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It’s not fair. You turn your back on processed foods, shift to a plant-based diet, say Goodbye to dairy products, and begin a walking program. You skip between-meal snacks, enjoy plenty of shut-eye, and lower your stress.

Then it happens: you feel terrible!

What’s going on? Why is getting healthy making you sick?

The answer is as complex as any human condition, but like so much in life, everything—even health—comes at a price. The good news is, the price you’re paying for becoming healthy is temporary, while the rewards are long lasting—just the opposite of the journey that destroyed your health in the first place.

So don’t be discouraged if, like many who’ve changed their lives to improve their health and longevity, you go through periods of short-term discomfort. On this journey, headaches, stomach upsets, loss of energy, and general malaise can be a sign that things are getting better, not worse.

The pleasure principle

The first hurdle is in your brain. The manufactured foods you’ve learned to love—especially those highly refined taste sensations that line the grocery store aisles—contain high levels of fat, sugar, and salt. You eat them and think, “Wow. This is great!” Your brain, responding to your euphoric taste buds, releases a bit of dopamine—a chemical that gives you pleasurable experiences and enhances your enjoyment of these foods. From that moment on, when you want pleasure, your brain suggests, “Hey, remember that feel-good munchie you had the other day? Let’s have some more!” That’s how cravings begin. In time, you actually become addicted to these unhealthy foods.

In his book, Breaking the Food Seduction, Dr. Neal Barnard shines a bright light on this common phenomenon. He suggests that certain chemicals were “invented” for the express purpose of enslaving you. He says that “heroin, cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and, in fact, all recreational drugs work on the brain’s pleasure center triggering a greatly exaggerated dopamine response. Someone also invented chocolate bars, wedges of cheese, cookies, and doughnuts. All of these foods are capable of stimulating precisely the same part of the brain that responds to heroin. And that is why they can be addicting.”

One fine day, after reading an article or book or viewing a DVD on how to improve your health, you load your shopping cart with fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other healthy choices. You begin eating meals that are composed of unrefined foods that taste great and satisfy your hunger. But it’s not the same. Something is missing, and your brain knows it.

What happens next makes many people think they made a mistake in moving to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and it’s very familiar to anyone who has fought to overcome an addiction. The body rebels. It says, “I WANT MY SALT! I WANT MY SUGAR! I WANT MY FAT!”

Withdrawal symptoms and their severity vary from person to person. It may be a headache, a stomachache, or a feeling of urgency or confusion. The mind is trying to keep things on an even keel, but one of its favorite oars is missing.

The big clean

About this time, something else happens—something essential to your health but that can make you feel very uncomfortable. Your body, suddenly finding itself filled with foods that heal instead of causing illness and disease, decides to clean house. Nutritionists have a fancy word for it: detoxification. This basically means, “In with the good, out with the bad.”

To illustrate: imagine carrying years of accumulated trash through your house on the way to the back door. You’ve been hiding it in closets, under beds, in tightly sealed dresser drawers, and up in the attic. Since it stacked up slowly, you got used to the odor. But now, as you perform the mother of all spring cleanings, you carry this rotting refuse out into the open, moving it through your residence like a foul, pungent parade.

Detoxifying your body is very much like that. The chemicals, poisons, excess hormones, and even residual medicines that have been stored in your fat tissues and diseased organs suddenly find themselves freely circulating as the nutrition-triggered healing process shifts into high gear.

You may wonder why those toxins got stored in your body in the first place. And the answer is simple: highly refined foods that are mostly devoid of roughage (better known as fiber) don’t motivate your body to rid itself of waste matter. Most people in today’s Western society are constipated. They’re also dehydrated from drinking too little water. All this slows the elimination process, so your body isn’t cleaning house on a regular basis. Everything from the toxins in food to impurities in the air, along with the refuse from your body’s metabolism, simply gets stored in fat, and in due time it gets reintroduced to your body’s systems to do its damage.

So here you are, apple in hand, stomach filled with whole grains and legumes, sipping water throughout the day, enjoying a regular exercise program, and you feel like your body is filled with sludge.

It is.

But as the fiber in plant foods combines with the copious amounts of water you are now drinking, your waste management system fires up. Waste material starts exiting your body in a regular and almost joyous manner. Every system adds to the great exodus, dumping long-stored toxins into your blood stream.

No wonder you feel a bit under the weather! No wonder you’re experiencing some nausea or your head hurts! No wonder you have less energy and occasionally can’t think as clearly as you’d like! Your body is in an epic purge mode, a vital step to gaining and maintaining optimum health.

