Is a Detoxification Diet Right For You?

By Elson M. Haas and Md
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As a physician, I am fascinated by the complexity, subtlety, and diversity of individual health habits—specifically, the combinations of various substances we imbibe and ingest. The spectrum of these substances includes the components of our diet, supplements, drugs, and pollutants. These all are part of our possible choices and have effects on our life and health, both present and future.
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Toxic chemicals and pollutants in our air, water, and food have made Dr. Elson M. Haas’s “The Detox Diet” a trusted ally in the quest for good health, and the best defense against the many toxins that threaten it.

Do you overeat? Are you often tired or fatigued without knowing why? Do you consume caffeine and sugar to get through the day? Do you suffer from sinus headaches or chronic nasal congestion? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Dr. Elson M. Haas’s The Detox Diet (Ten Speed Press, 2012) can help you regain vitality and start you on a new path to life-long vibrant good health with his safe, effective detoxification diet and cleansing program. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Why Detox?”

Detox Diets: Hoax or Healing?

I have used the process of detoxification and the information in this book for more than thirty-five years for my personal well-being as well as for many thousands of patients, with even more people benefiting from the process since the publication of the first edition of this book. Of course, there are many other practitioners who guide and observe people through similar processes of elimination diets, detoxification programs, and juice cleansing and have thousands of positive anecdotes. We still do not have much research that backs up what we see. It is challenging to first study the multi-dimensional programs people typically employ and then compare them with placebos or different diets. This research gold standard (double-blind, placebo-controlled study) is much easier when evaluating one substance, like a new medicine.

Really, we are talking here about a complete lifestyle shift, as with diet, exercise activities, and attitudes. Thus, to skeptics, it’s all a bunch of talk. “Prove to me that it works,” states a scientific researcher. I say, “Let me put you on a program and we’ll see how you feel and look. And we can study your blood chemistry, such as your cholesterol level (especially when it’s high), or monitor your blood pressure. Many aspects of your health will get better, with many side benefits.” I know when people make lifestyle and habit changes they often have improved health results.

Still, it’s difficult to study whole programs for improved health. Here, experience and anecdote might be a better gold standard.

The Detoxification Diet Controversy

The broad topic of detoxification diets is filled with controversy, the main arguments against them being that there’s no scientific proof detox diets work, and that they are not needed at all because the liver and kidney do a fine job clearing the body of its toxins. In addition, the opponents of detoxification claim these diets cannot be maintained for long periods of time without doing major harm, that they are a scam to sell useless products and procedures. For doctors who have been trained to treat disease, the whole approach to the nutritional management of disease–actually the prevention or reversal of disease–is a hard pill to swallow because it suggests that conventional Western medical training is both deficient and incomplete. This is why I veered into natural medicine after my own medical training–because I felt my education to date had taught me almost nothing about health and what was needed to keep the body fit. (I feel this is also a deficiency in public school education. Yet, that has been changing over the past decades.)

The concepts and practices of detoxification are an integral part of natural medicine. Detoxification is done by every cell in the body, and almost every organ system helps in the body’s waste removal. The human body continually detoxifies itself, yet when it is stressed or overloaded, the body may not be able to keep up and then may create a symptom or other form of “communication” about the imbalance.

In these cases, the body tries to rebalance itself by flooding the connective tissues with acids, which eventually can cause more inflammation and aging. This is one of the basic ways we stress our bodies. The discussion of acid-alkaline diets and body states is an essential understanding for overall health and I believe will be the medical understanding in the future when it comes to viewing health and disease.

Detoxification is a process, not really a diet. To me, the truth about helping our bodies detoxify is that it allows us to learn about our individual bodies, incorporate a process to simplify our intake for a short period of time, and then develop a healthier lifestyle understanding. When we eliminate certain foods and substances, we have the opportunity to see, experience, and learn how our bodies respond. This is invaluable in the process of healing, and individualizes it. Thus, your own personal experience proves or disproves the process to you, and maybe to your doctor if the doctor believes every patient’s medical treatment is ultimately an experiment or experience. To me, this is the right way to practice medicine, through direct experience and observation with an eye on safety first, as in “First, do not harm,” a key Hippocratic principle of the oath taken by medical doctors. I believe that detox programs, when done appropriately for the right people, may prevent chronic illnesses, reduce existing problems, and improve health and vitality.

