What’s this whole “detox” thing all about?
“Detox” is a word which has been in vogue in the health space for quite some years now. You might have come across extreme diets involving lemon juice and sugar syrup, juice fasts and highly restrictive diets which require calorie counting and significant food restriction. However, many of these fads distract from the true essence of what it means to detoxify our bodies. Here I want to explore the idea of detoxification from a functional medicine perspective and share with you my recent detox experience.
A properly formulated detox plan can result in many health benefits, including:
Stabilisation of blood sugar
Better nutrient absorption
And much more!
The concept of a detox is not new. No matter what ancient form of medicine or ritual you look to, you will likely find a system for detoxifying the body as a way to promote healing and regeneration. From Finnish traditions which centre around dramatic temperature changes - dashing from a steamy sauna into the ice cold snow - to Ayurvedic panchakarma rituals which include dry body brushing, extended water fasting and colonic cleansing. The range is diverse.
What all of these rituals have in common is that they honour the human body’s natural ability to effectively process the toxic accumulation of chemicals. Our toxic load used to be somewhat limited to food and exposure from the natural environment, but these days our modern human bodies must constantly process harmful toxins that we are exposed to through our daily lives. From the brake dust we breathe in as we walk down city streets, the plastic particles we consume in foods and even the chemical constituents of the lotions and personal hygiene products we apply. Our bodies have constant work to do. Alone, these things may not harm us because our body does such a great job at protecting us. But when the load becomes too big, that’s when our body gives us the signs that it’s time to take action.
First the body whispers - skin rashes or irritation, perhaps some discomfort around digestion - and then if we don’t listen, it begins to scream a little louder. Bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), fatigue and sleep issues, various forms of acne (ever noticed those little red dots on the back of the upper arm or under the chin?), anxiety, brain fog and many other health concerns. The high and increasing incidence of chronic illness, from a functional medicine perspective, is also largely attributed to our body’s inability to deal with all of the incoming stressors - whether it’s the quantity or type of chemicals we are exposed to or how well our bodies can enter the rest and repair state to take care of the regular clean-up from such exposures. The puzzle is often complex, but there is a lot we can do to set ourselves up to enjoy long term health.
Integrative health and “emptying the rain barrel”
I’ve been a big fan of natural approaches to health and well-being for many years. I’ve always felt that our bodies are pretty special and capable of some incredible things… if we give them the right environment in which they can thrive.
When I came across the work of functional medicine practitioner Dr Stephen Cabral back in 2017, I immediately resonated with his approach. He teaches his clients how to “empty the rain barrel”, his catch phrase for understanding the stressors the body is exposed to and reducing them in a holistic and sustainable way. Using his DESTRESS Protocol (which I’ll talk about in later posts), he has been able to lead many people experiencing severe health issues back to optimal health.
The premise of functional medicine is that the body doesn’t get it wrong. Whatever dysfunction is happening within us is simply our body’s way of responding to the stress it is exposed to - whether it emotional stress, toxic load, gastro-intestinal stress or the presence of viruses in the system (think Epstein-Barr virus, Lyme disease, herpes for example). Whatever the source - internal or external - stress affects our body in profound ways.
So where do we begin with reducing the load?
In comes the detox! A kick-start to emptying that rain barrel and reducing the workload of the body so it can become more efficient at processing any toxins or reactants it is exposed to... all through supporting the body’s own (phenomenal) natural processes.
The main organ we focus on during a functional medicine detox is the liver. The liver plays an absolutely vital role in processing all of the toxins which come in contact with our bodies. It receives bi-products from digestion, chemicals filtered from the blood and chemicals stored in the body which are released during the detoxification and weight loss processes. The toxins which come in are generally fat-soluble and therefore difficult for the body to process. The liver turns these into water-soluble substances which can then be safely excreted from the body through our urine, bowels, skin, breath or sweat.
