If you’ve ever felt stuffed after a big Thanksgiving meal or just a long, extended vacation, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “I need to detox.” While that term gets floated around pretty often, it’s usually the result of feeling bloated or uncomfortable in your skin—like something isn’t quite right. But do you know what a detox really is?
According to Natasha Uspensky, a Los Angeles-based holistic health counselor, detoxing is about removing toxins from your liver that might have accumulated due to weather, pollution, stress, or inflammatory foods.
“Although our bodies generally do a good job of clearing out toxins, we can always use a little extra support, especially at key times of the year,” she explains. “Spring is the most important time of the year to detoxify the body, as it aids in transitioning from the fat storage mode of winter to the fat burning time of spring and summer. I also encourage gentle mini detoxes after periods of particularly poor eating or lack of self-care (like after a crazy trip to Vegas!)—these act as gentle resets for the body to get things back on track, and encourage healthier habits moving forward.”
What Not to Do
However, Uspensky is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean starving yourself—aka, eat food! “In my college days, before I became a nutritionist, I did a Master Cleanse (only drinking a mixture of water, lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup), which was one of the worst experiences of my life. I felt awful, was starving, and had the most terrible symptoms,” she says. “Later in life, I did several juice cleanses (only drinking juice for three to seven days), but didn’t really know about the right time of year and way to do them, so I had mixed results. I’ve done bizarre detoxes where you detoxify a different organ every day by eating only a specific food or type of food all day (the science on this one is lacking).”
A really important aspect to take note of, however, is to make sure that you don’t do something you found online without reading about the science behind it. Take note of both your body type and the time of year you’re planning your detox, and be sure that you’re not going to the extreme.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make [during a detox] is overdoing it,” says Uspensky. “No one needs to go on extreme fasts or juice cleanses every few months. It’s actually quite dangerous and destabilizing to the body to go into a pendulum swing effect of extremes—constantly overdoing unhealthy foods and habits, followed by extreme periods of detox.”
You should also make sure the time of year plays an important role in the types of foods you choose to eat while you detox. Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of avoiding cooling foods in the winter, and this is even more important when your body is undergoing a complete nutrient rehaul.
“The middle of winter is the absolute worst time to do a juice or raw food cleanse,” says Uspensky. “The body has to work overtime to generate enough heat for proper digestion and body warmth, which leaves the person feeling fatigued, cold, and more susceptible to colds and illness.”
And your Ayurvedic type (check out how to find yours here) plays a role, too. “Cold and dry people (vata types in Ayurveda) would never do well with a raw food or juice cleanse—it’s just way too cold for their bodies, which do much better with cooked foods and warmth,” says Upsensky. “But warmer body types (like pitta and kapha in Ayurveda) would feel quite well on a juice or raw cleanse, if done in the right season. Cleansing is all very personal!”
How to Detox
While there are several different options when it comes to cleansing, Uspensky believes that certain guidelines work well for everyone—albeit with some customization.
“I’m a big fan of a whole foods cleanse,” says Uspensky. “Cutting out processed, toxic, hard-to-digest foods really allows the body to reset, take a break, and speed up the detoxification process.” The foods you should be focusing on include organic, fresh produce, wild-caught fish (should you eat it), gluten-free grains like quinoa and buckwheat, and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. While there are several prepared meal options out there (our editor tried one and wrote about her experience), Uspensky’s version includes a DIY, vegan option that can be found on her blog—just make sure you meal prep in advance, and that you’re held accountable by friends and loved ones.
“I usually do a cleanse every spring (and sometimes in the fall, if I feel like I need it),” explains Uspensky. “It’s basically a vegan, allergen-free, sugar-free, gluten-free diet with a nutrient-rich green smoothie for breakfast, a big vegan whole food lunch, and a blended vegetable soup for dinner. This more mild cleanse can be done for longer (usually about two weeks), and it yields amazing results.”
This isn’t to say you can’t detox for a shorter period of time—in about three days, you start to see results, but it’s generally better to continue for a little longer in order to get your body used to these healthier, unprocessed foods.
While the connotation is generally that a detox will leave you lightheaded and weak, Uspensky insists that sticking to the right type of detox won’t result in those kinds of symptoms.
However, she explains, “With any true detoxification process, you will likely experience some short-term symptoms, especially if you are breaking an addiction to sugar, coffee, or junk food. A day or two of crankiness, or even a headache, are normal detox symptoms that go away as the body adjusts to a cleaner diet. As long as you are actually providing your body with enough nutrients, protein, and some fat, the detox symptoms should be pretty minimal.”
So, why detox in the first place? According to Uspensky, removing excess toxins from your body can help you break bad addictions, lose weight, get way more energy, and have clearer, brighter skin.
“I feel lighter, clearer-headed, more energized, with better digestion and healthier skin, as do my clients,” she explains. But she cautions against overdoing it, as a detox will not fix all your problems.
“Intention is important,” says Uspensky. “If you’re using detoxes to counteract regular unhealthy food choices and patterns, there is a larger issue there that a detox will not fix. A detox is a great way to transition between seasons or jumpstart a new, healthier diet or lifestyle, but shouldn’t be used to ‘erase’ bad decisions.”
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