'Detox'- An exploration of what this really means and if the current use of the word is healthy in today's society

March 28, 2019

Detoxing has become a popular phrase in the 'wellbeing' industry during recent years. Many of us have jumped at the chance to change our bodies and minds through quick fix investments, but do they really work and how healthy are they? This is not a scientific research paper where I look in to every detox method and how it effects the body, if you would like this information it is out there and I would recommend researching thoroughly before trying something new. However I'm writing this piece as part of the discussion about if the idea of a detox is a healthy one and if we should be buying in to. 

 

The detox industry is absolutely huge and has experienced accelerated economic growth in the last 5 years. Every big wellness company is jumping on the band-wagon to provide the next quick fix detox pill but how can consumers know what to trust or if to trust any when there is so many options and each is economically benefiting a huge company? When money is at the heart of something we must be very cautious of course, but where did this idea of detox first originate and is the idea itself healthy?

The idea of detoxing or 'panchakarma' is a 5000 year old practise from Ayurvedic medicine, there are also other ancient medical systems that use similar techniques and procedures. The idea is that undigested food builds up in our tissues and channels in the form of 'ama' or toxins and treatments aim to liquify and remove these build ups. In order to prevent further build up the digestive fire is then balanced so when the patient eats the correct food for their dosha/constitution it will be properly digested and will therefore be able to effectively nourish the body. 

 

Moving on to more recent times, in much of the world the term was coined to describe the process someone goes through when giving up drugs or alcohol. This is because after the body has been suffering from an addiction, where essentially poisonous substances are being consumed very regularly, it is not healthy or adviced to just cut them out all in one go as the body has developed a level of dependency on them. 'Detox' in this sense is therefore used for the slow coming off process. 

 

Both the Ayurvedic use and the Addictive substance use seam to suggest the term 'detox' to describe a natural bodily process in which negative symptoms are eventually alleviated and the individual may flourish again with a body and mind that is now in a better place. In Ayurvedic terms it is literally used to describe the taking away of illness and we could easily parallel this to alcoholism and drug misuse too as under these influences the body is in poor health and in need of recovery. 

 

Somewhere between then and now the detox industry became an industry and completely flipped the meaning on its head. What was once a process used to help remove and alleviate suffering has now become, in many instances,  a daily, weekly or monthly regime where after eating whatever we fancy for a while we think its necessary to starve ourselves or drink only juice/bone broth/vinegar for a week. In this short splurge of 'health' our bodies are expected to expel any bad things and completely reset. 

 

I would like to make one thing clear here; I am in no way in the belief that all methods of doing something can be put in the same box and of course some of these things may work to some extent with certain people. In Ayurveda this makes sense and follows the strict 'one pill does definitely not suit everyone' rule, with our unique elemental constitutions it is more than likely that one person will feel great and full of energy on a 100% green vegetable diet while another's skin will dry up as they suffer from anxiety and insomnia. But this is exactly why it is so dangerous to promote a general rule to a nation of people that have never been allowed to get to know themselves. It will certainly not be appropriate for everyone. 

 

Furthermore whether one or another 'detox' trends work for you or not we surely need to start asking ourselves how we got to the point where we feel like this extreme approach is necessary. I believe this comes from a much deeper societal mindset. One in which we have been stuck for generations. 'I deserve (or don't deserve) a treat and a treat is an item or experience I SHOULD'NT really be having'. This is our mantra. The amount of times I here the words 'should' and 'shouldn't' when I'm with clients is incredible. 'I should drink more water', 'I know I shouldn't have had that cake but I  was having a bad day', 'I should have smaller portions', 'I know I should really quit coffee'.

 

Should and shouldn't are commands maybe even intentions, but what they are not is actions. They never will be actions by the very nature of the words. And if we do succeed in the intention we set, we simply set another one that we can feel guilty about not achieving yet and the cycle continues. Like many things in life this can become a hard to break habit and this habit is fed by the normalisation and expectations around not being ok with ourselves. In other words we are expected to be self deprecating it's part of the learnt social structure in which we live.

