Written by Jo Webber
Why do we need ‘to cleanse’ – Doesn’t our body do that naturally every day?
As cleansing is carried out continuously, mainly by the liver and kidneys, some feel emphasis on the need for additional detoxification or cleansing is misguided. Misinformation in the media has also given these a bad name, such as the ‘quick fix detox’ each January. Much of the resulting ‘detox backlash’ has quite rightly focused on the need for a consistently balanced approach to health. However, any increase in toxins- be they from normal metabolism within the body or from external sources- increases the workload for organs which were never designed for today’s toxic overload. Our ancestors did not eat ultra-processed diets lacking in diversity, which now make up half the average family’s trolley in the UK (Monteiro et al, 2017). Nor were they exposed to chemicals, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs, atmospheric and industrial pollutants and pesticides which pose novel challenges for our detoxification system. Numerous studies support the adverse effect these endogenous toxins are having, both on planetary and human health (Schwartz, 2004).
It seems common sense to ensure we help our bodies to cleanse, enhancing our natural ability to metabolise waste effectively. ‘Fasting’ and eating a simplified diet are highly regarded in both Ayurveda and its sister science Yoga, as well as most traditional wisdom systems and religions. The Ayurvedic view is that eating and digesting food requires significant energy and when you have a break, your body diverts this energy for ‘housekeeping’. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective in that we have endured feast or famine for much of our history, with an unpredictable supply of food. We have adapted to survive for periods with less food- as opposed to today when most are overfed but undernourished. Whichever way you look at it – from a traditional Ayurvedic or modern biomedical view – there’s no doubt that wastes in our bodies and the stresses of modern life are not good for us.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, not feeling our best offers an invitation from our bodies to correct early imbalances before they progress. Even if we feel full of health, a periodic cleanse is one of the most valuable gifts we can offer ourselves and our clients. In today’s world when so many of us are overly busy, overly toxic and consistently weighed down by stress, a cleanse can be a profound experience. The following signs often indicate that such a cleanse could be beneficial:
- Any digestive issues
- Reduced focus and brain fog
- A lack of energy and fatigue
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep issues
Cleansing as part of the traditional Ayurvedic treatment approach
Ayurveda recognises 3 steps for a practitioner to follow in managing any kind of ill-health:
- Removal of the causes (primarily a diet and lifestyle approach),
- Pacify the condition with tailored diet, natural remedies and therapies that are opposite in nature to the aggravated dosha/ qualities of the disease. Or actively purging the body of the disease-causing agents. Both these involve some form of cleansing.
- Rejuvenation of body and mind
Along with many wisdom traditions, Ayurveda recognises that faulty digestion contributes to any illness. Digestion is likened to a fire (known as agni). For a fire to burn wood effectively and create heat, the flame needs to be burning brightly. If it is not and it is just a glowing ember or a small flicker, you could put the best logs on it, but they will just get a little charred with no breakdown nor heat. This concept of agni can be broken down into 3 main types:
- The main digestive fire: The digestive processes we have in our digestive tract which break down food to a simple form and allow it to be absorbed
- The elemental fire: The processes in the liver and circulation which transform and sort through the broken-down food into useable nutrients and excretable waste
- The tissue fire: The transformational processes which use these nutrients to synthesise tissues and provide energy for those tissues
If agni is weak, we suffer with bloating, wind, heartburn, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, feelings of heaviness, lethargy, lack of energy and a sense of blockage in the body. This can develop to a whole host of diseases due to the formation of undigested matter or ama. With optimum agni, we feel light, energetic and strong, our tissues are nourished, and we have good resilience and immunity. Ayurveda sees balanced agni as key in achieving optimal health. A practitioner must rekindle the digestive fire to its optimum capacity so that both food and herbs can be digested and assimilated. To do this we must first cleanse the gastro-intestinal tract of undigested toxins via the process of amapachana. Then restore the digestive fire, a process known as agni deepana. Hence, any Ayurvedic cleanse supports this aim by resting and purifying the digestive system.
It is obvious that the body tissues cannot be nourished and developed when food is not properly digested by your digestive fire (Charaka SamhitaChikitsa Sthana 15/5)
It is now well known that the role of digesting food is just the tip of the iceberg for the gut, with it being the interface between the outside and our bodies. Its total surface area is two hundred times greater than that of the skin and has major impacts on our health. As the gut plays such a central role, anything that stimulates gut signals can have a major impact throughout the body – without being absorbed. The gut hosts most of the immune system, is our largest hormone organ, an extension of the nervous system and is a key recycler of metabolites via the bile, bowel, and microbiome- all of which add weight to Ayurveda’s view that most issues begin with a weak digestive fire.
