The Dreaded Detox



So you’ve started eating Paleo, and you’re a few days into it. You’re not feeling the amazing effects of the diet that so many others before you have, and in fact, you feel worse! Naturally you’re asking, “Is this really worth it?”

Almost everyone who is on the Paleo Diet or similar plan has been right where you are—you are not alone. Here’s the scoop on what’s happening in your body.

Why Do I Feel Worse After Going Paleo?

For some, if you’ve drastically changed your diet or cut way back on carbs, processed foods, caffeine, or booze, unpleasant withdrawal effects may be setting in. This way of eating is pretty different than a Standard American Diet (SAD) and as a result, there are a lot of changes you’ll be making on multiple levels that will not go unnoticed by your body.

It’s totally normal to experience a wide range of detox symptoms as your body undergoes this transition, and it’s definitely worth toughing it out to get to the other side! When you understand the reason why these terrible feelings are happening, you’ll actually have more insight into your total body health.

(Read this: Everything You Need to Know About Detoxing)

How to Tell if You’re Detoxing on Paleo


While the initial shock to the system isn’t pleasant, keep in mind that your body is finally getting a chance to clean out some built up toxins. Without all of the harmful foods constantly bombarding your liver and other organs, and with the addition of tons of nutrients and proteins from the fruits, vegetables, and meats you’re now eating, your body is going to take this opportunity to do some much needed cleaning, healing, and resetting.

This purging is precisely what causes the symptoms you may be experiencing right now—the toxins are being dealt with instead of being suppressed. In the first three days to three weeks of going Paleo, you may (or may not) experience any of the following detox symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea
  • Intense cravings
  • Sinus drainage
  • Bowel changes
  • Diarrhea/Constipation
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Brain fog
  • Increased urination
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased thirst

If you’ve given up drinking caffeine or alcohol, you should almost undoubtedly expect some withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine and alcohol are addictive substances, as most of us know, and your nervous and endocrine systems will need some time to re-boot.

Now is a good time to warn your significant other/kids/co-workers that you might not be the sweetest, most congenial person for a few days. The benefits, however, when you get to the other side, will more than make up for it.

How Long will the Dreaded Detox Last?

For most, detox symptoms tend to appear within three to 10 days after going Paleo, but for others they may take a few weeks to pop up, or you may never experience any of these at all!

Most people only experience symptoms for a few days to a week, but others (especially the chronically ill) may feel icky for a month or more. There’s really no way of predicting how long your detoxification period will last, as it’s a highly individual process that depends largely on how much healing your body needs to accomplish.

Don’t be disheartened, though. There are ways to not let the dreaded detox derail your Paleo plans.

Coping with the Dreaded Detox


When I first went Paleo, I remember having to pee about 25 times a day and feeling like I was walking through oatmeal for the first three weeks. Walking up a flight of stairs was a big accomplishment. I was so tired and groggy—I just wanted to sleep, but then on the 21st day everything finally cleared and I felt fantastic.

Again, many people only experience symptoms for a few days to a week, and there’s really no way of predicting how long your detoxification period will last. There’s nothing wrong with you if yours lasts longer, and if you don’t have any at all, that’s great, too!

If you’re one of the people who has some of these detox symptoms, there are two key ways to minimize them.

1. Stay Hydrated

You’ll be doing yourself a big favor by keeping well hydrated during this time by drinking at least half of your body’s weight in pounds in ounces of water. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, you would shoot for at least 70 ounces of water per day.

(Read this: The Ultimate Guide to Paleo Drinks)

2. Move Your Body

Getting regular exercise, even if it’s just a few minutes each day, can also help the body to speed the detox process along. This can be as simple as walking, taking the stairs, or doing a bit of yoga. I know that’s difficult to do when you’re already feeling tired and run down, but I promise it will be worth it.

(Read this: The Benefits of Movement Over Working Out)

The Positive Effects After the Detox Storm


During these difficult moments when you’re wondering whether this diet is hurting or helping you, remember that after the storm of detoxification subsides, you may very well experience:

  • More energy
  • Emotional balance
  • Clarity of mind
  • Fat loss/muscle gain
  • Strength gains
  • Fewer aches and pains
  • Less inflammation
  • Less sinus congestion
  • Fewer seasonal allergy symptoms
  • Digestive ease
  • Clearer skin
  • Fewer colds
  • Fewer symptoms of chronic disease

And that is why you’ve chosen to do this! Stay strong and it will be worth it.

Is It Just Me?

You may experience a few (or many) detoxification symptoms, including intense cravings, headaches, and fatigue.

Why? You probably removed a lot of toxins from your diet. These can include any of the following:

  • Gluten and anti-nutrients (grains and legumes)
  • Preservatives and other additives
  • Refined flours
  • Sugars and sweeteners
  • Dairy (which is more toxic to some than others)

Since you’ve probably been eating these things your whole life, your body is going through some serious withdrawal. Gluten behaves like an opiate, and when we remove it from our diet, we can have actual withdrawals! (1) Same goes with dairy and sugar.

Not only are we addicted to these things on a cellular level, but our microbiome (gut flora) can also keeping us addicted to these things by making us crave the very foods they need to stay alive. (2)

(Read this: Do You Have Leaky Gut?)

