(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) Around the New Year is when many of our patients start to talk about “detoxing” in order to get their health back on track. It seems like a natural inclination, especially if the holidays encouraged a freer intake of sugars, pastries and alcohol. However, as a practitioner I feel the use of expensive kits, concoctions and "crash cleanses" are a bit overrated.
First of all, what does "detoxing" actually mean? The liver uses enzymes to selectively decommission chemicals floating through the blood that you don’t want to have in such high amounts (like drugs, alcohol or caffeine), or you no longer need (like high levels of hormones). By breaking them down and bonding them with other molecules, the liver changes them into a form that can be excreted through the bile and out with the stool, or gets filtered out of the blood via the kidneys or sweating. This is why you are wide awake when you first have that cup of coffee, but a few hours later it "wears off"-- the caffeine molecules have been gradually disassembled by your liver and excreted.
Our daily exposure to high levels of chemicals is a rather recent phenomenon in history. Just think about the following sources our pre-20th century ancestors were never exposed to:
Therefore, our liver detox pathways have to process much more than what they originally evolved to handle, and can get backlogged, causing a build up of substances in the blood and tissues.
Queued chemicals compete for the same liver pathways needed by your body’s basic metabolic functions, which means exogenous chemicals can disrupt your physiology by offsetting levels of otherwise normally produced hormones and substances. Finally, inadequate intake of important nutrients, like particular amino acids, minerals or vitamins can slow down the liver detox pathways due to lack of raw material needed to fuel the enzymatic reactions.
Backlogged chemicals and hormones can disrupt the endocrine and central nervous system, cause oxidative damage to our blood vessels and tissues, and even alter the expression of DNA in our cells. The chemical glut also likely plays a role for individuals who have difficulty losing weight in spite of "trying everything." Therefore, freeing up the liver from toxic stress is an important way to resolve and prevent disease.
The truth is, fist-fulls of supplements and herbs, or even acupuncture sessions can only speed up our liver's work to a certain degree. This is why focusing on other lifestyle measures to safeguard detoxification has to be part of our self-care. As opposed to focusing only on sporadic "crash cleanses,” my approach is the following:
Design your own Custom "Liver Rest"
There's a concept in Japanese culture known as kyūkanbi, translated as "liver rest day." This is when frequent drinkers make an intentional effort to skip drinking for a day, usually once per week, to literally give the liver a rest! You can apply this same concept, but it doesn't have to be limited to alcohol, or to once per week. The idea is to make a ritual out of a doable break from something like alcohol, sugar and/or processed foods, while focusing on whole, chemical-free foods.
What's important is to choose a template and a duration that feels somewhat challenging, but isn't so daunting that you'd never even try. At the end of this article I've provided a basic template of a whole foods, moderate carb diet I like to follow, but if that seems like too much I'd encourage you to maybe pick a couple of things to focus on for your own, customized kyūkan (liver rest). For example, maybe it's enough of a start just to focus on sugar, which can still be an impactful way to support your health!
Pick a time-frame that feels doable; be it one day, 3 days, a week or a month. Then stick to the time frame as your kyūkan. That part is important-- whatever goal you set in advance, stick to it!
You can then do a kyūkan as often as you'd like-- once per week, for example. If you're suffering from chronic illness or wish to optimize your health further, you could consider upping the ante on the duration of your kyūkan.
If this still seems daunting, it probably is exactly what you need! So I'd still encourage you to give it a try for even a day, or one meal a week. A little regular practice will help it feel more manageable and then you can aim for a longer kyūkan. It takes a little more shopping and planning to break away from refined convenience foods, but these are life skills that once practiced, will be invaluable in creating good health going forward.
Another thing about kyūkanbi-- it allows the practitioner to politely refrain from an offer of booze in a way that won't offend others. So if you're worried about turning down the slice of birthday cake, or the drinks, or the sweets at work-- just tell them you're on a "detox cleanse" and they'll understand.
Preventing Toxin overload
A different strategy from “cleansing” is to focus on slowing down the entry of toxins, thus reducing the demands on the liver so it can properly clear your system. Here are general recommendations:
Eat organic whenever possible to avoid herbicides and pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Consume seafood low on the food chain (smaller, younger fish which have less accumulation of heavy metals and toxins than larger, older fish).
Avoid unnecessary chemicals in processed foods, beauty products, household and yard care. This includes preservatives, chemical sprays, synthetic fragrance/perfume, and anything else for which there’s an effective natural alternative.
Avoid purchasing or storing your food in plastic containers (which includes soda and food cans, which have thin plastic liners). In particular, hot or acidic foods may leach chemicals from plastics. If purchasing canned soups, fish, tomatoes etc, look for brands with a BPA-free can liner (which allows you to avoid at least bisphenol-A).
Avoid the use of over-the-counter drugs when possible. Ask us for natural alternatives to things like ibuprofen, tylenol, antihistamines, and other OTC drugs! Obviously this goes for prescription drugs, hormonal birth control and hormone replacement as well, when alternatives are available and changes are approved by your prescribing doctor.
Make sure your water sources are clean. This is an important way to avoid heavy metal exposure as well as countless other chemicals that enter public waterways. Test your well water, or filter your tap water.
Take care of your gut bacteria. Gut microbial imbalance can cause a variety of byproducts to leach into the blood that the liver must handle; and healthy gut bacteria actually aid in your detoxification and elimination pathways. Avoid antibiotics if there are other safe alternatives. Take probiotics and eat live fermented foods, and emphasize a diverse range of plants in your diet to give your gut bacteria a healthy substrate. Avoiding refined foods will also help suppress the growth of undesirable organisms.
These are all actions I take very seriously, but you could start with one or two if it seems overwhelming-- you will still be doing your liver a favor!
How to use acupuncture to support detoxification
In the practice of Chinese medicine we use traditional methods to assess the health of various systems of the body, including the Liver, Kidneys and digestion. We actually use a Japanese acupuncture "detox" protocol very frequently to help patients who come to us with autoimmune issues, skin disorders and hormone imbalances, all ailments that stem in part from backlogged liver detox pathways. This protocol includes points that support the Liver, the Kidneys and Large Intestine and usually incorporates moxibustion as well.
While using acupuncture can be a good idea during chronic disease processes, it's also beneficial to support those taking birth control pills or hormone replacement, those relying on prescription drugs; or those who frequently work around chemicals, such as on construction sites or in manufacturing facilities.
We also love to do preventative sessions, in which case we still do a traditional assessment and customize a treatment based on what it appears could most benefit your system. For example in some individuals we'd focus on the liver, while in others we might steer the treatment more toward digestion based on what the pulse, tongue or abdomen is indicating. A preventative session could be done once a season, or monthly for those who feel they are putting themselves under high demands.
Finally, from a Chinese medicine perspective, managing stress or any stagnant emotion is an important way to keep the liver healthy. It's a good idea to practice an intentional, emotional kyūkan period from social media, the news and maybe even the whole internet from time to time, to give your liver a break from toxic emotional stress. There may be other types of emotional stress you can strategize a polite interim break from.
If you're noticing too much "toxic buildup" in the emotional arena it could signal it's time to come in for a session to help your system reset and rebalance. What better time than a brand new year.
Whole Foods diet template
Here's a basic "detox diet" that both reduces chemical backlog and gives the liver ample nutritive raw materials for its detox work. This is also a great weight loss diet since it helps balance the gut bacteria and promotes blood sugar stability. (Clearing liver backlog can also really help with weight loss!)
Rather than focusing on what you can't eat, focus on what you can. "Treat yourself" by shopping for plenty of fresh ingredients and savor the rich colors, flavors and life energy in your healing food.
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