If you’ve spent any time in the functional medicine world or following a health influencer on Instagram, you’ve probably heard the benefits of detox.
In today’s toxic environment, our bodies get hit from all angles, from pesticides on the food we eat to chemicals in everyday products. The abundance of toxins and other stressors can inhibit our body’s natural functions.
Unfortunately, we cannot always control our environment. But we can limit toxin intake, or lessen the toxic burden when we get exposed. This is where detox comes into play.
Everyone's body responds differently when detoxing. Depending on where you are in your health journey, you may experience improvement right away, or feel that these improvements are taking some time.
You may even feel worse at certain points in the process. This is normal. More often than not, reactions are unavoidable. Even when you prepare to help your body, you can’t always prevent reactions.
Let’s dive into detox: its positives, herx reactions, herxing compared to die-off and retracing, and additional ways to support your body during this time.
Positives of Detoxing
Why would you detox in the first place? And what is considered “detoxing?”
In mainstream media, “detox” often references special diets, such as removing sugars from your daily intake. When limited to this, detox often gets a bad rep. Some claim it does more harm than good, especially for people with certain conditions.
But at its root, detox aims to rid the body of toxins and seek a lifestyle free of harmful substances. Diet is one avenue, but not the only one. (1)
You can detox unhealthy habits, lifestyle factors, or emotions. You can detox with the help of nature, with binders and herbs. There are many different ways to detox and cleanse the body.
So, why would you try detoxing? Here are some of its major benefits.
Your gut microbiome is at the center of your body, and the heart of your health. Your digestive system contains millions of neurons that facilitate numerous critical functions. For example, blood flow, immune activity, and nutrient absorption are all connected to the gut. (2)
One of the main benefits of detox is cleaning the gut and supporting digestive organs. Your liver, kidneys, gallbladder, and colon are all hard at work filtering toxins from your body and keeping your digestion on track. But toxins can clog your drainage pathways and interfere with their day-to-day functions. (3, 4)
In cases of common digestive conditions or gut imbalances, the same type of culprits are to blame. Chemicals or pathogens like parasites can wreak havoc on your digestive system. That’s where detox comes in to clear out these pesky obstacles and give the gut a much-needed break. (5, 6, 7)
A number of chemicals and pathogens can interfere with mitochondria. For example, pesticides are known to cause cellular damage, especially to mitochondria. Detox can support mitochondria and energy production in the body by targeting these harmful substances and eliminating them. Sometimes, when you’re lacking energy, it’s a sign to start detoxing. (1, 9, 10, 11)
We’ve already covered how detox can support the digestive system. Intrinsically connected to the gut is immune health. 70%-80% of your immune cells reside in the gut. In short, when your gut is out of balance, your immune system suffers. (12, 13, 14)
The other major benefit — to the mitochondria — also indirectly affects immunity. Did you know that when not producing energy, mitochondria play a secondary role of immune defense? It’s a little-known role that is only just being studied. (15, 16, 17)
Detox supports both the gut and mitochondria by clearing away sources of dysfunction. But beyond even this, detox boosts immunity in general by helping remove potential invaders and threats. Certain natural ingredients scare away and kill off pathogens.
It’s easy for the immune system to get overwhelmed by all the different toxins and substances bombarding our bodies on a daily basis. Looking for natural immune-supportive sources, as well as ways to remove specific obstacles, can have a big effect on immune health.
Weight loss is often the reason people turn to detox, or more specifically, detox diets. Although detoxing often results in weight loss, that’s not typically the main goal.
Can you lose weight during detox? Absolutely! Is it a certainty? Not at all.
The difference detox makes for weight loss is through improving gut health. Researchers have found that the wrong bacteria in the microbiome can increase cravings and result in weight gain. Correcting this imbalance may lessen cravings and appetite. (18, 19)
In a related study, researchers from the University of Iowa gave mice a drug with the known side effect of weight gain. The mice’s microbe composition altered, which slowed down their metabolism. (20)
Detox may not trigger weight loss directly, but indirectly by supporting the gut microbiome and healthy gut bacteria. Clean eating and certain detox diets will lead to weight loss more directly because they often involve limiting processed foods and added sugars. A combination of clean eating and detox works well if weight loss is a goal.