Bacteria and the Gut

Nobody likes to think about it, but we are all hosts to all sorts of bacteria and other critters that live in our guts and bodies, collectively referred to as our microbiome (microflora). The average human carries two to six pounds of bacteria in their body, which is somewhere around 100 trillion microbes living inside of us! (3) Many of these microbes depend on the carbohydrates in our diet to stay alive and if we’ve been eating a higher carb diet, these gut dwellers are likely just as addicted to sugar as we are.

Newer research suggest that our microbiome can and does influence our nutrition decisions. (4) While you’re going through the detox period, it will help you to stay strong if you can remember that these are not even your cravings! When we don’t feed the bad bacteria the sugar they need to stay alive, they can (and do) make our cravings worse, at least for awhile.

The cravings and irritability that we experience when we cut sugar from our diet (especially if our intake is reduced drastically) can be intense, and may also be largely influenced by the types of bacteria that we are hosting.

(Read this: How to Choose the Right Probiotic)

Burning Fat for Fuel


Another reason people feel lousy when they first start Paleo, is because on a cellular level, your mitochondria are learning to burn more fat for fuel. That is, your body is shifting away from using glucose (from carbs and protein) as its primary fuel source, towards using more ketones from fats. Be patient with your body (and your mitochondria!) because it can take several weeks for this transition to happen. (5)

Be forewarned that things tend to get worse before they get better. If you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut, which you may not even be aware of, you might experience symptoms of bacterial/yeast “die-off” when you drastically reduce your carb intake. This creates a transient toxic state in the body otherwise known as the Herxheimer reaction (also known as “die-off”) which is thought to happen when toxins from the dying pathogens overwhelm the body’s ability to clear them out. (6)

The associated uncomfortable symptoms should pass in a few days to a week for most people and may include:

  • Fever/Chills (feeling like you have the flu or a cold)
  • Muscle aches & pains
  • Headaches
  • Skin rashes
  • Brain fog
  • Body sluggishness
  • GI problems (diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
  • Mucus production

So when the cravings get really bad, and you don’t think you can handle it, and you really truly believe that you need sugar or fast food or whatever it is, just remember that these are not your cravings. It is likely the bad bacteria in your body screaming to stay alive. Fight through it and these feelings will pass.

In the beginning, it’s also helpful to think of the Paleo diet as a cleanse, a detox, or a purging of sorts. Your body is finally getting a chance to clean out those built up toxins! This purging is exactly what causes the symptoms you may be experiencing right now—the toxins are in your circulation being dealt with, instead of being suppressed. It’s like when you do a good deep cleaning of your house. You turn it upside down before it looks immaculate.

Support your Detox Organs with Paleo Foods

The major organs of detoxification are the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, lungs, and skin. If any one of these systems is sluggish, it can lead to a buildup of toxic chemicals that act as free radicals and can damage cells throughout the body.

When your body is going through the natural detoxification process associated with a diet change, you especially want to make sure your detox organs are functioning at top notch.

It doesn’t take a hard-core detox program to clean out your organs. In fact, incorporating specific foods into your Paleo diet can greatly enhance your body’s ability to naturally detoxify.

5 Ways to Support Your Detox Organs Naturally


1. The Liver

The liver is considered the body’s largest organ of detoxification because it contains enzymes (collectively called the cytochrome P450 system) which neutralize free radicals and other harmful toxins in two distinct phases. Sulfur-rich foods, such as garlic and broccoli, provide the building materials our cells need to make glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant” utilized in phase two of detoxification. Other foods can help to support our liver detoxification enzymes as well.

(Read this: 5 Paleo Foods to Support Your Liver)

2. The Kidneys

Our kidneys are constantly filtering toxins and waste materials out of our blood and into the urine, making them the body’s most important organ of excretion. Ample hydration is absolutely essential for these processes and in fact, dehydration is the most common and damaging stressor to the kidneys. (7) In addition to maintaining good water intake, certain foods can help to support kidney function.

(Read this: The Best Paleo Foods for Kidney Health)

3. The Skin

Our skin is the largest organ in the human body and our first line of defense against the outside world. It’s also one of the main ways we purge toxins from our bodies, by sweating them out. Dry brushing (which involves using a natural bristle dry brush to brush the skin) can help to expedite the detox process. Be sure to brush towards the heart using long, quick strokes.

Alternating between hot and cold water during your showers also helps to increase circulation, as do other forms of “contrast hydrotherapy.” Saunas, steam rooms, and detox baths can also help move the process of detoxification along quicker.

(Read this: The Ultimate Guide to Clean Skincare)

4. The Heart

The heart is the main pump in the body that circulates fluids, thus frequent movement is important to reduce its workload. Exercise helps to move toxins through the blood vessels and out of the body via the kidneys, lungs, GI tract, and skin.

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet like Paleo helps to keep the blood vessels from becoming blocked and damaged. There are other foods that can also help to support healthy circulation and optimal organ function.

(Read this: 4 Paleo Foods to Support a Healthy Heart)

5. The Lungs

The lungs expel toxins when we breathe deeply. Exercise helps this process along. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing and gentle tapotement (chest or back cupping or tapping) can also be helpful to unlodge gunk from your lungs so it can move out and away!

(Read this: Deep Breathing: The Most Powerful Health Hack)

Bottom Line

Most of us don’t need intense cleanses or detoxes to maintain good health. Eating a variety of Paleo-friendly foods, keeping hydrated, and moving frequently are still the safest and most effective ways to keep your body functioning optimally. And remember, while it’s common to experience a wide range of detox symptoms as your body undergoes the transition to Paleo, it’s absolutely worth it when you get to the other side!


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