Dear Dr. Peacock,
The holidays have left me feeling bloated, gassy, inflamed and depressed. The food, alcohol, and stress have taken their toll and I’m wondering if you have any advice on a cleanse to do which will rid my body of toxins.
—Bloated In Bedstuy
Brace yourself. The advice I’m about to deliver is not very popular with my alternative medicine colleagues. The truth is I rarely (if ever) advise a person to do a cleanse. Gasp!!!
I know what you’re thinking. How am I supposed to get rid of the toxins if I don’t cleanse? Well, maybe I should clarify. I don’t advise people to do a “cleanse” as defined by the modern context of the word. Usually, a cleanse entails encouraging the body to purge a toxin by way of the stool, urine, or sweat. The lemon, cayenne, maple syrup of the master cleanse, for example, are said to flush away all the sinful past indulgences like a new age baptism.
I call BS.
First, I feel really uncomfortable with the shaming culture that hitches a ride with many of these practices. It really does remind me of baptism because it preaches a world where there are good/clean and evil/dirty foods. Food is never inherently good or evil. Food just is. The judgment we place on it is constructed by our society. All this food shaming and judgment brews a perfect storm for disordered eating and emotional distress that I’ve seen far too often in my career. When we label food as bad, we begin to internalize the feeling of being bad when we eat it. Enough is enough. No food is bad, it is just a choice, and we can make choices based on the desired outcome. In this case, we are looking to choose foods that don’t create stress on our bodies, especially on the liver. So let’s put aside blame and shame and talk for a bit about (so-called) toxins, physiology, and how to support our body while it detoxes itself as it was designed to do.
There is much talk of “toxins.” I’d like to point out that every single ingestible thing can be toxic at a certain dosage, even water. Every couple of years or so, a small-town newspaper publishes a headline about a college freshman who drinks too much water during a hazing ritual. “5 gallons of water in five minutes gets you into a fraternity” or some sort of similar nonsense. Said freshman ends up in the ER with water toxemia (aka hyperhydration). My point being, even the most innocuous substance can turn deadly if over consumed. Too much of anything is a bad idea. My amazing anatomy and physiology professor used to say “always eat a rainbow, but never marry a vegetable.” She meant we should do our best to eat many different colors in our diet and rotate through our vegetables to diversify our phytonutrients and prevent eating too much of any particular anti-nutrient substance (which are found in many foods).
Your body is a beautiful machine that is capable of detoxing itself through the liver. This is true for most “toxins” (except for a few like heavy metals and BPA which tend to accumulate). In my humble opinion, this “toxic” feeling we get after a season of indulgence is the result of our bodies not being able to keep up with the work of detoxing itself.
The truth is that the best way to cleanse is to reduce or eliminate the intake of foods that make the liver’s job more difficult. These include alcohol, processed food, simple sugars, and pesticides. Imagine trying to frantically mop up a floor that’s being flooded with water. The floor is being flooded by a sink that’s overflowing. What we should be focusing on is turning off the sink for a while, so that we can mop up the floor. The mop is the liver, the overflowing sink and water are all of the things that the liver has to process. Get it?
What I’m suggesting is that instead of doing a harsh cleanse that will leave you hangry, tired, and on the toilet is to just ease up or eliminate processed food, simple sugars, alcohol, and pesticides. Simple sugars spike blood sugar. Be sure to only eat carbs that have a carb/fiber ratio of 10 grams carbohydrate to 1 gram of fiber. The more fiber, the better. Load up on organic green leafy vegetables and when you do eat meat, limit to organic unprocessed meats. The portion for meat should be about the size of a deck of cards. Omega 3 fatty acids are helpful for creating an internal landscape that is not inflamed. The foods highest in omega 3 fatty acids are fatty fish (use the acronym S.M.A.S.H. Salmon. Mackerel, Anchovies. Sardines. Herring are all good choices. Always wild, never farmed). A long-term strategy to incorporate omega 3, fiber, organic produce, organic meats, legumes, and whole grains will be more productive for longevity, energy levels, and sustained moods than a trendy fad cleanse. In short: eat mostly real food and when you decide not to, be easy on yourself.
I hope this helps. Please forgive yourself for your holiday transgressions and simply make another choice without any judgment.
In Good Health,
Dr. Christopher Peacock