Cleanse your food, exercise, stress, and relationships
It’s time for a life-balancing detox. Learn how to release anything in your day—food, stress, relationships, and more—that doesn’t serve you. Feel more energized. Feel stronger. Feel like your happiest, healthiest self.
Clean eating is all the rage, but our plate isn’t the only place that toxins lurk. Whether it’s remedying poor work-life balance or an unhealthy relationship, detoxing our entire life takes the concept of a cleanse to the next level.
When it comes to defining a “toxin,” scientists can’t quite agree. For some, it’s anything that harms us, such as synthetic chemicals in the environment or contaminants in our food. For others, “toxin” is synonymous with “waste product”—something our cells produce and get rid of all the time.
While our lungs, livers, and kidneys do an efficient job of removing toxins, we can assist this natural detox process. Cutting bad habits that introduce toxins into our lives reduces our body’s detox burden, and adding healthy habits strengthens key body systems.
But we also need to look beyond the purely physical. We encounter many emotional and mental toxins daily. Excessive stress—a common psychological toxin that affects more than one in four Canadian workers—contributes to heart disease, digestion problems, and more, and has implications for our well-being that can be just as serious as the effects of physical toxins.
As we rethink our food choices, it’s also the perfect opportunity to release any mental and emotional blocks that poison our inner potential.
Waste elimination and detoxing start not with what we eat, but how we eat. “Digestion begins in our mouths,” says Lindsey Mcilvena, MD, a preventive and integrative medicine specialist. “We secrete enzymes in our saliva designed to break down food before it gets to our stomach.”
To detox not just our food, but also our relationship to our food, Mcilvena recommends we eat more slowly and mindfully. “Really savour each bite—notice texture, flavours, and aromas,” she says. Also, avoid distracted eating, such as eating while watching television.
Potential benefits of mindful eating include better weight and blood sugar management.
A dietary cleanse is like a math equation: subtract toxin-laden or potentially problematic foods and add detoxifying foods. There are many changes we could make; here are two to help you take the first step in cleansing your meals.
The first ingredient, monosodium glutamate (MSG), is found in plenty of processed foods, including everything from many Asian foods to canned soup. Most of us eat more than half a gram of added MSG every day. Some people may have reactions to MSG that include nausea, headaches, numbness, flushing, and more.
“I encourage my patients to avoid MSG and its numerous cousins,” says Mcilvena. “In my practice, I have seen many people improve by eliminating these ingredients. This is just one more reason to eat mostly whole foods, in as close to their original state as possible.”
Ingredients such as torula yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and natural flavouring can contain glutamate, and people who are sensitive to MSG may want to be aware of these ingredients, too.
Another major culprit in our diets is so addictive, our brains can react to it like a drug. “One of our biggest overindulgences is added sugar,” says Isabel Maples, a registered dietitian. “Half our added sugar comes from our beverages: soft drinks, coffee drinks, sweetened teas, et cetera,” she warns.
The average Canadian eats 110 g of sugar daily—more than 21 percent of our daily calorie intake. Instead, we should limit sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of our daily calories. Excess sugar is toxic and has been linked to a higher risk of dying from heart disease, high levels of blood triglycerides, and even depression, causing some health care practitioners to call for a sugar detox.
"Herbal teas are a great way to flush toxins [and] improve digestion," says naturopath Jonathan Beatty. He suggests a few specific herbal remedies for our daily detox.
"I like using turmeric as a tea to help improve detoxification," says Beatty, because it increases the detox antioxidant glutathione.
"Nettle tea is a gentle diuretic to help improve the flushing of wastes through the kidneys," Beatty says.
Knowing what to add to our diet is as key as knowing what to eliminate.
“Eat foods high in sulphur,” advises Westin Childs, MD. “Sulphur is required to create glutathione. [This] is required to eliminate virtually every oxidant you come into contact with and helps in the detoxification process.” Kale, cabbage, and other cruciferous vegetables are naturally rich in sulphur.
Sauerkraut and other fermented foods are also a great addition, according to Mcilvena, since they improve digestion and speed up waste elimination. “Natural probiotics are wonderful for keeping our guts populated with the healthy bacteria we need to digest well,” she explains.
Most Canadians get 14 g of fibre a day, but we actually need up to 38 g daily. Fibre moves waste and toxins through our system more quickly, and it also improves bowel health and helps beneficial bacteria crowd out bad bacteria.
Boost fibre intake by eating more fruits and vegetables and choosing more whole grains over refined grains. In the refining process, whole grains lose approximately 75 percent of their fibre.
