A number of pervasive toxins — seven, to be exact — are wreaking daily havoc on health and wellbeing, according to detox expert Deanna Minich, PhD.
“We are living in a sick, toxic world,” Minich said at the recent Clinical and Scientific Insights (CASI) conference sponsored by Designs for Health in San Francisco. She discussed her unique holistic approach to detoxification.
Minich, a faculty member of the Institute for Functional Medicine, is a nutrition researcher, clinician, and author of the book Whole Detox. She holds that effective detoxification programs need to address much more than just diet alone. To successfully clear the body of toxins, it is essential to consider the whole spectrum of toxic elements to which an individual patient is exposed. This includes factors that negatively affect the the mind and spirit.
Throughout human history and across the globe, we find examples of specific practices aimed at cleansing and purifying the body, but also for clearing the mind and heart. These include salt baths and saunas, fasting regimens, and even more extreme interventions like bloodletting. The point here is that medical traditions in all times and places have understood that people have a need for periodic cleansing activities.
Our present-day infatuation with detox diets and juice cleanses shows that we still share this urge today. And while many who cleanse certainly notice positive physical changes, they often report other less tangible benefits like achieving a clear state of mind or a sense of feeling centered and grounded.
Minich outlined what she defines as the “Seven Deadly Toxins,” a constellation of destructive forces that profoundly heighten toxic load. Describing their myriad impacts on human health and wellbeing, she offered practical detox strategies to target each one and support healing throughout all the body’s systems.
Like many other detox experts, Minich focuses first on food. Our highly processed modern food supply is rife with agricultural chemicals, industrial byproducts, heavy metals, and other toxins that present serious health risks. To identify and avoid the main sources of food-based toxins, patients must first learn how food is produced, packaged, and distributed.
Each year, the average human consumes around 2,000 pounds of food. Unfortunately, there area fair number of toxins in among the nutrients.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that over 80,000 different synthetic man-made chemicals are currently in use in the United States. Those thousands of substances lurk not just in the diet but in countless everyday items, from cosmetics and household cleaners to furniture and even toys. Over 2,000 new substances are added to the chemical index each year, Minich noted.
These numbers capture just the substances that scientists presently know about. They do not include chemicals that researchers have not yet catalogued, or toxic metabolites of known compounds that only appear once those compounds are ingested.
The average human adult human body contains over 7,000 different chemicals, approximately 200 of which are already present in the blood at birth.
Some food-borne chemicals have direct negative effects on the neurological and endocrine systems, and epidemiological studies show associations between environmental toxins and increasing rates of food intolerance, escalating cancer rates, and rising autoimmunity diagnoses (see Death & Toxins: Tackling the Main Drivers of Chronic Disease).
Some foods are more likely than others to contain toxic chemical residues, and understanding how food is made helps to inform safer, healthier dietary choices. On a more philosophical level, Minish added, failing to recognize where food comes from leads to spiritual fragmentation, separating us from the earth that provides our nourishment.
Understanding the intricate link between human health and the health of the planet is an equally important step in the cleansing process. It is difficult for us to achieve collective wellness without a healthy Earth — and today, the planet’s health status is far from optimal.
“If the planet were a person or a patient, we’d say she is out of balance, toxic, inflamed, and most of all, she’s really distressed,” Minich said. “Our air, food and water — our most basic elements of survival — are now in jeopardy.”
To reduce toxic exposure, Minich recommends eating a colorful diet rich in phytonutrients and whole, unprocessed, organic foods. She also stresses the importance of developing a healthy, constructive emotional relationship with food.
Enjoyment of food comes easier to some personality types than others. A host of negative emotions and conditions can block one’s ability to enjoy the simple process of preparing and eating food. For some people, guilt or shame around dietary choices can be major obstacles. In other cases, people may be struggling with serious eating disorders.
Emotional baggage connected with food is a major health stressor, Minich said, which is why it also appears on her list of deadly toxins.
Whether associated with food or any other element in our lives, unprocessed negative emotions cloud our ability to live as fully and vibrantly as possible. Helping people “detox” requires clinicians to develop a lexicon for talking with patients about emotions, and aiding them in identifing and expressing what they are feeling.
Although it’s common to extol the physical benefits detoxing, Minich asserted that, “Detox is a unique interface of medicine and spirituality.”
