Fasting And Detox – The Good, The Bad and The Excellent

Photo by AamerJaved via Flickr

It’s a brand new year, and – if you’re like a lot of folks – right around the New Year’s Day (or maybe a day or two after depending on how many drinks were involved the night before) you started thinking about cleansing and detox.

It’s time to sweep out the old and bring in the new. Whether the goal is weight loss, or simply to detoxify from holiday overload, January is one of the most popular months to do a fast or cleanse.

It seems like a natural fit at this time of year, but the truth is, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere where the winters are cold, it’s better to hold off on your detox or cleanse until spring. Right around the Equinox is when experts recommend doing an annual cleanse. The weather is warmer and your body does not crave heavy foods and fats quite as much. Think of it as spring cleaning.

Well, that’s the common wisdom, but if you’re like me you’re ready to get a little healthier right now.

But should we even fast or detox our bodies at all?

It’s a burning debate among natural health professionals and most fall passionately on one side or the other. And they each have solid science as well as testimonials to back them up.

Now I’m by no means the expert on fasting and cleansing – I can only speak from personal experience and that of my friends and former customers. But several friends have recently either asked me about it, or shared their fasting experiences, so I thought this was a good time to share what I do know – and to point you to some resources where you can review the opinions and views of the experts for yourself.

What Are The Benefits Of A Detox Cleanse?

When you pare down the amount of different foods you eat – or eliminate solid food completely – it’s like setting the reset button for your body. Kind of like a reboot on your computer. Your digestion gets a rest, and your liver gets a chance to take a quick power nap. Your stomach shrinks (inside, but usually a bit outside too), which has the happy result of making you feel full on a lot less food.

Plus, when you’ve eliminated potential allergens from your diet for a period of time, you get a chance to notice which foods might create a less-than-energized feeling in your body. (That only works of course if you follow up your fast or cleanse with a slow introduction of different foods.)

Fasting  has been practiced by spiritual devotees since time immemorial as a way to grow less attached to the body, and theoretically closer to Spirit or God. And certainly many people find it easier to focus on spiritual matters when their stomach isn’t burbling and their brains aren’t running through the options on what to make for their next meal. A time of fasting can be a time of turning one’s attention within, and prayer and meditation can fit in nicely.

Many people notice an increase in energy levels while fasting, it makes sense because it takes a whole lot of vital energy for your body to digest, then assimilate, then eliminate the wild assortment of foods and other substances that permeate our modern lifestyles. But don’t expect a blast of energy on the first day or two of a fast or detox plan.

When you begin an internal cleansing plan all those stored up toxins start dancing around. Many people feel tired and sluggish during the first few days, you might even experience a whole array of unpleasant symptoms (from headaches, to stinky body odors) as these toxins make their way  out of the body. This crappy feeling is usually followed by a sensation of increased clarity and energy – even if you are not on a full fast.

After a detox or fast, you will likely experience a renewed appreciation for the simplest of foods. A handful of nuts will get your mouth watering, or a succulent winter squash will taste sublime. A period of abstention from processed foods and other substances can definitely motivate you to choose wholesome and healthy foods once you go back to eating normally. For a while at least, those greasy potato chips just won’t sound so tasty.

An excellent benefit to dietary cleanse or fast is that it allows you to let go of food addictions and cravings.

So What’s The Down Side?

Although it’s true that fasting will cause you to lose weight (how could it not?), you will likely put the majority of those pounds right back on once you resume your normal diet.

Our bodies and metabolisms have not caught up with the 21st century (or the 20th for that matter, as far as our internal workings are concerned we’re still living in caves.) So, when you cease to consume calories (or drastically reduce them) the body thinks you are in danger of starving and so it slows down the metabolism and holds onto those fat cells for dear life! After all, it reasons – we might have to live off that stored fat for a long time. (Okay cells don’t actually reason, but you get the idea.)

In any event, don’t expect to permanently drop 10 or 20 pounds by fasting. Sure it works if you’re trying to get into that size 4 dress for your high school reunion – but many doctors and medical practitioners say that it’s at a pretty steep cost and even a potential health risk. Some maintain that it takes a good while for the metabolism to get back up to speed once you’ve completed the fast – which could even cause you to end up with a net weight gain. Yikes!

