It’s the early days of 2016 and already headlines have been bombarding eagerly awaiting readers with calls to diet, cleanse and detox. Over a suddenly self-conscious breakfast of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast appears The Times Magazine’s headline, ‘The diet everyone’s talking about – Lose 7lbs in 7 days ‘. And online Fox News offers ‘4 easy ways to detox in 2016’, and the Sunday Express ‘10 of the best detox retreats for 2016’.
And yet it was a now infamous story in The Guardian at the turn of 2014–2015 that pooh-poohed detox as a concept for anything less serious than drug addiction, according to the expertise of several eminent doctors. “Detoxing – the idea that you can flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go – is a scam,” it read. “It’s a pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things…”
But just what is ‘detoxing’ these days? Perhaps the literal meaning, getting rid of toxins, is being taken a little too literally.
Theoretically, a detox should cleanse the body of harmful toxins, and may typically include fasting, specific food eliminations, juices and herbal teas, supplements, colonics and exercise, with zero tolerance for alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and sugar. The issue is that research hasn’t confirmed that it works, nor that it is necessary.
“Detoxing is a daily activity done every day when you breathe, exercise and go to the toilet,” says Miles Price, functional medicine practitioner and clinical nutritionist at LIFE Clinic, who also uses detoxes with clients living with cancer. “In today’s world, we may or may not be keeping up with the toxic burden. Undergoing a detox of some kind, which can be medically identified by some analysis, stool, blood or urine can be very useful.”
Based in Hong Kong, Price helps clients assess any chemical- and gut-based toxins and determine a regime (for example a skin cleanse via infrared saunas, liver, colon, kidney cleanses and specific detoxes for those diagnosed with cancer) to help the body heal in a safe way.
In my experience, it’s hard to dispute the before and after detox retreat comparison. After my first fast and liver cleanse in Koh Samui, Thailand in the late 1990s, I returned to reality with glowing skin and renewed energy, full of bright ideas and optimism. My latest was a no-gadgets-allowed silent meditation retreat in Sri Lanka, after which I felt my base stress levels were at an all-time low, my appreciation for the simple things at an all-time high and my digestion content from a week of two veggie meals a day. So perhaps a ‘detox’ can be as much about the mental, emotional and spiritual as physical.
At Kamalaya, Koh Samui, co-founder Karina Stewart points out detox treatments have long been around as part of the philosophies of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. And her modern-day understanding of a detox? “To take time to re-evaluate our habits. It often is extended from simply diet to lifestyle habits, including what we’re doing with our fitness, electronics and thought processes.”
Our lifestyle choices, especially but not only nutrition, can support or hinder our body’s functions. “We want to eliminate things that slow down the body’s ability to cleanse. In addition, nutrition has an impact not only on the physical body but also the emotions, as what we eat and drink affects our brain and our cognitive functions.”
Escaping the autopilot of our urban lifestyles of processed food, mental stress and lack of spiritual awareness can only be good. “There is a huge benefit in stepping back and re-evaluating what direction we are heading in,” says Stewart. “A detox puts you back in the driving seat in every way.”