In December we wrote an article about the science and history behind the liver’s detoxification processes and what nutrients are essential to support these. This week’s blog gives some practical advice on what foods to enjoy and avoid during a detoxification period. There are lots of recipes available online – and we have provided a day’s sample menu at the end.
A sensible detoxification diet emphasises certain foods and drinks and minimises others. The aim is to support the body’s natural detoxification processes whilst avoiding some of the more uncomfortable symptoms that can occur during detoxification.
Detox symptoms include headaches, diarrhoea, constipation, disturbed sleep, foggy brain and others. They are an indication that your capacity to detox is being exceeded and/or that you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms from some foods (eg caffeine, gluten, sugar). These symptoms can be avoided or minimised by making changes gradually, by supporting the gut and by including some protein in the programme.
How long to detox for?
Detox programmes vary in length from a few days to a month or more. It depends on how you do it and what your goals are. If you include vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish and chicken then you can do a detox for a month or more. This is a Paleo-style way of eating and many people eat like this successfully long-term (red meat which is avoided during detox is also included in Paleo).
A detox lasting 3-4 weeks focussing on these foods would allow you to identify foods that you may be sensitive or intolerant to (we will be writing more about this in a couple of weeks time).
If your detox plan focuses solely on vegetables and fruit then you will need to limit it to a few days as it will be low in protein and essential fats. This kind of detox is more likely to give rise to uncomfortable symptoms. Vegetables and fruit are supportive of liver function but the liver does also need adequate protein and other nutrients to work properly so if your plan is just vegetables and fruit, you might like to consider including a good quality vegan protein powder (eg pea protein).
It is vital that you successfully complete your chosen detox and feel positive about it. This will help you feel motivated and empowered to continue with some of the changes you have made. So plan a detox that feels achievable – it doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
Planning is essential for making successful dietary changes. Write a menu plan for each week and shop accordingly. Think about when you are going to prepare meals and how you will cope with any social events etc. You want the detox to spur you on to make permanent improvements in your diet (such as continuing with reduced sugar intake).
For example if you intend a 4 week detox you could build the changes in gradually:
Week 1: Avoid sugar, increase vegetables, reduce caffeine
Week 2: Previous changes plus reduce gluten and dairy, cut out caffeine
Week 3: Previous changes plus cut out gluten and dairy
Week 4: Continue all changes for a further week
Week 5 + 6: Reintroduce foods one at a time and note any reactions/symptoms
If you are planning a detox and you are in a relationship then hopefully you will both undertake the dietary changes; or as a minimum your partner will understand and support what you are going to do. Mutual support and understanding is very helpful towards successfully completing a detox – and if not a husband or wife this can extend to a friend or family member or indeed a group of friends.
Once you are through the first few days you will really begin to experience the benefits of increased mental and physical alertness and energy and this will encourage you to make long term improvements to your diet.
Foods to enjoy during a detox include
- Fruit – fresh or frozen fruit, especially berries, apples and lemons. Avoid dried fruit and fruit juices which are high in sugar. Fruit is rich in antioxidants and fibre. It is best limited to 2-3 portions per day due to its high sugar content.
- Vegetables – base your meals on vegetables, fresh or frozen, ideally organic. This includes carrots, chicory, onions, leeks, garlic, sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, peppers, mushrooms, courgettes, salad, tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, spring onions etc. Aim for 8+ portions per day, of which at least 2 portions should be dark, green and leafy (eg broccoli, cabbage etc). Include a wide variety over the week. Chicory, which is in season at the moment, is delicious chopped in a salad or the leaves can be used to scoop up guacamole or hummus dips. Chicory is high in inulin a type of prebiotic fibre that encourages the growth of friendly gut bacteria.
- Beans and lentils – red kidney, haricot, cannellini, butter, black eye, pinto, red lentils, green lentils and brown lentils. They provide fibre, vitamins and minerals. However, consume in moderation (eg 1 portion per day).
- Chicken – during a detox animal products are limited or avoided for a number of reasons – they can be a source of toxins and also are more demanding on the digestive system. High protein is best avoided during a detox. However as mentioned previously it is important to eat some good quality protein. If you wish you can eat a small portion of organic chicken 2-3 times per week.
- Fish – especially white fish such as cod and haddock which is easier to digest and lower in heavy metals than oily fish. Oily fish can also be eaten. Choose small and wild, rather than farmed oily fish, eg salmon and sardines, rather than fresh tuna which is a larger fish that can be high in heavy metals. Canned fish in moderation is also ok eg salmon or tuna (in spring water) or sardines (in olive oil).
- Nuts (unsalted, unroasted) – including walnuts, almonds, Brazil, cashew, hazel nuts, pecans, pistachio, walnuts etc. Avoid peanuts.
- Seeds – sunflower, pumpkin and linseed (also called flaxseed).
