This is one of the most common questions I hear in my practice. When the warm breezes start to blow, green leaves start popping and flowers start to spring from the branches of crabapple trees, we all become eager to clean up and get ready for summer. We rake up old leaves, open the windows, and pull out the shorts and t-shirts. We want to shed our layers and move more quickly out in the warm air. When that urge starts, I start getting many questions from patients about what it means to do some detoxification and whether it would be useful for them.
The answer to this of course is individual; each person will have different specific needs for how their bodies will thrive best from detoxification. However, as I mentioned in my article Nourishing Ourselves in Springtime, our organs of elimination need the most support during this season and everyone can benefit from this to some extent. Generally for children under 18, unless there is some specific medical reason for detoxification, adding in some seasonal foods that support elimination will be more than sufficient.. For adults, depending on your situation you may benefit from a protocol that is more comprehensive, so let’s talk here about the basics.
To start, the term detoxification in my mind is somewhat inaccurate. To dispel some myths, in general our bodies are not filled with toxic waste that keeps us unhealthy. Our intestines are not coated in black grime built up from decades of poor eating; I have seen many colonoscopies and none of them have featured tar-coated intestinal walls. However, over time we can accumulate wastes and develop chronic inflammation that can keep the body from functioning optimally. I liken it to cleaning out the refrigerator: if there’s a bunch of old salad dressing, ¾ used ketchup, and half moldy vegetables, it makes it harder to find the food that’s good to eat and there’s no room for bring in fresh, happy food. Detoxification is like a spring cleaning for the body. We encourage elimination of things we don’t need and make room for nutritious, health supporting nutrients.
So in our spring cleaning we have four primary routes of elimination from the body that we like to support: liver, large intestine, kidneys and skin. Often, we focus on the liver first because it is our primary processing organ; this means it evaluates everything that comes into our bloodstream, decides whether we need it or if it is waste, packages it appropriately, then sends it on its way. For wastes, it utilizes potent antioxidant enzymes to convert harmful chemicals into water and peroxide or makes toxins water soluble so they can easily be excreted in the urine. Beets, carrots, leafy greens, dandelion greens, and organic liver are all excellent liver support foods.
The large intestines excrete any wastes that haven’t been absorbed through the intestinal wall as well as extra cholesterol or any fat-soluble toxins that are eliminated through the bile. Probiotic foods such as kefir, natural sauerkraut, and miso can be helpful to maintain balanced flora. Excretion can be maximized through high fiber foods such as flax, beets, and greens. One very key component of detoxification is minimizing inflammation. If the intestinal wall is irritated or swollen, absorption will be impaired, so it is critical during this time to avoid any known allergens or foods that you know bother you. This is also a good time to experiment with taking out common allergens such as dairy, gluten, or soy.
The kidneys filter the blood to excrete anything we don’t need. The most important ways to support the kidneys are to keep the electrolyte balance good through eating foods high in minerals (such as beans and greens), avoiding mineral depleting foods such as sodas and coffee, and drinking plenty of water. Excretion via the skin can be optimized by opening the pores through exercise, sauna, massage, and dry skin brushing before a shower.
Good luck on your spring cleaning–may your efforts now pay off in extra vitality and feeling great in the warm months to come!