“There are a variety of supplements that can be taken to aid in detoxification and digestion,” says naturopath Jonathan Beatty. Some of Beatty’s favourite detox supplements are B-complex vitamins and chlorella, a type of algae. “B vitamins are required for many detoxification pathways,” says Beatty. Chlorella is a formidable antioxidant.
To strengthen the liver’s natural detox capability, Childs suggests milk thistle, glutathione, or N-acetylcysteine. “To eliminate waste from your body, your liver has to be in good working condition, [and] these supplements boost the liver’s ability to detoxify the blood,” he says.
Always consult your health care practitioner about which supplements are right for you.
“Exercise helps us drain our lymphatic system, which is essentially the body’s sewer system,” explains Beatty. He says that when we work out, the tensing and relaxing of our muscles pumps fluid through our lymphatic system, pushing toxins through and out of our system.
Over time, exercise can trim our waistline, and that trims toxins, too. “Your body stores more than just calories in your fat cells,” says Childs, noting that fat-soluble chemicals, toxins, and other compounds we come into contact with are stored in our fat cells. “As you exercise, your body will burn fat for fuel, and in the process it will eliminate toxins.”
In fact, studies show that people who lose weight have elevated levels of some toxins in their bloodstream; exercise may help rid the body of these toxins during weight change.
Finally, a visit to the gym helps detox any negative emotions. Our body releases feel-good hormones during exercise. The effects kick in within five minutes of working out, with research linking exercise to reduced depression, lower anxiety, and improved moods.
“Lack of sleep and the inability to cope with stress lead to an increase in the hormone cortisol,” warns Childs. “Cortisol is your stress hormone and … chronically elevated levels of cortisol contribute to other conditions, such as increased fatigue, sugar cravings, and an imbalance in blood sugar levels.”
Decrease stress, detox from harmful hormone imbalances, and experience a mental cleanse with these tricks.
Tackle the underlying stressful situation before trying to treat the symptom itself.
Slow your breath when you feel yourself beginning to feel stressed or anxious. Breathe in deep, hold for a second, and then slowly exhale. Repeat 10 times to calm your nervous system.
Vitamins, minerals, and herbs that may soothe stress symptoms include vitamin C, magnesium, and camomile.
“It helps bring cortisol levels down, improves your energy, [and] helps you cope with social stress,” says Childs.
Since social relationships, both romantic and platonic, are such an intrinsic part of our human experience, it’s no surprise they have a big effect on our well-being. Strong, positive relationships have been linked to overall improved health, and a review of 148 mortality studies found that people with healthy social connections had a 50 percent better chance of survival.
But the opposite is true, too. Bad relationships are an emotional toxin. Having poor social relationships has been linked with depression, while bad relationships have been shown to disrupt our immune system and may even contribute to premature death.
“To truly detox your relationships, you have to first understand what aspects of a relationship are most important to you,” says Paige Carambio, a clinical psychologist. “By recognizing what you value most about a relationship—romantic or platonic—then you can begin to discern what isn’t working for you and why.”
The core question: how does this relationship make me feel about myself? What does the bond between me and the other person look like?
“If a friendship feels like a tremendous amount of thankless work,” says Carambio, “or that you’re constantly giving and never having your needs met in return, that is a big red flag.” We’re only human, so relationships are inherently messy and take effort. However, we need to share that effort equally, or else the relationship can turn toxic and exploitative.
Boundaries are one of the most important parts of maintaining healthy relationships. “Boundaries keep your wants and needs in place when dealing with the wants and needs of another person,” says Carambio. “It’s the idea of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping a child to do the same on an airplane.”
“Ideally, we should remove toxic people from our lives if they are not willing to work on these things,” advises psychologist Nikki Martinez. “If they are willing to work on them, we need to assure follow-through on that. For a couple, it might be couples therapy. For a friend, it might be setting up boundaries about how much and in what ways you will allow them in your life.”
According to psychologist, Paige Carambio, setting healthy boundaries includes
Nearly 60 percent of Canadians struggle with work-life balance and feel overwhelmed by their many competing priorities and responsibilities. This acts as a mental toxin, causing stress, fatigue, a higher risk of substance abuse, poor health, and more. Detox this work-life connection to return to a healthier place of balance and peace.
Despite our best intentions, habits that introduce physical or emotional toxins into our lives can sneak back in. Constantly circle back to this concrete question: how do I want to feel, and what do I need to do to feel that way? With self-awareness, a daily detox can help us stay balanced and healthy, inside and out.