That’s just one of the reasons that I’m now a big advocate for more gently detoxing the body by eliminating  processed foods, alcohol, coffee, dairy products, heavy fats, and starches. There are probably as many detox diet protocols as there are individual constituions, and any one plan isn’t the end-all be-all for everyone. Each individual needs to experiment and find the right cleansing regime for him or her.

Many medical experts frown on full fasts, and even rigid detox plans because of the rapidity in which they cause toxins to be eliminated. Sadly, we live in a toxic, polluted world. Every single person on the planet carries the herbicide 2,4D embedded in their fat cells, for example. (God, I was horrified to find that out as a young breastfeeding Mom. I was feeding my baby herbicides? Yuck!)

It can be quite a shock to the body to be thrown into detox mode. You could experience some very unpleasant symptoms as these myriad toxins raise their ugly heads and course through your bloodstream without food or other nutrients to dilute them.  It’s just plain hard on our systems. This is why the more reputable healing professionals who advocate fasting programs recommend building up to it extremely slowly, eliminating one food group per day until you’ve tapered down to just liquids. It’s also why total water fasting is rarely recommended without medical supervision.

One of my favorite herbalists, Susun Weed, talks a lot about the ‘heroic’ mode of herbalism and natural healing, in which the body is considered dirty and needing to be cleaned out. Some of the grandfathers of herbalism (all men) advocated this approach along with some pretty intense cleansing plans and herbal treatments.

Susun Weed, on the other hand, advocates gently nourishing the body with replenishing herbs and foods, and viewing it as your ally rather than your enemy. From this perspective a  heavy duty fast on just juices or water would be kind of like crouching down and shouting “En Garde” to your body. Battle mode.

Again, a more gentle approach that doesn’t shock your system might bring just as many benefits (just on a slower timeline) as a full on fasting regime.

If You’re Gonna Do It – A Few Tips

For those of you that are set on doing a full on fast – rather than a more gentle detox – it’s worth stating (and reiterating) a few points.

Believe me, I had to find all of this out the hard way. I didn’t always subscribe to the ‘gentler is healthier cleansing plan.’ In my younger days I naively thought, sure I can spare a few days for fasting – the company picnic’s not until the weekend. Or, I‘ll start my big fast on Sunday – right after that big dinner party.

I did all the wrong things.

In anticipation of all that deprivation, I loaded up on bagels and  ice cream, reasoning that I’d be fasting it all off anyway. I kept up my coffee habit right up until the last minute and often binged on alcohol and sweets the night before starting my cleanse. Talk about getting off to the wrong start! And I wondered why I felt like complete and total sh*t once the fast got underway. Well, duh!

I’m just not very good at following directions – if it means I have to let go of my cravings and addictions. And those directions (pretty much universally recommended by any natural health practitioner worth their salt) are:

  • Spend just as much time leading into your fast and coming off of it, as you do on the fast itself. For example, if you are planning to fast on fresh juices for three days you should begin to eliminate caffeine, alcohol and processed foods at least three days ahead of time. Then slowly taper off on other heavier foods until ideally you are eating only fruits and vegetables the day before the fast. The same applies for the days following the fast, add foods back in very slowly, one type at a time. This rule is even more important for longer fasts (which you should only attempt if you are in excellent physical health.)
  • Once you have begun to eat solid food, be very careful about the quantity you consume. Eat small portions, chew thoroughly, and notice how each new food makes you feel. Avoid overeating – something that’s it’s really easy to do in your excitement to be chowing on some real food again. If you’ve never fasted before, it’s a good idea to consult some of the excellent books and resources on the subject to get ideas about the best foods to break your fast with.
  • Set aside time in your schedule for rest and relaxation during your fasting days. Ideally, you would be removed from your daily responsibilities on some sort of retreat. Since this isn’t possible for many people, at least try to plan your fast to overlap with your days off,  and allow yourself the time to lie down and rest when you feel like you need it. You will reap more of the benefits if your body is able to be still and detoxify.
  • If you’re an avid workout fanatic, dial it down during your fasting and detox days. Some gentle exercise is important, but skip the kickboxing and spin classes and you probably want to forgo the six-mile runs during those days. Walking is a great way to get some gentle exercise while you are letting your body do its detox thing. If you must do something more intensive, keep your heart rate in its lower target range and really, it’s best just to hold off on the weight lifting.