 

It also feeds the commercial world as companies use these feelings of inadequacy to push product sales, often inventing new problems with our bodies or minds that we become convinced we should be worrying about in addition to everything else (the thigh gap, the T-zone, pores, abbs, hair texture these were all created) . This happens in the media world too. Newspapers and magazines want to sell and so headlines must be personal, gripping and play along with trends. For many years this has meant headlines about the latest fad diet because, due to the guilt that we all feel and think we should feel, we are likely to buy things that tell us how to be better, and so by using this strategy, money is made.  

 

The word 'treat' feeds in to this too because there is an automatic assumption that we must deserve this item in order to have it and therefore we will feel guilty if we have not done something deserving of it. Treating food items in this way is a risky business for one main reason: we start seeing food as a route to happiness and we expect it to satisfy us in ways it never could, we expect it to almost re-place other forms of satisfaction that might be a lot healthier and easier to achieve. When we get in to this thought pattern it is little wonder that we talk about food in this way and have such a complex relationship with it. It's like if we expected our partner to be everything we needed and to never need any other person for happiness. That's putting a great deal of pressure on them and it's just inviting failure and inadequacy because it's simply not possible for one thing or person to forfil our every desire. It also means we forget what else there is and can get obsessive thoughts triggered by the bubble effect of this kind of existence. 

 

So going back to this idea of 'detox' how is this all linked? Well food is not always the answer. When we start these detox plans what else is going on? What are we desiring and craving? What do we really need? More often than not there is an emotional factor that is not being addressed. Sometimes these emotional factors started off with the feeling of guilt which was created by outside influence and advertising (the vicious cycle). We might think that by 'clearing out our body' our mind will become clear too but all we are really doing is supporting and encouraging this negative cycle.

 

The other important thing to think about is the short term thinking aspect of 'detoxing'. Again supported by how our society operates (everything is immediate and we flick quickly from one thing to the next -think social media, email, online shopping, tv etc...) without basic mindfulness we can completely dis-associate with how we are actually feeling in the present moment and so we don't take time to listen too and care for ourselves both emotionally and physically. Meanwhile we take in negative messages and lack motivation and satisfaction in our everyday lives.

 

Eventually we get some kind of message from our brain (that probably came a lot earlier but we were unaware of it and so therefore it has now grown to a much bigger issue) and we have a break down where these feelings of self hate and guilt corner us aggressively. Where do we go from here? We stopped listening to our real needs a long time ago so we listen to what the media tells us to do. A good short term fix, detox plans, we are used to this way of doing things so this is where we go for a solution. 

 

Ok so this all sounds very negative and this is sadly the reality a lot of us live in but it doesn't mean we have to swim along. It's not going to be easy and we will need to support each other at every turn in the river but I completely believe that there is another way and we can do things. With all of our different constitutions we cannot expect to just sit in the same boat and ride to freedom but we can still do this together. First and foremost it's important we be gentle and kind to ourselves and understand that it is not going to be easy. Next we must not take our differences for granted but see each person as an individual, with a unique set of needs but a similar goal in mind. We may all need completely different vehicles and resources to get there.

 

Next let's move towards the route of 'detoxing' for positive change. How do we do this? Now we have reflected on the damaging outside influences and the pressure put on us everyday we can start to separate that from how we actually feel in the moment. To do this it might first be necessary to try and cut some contributing factors out of our lives all together and introduce some new practises to support this process. Here are some suggestions, I'm sure you will be able to determine yourself which of these may work for you or think of your own that have worked for you before.

 

 

1. Cut out some or all forms of social media, these not only can take up hours of our time and brain power as we scroll through others posts at any spare moment, but it also only shows us people at their best. These channels will never show your friends lying on the sofa feeling guilty all day, or the panic attack they had in the supermarket when trying to choose a meal. If we are only ever seeing positive images of seemingly perfect lives we are bound to internalise this and feel like we are the only one suffering and so the cycle of guilt continues. 

