AdThinking of going in for a cleanse? Forget fad diets, booking two weeks in a Thai retreat or signing up for seaweed enema, you just need some common sense…
If you hit your body hard with too much booze and a diet that’d terrify a cardiologist, it might be the time to give yourself a bit of clean out. But before you head off down to your local health-food store in search of a keg of kale juice, or your nearest pharmacy for an overpriced detox programme, have a quick read of what we’ve got to say here.
Because a lot of commercial products designed to cleanse your innards aren’t just overpriced, they’re also often unnecessary, dealing with the symptoms of toxic overload rather than the causes.
Instead, getting your head around how your body copes with toxins and what you can do to help it, will ensure that any detox process you go in as part of your training regime isn’t time (and money) wasted.
It’ll also help you to make healthier lifestyle choices and that – in the long run – will only make you a fitter cyclist.
Say Hello to Your Liver Friend
Most people know they’ve got a liver (we hope!) but many people don’t give it a second thought, much less know what it does. Which is a shame, because your liver is a masterpiece of anatomical engineering. In fact, you could almost think of it as a highly functional waste-treatment and processing plant.
One that works around the clock to cleanse your body of any bad stuff while also creating plenty of good stuff that keeps you functioning healthily. Weighing in at approximately 1.5kg, it’s the largest of all the human body’s internal organs and given the amount of work it does, it needs to be. So how does it manage this?
One of the liver’s main functions is to filter your blood. Your blood is delivered to the liver constantly from two sources – the hepatic artery transports in blood from the heart, while the hepatic portal vein ships it in from your intestines.
This double delivery of the red stuff not only delivers the oxygen that your liver needs to function, but also fills it with any nutrients being carried in your bloodstream. It then sorts, processes and stores these nutrients using thousands of mini processing plants called lobules.
Of course, the blood flowing into your liver isn’t always full of good stuff. It also contains – particularly around this time of year, during the post-Christmas come down – a lot of those pesky toxins, which find their way into your system through booze, smoke, pollution and processed foods.
Fortunately, your liver has a kind of built-in quality controller to identify any byproducts your body can’t use, and deals with them accordingly in one of two ways.
First, it converts toxins into less harmful, water-soluble substances through an array of chemical reactions involving enzymes, flushing them out through your kidneys and bowels. Toxins which typically get dealt with in this way include alcohol, nicotine and pesticides, as well as particles absorbed from traffic fumes.
The second way uses cells called hepatocytes to convert them into a yellowish-green gloop known as bile. Bile is then funneled into your gall bladder, which sits below your liver, from where it’s drip-fed into your intestine to help break down fats, neutralize stomach acid and destroy microbes.
Eat Yourself Cleaner
Obviously, some toxins will find their way into your body without your help, with inhaled pollution from traffic fumes being the biggest concern for cyclists. But there’s still plenty of scope for you to control what goes into your body to make sure it is beneficial to your health rather than damaging it.
And we’re not just talking about cutting down on booze or not smoking. The food you eat plays a big part in how well your fiver functions and ultimately your body’s health. So, for example, to help your liver create the enzymes it needs to flush toxins directly out of your system, it needs a good supply of healthy nutrients in the blood that feeds it – in particular B vitamins and magnesium.
These are provided by a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, lean protein such as skinless chicken, fish or tofu, plus plenty of pulses, all of which will help your liver to work better.
To really supercharge this process, your liver also needs a good supply of antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene.
These are vital for absorbing ‘free-radicals’ – damaging, potentially cancer-causing particles produced as a byproduct when those enzymes go to work on certain toxins. So load up on nuts, seeds and fruits like apricots to get your Vitamin E hit, citrus fruits and cruciferous veg (cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) for your Vitamin C; and for your beta-carotene needs, you can eat dairy products, orange foods such as squash, carrots, or cantaloupe melons and, ironically, liver itself.
