"Detoxing" seems to be the buzzword of the moment, but there are often conflicting opinions that go along with it. Is detoxing a legitimate way to boost health or is it just another misguided claim? We asked Cynthia Li, MD, about her experience with detoxing. Dr. Li has a private practice in integrative and functional medicine, and serves as faculty for the Healer's Art program at the University of California San Francisco Medical School. Dr. Li is also the author of a new book, Brave New Medicine, that shares tells the story of her disabling autoimmune illness, the limitations of Western medicine, and her hard-won lessons on healing, which include detoxifying the house and our bodies.
BH: First of all, what does "detoxing" mean exactly?!
CL: When I use the term "detoxification," I'm not referring to high-end spas or extreme juicing fasts, many of which can strain your budget or harm your body. Detoxification is simply the body's innate capacity to filter and eliminate unwanted substances that would otherwise build up, generate "oxidative stress," and contribute to chronic disease. We have several organs, or systems, that assist us with detoxification: the liver (the primary detox organ), the gut (where 70% of the immune system resides), the skin and respiratory system (primary defenses against environmental pollutants and harmful microorganisms), the immune system (lymphatic channels and nodes line the gut and respiratory systems), and the kidneys (urination and defecation are the two primary routes of elimination).
BH: When did you first become interested in the idea of detoxing?
CL: For years I struggled with brain fog, mood imbalances, chronic fatigue, chronic dizziness, insomnia, hypersensitivity to sounds, and other symptoms for which Western medicine didn't have a framework, much less a remedy. When I returned to the basics of pathology and physiology, I learned, or re-learned, how central detoxification is to maintaining good health, as well as to healing.
There are many conflicting opinions about detoxing- from integrative doctors and wellness experts prescribing highly tailored detox diets, to groups like Harvard Women's Health Watch calling detox "a dubious practice". How do we sort through the confusion? My journey as a patient forced me as a doctor to evaluate the science more closely.
BH: Tell us more
CL: The matter of detox, like most things in life, is more complex and variable than what the textbooks say. That's because of two simple facts: each of us is unique, and most of our detox systems aren't optimized. Our individual capacity to detoxify depends on multiple factors: (1) the genes we inherited from our parents , (2) our cumulative exposure to environmental pollutants , (3) the health of our gut, (4) regular elimination via the gut and kidneys (5) the availability of key nutrients necessary for our liver enzymes and immune system to work properly, and (5) our age.
BH: There's so much information out there! How can we detox our body in a safe and effective way?
CL: Beyond treatment for health challenges, detox is also best done regularly, 2-3 times a year, as prevention and health maintenance. Here are 10 simple steps anyone can take to promote detoxification:
1. Sleep more. In the deep stages of sleep, lymphatic channels in the brain open up and flush out unwanted waste products, including beta-amyloid, which has been associated with Alzheimer's Disease. (If you suffer from chronic insomnia, prioritize this with your health care practitioner.)
2. Eat your broccoli. Compounds in the Brassica family—kale, collards, beets, cauliflower, cabbage—boost your liver's detox enzymes, while providing other nutrients and antioxidants. Steam them, boil them, or mix them into a smoothie. Most functional nutritionists recommend no more than 1 serving a day of cooked Brassicas to avoid the suppressive effect higher amounts may have on the thyroid.
3. Don't skimp on protein. Amino acids like glycine boost your liver's detox enzymes, and cysteine is a necessary cofactor for metallothioneins (proteins that detoxify heavy metals). Bone broth, beans, and wild, oily fish are good sources.
4. Increase your fiber. Aim for regular bowel movements, 1-2 times a day. If you're constipated, biliary waste cannot be efficiently eliminated. And with gut flora imbalances, certain waste products may be reabsorbed into the bloodstream despite the liver having previously filtered it out. Good sources of fiber: non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, flaxseed meal, and beans. Fiber supplements like psyllium or rice bran are alternative choices (~30 g per day + plenty of water).
5. Sweat. Exercise and sauna more. Ubiquitous environmental pollutants like phthalates and PCBs (perfluorinated compounds) have been found to be excreted in sweat. Stay well hydrated and shower off with Castille soap, like Dr. Bronner's.
6. Take a walk in a forest. Studies show this simple exercise reduces stress, improves sleep, and boosts the immune system, all of which facilitate detoxification. If there is no forest close by, take a walk in nature. The wellness benefits may be increased by taking your shoes off.
7. Heal toxic relationships. Easier said than done, but consider joining a support circle or a community forum, or starting therapy sessions. The connection between personal relationships and the immune system is one of the most robust findings in psychoneuroimmunology.
8. Have a cup of green tea. A compound in green tea (EGCG) can boost liver enzymes and also provide antioxidants to combat oxidative stress. Drinking green tea with each meal may help combat oxidative stress that comes from our meals. Opt for decaffeinated green tea if you're sensitive to caffeine or have sleep difficulties.
9. Eat food your grandmother or great-grandmother would have recognized. A whole foods, largely plant-based diet is the foundation for good health, including improved detoxification. Nothing manufactured can match the natural foods our bodies have evolved with.
10. Laugh regularly. Imbalances in thyroid hormones can rob you of simple pleasures, so watch a funny video, play with your dog or child, even fake a laugh (studies show the effects on the body are the same as a real laugh). Laugh while you take your daily thyroid prescription! Laugh while doing #s 1-9 above, too! Laughing boosts circulation, eases digestion, and improves sleep, among other benefits.
CL: There are also certain foods that support detox more than others. Incorporate as many as you can into your diet and enjoy their incredible flavors!
1. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: wild salmon, walnuts & almonds, flax seeds freshly ground, avocado
2. Fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants: berries, kale, cabbage, tomatoes, citrus fruits, parsley, cilantro
3. Foods high in natural fiber: steel-cut oats, legumes, flaxseed meal, fruits & non-starchy vegetables
4. Herbs & spices: turmeric, fresh garlic, cumin, horseradish, ginger
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