Wikipedia – “Detoxification (detox for short) is the physiological or medicinal removal of toxic substances from a living organism, including, but not limited to, the human body.”
Phrases such as ‘withdrawal from sugars’, ‘detoxing from carbs’ or ‘having low blood sugar’ are often used when people describe the feelings they experience after significantly lowering their carbohydrate intake. I can understand why these phrases are used. This is a very familiar concept to anyone who has quit tobacco.
These phrases communicate the wrong message about the symptoms someone feels when reducing carbohydrates. Detoxifying implies some substance needing to leave the body. This is not quite accurate.
Most of the symptoms experienced with a significant carbohydrate reduction are symptoms from prior neurological damage from the high carbohydrate intake, not from a chemical withdrawal phenomenon (i.e., tobacco or alcohol withdrawal).
Carbohydrates impair the autonomic nervous system and make it difficult for us to maintain normal blood flow to the brain. This neurotoxic effect of carbohydrates is why so many people experience a lightheadedness when they stand, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue or foggiheadedness through the day or get tired after eating. All of these symptoms are due to not getting enough fuel to the brain cells because the blood flow to the brain is suboptimal.
The paradox is that although longterm exposure to excessive carbs causes the neurological impairment, a quick dose of carbs in the form of soda, a candy bar, crackers or an energy drink results in a temporary increase in blood flow to the brain. Boost the blood flow and these symptoms get better. So carbohydrates cause the problem but also keep us craving carbs because they temporarily relieve the symptoms as well.
Let’s get back to the concept of “detox”. When we consistently reduce our carb intake, our symptoms from low blood flow (fatigue, fogginess, headaches) worsen because we’ve reduced the carbs were helping improve (albeit temporarily) the blood flow.
This is important. It’s the drop in brain blood flow that causes the symptoms, not some kind of chemical withdrawal state or a drop in blood sugar levels. The only reason these symptoms seem to get better after taking a hit of carbs is because the carbs improve blood flow.
It’s all about blood flow. Drink of cup of salty chicken broth and your symptoms will often improve just as much if not more. The salt in the chicken stock also will boost brain blood flow. More salt, better blood flow, fewer symptoms.
After reducing the carbs for a few weeks, the autonomic nervous system recovers somewhat and is able to maintain normal levels of blood flow to the brain. most of our carb cravings are gone (some times we crave them because they simply taste pleasing) because we have normal blood flow once again. There’s a big “but…” to all this.
The symptoms of poor blood flow will come roaring back if the carbohydrate intake increases significantly. This is poorly understood from a scientific standpoint but several researchers I’ve spoken with believe the neurological intolerance to carbohydrates is probably permanent. This may be a consequence of the “broken metabolism” concept of nutrition that is slowly developing in the research blogosphere.
I’m planning to write about “broken metabolism” in a future post.