Herxheimer reaction is the more clinical term for describing the negative symptoms that occur when your body is detoxifying. It was originally used to describe people especially with candida overgrowth or lyme disease who would take intensive antibiotics or other anti microbials and would have a lot of severe symptoms from this. This is caused by the toxins that are released as a large group of microbes all dies in the body at once. Herxheimer was a doctor who described the need to “pace” anti microbial protocols for severely chronically ill patients so that this reaction did not completely debilitate them.

It is important to understand the reality of Herxheimer reactions because without this knowledge, people are often steered in the wrong direction in their recovery process. For example, people may have worsening symptoms after starting a probiotic, or a practice like sauna, or a very healing food such as meat stock. Their knee jerk reaction is to think they had a “bad response” to this thing and to stop doing it. This is not exactly right. In some ways, when we have a large reaction to something, it means that it is making shifts in the body, which is what we want! Like Dr. Herxheimer suggested, we just have to pace it in a way that our body can handle.

I have discussed this very often before, but I truly believe that toxicity is a major root cause of all illness. Of course, there are other factors that interact with and exacerbate the issue of toxicity, but we can almost always trace symptoms back to deep imbalances of heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxicants that have accumulated in the tissues. Dysbiosis or imbalance in the microbiome tend to follow, this deep toxicity tends to cause candida and parasites to overgrow. Bacterial infections and viral overload can be another related problem that develops as the immune system becomes overwhelmed.

Yes, we do have a natural capacity to detoxify: we have a complex system of organs and mechanisms designed to do exactly this. However, the toxic load of today’s world is often greater than our baseline rate of detoxification. When these toxins accumulate, and we develop all the downstream effects, we start to see signs of systemic chronic illness.

What cause us to detoxify more slowly than other people?

  1. Genetic susceptibility: people with certain genetics have slower detoxification pathways than others and will more quickly accumulate toxins they are exposed to in their environment.
  2. Massive exposure: no matter what your genetics, if you may massive toxic exposure (growing up in polluted areas, or working in a job that includes working with toxic substances) you are going to be more likely to accumulate toxins because your body just can’t keep up.
  3. Gut imbalance: if you have gut imbalance, this means you are not properly absorbing nutrients, which are needed for detoxification. Our beneficial bacteria also helps us chelate toxins, so if we have a lack of those we are more likely to accumulate toxins.

What happens if we start addressing all of these factors?

  1. Detox support practices such as sauna, castor oil packs, coffee enemas, epsom salt soaks, and lymphatic massage can help people with slower detox pathways because it lightens the load of your liver. Many people may feel initially worse when they start these practices because now we are mobilizing toxicity that has been stored deeper in the tissues for a long time.
  2. Living a nontoxic lifestyle means that you are accumulating less toxins, and your body has more capacity to deal with the “back log” that you have accumulated. That is why your symptom improvement can really go up and down a lot during your healing journey. The more capacity your body has to detox, the more it will release, which can give you waves of feeling sick between the times of feeling better.
  3. Healing the gut microbiome through my gut rebuilding diets can cause a massive wave of bacterial die off as well as provide the detox pathways with the nutrients needed to mobilize and neutralize more toxins stored in the body. People often feel much worse, sometimes up to 4-6 months in, before they start feeling better. Without being prepared for this, many people give up early feeling like it is “not working”.

Ultimate, a herxheimer reaction is your body “cleaning house”. The reactions you are experiencing are truly from moving from chronic toxicity and the chronic inflammatory symptoms associated with this to symptoms of acute toxicity as these toxins are flushed out of your tissues where they have been stored. Symptoms almost universally get worse before they get better for this reason.

Symptoms coming with a Herxheimer reaction are digestive complaints (constipation or diarrhea), psychiatric symptoms (especially increased depression or negative thoughts), increase in neurological symptoms (worsening neuropathy, tingling, buzzing, dizziness, light/sound sensitivity, fatigue, or other symptoms), and worsening autoimmune or histamine symptoms (swelling, rashes, joint pain, etc.).

Sometimes, during waves of these reactions, you may have old symptoms pop up- ones that you may not have had for a year, or even ten years, or even since you were a kid! This is a good sign because we are getting out the initial root causes of these symptoms that have been stuck in your body all of this time. Usually these symptoms pass and then never come back.

This kind of detoxification happens in layers and will often last years. This is why I don’t support crash “cleanses” but rather slow, gentle and consistent practices that help you have waves of manageable Herxheimer reactions over time. Usually, after these waves pass, people feel better than they did before the reaction! Herxheimer reactions are normal, safe, and actually a sign of healing.

About the Author
Jen Donovan completely rebuilt her life and career as a result of her experience with severe chronic illness. After finding no answers from conventional medical approaches, she took matters into her own hands and with the help of key mentors, found a path to healing.
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