Fasting, Dieting and Detox

It’s that time of year when minds wander to thoughts of diets, perhaps of fasts and detoxing – certainly towards wanting to feel lighter, brighter and less sluggish.


Many of us find that ‘dieting’, in the sense of cutting down calories to lose weight, doesn’t work. Eating and our relationship with food can be muddled up with loaded emotional issues such as comfort and denial. Cutting out or cutting down on food intake, for those living in the West, is rarely a logical and straightforward process. If this were true then it would be simple! As we get older our relationship with food may move away from the connection between our weight and our body image, towards the connection between our weight and health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, breast cancer, auto-immune conditions, arthritis etc.


Fasting regimes during designated time frames are familiar in organized religions and indigenous practices. For some communities, fasting times are associated with spirituality, introspection, discipline, perhaps collective endeavor. Ritual often appears to have some basis in pragmatism. There are conflicting theories as to whether we may or may not have evolved to tolerate certain diets, but it is difficult to argue with the fact that until very recent times, most populations have had to cope with times of famine, or at least scarcity, and times of plenty. Perhaps we have adapted over thousands of years to manage this to our best advantage.


The theory, that particular populations are specifically suited to eat certain foods is widely accepted in relation to some food components – for example lactose - but not others. Clearly there are foods that are tolerated by some, that can be linked to pathology (illness) in others. For example wheat or nuts. Many people will testify that certain health issues resolve when they have eliminated specific foods from their diet. Detox, in relation to diet, means eliminating foods that can trigger pathological or undesirable effects so that the body can rest and recover, perhaps regenerate and heal. Sometimes ‘detoxing ’ can involve including foods or herbs that can strengthen and promote that process.

The Science of Elimination

Trying to unpick the various and conflicting theories of what foods to include and what to eliminate can be very confusing. Nutritional science seems to be constantly relocating its own goal posts. And perhaps the goal posts are actually changing as our bodies are required to process more, new and different pharmaceutical, biochemical, environmental and other factors than in the past. Perhaps some folk have always reacted badly to some foods.

Three foods generally agreed to cause problems for many, are dairy, wheat and sugar.

Dairy or milk related products

Milk can be a great all round food source, but not for everyone. Two substances in milk that have been identified as problematic are lactose and casein.

Lactose is a carbohydrate (sugar) present in all mammalian milk, and relatively high in human milk. Nearly all babies produce an enzyme (lactase) to digest the lactose – but in some, production of this enzyme is gradually switched off. Some researchers estimate this is true to a greater or lesser extent for up to 75% of the global population.

When lactose cannot be digested (ie broken down and absorbed through the wall of the small intestine) it passes into the colon where it may be metabolized by bacteria. The resulting fermentation process produces gases that will increase the osmotic pressure of the colon. This may lead to bloating, cramping, and perhaps explains other symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.

In populations who continue to produce lactase, the enzyme is produced in the villi (hair like filaments) that line the small intestine. Theses can become paralyzed and inactive though inflammation and scarring creating ‘secondary’ lactose intolerance.

Lactose is not present in fat so will be higher in low fat milk (of all animals, cows, sheep, goats etc) and less present in fat foods such as butter and cheese. It is not present in fermented butter (gee), and is low or absent in traditionally prepared cheeses. Lactose is present in yogurt, but so also is lactase, helpfully produced by the bacteria responsible for the fermenting process.

Casein refers to a family of proteins present in milk solids. As with many substances some (rare) individuals appear to be allergic to Casein. Casein is also related (in some) to type 1 diabetes. A wider problem for the general population is the presence, in casein of an opioid peptide that has the effect of stimulating the release of histamine in humans. This peptide can remain bound up in the casein, travel through the digestive system and be excreted harmlessly. Theorists argue that in some breeds of cows (A1 – black and white Friesian cows for example) the type of casein present, only loosely binds to the opiate, so is more likely to be broken down and released into the gut. This theory is not yet universally accepted, but its proponents suggest it is the casein from A1 cows that can lead to excess mucous production and exacerbate behavioral problems in people with mental health and neuro-spectrum labels such as schizophrenia and autism.

Beyond the issues with lactose and casein, it may be that there are problems with milk associated with the pasteurization process, (though clearly there are problems too with not pasteurizing milk) non organic farming methods, and the excessive use of iodine in milking hygiene practices.


Broadly speaking, there are three types of negative response to wheat. They are: Celiacs disease, wheat allergy, and wheat intolerance.

Celiacs disease is a genetic condition whereby an individual has an allergic response in the intestine to gliadin, a component of gluten found in wheat and also rye, barley and oats.

Wheat allergy is not necessarily genetic in the same way, but an allergic response to a wheat protein, (not necessarily gliadin) that may impact on the intestine, but may also occur elsewhere and lead to symptoms associated asthma or hay fever type symptoms. People with a specific wheat protein allergy, may be fine with other grains such as rye, barley or oats.

In the both the above instances eliminating the allergy ‘trigger’, will likely confirm the diagnosis and lead to clear improvement.

Wheat intolerance is a negative reaction to eating wheat that doesn’t involve the part of the immune system that creates allergic responses, so will be less acute and harder to pin down. Symptoms reported vary from depression and mood swings to bloating to arthritis.

Wheat intolerance is poorly understood. It has been suggested that in evolutionary terms we are relative newcomers to settling, growing and eating grains, and our digestive systems are in some case not very well adapted. And/or that modern fast fermentation and mass production methods create their own problems.

Some people report relief from various symptoms and an increased sense of well being from eliminating wheat products including bread, pasta, cous cous, cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals etc.

It may not be clear if the positive effect derives from lack of wheat, or lack of processed refined carbohydrates. Certainly eliminating wheat can is difficult and also useful because it is the basic ingredient in fast and processed food, convenience eating, and snacks.


From a healthy eating and elimination point of view, ‘sugar’ may not just refer to the obvious cane sugar, corn syrup, glucose syrup, fruit sugars etc, but could include all refined carbohydrates such as pasta and white rice. All these foods are said to have a high glycemic index. Glycemic index or GI is a measure of the effects of consumed carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down more slowly, releasing glucose more gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI. High GI, refined carbohydrate diets are associated with weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, mood swings and other poor health outcomes.

Choosing what to eliminate

It is important to find the regime that suits you. You most likely find out what is true, what works or doesn’t work for you by exploring and monitoring your own experience. Pick one, or all, or none of the above. You might want to eliminate something else. Mass produced meat for example. Or Caffeine. You may want to add something to your diet. Your motivation might be more ethical or Spiritual than health related. Either way a fasting, or Spring Cleaning time can feed a sense of self discipline, provide an opportunity for re-calibration, rest and recovery, a chance to pause and re-negotiate old habits. So pick something manageable! And if it suits you, join with others who are doing the same thing.

Support from medicinal plants

Herbs to stimulate the liver: Mugwort, dandelion root, St. John’s wort, turmeric, liquorices

Herbs to support the kidney: Nettle seed, corn silk, pellitory of the wall

Herbs to promote elimination: Rhubarb root, psyllium seeds, aloes

Traditional Spring cleaning herbs: Tansy, cleavers, nettle

Melissa Ronaldson, Feb 2011