What to Know Before Detoxing
Start with drainage
The most important step before starting a detox regimen is to open your drainage pathways. This might be a new concept to you, but these pathways are basically how your body removes gunk and toxins. Examples of these pathways include the skin, your liver and bile ducts, and the colon.
How do you know if your drainage pathways are open and free-flowing? Here are a few positive indicators:
You have two to three bowel movements per day
You sweat when you exercise or are in a sauna
You don’t currently have symptoms of poor drainage, like constipation, lymph buildup, rashes, etc.
What should you do if you suspect your drainage pathways are blocked? These all can help open your pathways:
You might wonder, is this really necessary before I start my detox? Skipping this step, or pushing forward before your body is ready, can make your detox process difficult and counterproductive. If you try to remove toxins faster than your body can release them, you just end up reabsorbing them.
Much of the time, unwanted detoxing reactions or symptoms connect back to poor drainage. Your detox process will be much more effective, enjoyable, and safe if you do your body a favor and begin with drainage.
When you start something new, it can be easy for your body to feel overwhelmed. A change in daily habits or diet — even when positive — may take a little while to get accustomed to. This is why it’s critical to give your body time to adjust to any changes. It may be cliche, but slow and steady does win the race in this case.
Incorporating detox slowly into your daily life will help ensure your drainage pathways can keep up, as well as lessen any potential reactions or sensitivities.
Also important, small incremental steps will make you more likely to stick with your new regimen. Most of us have set goals or tried new things only to give them up a few weeks later. A study by the University of Scranton on New Year resolutions found that only 8% of people actually meet their goals. (21)
A big reason for this is often that the goals and expectations are set too high, too quickly. It’s easy to abandon something if it’s too demanding or not reasonable. The same is especially true for health goals. You need to give yourself time and grace to adjust to the new process. (22)
Remember, it’s not a sprint. Each small step adds up and helps prepare your body for future adjustments. It’s good to plan ahead, but instead of comparing yourself to where you’re trying to be, look at how far you’ve come. Measure backward to see your progress — this will motivate you to keep moving forward and let your body heal at its own pace.
Pair detox with other lifestyle adjustments
Certain lifestyle adjustments and alternative health practices may help boost detox efforts, as well as lessen unwanted reactions. Here are ideas to pair with detox:
Acupuncture can be a complementary treatment to your routine. Acupuncture uses certain anatomical points in the body, following traditional Chinese medicine practices, to balance qi in the body. This process may help “unstuck” areas of imbalance in your body to support detox efforts, as well as potentially ease pain from symptoms. (23, 24)
Clean eating involves choosing foods that are minimally processed. This doesn’t mean you have to be overly restrictive. The whole idea of clean eating is to not feed the toxins or pathogens that have made a home in your body and to incorporate nutrition rich in phytochemicals. Overly sugary and processed foods hinder your immune system from doing its job. Furthermore, if you are hoping to remove parasites, healthier food choices not only starve the pathogens, but help the good microbes in the gut microbiome. (25, 26, 27)
Drinkingdistilled water is a safe and healthy option because there are many contaminants and chemicals in the water that can lead to serious health problems. Distilled waterhas been boiled into vapor and condensed back into a liquid. This condensed water is pure water because the process removes chemicals, pathogens, and toxins. Switching to distilled water by using a water distiller may help you break through health concerns during your detoxing journey. (28, 29, 30)
Infrared saunas, or even an infrared heating pad, can help your body eliminate toxins during detox. The heat can help you sweat out the toxins through your skin and dump it through your digestive tract to eliminate them faster. To maximize detox with sauna use, make sure to hydrate before and after your sauna session, because you will need to replenish what electrolytes and minerals you’ve lost. (31, 32)
Mindfulness provides the foundation to be truly present when going through this transformative time in your health. Certain mindfulness practices — such as meditation and affirmations — can improve not only your mental health, but your physical health as well. When going through detox, the key is to seek progress, not perfection. This is where mindfulness comes in. It’s easy to want to get well right away, and if it’s not going in the way you intended, the tendency is to stop. Mindfulness brings your attention to the moment at hand. You have to acknowledge and accept what is going on in that moment, even if it’s painful. In fact, mindfulness-based interventions, or MBIs, have helped some individuals manage chronic pain. (33, 34)