 

2. Watch what you watch! Mainstream media, magazines and their websites. Be careful with what you consume, like a food item will effect our body, images and stories that we read each day effect our mind and can create false assumptions, perceptions and expectations that are not in line with reality, often promoting unhealthy values and feelings about ourselves and others. Take a look around and start to be critical of what you surround yourself with. Is it truly bringing out the best of you, is it you at all?

 

3. The same goes for negative people in our lives, this is often the hardest thing to contemplate as in times of vulnerability we can get attached so easily due to our deep need for human connection. Unfortunately this trust is often mistreated and whether intentionally or not a person in your life may be gently or forcefully dragging you drown, putting limits on you, using you as a tool to strengthen themself, taking you for granted or putting pressure on you to fit in to a certain box. I'm in no way saying that we cannot work on and improve relationships and that this should not be a part of our development, but just to be aware of who is around us and what impact they are having. Perhaps for some a clean break is the best option, whereas for others it may be possible to keep them a little further away than we have been. 

 

4. Introduce mindfulness practises. If this is completely new to you, you can go on courses or join meditation groups to learn more about it, there are even a lot of great youtube videos out there with guided meditations to help you get started. Mindfulness is something that can help us through our everyday lives and finding time to introduce this can be part of the process of listening too and caring for yourself. It might be that you find a moment over a cup of tea where you can just quietly observe what's happening in your mind, non judgmentally letting thoughts pass in and out with the breath. It might be a useful tool in a difficult moment, one that would usually cause you anxiety. Perhaps taking some deep breaths when choosing food in a supermarket or re-finding the present moment when worrying about work at home. This is not easy so some guidance and support is recommended. 

 

Regular mindfulness practices helps us tune in with our bodies real needs. Instead of looking for external sources to tell us what to eat and do we can start properly asking ourselves and feeling what our body wants in the moment. Am I hungry am I not hungry? Do I really want this salad or would I rather something warm. Do I actually want to go for a run? Is my body asking to stretch or to sleep? Re-connecting with our bodies can be an incredibly powerful experience. 

 

5. Get regular good sleep and see rest as a productive activity. So many of us fill with guilt at the mere thought of taking an afternoon off, or binging on a netflix series. When we feel tired and unable to work or do other activities that we have placed value on, we tend to hate ourselves for not coping and for not achieving what we expect to be capable of. Again this can come from comparing ourselves to others fake, publicised lives rather than understanding that every person needs rest and those people we admire rest too and probably feel crap about it just like you. We also have a tendency to compare ourselves to past versions of us, in these instances we must remember that although we remember being in that place before: 1. we are probably glossing over the bad bits and 2. we change and move all the time like a river, to stay static is to not experience life, i'm sure that change has brought many wonderful things before too. 

 

We are human animals and we need rest to function and to reflect on our high energy hours. Sleep does this beautifully and without it our brains cannot understand our experiences, this leads to blockages, confusion, memory loss and headaches. Our cells needs to repair and rejuvenate and sleep and rest allows this. Damage we have done by being awake, thinking and doing will cause further and more serious damage if our body cannot take time to repair itself. Our bodies are amazing at this by the way, we just need to get out of our own way.

 

If we sit in the moment and let the guilt pass we will know if we are really able to work some more or if it is in fact time for a break. The majority of the time, if we find ourselves lying on the sofa it's because we really need to. The best thing we can do is to let it happen and think of it as a necessary part of the day. If we start to see rest in a positive light we can rest properly instead of spending all that mental energy on feeling guilty about it. Getting in to a good bed time routine will help with tiredness too, our bodies tend to like routine sleep and this way we can make sure we are getting all the hours we need too. 

 

 

Want more support? I would always recommend introducing yourself to the wonderful and incredibly personalised approach that is Ayurvedic medicine. Having a consultation will assist in the process of fully getting to know yourself as the beautiful individual that you are. It will help you understand immediate and long term effects of lifestyle behaviours and the best ways to  support your long term health. If you have any current imbalances/illnesses it will help you to clear them and find balance once more. Contact the page for more details and don't hesitate to leave comments or questions. 

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