Detox? Cleansing? What’s Ayurveda’s Take?

March 26, 2015    BY Kathryn Templeton

I was in the grocery store yesterday and saw a product that said it would “detox the liver” in three days. I giggled. I'm not saying this was false advertising, but the word "detox" carries many different meanings, and I'm still unclear about what's behind the Box O’Detox claim. What I can tell you is that there are a lot of folks out there who take on these detox programs and end up feeling worse than before. And prior to putting that all-in-one cleansing kit in your grocery cart, it's a good idea to understand what you're trying to "detoxify" your body of in the first place. Seasonal allergies? A sluggish mind? Excess weight? Water buildup? Skin blemishes? Acne? Rashes? Stiff joints? Headaches? Cellulite? The list of what we want to get rid of goes on and on.

How can a box filled only with herbs or pills truly cleanse our organs, tissues, or fat cells when everything else we're doing remains the same?

Most ayurvedic detoxifications are formulated to cleanse a system (like our glands), organs (like the liver), tissues like our rasa (blood), which is considered a tissue in ayurveda, or to remove excess water from our bodies. And when we detoxify the wastes that our bodies have been holding onto, we feel better, function with more efficiency, and support our overall health and wellness. Ayurvedic doctor John Doulliard says that in cleansing we need to “learn how to reset digestive strength and the body’s natural detox pathways.” The issue here is that we tend to buy one-size-fits-all detox programs or detoxes that claim to help many health concerns, usually via ingesting a supplement or juice. But how can a box filled only with herbs or pills truly cleanse our organs, tissues, or fat cells when everything else we're doing remains the same? If we're still drinking soda, snacking on chips, sitting in front of the computer, and not paying attention to sleeping habits, how will Box O’Detox really be of use?

The answer is obvious. Why don’t we unpack the issues that got us feeling tired, heavy, dull, cranky, and bloated in the first place? Ayurveda suggests detoxifying two times a year. As practitioners, we follow nature and are proactive about keeping our systems clean. The idea is that if we establish a biannual, easy-to-manage, gentle cleansing and rejuvenating week, we'll be setting ourselves up for wellness all year long! With semiannual cleansing and detoxing, our system doesn't get overwhelmed by a buildup of wastes and burnt-out or sluggish physiological systems.

Along with cleansing, it's good to establish nourishing or rejuvenating practices in this week as well—daily routines that include deep relaxation and meditation, supportive foods, and even taking herbs that help us rebuild our depleted systems so that we don't get run down or experience a post-cleanse illness. Time and awareness are two major things that are not included in the detox box, but they play key roles in an ayurvedic cleansing program. When we consult with an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist (AYS) or Ayuvedic Practitioner or when we instill ayurvedic principles into our own daily practices, we're identifying what we're cleansing and why—not just attacking everything all at once.

So when is the best time to start a detox and nourishment program? Ayurveda says there are two perfect times to do this every year: the springtime and the fall. During these times of seasonal transition we can really benefit from taking some time out to assess and care for our mental and physical conditions.

Taking anywhere from five days to three weeks to pay attention to what we eat, how we sleep, how we're functioning mentally, and how we're moving along in our daily lives is a super-healthy idea. It's a FULL MONTY detox and there's no doubt we're going to benefit at the end! We slow down our daily hustle-bustle and add in routines that both cleanse and nourish us each day. We start, or reinvest in, a yoga or daily exercise program to keep our digestive fire regulated, our glands functioning, our muscles firing, and our waste channels toned. We make seasonal food the medicine to help us support our digestion. For instance, we might eat light, cleansing sprouts in the spring, and warm, nourishing six-taste kitchari (spiced rice and lentils) in the fall. We practice being in nature daily to keep ourselves connected with spirit—that force of life that is larger than ourselves. We regulate our waking time, bedtime, and mealtimes.

When we detox in the fall, more focus is placed on rejuvenating because we're moving from a hot time of the year into a season that is cold, dry, and hard. Less actual cleansing is required, as the hot and light qualities of summer are more naturally detoxifying. However, we do need to reduce heat and calm ourselves before moving into winter, nature's vata stage. As Dr. Claudia Welch explains, “It is good to purge pitta out of the body and calm vata. Doing a fall ayurvedic cleanse can assist with this, allowing the body to change gears and reset the good digestion button.”

When we detox as the seasons change from winter to spring, we endeavor in a more intense food cleansing. We're moving into a hearty time of the year. All of nature is detoxifying and building up for the rebirth of spring. And so can we! When speaking about spring cleansing, Aadil Palkhivala has this to say: “The most dramatic effect that people notice is mental clarity. Your skin will become radiant and you’ll have profound deep sleep.”

We need to support the cleansing of not just one system but all of the systems for the greatest effect—with a special focus on digestion.

Yes, this is quite different from a detox in a box. Sometimes there are cleansing and rejuvenating herbs involved in ayurvedic detox, but these are used in a gentle manner to support the outer practices that are cleansing the systems of the body as a whole, rather than parts in isolation. Ayurvedic principles remind us that we live with all of our physiological systems working together, so we need to support the cleansing of not just one system but all of the systems for the greatest effect—with a special focus on digestion.

I'm not saying that there's not something of use in a box detox. I am suggesting that taking a week or so to focus on what we're doing with our lifestyles, food, sleep, and mental awareness will effect a more useful cleansing of our bodies and minds. During this time we can determine what we need to do to nourish and support ourselves better as we move into the next season. Instead of Box O'Detox, let’s go with a seasonal reset, a full lifestyle practice of cleansing and nourishing our bodies and minds, so we can return to balance and create a year rich with wellness.

Kathryn Templeton
Kathryn Templeton, MA, RDT/MT, E-RYT 500, is an Ayurvedic practitioner who has devoted her life to the health of others. A psychotherapist for more than 30 years, Kathryn is a master teacher in the field of Drama Therapy and continues to work both clinically and as an educator specializing in the treatment of individuals with complex trauma. As an E-RYT 500, NAMA Certified Ayurvedic practitioner and senior Para Yoga teacher, Kathryn has worked to develop specialized treatments integrating the... Read more>>