Journaling can support mindfulness during your detox journey because it requires you to reflect on moments throughout your day. Your journal can be a notebook and pen or an online entry. A study that looked at Positive Affect Journaling (PAJ) showed beneficial results among distressed patients with medical conditions. Furthermore, web-based PAJ may help decrease mental distress and increase well-being. (35)
Physical activity, without question, will kickstart healthy movement that is essential for your overall well-being. This doesn’t mean crazy hard exercises that leave you drained or too exhausted to function. It means using physical action to get your body, especially your lymphatic system, flowing rather than stagnating in a toxic standstill. Stretching, walking, or any kind of physical movement will help your drainage process for a more-successful detox. (36)
Yoga is a combination of mindfulness and physical activity that can give you a mind-body connection that will help you in your detox endeavors. Because of their emphasis on breath regulation, doing yoga asanas, or poses, will greatly improve the sympathetic nervous system. This helps reduce stress in the mind and in the body. (37, 38)
Listen to your body
Everyone’s body is unique. When it comes to detox, you have to take the time to understand how your body responds to what you are (or are not) offering it. Pay attention to the little “nudges” your body is giving you. Having this relationship with your body involves becoming an observer and listening to what your body is trying to tell you.
Sometimes, you might feel stuck. But detox isn’t a linear process. It has its ups and downs. Becoming in tune with how you are feeling is not just an emotional concept; it’s the basis of knowing what is best for you.
Although this introspection might not feel concrete, when it comes to your health goals, it’s all about feeling mindful at each part of the journey. Lifestyle adjustments can help you learn how to listen to your body’s needs and not to be critical of yourself.
This process may take some time. You know best if you need to push through or pull back. But the more you hone in on how you are feeling, the more effective your detox process will be.
What Is Herxing?
If you are starting a detox regimen for the first time, you likely will experience herxing, or herx symptoms. Herxing is the nickname for a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction, in which the body becomes overwhelmed by the effects of removing toxins. These symptoms can last from days to a few weeks when the body is detoxing too quickly or there isn’t enough drainage. (39)
If you’re reacting, it doesn’t mean you are getting worse. All of this is perfectly normal. It just means that the body cannot clear out what it is trying to process. Even though it might feel like you could cut the detoxing time if you increase the detox load, it’s best if you slow down because you may have dug deep and hit what is really holding you back from being healthy.
When you burn your hand on the stove, the body’s natural defense mechanisms cause you to feel pain. This lets your body know that the stove is hot and that you should stop touching it. Similarly, too many herx reactions can be your body’s sign to stop, slow down, or provide the support you need in certain areas of your body.
Although it can be a bit unpleasant, as long as you’re prepared and have the right tools, you’ll have a much easier time during the detoxing process. Rather than focusing on the end result, focus on why these symptoms are occurring and what they may be telling you when it comes to your health. (40)
What Are Herx Reactions?
If you are trying to detox parasites from your body, especially from the drainage organs, it may bring up emotions because of the parasites messing with the neurotransmitters in your brain. So, if you are feeling overly emotional and can’t pinpoint why, this could be a herx symptom. (41)
Also, you might experience some nausea due to your body finally getting the chance to eliminate the toxins that have been impeding your overall health. Sometimes during extreme detox, chemicals in your body cause nausea as you detox them.
You’ll have to figure out what works best to alleviate these withdrawal symptoms, such as taking a break to see what is causing the reactions. But just like everything else when it comes to detoxing, it’s temporary. It’s better to have temporary discomfort than a lifetime of pain.
These are the most common herx side effects once you start the detoxing process. Anytime your body is going through something that it is not used to, there may be these symptoms, regardless if it’s detoxing for heavy metals, mold, or even parasites: (42)
Remember that these reactions do not last very long, and it's all part of the natural healing process. Although you shouldn’t ignore them, there’s no need to be scared of them. The purpose, in the end, is for holistic healing, not just elimination of a few symptoms. So it may take time to achieve wellness, but it will be worth it in the end.