When food is undigested because digestion is low, it becomes imbalanced and collects in the stomach. It is known as toxic ama. (Ashtanga’s Heart of Medicine)
Ayurveda’s term ama means ‘unripe, uncooked, immature and undigested’ and offers a broad concept of waste, being any un-metabolised substance not assimilated by your mind or body. Initial signs of ama are food cravings, mood swings, weakness, fatigue, fogginess, anxiety, bad breath, a coated tongue, body odour and sluggishness. It has damp, sticky, heavy qualities and if left to stagnate, becomes poisonous and can lead to IBS and other digestive issues, rheumatic joint or muscle pain, high cholesterol, autoimmune conditions, weight gain, low energy as well as many other issues. Most of us have some degree of ama even if we feel healthy due to the increase in both internal and external toxins today. Beyond increasingly processed diets and environmental pollutants, we are exposed to stress, extreme emotions, negative images and distressing world events through the media on a regular basis. Eating food incompatible with your digestive capability and constitution, incompatible food combinations (such as milk with meat or fish) and withholding urges (e.g., bowel movements, flatus, urine) can also cause agni to diminish allowing ama to form.
If ama is purely caused by poor digestive power, it may just remain in the digestive tract causing various acute and then chronic digestive issues. Increasing the digestive fire allows this to be digested, the passed out of the body. However, if ama crosses the GI tract membranes and is absorbed into general circulation it can impact deeper metabolic processes (elemental-fires or tissue-fires). These blockages cause further reduction in metabolic fires in a vicious cycle leading to many serious, chronic diseases. These depend on where it gets lodged (often at an inherently weak tissue) and with which doshas it combines. If ama remains in the body for a long time, it can lodge deep in the tissues and cells initiating autoimmune reactions (such as in rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis) and cancer.
The role of cleansing in restoring agni and digesting ama
Purging the body was traditionally done through a programme of panchakarma (‘five actions of purgation’). This protocol returns a person to their natural state, free from ama, with balanced doshas, a peaceful mind, good organ function and waste elimination. It works by drawing deep-rooted toxins and aggravated doshas from tissues and returning them to the gut for elimination through: Vamana (emesis); Virechana (Purgative therapy), Basti (medicated enema), Nasya (nasal therapy) and Rakta mokshana (bloodletting). Before these powerful cleansing therapies can be administered, the patient must be prepared on a strict diet, with ama-digesting herbs, drinking and massaging the body with oily substances and using steam and saunas). For example, Virechana is used to cleanse the blood, stomach, intestines, liver, spleen and kidneys. It is commonly used in skin disorders, especially eczema where it has been shown to give an 81% cure rate and negligible recurrence (Kaur et al, 2012). It is useful for any disease caused by high pitta dosha (excess heat and inflammation) and is traditionally recommended each autumn to prevent this build-up. Studies have also looked at panchakarma-style cleansing programmes, showing that taking herbs, a vegetarian diet, using meditation, yoga, and massage reduced markers indicating risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease and altered gut bacteria (Peterson et al, 2016).
All Ayurvedic cleanses aim to eliminate ama from the system, but one key difference between panchakarma and other types is that it reverses the flow of nutrition. Normally, nutrition flows from the digestive tract into the blood and then tissues. During panchakarma, the digestive fire is intentionally reduced, by intake of medicated ghee. This reverses the direction so ama moves from the tissues, into the blood and then gut for elimination. While this may occur in other Ayurvedic cleanses on a superficial level, panchakarma intensifies the process to deeply cleanse tissues and channels. It is perhaps the most powerful tool in Ayurveda’s medicine chest, treating serious, chronic and acute issues, as well as to maintain health. However, it is complex and lengthy, taking 3-6 weeks to complete and must be administered by an experienced practitioner. Such strong practices are not appropriate for many people the elderly, and those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, weak or with heart disease.
For those lacking the time, funds, suitability and access to panchakarma, a simpler method is to follow a fasting regime. Fasting is often viewed as a deprivation, but Ayurvedic fasting does not necessarily mean going without food. It can involve eating a cleaner, lighter diet and offers a good alternative to panchakarma. As we’ve seen, a practitioner must first rekindle the digestive fire to its optimum capacity as well as cleanse the gut of undigested toxins. A cleanse or fast achieves both by minimising potential toxins entering the body so that it can rest and repair, then building agni so that tissues are nourishedand ama digested. This experience can still be challenging as toxins are released into the circulation to be eliminated. However, if an Ayurvedic cleanse is undertaken correctly, benefits include:
- A sense of calm and groundedness in the nervous system
- Improved energy and enthusiasm
- A healthy body weight
- Balanced sleep cycles.
- Regular elimination of wastes.
- The tissues are prepared for rejuvenation.