When intentionally addressing both emotional and physical wellbeing, detox is a powerfully cathartic process — and is not one to be entered lightly. Emotional cleansing can take a long time and require support, Minich counseled. “The longest distance a human travels in the lifetime is 18 inches,” she said, defining the short but complex seperation between our heads and our hearts.
Undertaking that lengthy journey with purpose, awareness, and guidance from trained professionals prompts profound detoxifying benefits beyond what can be obtained with dietary changes alone.
Similarly to emotional baggage, negative thinking is a toxic health risk. Of the 60-80,000 different thoughts we think in a given day, most of which are reccurring, the majority are also negative, Minich said. All too often, she declared, “we feed ourselves with negative programming.”
The scientific literature on negative thought patterns illustrates the health dangers of chronic pessimism: premature aging, inflammation, and stress. Because bad attitudes can deter wellness, it is as important that patients learn to identify and distance themselves from their pessimistic thoughts as it is for them to learn to read food labels.
Minich believes that every thought we think has the capacity to either boost us up or deplete us. It is essential that we ask ourselves which thoughts are draining our vital energy rather than replenishing it.
Minich’s fourth deadly toxin is failure to move the body. “We’re becoming more toxic because we’re sedentary,” she argued. Breathing, sweating, and oxygenating the blood through movement are all fundamental pieces of the detox puzzle.
Vigorous rhythmic movement also promotes neuronal plasticity, supports healthy aging, and stimulates a fluid, dynamic emotional flow.
In a study of prostate cancer patients receiving androgen-deprivation therapy (ADT), researchers found that supervised aerobic and resistance exercise not only significantly reduced treatment-related toxicity, but also improved social functioning and mental health (Cormie, P. et al. Brit J Urol Int. 2015; 115(2): 256–266).
For chronic disease patients and healthy individuals alike, moving the body is paramount to the detoxification process. To develop sustainable exercise habits, Minich asks patients what they love to do, crafting movement plans based around activities they find pleasurable. Whatever form exercise takes, if it’s not enjoyable, it is not likely to last long.
Not Speaking Truth
When detoxing, honesty is the best policy — though perhaps the least intuitive of Minich’s recommendations for toxin removal.
In the Ayurvedic healing tradition, the mouth represents a source of authenticity, awareness, and personal choice. Like the food we put into our mouths, the words that come out of them hold tremendous power. Speech has its own form of gluttony: some people speak, lie, brag, or swear too much, which not only negatively affects others but also disrupts metabolism, chewing mechanics, and other sensory experiences like smelling and hearing.
Individuals who overspeak often do so because they have difficulty hearing and believing themselves. They benefit from learning to hear and harness their own voice, Minich suggested.
On the other hand, some individuals tend to remain silent when it would better serve them to speak up—a form of self-expression anorexia.
To prevent the buildup of toxic thoughts and emotions, it is helpful to guide quieter patients to learn to express themselves and share their vital truths. For those who struggle to speak out, Minich recommends the use of positive affirmations to develop a strong, loving voice.
Poor sleep is the sixth of Minich’s deadly toxins. Many toxic substances are eliminated during sleep. At the same time, buildup of toxins can often disrupt sleep or degrade the quality of slee-, creating a negative feed-forward cycle.
Dreams are another important facet of sleep. According to Minich, dreaming represents a potent form of detoxification, providing us with messages that offer insights into elements in our lives that require attention. But most people only sleep for four or five hours a night, challenging their ability to clearly remember their dreams. Deep, adequate sleep that fuels dreaming and restores the body is crucial for detoxification.
For patients with difficulty sleeping, Minich recommends visualizations and guided imagery to encourage a “best self” view and to achieve a higher quality of rest. She believes that an ability to visualize what we want to manifest in our lives can offer a locus of control, teaching us to “step into the driver’s seat of our life, harness our intellect and imagination, well it up, and bring it out.”
Lack of Purpose
Lacking purpose is the final toxin on Minich’s list. Inability to experience awe and joy in life, or a numbness to the absolute miracle of life will contribute to a sense of disconnection from ourselves and others. In Minich’s view, these are all toxic states of mind that over time have serious negative effects on health.
In many traditional healing practices, mediation is a powerful pathway towards finding meaning in one’s life. Minich encourages patients to develop meditation or prayer practices that facilitate connection to a greater sense of purpose, fulfillment, and healthful vitality.
Combining science and spirituality, Minich takes a broad scope view toward detoxification. The process involves far more than just juice-fasts or intensive supplement regimens. Deep detoxification requires attention to all the aspects that make us human.