There are two key steps we need to take care of in an effective detox:
Minimise additional toxic load coming into the body as much as possible so the backlog in the liver can be reduced
Add in the vital micronutrients required to up-regulate the effectiveness of the liver
I’ll spare you the discussion on phase I and phase II liver detoxification - but just know that to open the detox pathways you need to have certain micronutrients to activate these processes.
The Dr Cabral Detox - my detox of choice
The Dr Cabral Detox is my absolute favourite way of effectively incorporating the two key ingredients for a successful detox and achieving the health outcomes stated in the introduction above. This detox can be done for 7, 14 or 21 days, depending on your specific needs and the health outcomes you are seeking. An integrative health practitioner (which I’ll be recognised as very soon… almost graduation time 🎉) can guide you toward the right option for you.
Unlike other detox products on the market, you won’t starve or deprive yourself doing the Dr Cabral Detox as the meals and meal replacements are very satisfying. Further, this detox combines the best of the East and West by combining various Ayurvedic and functional medicine herbs which make sure your liver has the right micronutrients available to maximise the effectiveness of your detoxification.
The 21-day detox protocol comprises 3 rounds of a 7 day detox. The 7 day detox looks like this:
Day 1-2 - fasting
4 x Daily Nutritional Support (“DNS”) shakes which provide 100% of your daily vitamin and mineral intake plus protein
2 x Ayurvedic detoxification support blend capsules morning and night
2 x Functional medicine detoxification support herbs morning and night
Day 3-7 - detox meal plan
2 x Daily Nutritional Support shakes
2 x Ayurvedic detoxification support blend capsules morning and night
2 x Functional medicine detoxification support herbs morning and night
Vegetarian lunch based on the detox meal planning guide shown below
Animal (optional) or vegan protein dinner
To help keep things simple, the detox prescribes the following formula for building your detox meals for days 3 through 7:
Now we’ve got all this theory covered - I want to share with you my experience in doing my first 21-day detox. I’ve done several rounds of the 7 days before, but the longer detox was really a game changer and taught me so much about my body.
My 21 day detox
In August I finished 21-days on the Dr Cabral Detox. And I’m pretty excited about the results! More energy, better skin, more balanced mood and deeper sleep are among the highlights for me, with a side effect of some weight loss as well. If you’re concerned with the latter, I can tell you in just 3 weeks I lost 4cm from my waist, 3cm from my hips and thighs and 3cm from my behind. I didn’t do this to lose weight (and I don’t believe in scales, so I can’t talk to weight loss specifically), but it was a nice side-effect!
I choose to start my detox on a Saturday (as an aside, I also decided to do it during a heat wave in the Netherlands… added an interesting element!). I work with clients on Saturdays and Monday is my business admin day so I don’t take clients. So, fasting over these 2.5 days made the most sense for my lifestyle. It’s important to choose the right days for you due to the possible side effects of fasting, described below.
The first two days of fasting over the weekend went by easily for me. Being able to have the DNS shakes every 3.5 hours made me feel satiated throughout the day. I had a few cups of ginger tea to help keep the desire for food at bay and create some more heat inside my body to speed the detox process.
It was about 60 hours between my last meal on Friday night and my lunch on Monday. When I woke up on Monday morning, I felt quite weak. After I had my morning shake and some water I felt better very quickly and was (VERY) excited at the prospect of chewing through a big bowl of salad for lunch in a few short hours.
It’s important to understand what is happening in the body when certain symptoms arise. Fasting can temporarily cause low energy, low mood, headaches, nausea and irregular bowel movements. I had all of these on Monday morning before my first shake. These effects are known as the Herxheimer reaction, which is most commonly associated with the die-off of bacteria after the administration of antibiotics. It’s also informally known as a “cleansing/healing crisis.” This process happens during fasting as well, as our body does not need to direct its resources toward digestion and can therefore can fully focus on the clean-up and repair processes we are trying to stimulate (provided we are also managing our stress levels appropriately during this time). During the detox process, additional toxins which are stored in other parts of the body, mainly our fat cells which are the safest place to store toxins which can’t be excreted from the body due to liver congestion, are mobilised and floating around in our systems more freely.
