A Family Spring Diet Cleanse

Reset your body without fasting
portions of healthy food laid out in a grid of glass containers
© Can Stock Photo / fahrwasser

Spring has sprung. For many, it is a season of new beginnings. From a healthy living perspective, part of my personal re-setting for the year includes a cleanse.

Historically, cleansing has been associated with fasting, often at the spring and autumn equinoxes, a practice observed in many cultures and traditions over the course of history. In Buddhism, fasting may be used as a means of “invigorating” one’s practice (a new beginning of sorts), and indeed, the ending of a period of fasting marked the Buddha’s spiritual awakening (the ultimate new beginning).

From a health perspective, Paracelsus, considered a father of Western medicine, considered fasting “the greatest remedy”.  

Cleansing is not fasting

Although many still adhere to cleansing the Paracelsus way, science does not necessarily support absolute abstinence from nutrients as the most effective means of removing toxins from the body.

The body processes toxins (and naturally occurring metabolic wastes) primarily via the liver and lymphatic tissues in the gut in a process described as metabolic detoxification, filtering toxins from the blood for ultimate removal via either urine or bowel movements (significantly smaller amounts of waste are removed via the lungs in respiration and the skin via perspiration).

For the liver and gut to carry out this important activity, they require energy (i.e. calories) and the nutrients (e.g., amino acids, vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium, copper, zinc and others) involved in these metabolic processes.

Cleansing is a complex undertaking that involves managing several physiological processes:

  1. Toxins stored in in body fat must be mobilized into the blood for filtering

  2. The liver and gut must filter toxins from the blood and deliver them to the bowels and into the urine

  3. The bowels must be functioning efficiently in order for filtered toxins to be excreted from the body

It makes sense to minimize exposure to dietary and other toxins during a cleanse to minimize a “two steps forward, one step back” scenario.

Who should NOT cleanse?

Although cleansing is a generally safe activity, and can be of benefit for virtually any person, for some it should only be undertaken under the care of a healthcare professional (naturopathic doctors are very qualified healthcare professionals for this, having training in biochemistry and pathology, as well as clinical nutrition).

Persons who should not participate in cleansing programs without professional supervision include those:

  • Having a health history of disordered eating (e.g. anorexia nervosa)

  • Using prescription medications described as having a “narrow therapeutic index” (cleansing will increase the efficiency of drug metabolism, potentially decreasing drug effectiveness)

  • Having diabetes mellitus (dietary changes and fasting affect blood sugar levels)

  • Being pregnant (mobilization of stored toxins from fat tissues temporarily increases levels of circulating toxins, which in turn, increase an unborn child’s toxin exposure)

  • Having constipation (bowel movements are the mechanism by which a majority of toxins are ultimately removed from the body–no bowel movements means “toxin backup”)

Get cleansing!

These are simple things anyone can do to improve soundness of body, mentally and emotionally re-set for a productive coming season, and for those new to the practice, perhaps experience a level of physical wellness previously not achieved.

Foods to Eat

Filtering of toxins from the blood is a two-step process, involving extraction of toxins from the blood, followed by binding of those toxins to amino acids so they can be “held” in the blood until they are transferred to the urine or into bowel movements for final removal from the body.

Certain foods are particularly rich in nutrients that support these biochemical processes.

Non-starchy vegetables (i.e. “non-potato”) , fruit, and whole grains supply the liver and gut with excellent sources of many of the nutrients the body uses in metabolic detoxification. These foods are also rich in fibre, which “holds” toxins in the gut, and promotes regular bowel movements.

Brassica (mustard) family of vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts) and other dark-green leafy vegetables are particularly potent cleansing foods.

Bitter-tasting vegetables (rapini, arugula, mustard greens, dandelion greens) are great choices because they stimulate secretion of digestive juices and bile (the liver’s vehicle for moving toxins into the gut for excretion). These can be eaten at the start of meals to prime the body for digestion, and to flush the liver with bile for movement of toxins into the bowels.

Whole grains and chicken are examples of excellent nutrient-rich cleansing foods for rounding out a detoxification diet.

As a guideline, whenever you eat, balance your dietary intake in such a way that ½ of the food you eat consists of non-starchy vegetables and fruit, ¼ are whole grains and the final ¼ are clean proteins (e.g. organic chicken, organic fish, lentils, chickpeas, or hemp).

Foods to Avoid

While there are many foods that support the body’s efforts to remove toxins, there are also foods that are best avoided.

Foods containing chemicals (processed and packaged foods containing preservatives, flavour-enhancers and artificial colours) and non-organically produced foods sprayed with chemical herbicides and pesticides are the best place to start cutting out.

Alcoholic and caffeinated beverages are also commonly excluded from the diet when cleansing.

