A client came to see me for help with her diet. She has the stereotypical ‘great body’, really slim and probably looks fantastic in a bikini; the kind of body most girls would envy over. She is very health conscious and eats all the ‘right foods’. She avoids meat (particularly red meat) and only occasionally eats fish. She thinks sugar is the antichrist and is strong willed and rarely touches it (except around her period). She rarely drinks, and as much as possible, does her food shopping at the Farmers’ Markets.

So what did she want help with? She had terrible periods and was a mess for the week leading up to and the week of her period – cramping, swelling, tenderness, teary and irritable. She suffered with persistent bloating, almost on a daily basis. She hadn’t worked out what it was but was thinking about cutting out grains and dairy. She would get the occasional bought of haemorrhoids, something that used to really bother her and knock her confidence. She also had problem skin – no matter what she did she would get outbreaks on her jawline and her back and would get rather itchy all over.

After going through her case I said that I thought she was having issues with detoxification and needless to say she was a little shocked. She said that she rarely drank or ate unprocessed food. She did a detox every six months and was very conscious of having fresh vegetable juices in her diet. How could she have detoxification issues?

Calories are the driver for everything in the body. They are the fuel or energy used to power all your body system. When there are not enough resources coming in, the body has to work on rations. This client was not taking in enough so her detoxification system had to do its best on a limited budget. Over time this meant that things were getting missed and levels were building up.

We have a tendency when talking about the body to compartmentalise it. We talk about the detoxification system, the digestive system or the immune system. In actual fact the body is really one big system. Our compartmentalising just helps us to understand it easier. One of the jobs that the liver has to do is break down hormones. One hormone in particular that needs breaking down is oestrogen. A woman’s cycle can be split into two halves. The first half is where oestrogen is highest – it helps cells to take up water and rapidly divide. The second half of the cycle (from ovulation until the first day of her period) should be when progesterone is highest.

Progesterone helps to nourish tissues and is very anti-stress. It helps cells to differentiate, meaning all those cells that oestrogen has produced can now be turned into eye cells, muscle cells, lung cells, etc. It is why progesterone continues to be high throughout pregnancy, so the embryo can develop into a baby.

The liver has three stages of detoxification. Phase 1 and Phase 2 are about converting the toxin into a water-soluble substance and Phase 3 is about excretion. Certain nutrients and substances are needed for each of these phases.

One of these substances is protein. If a diet is deficient in protein it is missing the basic building blocks and detoxification is impaired. This client was rarely eating meat and fish but also wasn’t getting adequate protein from other sources.

If the body is under stress from whatever means, reproduction is put on the back burner. Your body rationalises that if you can’t look after yourself what is the point in creating hormones in the right levels to allow you to create a new energy-expense (child).

In this situation a woman is more likely to have an ovulatory cycles (cycles in which they don’t ovulate). Progesterone is created in the second half of the cycle from the sack that the egg is released from. If ovulation doesn’t occur, there is no sack left behind and hence no progesterone. So oestrogen builds up but there is no progesterone to balance it. This is made worse when protein intake is inadequate and oestrogen is not being broken down.

Hormones are like an orchestra, you want them all playing at the right level and at the right time otherwise it just sounds like a mess. In this client’s case, oestrogen had become too loud and was drowning out the other instruments. Oestrogen encourages cells to take up water but reduces their ability to take up oxygen and create energy. These factors lead to water retention, swelling, and cramping. It also makes the gut wall more permeable, allowing big particles of food through into the blood that haven’t been broken down correctly. In the small intestine you have villi and microvilli, which are little finger like projections that help to increase the size of your small intestine. The villi and microvilli release enzymes to break down food but also absorb food. Unfortunately excess oestrogen causes these villi to atrophy, impairing digestion and absorption. This can lead to a wide range of digestive upset and links into the bloating that the client was experiencing.

The liver has valves both going into it and going out of it. When it becomes overburdened it can either close off the valve coming in, close the valve going out or both. In these situations the liver tends to swell up. Running directly behind the liver is the inferior vena cava, which carries the blood from the legs, pelvic area and kidneys back up to the heart. If the liver swells it can press on the vena cava and stop proper blood flow. This leads to a back log of blood and can lead to pooling of blood in certain areas. The anal canal contains cushions and a group of blood vessels called the haemorrhoidal plexus. These blood vessels are neither arteries nor veins but sinusoids. Unfortunately sinusoids don’t contain muscles in the walls, so if there is a backlog of blood and it stops flowing, it will pool there and can lead to haemorrhoids, just like the client was experiencing.

The liver is but one organ of the detoxification system. The other organs or systems involved are the kidneys, digestive system, bladder, lungs, blood, lymph and the skin. The liver is really the first port of call and should be passing over cleaned and neutralised substances to the organs of detoxification. If it becomes overloaded, the substances that it passes on are not as harmless as they should
be. This then has a knock on effect to these other organs or systems who have to do more work. Your skin is the final route out of the body for detoxification. Think of each of the organs of detoxification as buckets. It is ok to have some stuff in the buckets that they are working on. When the system becomes overburdened it is like the buckets are filled up. The final route is then to try and push all this stuff out through the skin in a last ditch attempt to get it out. When you are pushing out toxic material through the skin it irritates it and leads to acne, sensitive skin, rashes or other infections, just as the client was experiencing.

Through working together we were able to improve all of these things. She didn’t do any cleanses or juice fasts, we just worked on improving her diet and lifestyle to support the different areas of the detoxification system. Detoxification in my opinion is poorly understood. People have read about the master cleanse, juice detoxes and fasting; these become the ideas they associate with detoxification. In fact detoxification happens everyday and you are much better served understanding the everyday stuff rather than trying to solve it every six months or once a year by going on a detox. While I think detoxes when done correctly can be of use, most are wholly inadequate and actually make things worse by not focusing on the individual and what they really need.

Chris Sandel is our resident nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. For daily health tips and articles you can follow his Facebook page. If you have any questions or comments about the blog piece or want to get in contact about setting up a consult you can email him on chris@seven-health.com.

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