More severe symptoms can include exhaustion, irritability, achiness, flu-like symptoms, diarrhoea, rashes, sweats, chills, insomnia, and more. This all depends on how well your system is functioning and how open the detox pathways are.
After that first food meal on Monday, the week went by like a breeze. I looked forward to my vegan lunches and my animal protein dinners were very satiating. However, toward the end of the week I realised the chickpeas I was having each day on my salad were not really agreeing with me anymore, and I suffered some bloating and abdominal discomfort. I decided that the following week I needed to try something different for my vegan lunches.
In terms of exercise, I tried to get 10K steps every day and I did a 20-minute at-home body-weight workout 3 times during the week.
My second weekend fasting was similar to the first. It went by pretty easily. Due to warm weather I drank some soda water with a drop of food grade citrus essential oil for a bit of fun to keep me cool. I noticed my body was also running pretty warm internally as the detoxification process seemed to run a little more efficiently than the first week.
I was a bit concerned for Monday morning and that I might wake with the same symptoms as I did the previous week. Not so! Monday morning I felt great and did not need to crawl my way to the kitchen for my shake - my energy was as it had been over the weekend. I cruised toward lunch easily, where I reintroduced myself to solid food after another ~60 hours of fasting.
‘Why’ you say? My theory on this is that over the past 10 days my body had already undertaken quite an extensive process in ridding itself of toxins and the load I had on my body at this point was much lower. So, there were fewer toxins mobilised in my systems to generate the symptoms I had experienced in the past week.
Unfortunately, my vegan lunches remained a challenge. It’s important to get sufficient protein, but like the chickpeas, black beans and adzuki beans (cooked from scratch) which I tried during week 2 generated similar symptoms so I had to cut them out as well. This is a valuable sign that something in my microbiome was not agreeing with the legumes. Something to look into post-detox…
The rest of the week went by easily, though I was beginning to look forward to the end of the 21 days and including some more variety in my diet. I’m a big nut and seed nut, so cutting these out as part of my detox was tough. I was missing them by the end of week 2.
I kept my week 1 exercise program, aiming again for 10K steps every day and a 20-minute at-home body-weight workout 3 times. But not on the fasted days, and I made sure to workout in the late afternoon when I had some solid food in my system to give me enough fuel.
Another easy weekend of fasting with DNS shakes every 3.5 hours giving me something to look forward to. I managed social situations by sipping a little sparkling water.
Monday morning was again a pleasant surprise, as it seemed my body no longer needed to do the heavy lifting in terms of opening up my detoxification pathways. Things were flowing nicely through my liver and I imagine the level of toxins mobilised from fat stores was much lower this week compared to previous weeks.
During week 3 I used ~3 tablespoons of hemp seeds (AKA hemp hearts) for the protein source to go on my lunchtime salad. These went down SO WELL with my system. After checking with some fellow experienced detox-ers, it was agreed that hemp seeds are perhaps the best option for vegan protein during a detox, as they seem least reactive in the digestive tract, seldom causing the bloating and gut irritability I experienced with my beans in the first couple of weeks, even with repeated use.
Again I aimed to get plenty of walking outdoors and sunshine each day, aiming for 10K steps and squeezing in my workouts on the non-fasted days. This is something I do in regular weeks as well, so I felt it was important to keep up the routine during the course of my detox.
During this week, I really started to notice big changes in my body. My clothes felt loser, bloating was non-existent and my skin was so much clearer. Not just on my face, but the back of my upper arms and back of my thighs as well. Though I’m not a particularly big person, I do sport a bit of cellulite on different parts of my body. I noticed that after almost 3 weeks on the detox, the definition in the cellulite on my upper legs was visibly less, confirmed when I looked at my before and after photos. Quite impressive for such a short period of time. Better than all of these more visual changes, my energy levels were higher and I was sleeping much deeper (judging my better energy I had upon waking from the same number of hours of sleep).
