The new year is off and running. Many – perhaps most of us – are now seriously planning to make amends for our holiday excesses. A significant number plan on doing a fast or a detox to get back in balance. I always silently groan when friends announce that they are going on a full blown fast. I cringe when I hear that they are planning on eliminating toxins by cutting calories, taking a variety of herbal capsules and drinking pre-made shakes or juices that easily will wreak havoc on their intestinal flora and burden their liver with lots of fructose and, depending on the juice, some arsenic.
Historically, most cultures favored occasional fasting. Lent is one example. Likely these fasts were beneficial, providing a reprieve for the body from a diet that placed many demands on the body. Unfortunately (at least in some respects), we live in a very different world than our ancestors did. Each of us is walking around with a substantial load of persistent environmental toxins, DDT, DDE, PCBs, PBDEs, and dioxins, to name just a few. These toxins are called persistent because the body’s detoxification systems cannot efficiently excrete these compounds once absorbed. Instead, these toxins eventually end up tucked away in our fat cells but we all have some floating around in our blood stream at all times because they are periodically released, recirculate, and end up put back in our fat cells. Plus we keep absorbing new ones. But, for the most part these chemicals are kept in a place where they do us the least harm. That is, they stay put in our fat cell until we begin releasing fat.
If we go on a calorie-restricted diet, a fast, a juice or smoothie fast, or a stringent detox regimen, we release fat to burn for energy. In the process, we increase our circulating levels of toxins and re-expose our bodies to chemicals that can disrupt our hormone systems (such as the thyroid system) and can suppress our immune system. These toxins may cause or promote cancer. For instance, sea lions have high levels of PCBs. Studies show the more PCBs present, the more likely the sea lion will develop aggressive bladder cancer. The PCBs do not directly trigger cancer. Instead, it appears that the PCBs suppress the sea lion’s immune system making it more susceptible to the cancer. These toxins do much of their damage by increasing our oxidative stress load, by generating free radicals.
So here you are: Trim and slim but wanting to “recover” from your inflammatory holiday food and drink. (By the way, environmental toxins increasingly accumulate as we age, whether trim or fat we all have our fair share.) You decide a fast is the way to rid yourself of all the “bad” things you have accumulated. As you fast, you break down the fats in your fat cells. In the process, you raise your circulating toxin load but you are not providing your body with the antioxidants or other nutrients needed to prevent free radical damage. Simply put: A fast in today’s world burdens the body and the liver. Moreover, your fast in no way makes your body better able to excrete those toxins. You simply increase their ability to do damage.
Nor are the cleanses and detoxifications sold at the health food store or online likely to help rid your body of these persistent toxins. Again, none of us (whether fish, grizzly bear, cow, or human) can efficiently detoxify these chemicals. Once in your body, these guys will remain no matter how often you fast, how much fiber you eat, or how many laxatives you take. The only thing that may – emphasis on may – help reduce this toxin load is a fat loading approach. One study looked at an Ayurvedic regimen where for a week a group of patients ate increasing amounts of clarified butter each morning while on a diet that excluded other fats, oils, meat, or cheese. On the last day of the butter phase, participants were “purged” using castor oil and triphala (an herbal preparation) before being sent home to rest for a week. In phase 2, each patient was given individualized treatments that included herbal oil massages, steam baths, nasal administration of herbal oils, and “other” unidentified treatments for a week. Each session ended with an herbal oil enema. Once back home, they were urged to self-administer a sesame oil massage before a daily bath.
Blood levels of PCB and Beta-HCH (hexachlorobenzene) of those treated dropped significantly compared to controls. There were differences in the make up of the two groups that may in part explain these differences but the big unanswered question remaining was whether the blood levels dropped because the toxins were excreted or whether they dropped because the regimen moved them more efficiently into the fat cells. The authors thought that it was unlikely that the treatment simply sped up storage, I am not so sure. I doubt that butter, itself a carrier of persistent toxins, improved the detoxification of these complicated chemicals. It seems very likely that the fat load sped up fat storage instead.
Ultimately, I think we need to take seriously our body burden of persistent toxins, such as PCBs, DDT, DDE, beta-HCH. Our toxin levels are high and may actually be increasing despite bans on many of these chemicals. Rather than fasting and cleansing, we need to simply work on eating to support our bodies. We need to eliminate sugars, chemicals, alcohol, animal products, and food triggers as often as possible and really load up on plant nutrients by eating dark leafy greens, vegetables, and other plant foods. We should avoid dramatic reductions in calories. And more than anything, I think we need to give up our belief that we without worry can eat toxin-laden foods when we feel like it in the belief that we later can “fix” any damage done by enduring a ritualistic fast or cleanse. In today’s world, the belief that colonics and a juice fast are going to get rid of our toxins is way too simplistic. Instead, we need to take to heart the importance of helping our bodies cope with the modern era by eating well.
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