What Is "Detox" Anyways?
What IS the balance between detox and retox? How can we live a balanced lifestyle between the two, where we’re always satisfied with how we choose to play?
We’ve all done it before: signed up for a green juice cleanse the Monday following a party weekend, hit a high intensity gym class before a pre-empted decadent brunch, and the more ‘holistic health’ advocates among us have likely done their fair share of liver or parasite cleanses. How could we not live with this ‘damage control’ obsession? Society has us thinking it's normal to adopt some of the most extreme (and expensive!) measures to justify ‘going overboard’!
Too many desserts at Christmas? Liquid diet it is! And the reason these companies stay in business is because they know we’ll fall back into our old ways soon enough. It has become the norm to slip back into binging and excessive drinking within a couple weeks of a serious cleanse because life’s all about ‘balance’ right?
Let’s step back for a second.
Could it really be that abusing our bodies with a seesaw of $300 juice cleanses and viciously indulgent ‘cheat days’ is the ‘balance’ that nature intended? If so, then why do we find populations booming with longevity and increasing life spans that have never even heard of the term ‘detox’? And how did our species survive for over 2000 years before the introduction of these fads?
I once had a professor during my nutrition degree who referred to superfoods and cleanses as a ‘disease of the wealthy’ and wow, did I hate him for challenging my obsessive beliefs at the time. But he was so right! There are people surviving and thriving all over the world on the simplest foods! And, I bet many of them are much happier than the nutritionally confused amongst us, who go to every length to be ‘healthy’. We are so blind to this, and so myopically concerned with achieving the most extreme of detox goals. This mindset is much like consumerism: we are always striving for more. And because we know we can always buy more detox packages, we end up consuming way too much crap too. And so the self-defeating cycle continues.
There seems to be an interest in the idea of ‘primal eating’ and ‘back to nature’ — but, there is nothing primal about binging: our innate biological mechanisms and interactions between hunger and satiety hormones exist to monitor food intake. There is something primal about craving nutrients after unnecessary depravation. And yet, we blame ourselves for ‘falling off the wagon’ but subconsciously allow it, because we know that can begin our next detox in no time. We set ourselves up for ‘failure’. We don't only abuse consumption; we abuse the art of ‘detoxing’ as well.
What is at the root of all this?
A total lack of purpose and connection to the body.
Cleanses and detoxes are not total crap, but the way we use them often is. Unless you have a severe illness and you have been advised by a professional doctor or healer to take greater measures, chances are, you don’t really need to follow through with that liver cleanse or that colonic you just booked. It is not only futile to ‘detox’ for the sake of it, but it is harmful and it weakens and disorients the body. Not to mention a total waste of time or money.
We must to abandon this all or nothing mentality: ‘May as well’ finish the box of cookies because you had one; ‘may as well’ do a popular cleanse because feeling dizzy probably means your getting skinnier...it never works. And I guarantee it is the reason most people struggle to maintain ‘balance’ and a healthy weight. We need to be more intentional with how we treat our bodies. Even if that intention is saying yes to cake once in a while — make the decision, and go for it. Don't shove it down your throat as you debate if it fits into your calorie limits for the day, becase where’s the mind-body alignment in that? Be intentional with the way you ‘work’ towards things, and the way you play. No-one is forcing you to ‘retox’, nor detox — not even your lack of willpower or the media buzzing diet noise. Your body works so hard for you, don't half-ass the way you treat it. Take responsibility for it.
Give your body more credit! Every innate cell and organ in the body is ‘trained’ with both catabolic and anabolic mechanisms — that is, detoxifying and growing/building. When something nasty enters your system, your body knows how to get rid of it (ever had food poisoning?). It also knows how to cleverly utilize every nutrient you ingest for its intended purpose. You’ll only run into problems when you go too far — even then, your body will do everything it can to keep on rooting for you to get back to balance again. Don't abuse it. Work with it, and recognize that a wide variety of good quality foods and an intentional and nurturing attitude is exactly what your body needs. That goes for every day, not just the weekends or when you’re sick!