Medical research is costly and, unless you are testing a patented product, there is no money for the proofs the opponents and skeptics ask for. To me, the proofs are in how people feel and look after they have completed a round of cleansing/detoxification and have changed their habits. These programs also commonly help people increase their awareness of foods and substances that don’t support their health. Finally, when someone is attempting to eliminate addictive substances like tobacco or alcohol, having a diet plan to support the process is useful and necessary.

Thus, think of detoxification as something you can do to help yourself feel better and learn what works for you in terms of your individual eating and intake program. Can you handle coffee, sugar, or alcohol, or does even a little bit throw you off or reduce your vitality? When you consume these substances every day, you may not be able to sort that out. That’s why I encourage you to take breaks–a week to a month–to eliminate what you take for granted and do every day, see whether you feel better after a few days, and then incorporate them again (one at a time) to experience how you really feel.

What Is Detoxification and Toxicity?

Toxicity is a great concern in our modern world for literally everyone. No one can avoid environmental exposure. Threatening our health are powerful chemicals, air and water pollution, electromagnetic waves, noise pollution, radiation, and nuclear waste. We ingest new chemicals, use more drugs, eat more sugary and refined foods, and abuse ourselves daily with stimulants and sedatives. Cancer and cardiovascular disease are on the rise; arthritis, allergies, obesity, and skin problems are also rapidly increasing; and a wide range of symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, pains, coughs, gastrointestinal problems, immune weaknesses, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and psychological distress like depression are being seen by physicians in record numbers. Although a connection between increased toxicity and increases in diseases is obvious, it is important to understand how toxins occur so we can avoid or eliminate them from our lives.

Toxicity primarily comes from two basic areas–external and internal. We can acquire toxins from our environment by breathing them, ingesting them, or being in physical contact with them. Most drugs, food additives, and allergens can create toxic elements (from reactions and by-products) in the body. In fact, any substance can become toxic when used in excess.

Internally, the body produces toxins through normal everyday functions. Biochemical and cellular activities generate substances that need to be eliminated. These unstable molecules, called free radicals, are biochemical toxins and are considered a common factor in chronic disease. When these biochemical toxins are not counteracted or eliminated, they can irritate or inflame the cells and tissues, blocking normal functions on all levels of the body. Microbes such as intestinal bacteria, foreign bacteria, yeasts, and parasites can produce metabolic waste products that we must handle. Even our thoughts, emotions, and stress (including stress caused by the daily news) can increase biochemical toxicity. The proper elimination of these toxins is essential. Clearly, the healthy human body can handle certain levels of toxins; the concern is with excess intake, excess production of toxins, or a reduction in the elimination processes.

A toxin is basically any substance that creates irritating and/or harmful effects in the body, undermining our health and stressing our biochemical or organ functions. Chemicals and metals (lead and mercury) can interfere with the many sensitive enzymes that catalyze most cell functions and affect overall cell and body health. Toxin irritation may also result from the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs or from unusual physiological patterns. The irritating chemicals, or free radicals, from the use of both prescribed and recreational drugs can also cause tissue degeneration. Negative “ethers,” psychic or spiritual influences, and the stress from bad relationships, negative thought patterns, and emotions can also have toxic effects on our body.

Even if we are living in a basically healthy way, toxicity still can occur when we ingest more than we can utilize and eliminate or breathe polluted air. Homeostasis refers to balanced bodily functions. This balance is disturbed when we feed ourselves more than we need or when we abuse specific substances. Toxicity may depend on the dosage, frequency, or potency of the toxin. A toxin may produce an immediate or rapid onset of symptoms, as many pesticides and some drugs do, or it may have long-term effects, as when asbestos exposure leads to lung cancer.

When our body is working well, with good immune and eliminative functions, it can handle everyday exposure to toxins. However, when we are stressed or not sleeping well, we may not be able to handle even our normal amount of toxins. This could also be a cyclical function, like so many body functions; sometimes our bodies are strong detoxifiers and other times they are weaker.

Before You Begin A Detoxification Diet

As a physician, I am fascinated by the complexity, subtlety, and diversity of individual health habits–specifically, the combinations of various substances we imbibe and ingest. The spectrum of these substances includes the components of our diet (foods, drinks, chemicals), supplements (nutrients, herbs, and homeopathic remedies), drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational), and pollutants (herbicides, pesticides, hydrocarbons, and petrochemicals). These all are part of our possible choices and have effects on our life and health, both present and future.

