27 Jan The January “Detox”
After Christmas and New Year comes the inevitable January detox such as this year’s “Veganuary”. But is it really a good idea?
Chinese medicine is all about finding balance and moderation. The body needs to be homeostatic: yin and yang must be balanced. A sudden change in diet can shock the body and create some unpleasant symptoms: gnawing hunger, headaches, fatigue and lethargy.
Don’t shock the system
My own personal inclination is that is not a good idea to follow the excesses of Christmas with a restrictive diet or fasting. A period of relative starvation is not the best thing to counteract overindulgences of December. Any changes to diet should be made slowly or else it is too much of a shock to the system.
There is no such thing as “detox” food
“Detoxification” is performed naturally by the digestive organs. The body is self-regulatory and has its own wisdom. But that is not to say that we should abuse our bodies with a bad diet. According to Chinese medical theory, the body prefers regularity and to have a balance of the five tastes – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty – in order to stimulate the different yin organs (liver, heart, lungs, kidney, spleen).
Looking after our post-Heavenly Qi: Stomach & Spleen Qi
The Earth element consists of the Stomach and the Spleen. The health of these organs is vital to high functioning digestive qi and well-being. As the saying goes: “we are what we eat”. The spleen derives nutrients from the stomach’s “muddy pool” which are distributed via the blood. The Spleen likes to be dry and warm, so it is best to avoid damp-forming foods such as dairy and sugar.
Foods that support good Spleen Qi are the root vegetables such as pumpkin, kumara, carrot and parsnip, which are naturally sweet and stimulate the Spleen’s function. Simple rice dishes, soups and stews are also nourishing for the Spleen.
Intermittent fasting and the horary clock
If one has been overindulging, it is a good idea to give the digestive system a break. TCM supports restricting eating to daylight hours but does NOT promote skipping breakfast when digestive qi is at its highest. Digestive (stomach and spleen) qi is at its lowest from 7-11pm so food is best avoided in the evenings.
Like the old maxim: breakfast like a king, lunch like a lord and dine like a pauper. Much like a car and its petrol tank, it does not make sense to run around on empty all day, then filling yourself up with food at night. It makes sense to load up your calories earlier in the day, when the digestive fires are at their strongest.
I cannot stress the importance of eating breakfast enough. In my 25 years of practice, I have noticed that people who eat meals late at night are often very tired and lethargic in the mornings. They have not given their digestion a sufficient break and will then skip breakfast, becoming caught up in a vicious cycle.
There is not much support in TCM theory for all day fasting. In fact, prolonged fasts can weaken the Spleen Qi and lead to deficiencies. Instead, we should eat at regular intervals; eating at the same times every day helps the gastrointestinal tract to perform at its best. One should abstain from eating for at least two hours before bedtime. This allows your food to digest before you go to sleep and gives the digestive organs – particularly the Liver and Gall Bladder – time to rest and replenish.
If you eat a health regimen most of the time, there shouldn’t really be any need to fast. In Chinese medicine, moderation and balance are key to a long and healthy life.
Tips for safe fasting
The best time to fast is at the end of winter / beginning of Spring. This is why in the Northern Hemisphere, it is traditional to fast at Lent, when the winter larder is at an end and before the chickens start laying their eggs again in Spring.
Cut out alcohol, sugar and processed foods first. Stick to a healthy, clean diet comprised mostly of vegetables, avoiding starch such as bread and potatoes.
Then 3-5 days of juicing /fasting, taking care not to have fruits with a high sugar content.
Gradually re-introduce foods until normal eating is achieved.
© Christine Cunningham