The body works with nature’s cycles — the seasons, the 24 hour clock, the constant interplay between ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. It does not, and will not, work on any convoluted cycle you create for it. We make up these regimens (weekday salad diet and ‘cheat’ weekends) because we associate pleasure with guilt and regimented control with success. But your body is begging you to feel pleasure all the time — that’s the way it’s designed! If you listened to it a little closer, you’d see that doesn't actually mean cookies all day everyday. When you’re more in sync with your ever-changing needs, you never actually ‘fall off the wagon’. And so it goes, you would never need to go on an extreme ‘detox’ or cleanse because there is no abuse to recover from.
Think of it as ‘preventative living’. Ancient holistic medical systems like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) look at the body in this way; they don’t just focus on how to purge out damage that is already done, they encourage disease prevention through a balanced and flowing approach to health — flowing because we’re meant to base our diet on what the body needs as seasons and conditions fluctuate. In fact, ‘detox’ regimens prescribed to TCM patients are mostly based on cooked foods, including grains and even meats, as it all depends on the patient’s individual needs, and any recommendations are aimed to work with the body, not against it. Raw juices and strict raw food diets are actually taboo to most bodies as they weaken the spleen, the Chinese organ responsible for digestion and weight management! Traditional medicine also recognizes that a person’s health is the result of the interplay between the mind and the body. You could be consuming all the healthiest foods on the planet, but if your mind and soul are not vibing with you, you’re not going to get anywhere.
In all the training I’ve done with my TCM and a Qi Gong Master, I have never seen him prescribe a ‘detox’ that is nearly as extreme as what has become the 'norm' in the wellness industry — not even to the sickest of patients. There is rarely ever a 'regimen' at all — mostly just the addition of specific healing, simple foods for the individual, and in graver cases, herbal medicine or even Western medical intervention.
If you’ve lived up until now seeking ‘balance’ based on your own insecurities and beliefs and you still don’t feel comfortable in your own body, I invite you to redefine what balance means. The ‘relief ‘you feel after downing a green juice post hamburger is not the sigh of balance — it is just you validating the mental construct you created in your mind. The balance most of us seek is based on a collection of borrowed beliefs, not on intuition or truth. Chances are, if juice cleanses never became a ‘thing’, you would never crave that green juice after your binge. If you don’t feel at ease with variety and spontaneity in your diet, it is likely that you’re not pursuing the ‘balance’ that is correct for you. No need to become obsessed with TCM or Ayurveda or any other health systems to learn more about the body! Simply acknowledge that all these varying practices exist to show us how diverse and specific ‘balance’ actually is for each individual, and how it varies with specific seasons and periods in the life cycle. In fact, I invite you to go the other way — to simplify what you ‘know’ about nutrition, and start paying attention to your ingenious body a little more.
I encourage everybody to take eating a little less seriously — especially those who react to such statements with the fear of ‘letting yourself go’. It's usually when we obsess about unnecessary cleansing, purification and other ego-driven nonsense that our subconscious craves the other path and leads us to the junk food aisle. Only when we learn to be comfortable and easy about how we consume can we be satisfied with how we ‘play’ — it is paradoxically the fear of liver damage and belly fat that has us reaching for that fifth margarita. Maybe we could all pretend for a little while that cleanses and quick fixes don’t exist...could that help us approach each meal, the pizzas and the goji berry smoothies, with a little more presence and respect?
There is a place for every ingredient that nature has given us. Not just the greens. Let’s embrace the idea that every meal can be our medicine, and have a little more fun with the alchemical experience of eating. Let’s simplify and expand the idea of ‘balance’ so we can feel better, and look better too! Appropriate nutrition and a low stress response is the only way to really maximize the way the body does its thing — it is designed to detoxify each organ for you, every second of the day — so you can focus on living and celebrating!
Let’s quit trying to outsmart the body by pressing the ‘reset’ button with a random cleanse — it will always remember every little thing it’s been through. Luckily, it’s never too late to redefine your relationship with detoxification, and I promise, it won’t make you suffer for having dessert if you do.