How Long Does Herxing Last?
How intense herx reactions are — and how long they last — depends on cellular energy. If your cells have high energy, they can meet the immune system's needs and manage pathogen infections and toxins with fewer herx symptoms. But lower cellular energy may result in reactions that are more frequent or more intense.
You can compare cellular energy to recovering from sore muscles. Some people can recover faster than others or not even notice any soreness. This all depends on the intensityof the workout, and whether their body has the rightessential nutrientsor not.
Likewise, the length of herxing depends on your unique body: the toxic load you're detoxing, the intensity and speed of the detox, and your body's cellular energy to manage this process.
You can increase your cells’ energy by supporting your mitochondria. The mitochondria are the energy source for the body, and without them working effectively, the cells won't have enough energy to perform their functions. (43)
Be patient with yourself during detoxing because your body may have to release a lot of stagnant energy that has been blocked. Remember to trust your body through this process.
So, if you are feeling intense reactions, know that your body is doing what it needs to do to clear blockages that have been built over time. In the end, this is all beneficial to getting to where you want to be in your health journey.
How Do You Manage Herxing Symptoms?
Although you probably want to try to avoid herxing altogether, that may not be possible. But if you're prepared for it, you’ll know how to approach what is needed for your body during this time.
In general, there are typically two choices to reduce herx symptoms:
Dialing the detoxification back and lowering efforts
Remember to incorporate certain lifestyle changes that can help you deal with the common mental and emotional blocks you may have because of these uncomfortable herx symptoms.
Herxing vs. Die-Off Reactions
Herx reactions are more generalized and can refer to more than just toxins being released. Die-off symptoms are also a part of herxing, but this only happens when detoxing pathogens, such as parasites. As they die, parasites release toxins, which can cause your body to experience uncomfortable symptoms.
If you are unsure whether you are experiencing herx or die-off reactions, you can lower the amount of pathogen-killing herbs you are taking while increasing binders to cover both potential areas. Binders can help remove toxins from the body as quickly as possible.
Also, if you experience herxing while detoxing, decrease binding and increase drainage. After doing all of this, once the herx symptoms subside, slowly increase your detox regimen back to the standard amount that you can tolerate.
Remember, parasites push out toxins during this process. You're not reacting to the detox, but to the critters you're detoxing. Even though they are putting up a fight in your body, in the end, you can support your body’s natural detoxification by letting it do what it does best — fight back.
Once you get through this stage of the detoxification process, you are on the home stretch. More often than not, the only way out is through. Once you have that philosophy in mind, you can handle whatever those nasty critters throw at you. (45)
What Is Retracing?
You may discover that old health issues or traumas rear their ugly heads as you slowly detox your body. When you are detoxing, as chronic conditions heal and your body works to balance itself, previous symptoms can reappear and rise to the surface. This reappearance is known as retracing.
Anytime you have an increase of old symptoms, or a “healing crisis,” maybe you are pushing too fast with the environmental stressors that surround you. If this is the case, you may need to slow down.
When outside stressors trigger the original symptoms, your body is working through the toxins and pathogens that were comfortable where they were. Now they are causing an issue when you are trying to pull them out through detox. Once your body has addressed the root cause of your issues through detox, these symptoms will resolve. (46, 47)
What Can Detoxing Do for Your Overall Health?
If you experience the uncomfortable effects of detoxing via herx reactions, there is no need to stress. In fact, embrace this part of the detoxing process because it means you are clearing out the toxins that are holding you back from living your fullest life.
As you open drainage and kill pathogens, you can release too many toxins at one time, so it may take you longer to detox than expected. However, know that you are not alone in this process. Although it can be intimidating at first, don’t think that you are failing because you don’t feel better right away.
Remember, your health journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Healing will take as long as it needs to for your individual body. If you're going through a full-body detox, be kind to yourself and support yourself through this journey so that you can bring your body back to health in the best way possible.
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