13 October 2023
My introduction to detox was fairly extreme - I had been in northern India for a while, studying yoga with one of Iyengar's teachers in the city of Rishikesh and had terrible, chronic diarrhea. It was clear that my taste for culinary adventure had gone horribly wrong.
Anyone who's travelled outside the so-called 'developed world' (or even their own country) will no doubt have experienced the distress of an upset stomach. Except this was no ordinary upset stomach; it turned out to be amoebic dysentery (I won't go into details) and having tried a long course of antibiotics and other tactics such as only eating white rice to no avail, it was time for a new approach; I'd lost a lot of weight - I was down to about 47kgs - and wasn't keeping any food inside me. An Ayurvedic doctor told me I needed to starve the bacteria and recommended a water fast.
It was, as I said, extreme. I embarked on a 7-day water fast, doing daily enemas whilst staying in a tiny Ashram and did nothing all day except very gentle yoga, reading, meditation and sleeping. I was incapable of moving further than from the bedroom to the bathroom. What can I say?! It worked - I killed that nasty bug but it was a hardcore approach and neither my boyfriend at the time, who was my guide and 'helper', or I had any real idea of what we were doing. I was also extremely weak when I started.
Afterwards though, as I regained my strength and started to put weight back on, I realised I felt some unexpected benefits from the experience - my mind was calm and my thoughts were, well, spacious and light. My flexibility had improved (I was doing a lot of yoga at the time), it was easy to sit quietly and do nothing except 'be', my digestion was amazing and I felt both happy and optimistic.
Thus began my now 20+ year journey of doing regular detoxing for both my mental and physical health. I've worked with some wonderful mentors over the years and learned a lot by working as a body therapist and yoga teacher for detox retreats in both India and Europe.
And I've come to the realisation that even though an 'extreme' detox such as water fast is incredibly efficient, it's definitely not something that can be done alongside our daily routines, responsibilities and work. A juice fast can also feel quite depleting and is far more beneficial if you have the time and funds to go somewhere on retreat and get away from everything. I needed to find a way of detoxing that would fit in with my life as a working mum (at that time, a single mum to boot) and would fit in and around my responsibilities.
I've tried many different versions of detox (including juicing and the mung bean detox) and my favourite is the one I now do myself twice a year (Spring and Autumn) - with no fasting or special equipment needed. There IS healthy food, plenty of water and gentle movement and short daily reminders and practices to go deeper into the process of supporting both my body AND my mind.
Here are my top 5 reasons why a gentle detox is SO benefical to both our physical and mental health.
1. Reduce your Toxic Load
A gentle detox focuses on reducing our exposure to the toxins found in processed foods, sugar (including alcohol), caffeine and environmental pollutants. When we adopt a cleaner, more natural diet, we help our body eliminate accumulated toxins, which positively impacts both physical and mental well-being, leading to increased energy levels and improved cognitive function. Say goodbye to brain fog and lack of focus!
2. Improve Digestive Health & the Microbiome
Instead of taking food away completely or relying on sugar-rich juices with no fibre, have a focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods and include plenty of fibre-rich options. This supports digestive health by promoting regular bowel movements and balancing our all-important microbiome.
Studies have shown associations between a more diverse and balanced microbiome and better mental well-being. Certain bacteria in the gut are involved in the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which plays a key role in mood regulation and lowering anxiety.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to mental health disorders such as depression
and anxiety. A balanced gut microbiome contributes to a well-regulated immune response and may help mitigate inflammation in the body and brain.
The gut communicates directly with the brain through the Vagus Nerve and this plays a crucial role in the regulation of stress responses and the release of stress hormones. When the gut is healthy, this can positively influence the body's response to stress, with subsequent improvements to mental calm and wellbeing.
High stress levels - being stuck 'on' and constantly in fight-flight mode - can even alter the composition of the microbiome, creating a complex interplay between stress, gut health, and mental well-being. So when we detox, we also build in practices to lower both mental and physical stress - e.g. gentle breath work, meditation or journalling so our Nervous System can return to the 'rest-digest-repair' para-sympathetic state.
3. Boost Nutrient Intake
A gentle detoxes encourages the consumption of a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich foods. This provides essential vitamins and minerals that support overall health, including brain health. Nutrient deficiencies have been associated with mental health issues, so ensuring an adequate intake can be beneficial for cognitive function and emotional well-being. Eliminating toxins and boosting digestive regularity and function, as well as lowering our stress response, are all crucial factors in boosting the capacity of our guts to actually absorb nutrients from our food.
4. Enhance Hydration
Proper hydration is essential for overall health, including mental well-being. Drinking plenty of water, herbal teas, and other hydrating fluids while avoiding sugary beverages and excessive caffeine is a key part of a gentle detox.
Dehydration can contribute to feelings of fatigue and irritability. Studies show that you only need to be 1% dehydrated to experience a 5% decrease in cognitive function. A 2% decrease in brain hydration can result in short term memory loss so maintaining adequate hydration is crucial for mental alertness and mood stability but if our guts are clogged up with old food matter and toxins, we don't absorb either nutrients or water optimally.
5. Encourage Positive, Affirming Lifestyle Habits
A gentle detox includes the introduction and practice of healthy habits. This might include less screen time and external stimulus, e.g. reading a book instead of scrolling through your phone! Getting enough sleep and improving sleep hygiene, introducing daily self-care such as breathing practices, movement or mindfulness. Or reaching for a herbal tea, a handful of nuts or a drop or two of peppermint oil to manage food cravings, rather than defaulting to a bar of chocolate or a pack of biscuits.
If you want to do a gentle detox in community, I offer a bi-annual week-long online program RESTORE, which is designed especially for women to bring vitality & balance to body, mind and hormones even when you can't take a week off from work, kids and life!
Find details of upcoming courses and get on the waiting list here.
Autumn dates - 4-10 November 2023
Fiona L Smith/ @fionabodywisdom