Some questions we might ask ourselves:

• How do we develop our preferences?
• When do our preferences become needs?
• Why do our needs become addictions?
• Why do some of us become addicted while others of us can stop on our own? Is it inherent or learned?

Personality, upbringing, and environment influence our personal choice of substances. In exploring these concerns about abuse and the way it affects our health, I have developed a specific orientation and program for initial healing and detoxification. This process has evolved over my nearly forty years as a naturally based, general health practitioner.

My overall understanding of symptoms and disease integrates both Western linear thinking and naturopathic approaches to health and illness. Problems with the body and mind often arise from either deficiency (when we are not acquiring sufficient nutrients to meet our bodily needs) and/or congestion/toxicity (when our intake is excessive or we ingest something that is particularly irritating). Congestion can arise from both reduced elimination function and an overconsumption of food or substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, refined sugar, and chemicals from medications to home cleaners to freeway fumes. It’s clear that noises and smells affect us as well and those of us who are more sensitive to these issues can find ways to protect ourselves from these exposures.

People who are deficient in nutrients may experience problems such as fatigue, coldness, hair loss, or dry skin. They need to be nourished with wholesome foods (and supportive relationships) that aid healing. However, congestive problems are more common in Western, industrialized countries. Many of our acute and chronic diseases result from clogged tissues, suffocated cells, and subsequent loss of vital energy. Frequent colds and flus, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and allergies are all consequences of congestive and inflammatory (often tied together) disorders and, eventually, too many antibiotics, other medicines, and surgeries that result from these problems. These medical problems may be prevented or treated through a process of cleansing, fasting, and detoxification. These approaches represent different degrees of an overall process that reduces toxin intake and enhances toxin elimination, making way for health and healing to occur.

All of the programs contained in this book combine aspects of these fasting and detoxification/cleansing processes. In this book, there are specific programs for dealing with Sugar, Nicotine, Alcohol, Caffeine, and Chemicals (recreational drugs and prescription medications)–what I call SNACCs. In each program, I discuss the physiological actions and reactions involved, the hazards and ill effects of the substance, and the methods for handling and clearing these adverse habits.

The beginning of the process for healing our abuses requires motivation from within to change unwanted habits. This often requires us to address the underlying emotions that may perpetuate the problem. A good counselor or therapist or a compassionate positive friend can be helpful to support this healing process; and remember, for real healing, it takes what it takes for the worthwhile experience of truly getting better. Overall, we must create a workable plan and gather our willpower to begin. The Detox Diet and other purifying programs discussed throughout this book alkalize the body, help us feel better quickly, and lessen feelings of withdrawal. Drinking good water, getting vigorous exercise, and taking specific nutritional and herbal supplements also support the detoxification process.

A few simple tenets of natural medical practice may help clarify for you this book’s approach:

1. The primary cause of disease is the accumulation of unnecessary wastes that are not properly eliminated, resulting in poison retention, cellular dysfunction, and subsequent health problems.

2. Your body is designed to support optimal function. Listen to its signals.

3. Given the proper environment, your body has the power (and likelihood) to heal itself and return to its normal healthy state.

Patients and physicians do best when oriented to live and practice with a common-sense approach that first looks at lifestyle as a place to promote rejuvenation, then to natural therapies, and finally to pharmaceutical drugs and surgery, which are appropriate when a situation is acute or severe or if natural therapies are not working. Lifestyle factors include diet, exercise, good sleep, stress management, and attitudes.

Motivation is helpful for our behaviors and outcomes. Are we motivated from a crisis or do we seek a better, healthier future?

Natural therapies include nutritional supplements, herbs, homeopathic remedies, and hands-on healing such as massage, osteopathy, and chiropractic care. Nutritional awareness and practice aid you in both preventing disease and recovering health.

Put simply, the key to maintaining metabolic balance is to maximize nutrition and both minimize and eliminate toxins.

The goal is to place your health and that of your family back into your own hands. In fact, so much of your health is up to you. Take the initiative to do what you can to be vital and healthy. It is really worth it!

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Detox Diet by Elson M. Haas, MD, published by Ten Speed Press, 2012.

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