Following these steps will go a long way toward preventing gas, bloating and other unpleasant symptoms after you have completed your fast. Failure to follow them could even negate all the benefits of your hard-won detox!

Heads Up! Don’t Even Think About Fasting If You…

  • Are pregnant or nursing a baby.
  • Are dealing with a chronic, life-threatening or debilitating disease (At least don’t try fasting without the support of a qualified health practitioner).
  • Are taking medications. (Again you’ll need the supervision of your doctor or healthcare practitioner.)

A Few Resources

There’s so much to know and understand about fasting or doing a detox cleanse. Way more than I can cover in one or even a series of blog posts. If you are seriously considering it your mind is probably brimming with questions. Next week I’ll tell you about a few different fasts and cleanses I have tried – including the Master Cleanse and Fat Flush –and give you my take on the pros and cons of each. In the third installment, I’ll offer up some ideas on teas and supplements that can enhance the positive effects of a detox plan.

Read Part 2 of the Fasting & Detox series here.

Meanwhile, here are some of my favorite books that address the subject, as well as a few web sites to explore.

Foundations of Health, by Christopher Hobbs

Staying Healthy with the Seasons, by Elson M. Haas, MD

Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford

The 3 Day Energy Fast, by Pamela Serure

The Fat Flush Plan, by Ann Louise Gittleman

Rejuvenate: A 21-Day Natural Detox Plan for Optimal Health, by Helene Silver

 

Web sites:

How To Detox Safely

About.com – Juice Fasting

WebMD – Fasting Diets

 

Do you think fasting is a good idea? Have you ever fasted or embarked on a detox plan? What worked for you and what didn’t? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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6 Responses to Fasting And Detox – The Good, The Bad and The Excellent

  1. Sarah, this is great information. I have been wondering about this as the popularity of fasting and detox cleanses has grown. I have never done it, but I do see the appeal.

    I did the Fat Flush Diet (not the fast) several years ago and will be interested to hear what you have to say on that. I will share my experiences too, when you post that.

    • ’m so glad you found this helpful Sue.
      I do feel like the Fat Flush has some elements of a cleanse since we drink all that cranberry and take detox supplements. I think the ‘fat flush’ name is a bit of a marketing ploy and although it’s sold as a diet plan it’s actually a cleanse.
      It’s definitely not for everyone though, and has some flaws. I’m looking forward to hearing your take on that eating regimen.

  2. Sarah,
    Where was this article before i started my fast?

    I’m still on my fast. I’ve moved into a third phas. It’ an elimination fast and i only eat once a day before six very light raw vegetables. i do feel i have more clarity without that heavy carb feeling and cheese feeling i used to get after a heavy meal.

    The one things which you mentioned that realy shocked me was the fact that i have a new appreciation for fruits and nuts. Sometimes at dinner i just have some strawberries and nuts and OMG, it’s like heavan.

    I’m finishing up my fast in 3 more days but i think i’ll stay off of the carbs for another month and go back to eating 2 meals a day.

    I wonder if i can stay away from peetes coffee though. I brought a years supply of peets to france because i love PEETES. but haven’t drank any in almost 1 month.

    • I know Annie! Wish I’d gotten it up earlier in the month so you could have benefited from it. But you are actually one of the friends who inspired me to write this.

      It’s awesome that you are feeling all those great benefits from your fast. It’s a good idea to move slowly back into your regular foods. You probably won’t stay off the Peet’s forever. But do yourself a favor and keep those coffee bags in the cupboard for a few more weeks.
      Congratulations for a successful cleansing experience!

  3. Sarah,
    Great post! I love the fact that you showed both sides of the topic.

    I personally do not like “detoxing” but do regular intuitive fasting. But I also cannot speak for the experience of others that do well on detoxes. Thank you for leaving it up to the individual and providing some great tips along the way

    Ps. I love Dr. Hass’s “Staying Healthy With The Seasons”!

    Brian

    • Thanks Brian! Glad you thought the article was well-balanced. Let me know your thoughts on this sequel that’s going up today.

      I do think it’s an individual decision what type of cleanse or detox to do – or whether to do one at all. I like your idea of ‘intuitive fasting.’ I’m a big fan of listening to your body and your inner voices.

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