Are you feeling heavy, lethargic or sluggish? These feelings of being congested or ‘bogged down’ may indicate that you could benefit from a detox.

Why detox?

Modern life exposes us to a vast number of toxic compounds on a daily basis – they’re not only in our food and drink and the air around us, but can also be produced as natural by-products of our own bodily processes.

Luckily, we also possess several sophisticated methods for detoxifying harmful compounds so that they can be safely eliminated from the body, chiefly via the urine and faeces.

However, those detoxification mechanisms can easily become overloaded, preventing wastes from being metabolised and eliminated effectively. This can result in them being stored in your body, where they may contribute to a wide range of health issues, including mental and physical fatigue, skin problems, fluid retention and digestive issues.

If you’re generally healthy, undergoing a detox may help you to eliminate wastes from your body and manage issues such as fluid retention, mucous congestion, constipation, sluggish digestive function and dysbiosis (imbalance of the intestinal bacteria).

It may also aid the management of mild infections, including boils, fungal infections, tonsillitis and recurrent upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, flu and sinusitis.

When should you detox?

Detoxification needs to be managed carefully under some circumstances, and isn’t appropriate for babies, children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, elderly people, or those taking certain prescribed medicines.

In addition, if you’re suffering from a serious or chronic disease or have a history of substance abuse or exposure to environmental toxins (such as pesticides, lead-based paint or industrial chemicals), you should only detox under the supervision and care of your healthcare professional.

For everyone else, it’s best to start your detox at a time when you can relax and take things easy, rather than when you’re under pressure or needing to perform at your peak.

What does a detox involve?

A detox period of a few weeks in which you eat a squeaky clean diet (and therefore minimise the number of toxins you consume) and stick to a healthy lifestyle gives your body the chance to clear out the accumulated backlog of unmetabolised toxins, often leaving you feeling fresher, lighter and healthier.

For most healthy people, an optimal detox program should include regular, light, healthy meals along with plenty of fluids, plus abstinence from any substance that adds to the body’s metabolic burden. (Any program that advocates fasting or the severe restriction of food intake should be treated with caution, and attempted only under the management of your healthcare professional).

In many natural therapy traditions, these dietary changes are enhanced by the concurrent use of herbal medicines that support the body’s detoxification pathways and the waste removal functions of the liver, bowel, kidneys, and skin.

Detoxing with traditional Chinese medicine

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the symptoms that prompt us to consider detoxing often indicate excessive Dampness in the body, which tends to make us feel mentally and physically congested, heavy, stagnant and slow, and/or stagnation of the Liver Qi (life force energy), which tends to make us feel tired, tense and frustrated.

These energetic imbalances are often the result of eating too much (especially over-indulging in fatty or greasy foods) or not getting enough exercise.

Dampness makes you feel slow and heavy

In a physical sense, excess Dampness can manifest as fluid retention, weight gain, musculoskeletal stiffness, joint pain and discharging skin conditions that are slow to heal. Dampness has a natural tendency to sink downwards, so these symptoms often affect the legs, ankles and feet, and may be accompanied by feelings of heaviness in the legs.

The digestive functions are also extremely susceptible to excess Dampness, which can impede the flow of Qi around the body. In particular, Damp can disrupt the efficient flow of Qi in the Spleen organ-meridian system (which is regarded as playing a key role in digestion), resulting in symptoms such as indigestion, nausea, loose bowel movements and bloating.

From a mental and emotional perspective, when you’re affected by Dampness, you may experience a general sense of apathy (i.e. that you can’t be bothered making an effort to do things) and/or that your thought processes aren’t as sharp as usual.

Stagnant Liver Qi makes you tired and tense

In TCM, the Liver organ-meridian is considered responsible not only for purifying and detoxifying the Blood, but also for storing it and releasing it to other parts of the body when it’s required.

Congestion or stagnation of the Liver Qi causes the Liver’s detoxifying functions to be compromised, and the accumulated toxins in the Blood may lead to skin problems or exacerbate existing issues such as arthritis.

At the same time, stagnant Liver Qi may impede smooth flow of Blood to other parts of the body, and may result in musculoskeletal aches and stiffness, menstrual problems, digestive issues and fatigue. In particular, if your Liver Qi is stagnant, you may experience tension in your back and neck and find it difficult to find the energy to get going in the morning.

In the same way, stagnant Liver Qi can also disrupt the smooth flow of your emotions and thought processes, which may manifest as tension, impatience, frustration, a bad temper and a negative outlook. You might also find yourself having difficulty making good decisions.

Herbal medicines to support your detox

Chinese herbs to drain Dampness and cool the Liver

In TCM, detoxifying herbs that have traditionally been used to address Damp conditions are also often viewed as having cooling effects that help counteract the excessive Heat that can accumulate when Liver Qi is stagnant. Examples include Chinese Dandelion, Barberry, Rhubarb and Phellodendron.

Herbs to address stagnant Liver Qi and support detoxification

Chinese herbs traditionally used to disperse congested Liver Qi include Bupleurum and Chen Pi. They are often taken with herbs that promote detoxification and the elimination of wastes, such as Goji Berries, Rehmannia and Baical Skullcap.

The Western herb Milk Thistle (St Mary's Thistle) may provide additional benefits by supporting the healthy structure and function of the liver cells and exerting antioxidant effects on the liver.

Diet and lifestyle recommendations for detoxification

  • If you’re generally healthy but feeling sluggish and congested, detoxing your diet and lifestyle for a few weeks can be a great way to put the spring back in your step and encourage yourself to adopt healthier habits going forward
  • During your detox, avoid caffeine, alcohol and soft drinks, and instead drink abundant quantities of water, and fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Green tea is a great option too as it’s traditionally believed to help relieve Dampness by promoting urination (but make sure to choose one that contains little or no caffeine)
  • If you normally drink a lot of tea, coffee or other caffeine-containing beverages (including cola, guarana and yerba maté), minimise your caffeine withdrawal symptoms by cutting back gradually in the lead-up to your detox
  • Avoid anything that is packaged, deep-fried, fatty or greasy, and steer clear of refined carbohydrates like bread, biscuits, cakes and pasta
  • Eat a light, wholefood diet, favouring fruit and vegetables (preferably organic), lean sources of high quality protein in moderate quantities, and small servings of nuts, seeds and their oils
  • In TCM, foods that are regarded as having detoxifying properties and helping to reduce Dampness include parsley, watercress, seaweed, celery, asparagus, radishes, daikon and bitter varieties of lettuce, such as radicchio
  • Cooling foods such as cucumber and watermelon may also be beneficial as they help to offset the Heat that can accumulate when excess Dampness is present
  • To stimulate the Liver, try to include small quantities of sour flavoured foods in your detox diet – lemons, limes, grapefruit and vinegar are ideal
  • On the other hand, during your detox, try to avoid garlic (which is regarded as having heating effects on the Liver) and peanuts, which are believed to aggravate Dampness
  • In Chinese medicine, repressed emotions are believed to contribute to Liver Qi stagnation, so while you’re clearing out physical toxins and wastes, find a healthy outlet for your emotional baggage too, working with a counsellor if necessary
  • Consider detoxing your home at the same time you detox your body and mind by switching to naturally-based cleaning products – they’re better for you and better for the environment too