Avoid common allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish), as processing the products of common allergens also contributes to the liver’s detoxification responsibilities.

Drink-up!

Maintaining hydration should be part of your normal routine for all your systems but drinking water is a really important part of any cleansing protocol. Urine is the vehicle by which the body excretes a portion of toxins removed from the blood. A useful, general guideline for water drinking is to drink two to three liters of water daily, spread over the day. Set a timer if you need to be reminded!

"Liver teas" are also an excellent means of increasing water intake during cleansing. These often having a bitter taste, and can be used to flush the liver by stimulating bile production and flow. Examples of “liver tea” herbs are chicory, burdock, and dandelion leaf/root (which has the added benefit of acting as a diuretic, stimulating urination). Bitter-tasting teas should be avoided by persons having gallstones as they may trigger gallstone symptoms.

Get the toxins out

The liver and gut are the organs filtering the blood, but toxins stored in the body must first find their way into the bloodstream if they are to be filtered out. Toxins stored in the body are stored in fat tissue. When fat cells are broken down, toxins are released into the bloodstream, and can then be filtered for removal. Two simple ways to bring toxins from fat cells into circulation are aerobic exercise and fasting.

Aerobic exercise

This is exercise that uses fat for fuel. In order to use fat as exercise fuel, fat cells are broken down. Aerobic exercise is generally described as activity performed at 50 to 90% of a person’s maximal heart rate, but a simple shortcut is that aerobic activity requires “mouth breathing.” Your body does not begin “burning” fat immediately—this only begins after about 15 to 20 minutes of moderate activity. To burn fat, exercise at least 30 minutes at a time at a mouth breathing intensity.

Intermittent fasting

A second technique that can be used to stimulate your body to use fat as fuel is intermittent fasting. This is a technique that involves daily, 16 hour abstinence from food. Most people can achieve this by simply not eating after dinner, and having a “brunch” rather than breakfast the following day. Your body will use its stores of energy in approximately 12 hours, turning to fat to fuel itself for the remaining four hours.

Note: All of the above suggestions are safe for any age. Children will also benefit from a clean diet, optimal hydration with water, and lots of exercise. The exception to this would be intermittent fasting. Some children may not respond well to skipping breakfast, and, in my opinion, we do not want to impose discomfort on any child. Focusing on a clean breakfast, free from refined sugars and higher in protein is best.

Hydrotherapy

Three other simple techniques that can be used to increase movement of toxins from tissues into the blood, and movement of blood to the liver, guts, and kidneys for filtering and excretion, are saunas, and a technique called constitutional hydrotherapy and contrast showers. These therapies affectionately fall under the healing category of hydrotherapy (healing with water).

Each of these therapies are essentially a means of exposing your body to heat, followed by cold. (Sauna is not, as these days it typically involves exposure to hot temperature only. Traditionally though, sauna involves alternating between a hot room and an ice bath…or, better yet, an icy lake!)

Constitutional hydrotherapy involves exposing your body to alternating hot and cold temperatures using moistened towels. A constitutional hydrotherapy treatment requires the help of an assistant, but simply involves lying down and having the torso covered for five minutes with a towel that has been moistened with hot water, followed by having the torso covered for approximately 10 minutes with a towel that has been moistened with cold water. The process is repeated on the back.

Contrast showers are a simple “hack” for flushing the tissues of toxins is to have contrast showers. Shower in hot water as usual (causing skin-reddening, but not scalding, 37-40C/98-104F) for shorter than five minutes, followed by less than one minute under cold water (uncomfortable, but tolerable, 13-18C/55-64F). Repeat three times and always end with the cold water. I know it doesn't sound fun, but it is invigorating!

In all these cases, initial exposure to heat followed by cold results in “hemoconcentration,” which simply means an increase in blood concentration and movement of toxins and metabolic wastes.

These temperature-involving techniques should not be used by:

  • Young children as they may not be able to accurately and quickly communicate “too hot”. Consider contrast showers in children over the age of 7.

  • Persons having heart disease, cancer, acute infections, or nerve conditions that cause reduced ability to be aware of pain (e.g. diabetic neuropathy

Summary for a great spring start

For one week:

  • Ensure you are having daily bowel movements

  • Eat a home-made, preferably organic, primarily vegetarian diet

  • Drink approximately three liters daily of water (or “cleansing teas”)

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine (coffee and caffeinated tea)

  • Exercise at a “mouth-breathing intensity” for at least 30 minutes at a time

If possible, add to the week:

  • Restrict eating to an eight-hour window (for most, between 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. will work best)

  • Sauna (the European way), have constitutional hydrotherapy treatments, or take contrast showers

Continue for up to three weeks if desired and enjoy the improved energy, mood,general wellness and inspiration experienced by countless others who cleanse as a part of their healthy lifestyle.

Have a great season!

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