- Oils – extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin coconut oil.
- Vinegars – Apple cider vinegar (best), or red wine, white wine or balsamic vinegar.
- Flavourings – Garlic, fresh ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, other spices and fresh herbs – especially parsley, coriander, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
- Bone Broth – made using organic bones. Cook the bones in a slow cooker for 12-24 hours with 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (this helps release the minerals from the bone), a couple of chopped onions, celery and carrots. Strain. Keeps in fridge for 1 week or portion and freeze. Drink a small cup daily. This is rich in collagen and minerals and is supportive of gut health.
- Non dairy milks – unsweetened almond or coconut are the best. Both are available in cartons in the long-life section in supermarkets and are fortified with calcium. Avoid soya milk.
- Homemade Smoothies – smoothies have the advantage over juices of including the fibre so are preferable (see recipe at the end). Use water or a non-dairy milk as a base for smoothies (rather than apple juice). If you like to juice, then choose vegetable juices over fruit juices which can be high in sugar.
- Water – preferably filtered or mineral water. Adequate hydration is important at all times and especially during detoxification. However, it is also possible to overdo it! Aim for around 2 litres of liquids per day. This can include herbal teas.
- Herbal or fruit teas
Foods to avoid
- Sugar – In the UK each person eats 1 – 2 lbs of sugar per week! Most of this is ‘hidden’ sugar in processed foods rather than sugar added to drinks etc. Removing sugar is essential for detox as this will help keep blood sugar balanced and reduce stress on the liver. The first few days can be difficult, many people report day 4 as being the hardest, but after this you should feel like you have more energy and better mental clarity. Sugar includes fructose, dried fruit and fruit juice. Honey is also best avoided initially as eating any sugary foods may trigger cravings. Artificial sweeteners should definitely be avoided (eg aspartame, sucralose). Natural sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol may also have disadvantages but would be the better option (in limited quantities) if really needed.
- Caffeine – caffeine is detoxified by the liver and so removing it for a short while allows the liver to process other toxins. To avoid a caffeine withdrawal headache, it is best to start by reducing caffeine over a few days rather than stopping it ‘cold turkey’. Decaffeinated coffee is also best avoided as it contains low levels of caffeine and other substances that need to be detoxified by the liver. If ‘No Coffee’ is a step too far for you then choose organic decaffeinated and limit your consumption.
- Red meat – Reduce or eliminate all red meat during the detox (ie beef, lamb, pork including bacon and processed meats).
- Sunflower / safflower / corn / soybean oils – These oils are all high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids so are best avoided at all times, not just during a detox. Also avoid margarines that are made with them.
- Soya – fermented soy is eaten in small quantities in Asia where it is associated with a number of health benefits. In Western societies some people eat and drink large quantities of (unfermented) soy (milk, margarine, yoghurt, mince). Factors in soy can inhibit protein digestion. It is also a highly allergenic food and so is best avoided or at least limited (at all times).
- Alcohol – It goes without saying that alcohol needs to be avoided during a detox.
- Wheat and gluten grains – Wheat has a rapid effect on blood sugar. Eating 2 slices of wholemeal bread raises blood sugar faster than a Snickers bar! Also the protein, gluten, found in wheat (as well as in rye and barley) increases gut permeability leading to inflammation. In a healthy person this inflammation will be quickly ‘switched off’ but in those who are ‘gluten sensitive’, eating gluten can trigger chronic inflammation and this can be a contributory factor in many illnesses and symptoms (ranging from anxiety, depression to gut conditions and autoimmune diseases). See our blog on Leaky Gut for more information on this. If you do decide to have a period of gluten-free, then keep commercial ‘gluten-free’ foods to a minimum – they are mostly highly processed and lacking in nutrients.
Whilst all detox programmes agree on the need to eat lots of vegetables and avoid certain foods such as sugar and alcohol, there are some foods that are included in some detox programmes and not in others. Whether you include the following foods depends on your personal preferences and what you are hoping to achieve from a detox. If you suspect you have certain ‘food sensitivities’ then it would be best to remove most of these foods for 3-4 weeks and then reintroduce and make a note of any symptoms that arise.
- Eggs – eggs are highly nutritious. They contain protein, phospholipids, B vitamins and are high in sulphur – all of which are useful for supporting detoxification. However, some people can react to eggs (sometimes without knowing it) so they are eliminated from some detox programmes. If you choose to include eggs during your detox, limit to one per day.
- Grains – as well as wheat and gluten grains, other grains including oats, corn and rice can be problematic for some people. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly grains are high in starch and so eating large quantities can unbalance blood sugar, leading to symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, poor sleep, constant hunger etc. Secondly, in people who are ‘gluten sensitive’, grains can cross-react with gluten so that the body believes you are eating gluten when you are not! This is one of the reasons some people with ‘gluten sensitivity’ fail to improve on a gluten-free diet ie they are reacting to other grains. Some concern has been raised about grain-free diets being low in B6 so include a multivitamin as insurance. (NB: There are a number of other foods which can also cross-react with gluten – contact us for more details).