Of course, the main carrier of toxins into the gut is bile, and a healthy liver will produce almost a liter of the stuff a day. After the bile enters the gut, it’s absorbed by dietary fiber in your system and excreted.
A diet that is poor in fiber is likely to mean that the toxic load will be re-absorbed by the stomach wall and will go back around your system again for reprocessing. Which is not healthy. So make sure you’re eating plenty of water-soluble fiber, too, which means lots of oats, beans, lentils, apples and pears.
Lemon juice will also aid bile production, so try drinking half a lemon squeezed into warm water as a pre-breakfast drink in the morning and, of course, drink plenty of water throughout the rest of the day to keep things, ahem, moving along.
As well as what you should be eating, what you need to cut from your diet will also make a massive difference to your liver’s efficiency. Regular consumption of highly processed foods is a terrible thing to do your liver.
Hydrogenated fats, trans-fatty acids, refined sugar and processed meats full of additives all overload your liver, seriously impairing its ability to get on with the job of protecting you from toxins. Fast food, junk food, convenience meals, crisps, pastries, pies, biscuits… all of these may seem nice but they do nasty things to your insides.
Your liver treats the types of fats these contain as toxins, hampering its ability to deal with potentially more dangerous threats. Worse still, as many toxins are fat-soluble, an over-worked liver will store the toxins in the fats around your body rather than dispose of them.
Side Effects and Coping Strategies
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that any detox diet that you do go in is going to leave you feeling like warmed-over doggy doo. So what short term symptoms can you expect from your new cleanse?
Well, to some degree that depends on just how much booze and bad diet decisions your body has been subjected to, but most detoxes tend to throw up one or more of the following four side effects.
First, fatigue and disrupted sleep. Stimulating your system to purge toxins by adopting a healthier diet for your liver, and your whole body will work hard for you. But this can create tiredness as well as have a knock-on effect for your sleep patterns.
So if you can, rest more when you feel you need it, and if possible grab daytime naps. At the very least, get to bed earlier and aim to get a good eight hours of sleep in a night. You’re also more than likely to experience headaches, particularly in the early days of a detox.
It’s part of the withdrawal process your body will experience not just from ditching alcohol or nicotine, but caffeine, processed foods and sugars, too. Drink plenty of water to remain hydrated and stick it out, they’ll pass soon enough.
The third most commonly reported symptom is tummy troubles. This may manifest itself in any number of ways ranging from frequent peeing and loose stools, to full-on stomach upset and nausea. These can be the result not just of cutting out bad foods but ‘shocking’ your system with good ones.
The last side effect you may experience is cravings for the very same toxins you’ve eliminated from your everyday diet. As with any stomach problems these, too, should subside within a few days and are best coped with by regular hydration and eating (good, nutritionally rich food) little and often.
If you find more serious symptoms occur, stop or reduce the intensity of your detox, and consult a doctor.
How Cycling Helps
And the best news of all when it comes to a new detox? Your bike can work wonders for speeding up the process – as long as you don’t overdo it. Toxins come in many shapes and forms. Some are created by bad dietary decisions such as eating too much processed food, some come from chemical addictions to things like nicotine, while others are ingested often unknowingly through contaminated water, personal hygiene products or polluted air.
However, stress is also recognized as having the same effects as toxins, and although invisible, according to many experts is the most powerful when it comes to facilitating illness and disease.
Caused by any number of factors ranging from work overload to relationship problems, it can have a hugely negative effect on your hormonal, digestive and immune systems, prompting liver damage in the process.
Regular moderate to light exercise is a proven stress buster, with cycling having the added advantage of being able to get you out into the countryside and often into a Zen-like state of mind – ideal for stress detox.
Similarly, cycling improves blood circulation, and as blood plays a key role in how your liver removes all toxins from your body, it figures that the more efficiently its circulating, the more efficient the cleansing effects will be, feeding your organs with nutrient-rich blood that will help protect them against disease.
So what better way to get the blood pumping around your body than jumping on your bike? Just wrap up, though, eh?