After a detox, one of the most important steps is slowly reincorporating certain food groups to test reactivity given the system is so clean at this point. The idea is to start with one thing, i.e. gluten, and wait for 3 days to see if there are any reactions. Next dairy, again waiting 3 days to see if there is any inflammation which arises in the form of bloating or discomfort. If there is a reaction, the best choice for you is likely excluding this food for a longer period of time.
Some of the things you experience on a detox might give you clues on where you need to pay more attention to your diet and lifestyle in order to feel a greater sense of vitality in everyday life.
The biggest learning for me is realising how sensitive I am to legumes and pulses. This is something I need to explore. Some further strengthening of my gut bacteria is required and I continue to explore ways to do this effectively. For right now though, it’s about finding a balance between enjoying life and making the right choices according to what my body thrives on. It’s important to know this changes over time, so being in touch with our own bodies and not subscribing to the dogma or the weight loss and health food industries is important. Learning to trust your body and the signals it gives you is a process, and doing a detox is a great place to start for many people. “Health” is something that is unique to you. There is no standard definition.
For me, it looks like this:
Eating mainly real whole foods, mostly plants (7-9 serves daily as a target)
Choosing the best quality animal proteins I can afford, including consideration of their source and the quality of the animal’s life
Avoiding processed foods
Being mindful with “sometimes foods” such as alcohol, dairy and gluten... Which my system can tolerate, but not every day
Being conscious around emotional eating. Sometimes I need to ask ‘...am I eating to feed my emotions or to nourish my body?’ This is not uncommon from what I have seen in my clients
Drinking 2-2.5 litres of water daily
Moving my body in a way that feels good for me
Wrapping it up
My detox experience was incredibly valuable and left me feeling stronger, lighter, fitter, energised and more conscious of my body’s signals. It was like hitting the “reset” button on my system. It taught me to pay closer attention to what is going on and work on my relationship with food. I look forward to learning more down the track and possibly exploring some lab testing to get to the bottom of my own food sensitivities so that I can adjust my lifestyle accordingly. Because for me, feeling “just” okay is not an option. I want to feel energised and vital every single day and I want to train my body to tolerate and easily digest and process a wide range of foods. This doesn’t mean that I want to make less optimal or healthful choices. Moreso, food freedom and having the option to be flexible in my choices is something that I really value personally and want to offer my clients as well. But first - I need to understand my current condition and optimise from there. That’s what we all need to do, depending on our personal goals.
This process is very individual, and it can very much help to have the guidance of a suitably qualified health coach as you explore your own body and optimal lifestyle choices.
Detoxing is not for everyone. And I do not recommend doing it in the absence of proper guidance, especially if you are looking for specific results or if you are managing a health concern. A functional medicine detox must be adapted to suit the individual. This article is not intended to form health or medical advice, but to invite you to explore your own body and what you might be able to do in order to feel your best. Sometimes the smallest diet and lifestyle tweaks can have the most profound effects on our overall enjoyment of life.
If you want to learn more about the Dr Cabral Detox, you can take this free short course to dive deeper into the topic and understand more of the science behind why detoxing is so great for your body.
There is so much to learn that I have not shared in this already lengthy article. I invite you to dive in and take charge of your health today! If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you and help you on your path to optimal health. I try to do all the groundwork for you as much as possible, so that I can hand over only tried and true methods to get you there faster.
I hope sharing my experience has helped you to understand more about the possibilities for your own lifestyle and to become the steward of your own health and wellness journey.
Note: this article contains affiliate links to products and courses. I may receive a small commission in the event you decide to make a purchase. This helps me to keep learning and sharing this information freely to help people realise their health goals in an accessible way. This is not intended to be health or medical advice. Always consult a suitably qualified professional before making any significant dietary or lifestyle changes.