- Dairy – definitely avoid cheese and milk during a detox. Cheese is high in salt and is hard to digest. Milk is high in hormones designed to help calves gain weight rapidly. Plain natural yoghurt does have some health benefits provided you are not intolerant to it. If you suffer autoimmune or inflammatory illness then it would be worth removing all sources of dairy for the period of the detox and seeing how you react to a reintroduction.
- Potatoes – white potatoes are high in starch and so can unbalance blood sugar. Whilst potatoes do provide some fibre and small quantities of vitamins, they are not a ‘nutrient dense’ food so are best avoided during a detox and limited at other times of the year. Sweet potatoes are a good swap.
- Nuts / seeds / deadly nightshade (tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes) / beans and pulses – if you suspect you have a sensitivity to any of these foods or if you suffer an autoimmune illness then you may want to consider a trial elimination of all these foods as well. This will mean a fairly restricted diet and would be best undertaken with some guidance – you might like to consider our free health questionnaire service to help you.
- Salt – Some salt is important for all of us to help maintain certain functions. If eating a wholefood, unprocessed diet without bread you can add a little salt. Choose Himalayan salt or Sel de Guerande rather than table salt. Supplementing with ‘Kelp’ (from seaweed) is a popular alternative to salt during the detox and can aid the detox process, however kelp should be taken in moderation and those with thyroid disorders need to be especially careful.
How to deal with problems that may arise?
Two common problems associated with a period of detoxification are constipation or diarrhoea. A healthy gut function is vitally important in helping the body eliminate waste materials so it is important to remember to support the gut. Regular, ie at least once daily, bowel movements are essential.
- Smoothies rather than juices. Smoothies include the fibre from the vegetables.
- Eat 1 – 2 tablespoons Whole Linseeds These need to be ground (ie added to a smoothie) or alternatively soaked. Linseeds are high in fibre.
- Plus take Psyllium Husk This is a gentle soluble fibre used both for constipation and diarrhoea.
- Take a multi-strain Live Bacteria supplement daily.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Undertake light exercise.
- Take Psyllium Husk. This gentle fibre that absorbs water is used to slow down and firm up bowel movements (or speed them up, if needed).
- Take Saccharomyces boulaardii daily, ideally alongside a multistrain Live Bacteria supplement.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Lightly cook vegetables rather than eating them raw.
Please find links for the products mentioned towards the end of this article.
A sample day’s menu to support detoxification
Other detoxification practices
Skin brushing has the effect of invigorating the body through the massaging strokes of the bristles, moving excess waste into the solar plexus area, where it is drained into the intestines and excreted from the body.
Enema (colonic irrigation)
For many health practitioners, particularly those specialising in detoxification, the use of an enema as part of the overall detoxification process would be their strong recommendation. The administration of an enema by liquid treatment helps stimulate stool evacuation; particularly the release of old and encrusted colon waste.
Gentle exercise will encourage good circulation to help with toxin elimination etc.
Aim for 8 hours per night. Have a regular bedtime and avoid all screens for at least one hour before bed.
Supplements to Support Detoxification
Multivitamin and Mineral providing a range of B vitamins, vitamins C, D and trace minerals is a base to ensure you are getting adequate levels of all nutrients.
Detox Support – This supplement which can be taken alongside a multivitamin and mineral is designed for short-term use (1-2 months). It contains additional vitamin C, manganese, zinc, garlic and spirulina.
Live Bacteria – to support a healthy gut flora balance.
Fibre supplements – Whole Linseeds or Psyllium, if needed, to produce regular and ample bowel movements. Bowel movements should be at least once daily, during a detox diet bowel movements may be more frequent although they should still be ‘firm’.
Aloe Vera – Aloe Vera has anti-inflammatory properties.
Slippery Elm Bark – this is high in mucilage and is used for its soothing properties on the gut.
Milk Thistle – Tradition has recorded the use of this herb as part of a cleansing programme.
Spirulina – This is a type of blue-green algae high in chlorophyll which is used in detoxification programmes.
Phyte-Inflam – This contains curcumin, ginger and piperine which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Phytoshield – This contains carotenoids and flavonoids which are anti-oxidants.
Magnesium Citrate – Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical pathways in the body including detoxification pathways.
Warning on Detoxification Diets
The above are all suggested as part of a detoxification programme. We would not consider it appropriate for any of the treatments to be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medication please consult your doctor first before embarking on a detoxification diet. You should not undertake a detoxification diet if you are unwell.
This article was written by our Nutritional Therapist Clare Daley, If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) or Clare by phone or email at any time.
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Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Simon Holdcroft and Clare Daley