you eat them but you will miss out on important nutrients like protein, fibre and healthy fats. Processed foods are full of highly addictive additives like salt, refined sugars (carbohydrate), and trans fat but they go by different names like 'high-fructose corn syrup', 'hydrogenated vegetable oil', 'flavour enhancer', 'sodium nitrate'. These foods are the work of chemical engineers and are specifically designed to make you addicted and also hungry after you eat them. They are bad, bad, bad.
Here's a simple rule. If there are more than three ingredients listed on the label, don't eat it - especially if you can't pronounce them. And, if it doesn't look remotely like it did when it was in the ground, put. it. back.
Step 2: Try to eat as much organic produce as possible
Chemicals and pharmaceuticals used in conventionally farmed meat and fresh produce we eat regularly slowly build up over time and put strain on the liver and other organs in your body that are responsible for metabolising and expelling toxins, such as the kidneys, colon, lungs and lymphatic system. This not only impedes normal metabolic function, it also causes fluid retention, bloating, and puffiness.
You don't have to give up meat, dairy, alcohol or caffeine - just continue to reduce the amount you consume. Think of these products as luxury items. An easy switch is to eat the highest quality animal based products you can (eg: free range, grass fed, organic beef) but have it fewer times a week. Your meat and wine budget can now be put towards organic produce, which has incidentally come down a lot in price over the last few years.
If you can't get your hands on organic food, at least increase your intake of:
cruciferous vegetables - spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, rocket;
whole grains - brown rice, wild rice, quinoa;
anti-oxidant rich foods - berries, red cabbage, purple grapes, beetroot, dark chocolate; and
anti inflammatory foods - turmeric, cinnamon, ginger
If you need some inspo, have a look at this comprehensive list of detox friendly food.
Step 3: Drink lots of water
I struggle with this. It's my number 1 First World Problem. My goal is to drink three litres a day but I usually get about 1.5L to 2L down, including herbal and green tea. Coffee and milky drinks do not count, nor does juice or soft drink (like I need to tell you that).
Drinking water helps to flush toxins out of your body through urination and will stop you from retaining water. The more water you drink, the less you retain. Get it?
A trick to hitting your water quota daily is to get yourself one of those massive three litre drink bottles and fill it with water as soon as you wake up. Maybe put a few slices of lemon and some mint in there for added excitement and don't go to bed until you've downed the lot. You'll need to go to the toilet a lot but that's a nifty way to increase your daily step count!
Step 4: Look after your skin
I'm not talking about the skin on your face - although this is very important - I'm talking about the skin that covers your whole body, your largest organ. Skin is porous which means it breathes. It also expels toxins through sweat. Rather than having that sweat (and all the microlevels of toxins in it) dry on your skin, give your skin a good exfoliation at least once or twice a week. Get yourself one of those natural bristle brushes and a nice scrub and use that to scrub your whole body BEFORE you get in the shower. The friction of your dry skin and the scrub will get rid of old skin cells much more effectively than soap and water. Then rinse off in the shower and when you get out you will feel shiny and new. If you're a total masochist, get yourself to a bath house in Korea or a hammam in Morocco or the middle east where a designated person does the scrubbing for you. You will feel like a snake that just shed its skin.
Step 5: Gradually change your lifestyle
Rather than doing a two week detox, incorporate the above habits gradually into your life. That way your body will be more able to cope with a bender every now and again. I eat pretty clean on most days and I do some form of physical activity where my skin and lungs get a stretch every day - this might just be 30 minutes of gentle yoga or a walk to the shops. But if I go out or if I'm on holidays I eat and drink whatever I want and as much as I want. It just so happens that I usually want to eat vegetables - strange right? Not really. It doesn't take long for your body to adapt to a healthy pattern but it is much easier to maintain if you do it in small steps. It took me about a year to go from a meat eating, wine guzzling couch potato to a clean eating yogi - a clean eating yogi who occasionally eats animal products, has a wine and spends a couple of days on the couch, that is.
However you do it, make sure you don't deprive yourself of joy because happiness is the ultimate form of wellness.
Stay well, sleep well.