Dr. Janice Stanger, PhD, in her book, The Perfect Formula Diet, suggests that rapid weight loss brought on by less-than- healthy diet programs can trigger this kind of unpleasant event. She says, “Americans of all ages have an average of 116 man-made chemicals in their bodies that should not naturally be present, including DDT, lead, mercury, dioxins, and PCBs. . . . Most of these toxic substances are stored in your body fat. Losing weight too quickly can overwhelm your liver, which is charged with most of the work of getting rid of these harmful substances as they are released during weight loss. . . . Burning up fat too quickly can lead to feeling ill, as your liver works overtime in the race to detoxify the chemicals that the cells are releasing.”

She goes on to remind her readers that the “Perfect Formula Diet” made up of unrefined, whole plant foods with no animal proteins, assures a slow and steady weight loss, allowing your liver to better keep up with demand. Toxins are still being released but at a manageable rate.

Healing hurts

Anyone who has ever suffered from an injury or surgery knows that healing can hurt. The body must rebuild what was lost or damaged, which can include the repair of nerve endings, sensitive tissues, chipped bones, or torn muscles.

An unhealthy diet that leads to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer leaves an injurious, destructive path through your internal systems. Disease isn’t a pretty sight. It maims, alters, scars, rots, and eats into flesh, bone, and organ tissue. One look at such damage will convince you that disease doesn’t tread lightly on your body. Thankfully, most of this damage eventually heals. But the process can be painful. Even medicines can make you feel awful as they try to make you feel good.

Many patients are surprised to learn that some of the most powerful drugs on the market are really herbs and other plants that have been tampered with. Modern science knows just how incredible certain potent plants can be for bringing about healing, so they harvest it, infuse it with a chemical or two so they can patent their new creation, then sell it to you at over-the moon prices.

When you sit down to a whole-food, plant-based meal, you’re bypassing the pharmaceutical companies and introducing the healing power of plants directly into your body without taking a pill. Suddenly, the natural chemistry of nature attacks an illness in you, causing painful reactions as it sparks the healing process. Many people, not understanding what’s going on, blame the plant food for their occasional suffering, vowing to stay away from such “harmful” foods. But the real problem is that healthy eating can sometimes make you feel bad as it works to make you feel good.

The wonderful news is that, whether your reaction to healthy food is withdrawal, dumping of toxins, or that strange pain of healing, all are transient events and a lot less disruptive to your life than out-of-control disease and illness. If getting healthy makes you sick, rejoice. You’re on the path to optimum well-being. You’ll soon look back at the experience and say, “I didn’t like it, but it was totally worth it!”

Help your body

The human body is amazingly capable of adjusting habits, throwing off toxins, and healing damaged cells and tissue. Consider these seven simple tips for making the process faster and less disruptive.

  1. Eat a Large, Healthy Breakfast. By filling your stomach first thing in the morning with healing, fiber-rich foods (fruits, grains, nuts, legumes), you’ll be much less likely to be hungry for unhealthy snacks throughout the day, and you’ll speed waste removal.
  2. Break Craving Cycles. Harmful foods are often attached to certain activities. Make some changes. Instead of watching television, go for a walk. Instead of stopping by the fast food restaurant after work, explore a whole foods market for new, healthy selections. Alter your routine, change your cravings, and return to optimum health.
  3. Remove Toxins From Your Body. Don’t be afraid to sweat. Sit in a sauna or hot tub. Exercise to activate sweat glands. And improve elimination by enjoying fiber-rich foods while drinking plenty of water. Aim for experiencing a bowel movement at least once a day. Activated charcoal mixed with water helps remove internal toxins.
  4. Seek Divine Help. We’re all weak and prone to make mistakes. God isn’t. Ask for divine assistance as you make the necessary and sometimes uncomfortable changes from being who you are to who you want to be. Some pain, much gain.
  5. Gather Support. Choose friends and family members who will stand with you, not against you, as you strive for a healthier you. They’ll encourage you through the rough spots—and there will be rough spots. Just know you’re on your way up, not down.
  6. Remove Toxins From Your Environment. Choose environmentally friendly cleaning products (especially anything that comes in contact with your skin). Introduce fresh air into your work, play, and sleep spaces. Reduce time spent in unhealthy interaction with traffic, pesticides, and other pollutants.
  7. Assist Healing. Allow your body access to healing plant foods. Refined foods, which require much internal processing and storage, rob bodily systems of resources necessary for healing. Generate “fast heal” by providing powerful nature created tools. Remember that sleep time is healing time for your body. Don’t skimp.

Getting Healthy Makes Me Sick

by Charles Mills
From the January 2013 Signs