Written by Jo Webber
Short periods of regular cleansing are considered an important part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle. This could mean once a week, once a month, or when the seasons change. The specific approach should take into consideration the constitution and current state of balance, strength and age, as well as environmental and seasonal influences. Like much of Ayurveda, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and the length and intensity vary. Prolonged cleansing is usually not advised as it can weaken digestion. Many research studies support the benefits of ‘intermittent fasting’ which mimics how our ancestors ate with regular periods of reduced food intake or avoiding food completely (Patterson et al, 2017). Several studies also support the Ayurvedic concept that reducing eating in the evening and prolonging the period between our last meal and breakfast leads to sustained improvements in human health. Such regimens promote weight loss and improve metabolic health via positive effects on our circadian rhythm, gut microbiome and sleep quality. These approaches to cleansing are clearly outlined in ‘The Paleovedic diet’, ranging from alternate day fasting, a complete 24 hour fast, to eating one large meal every day (Palanisamy, 2015). They are being seen as offering promising non pharmacological approaches to improving health. However, even the gentlest cleanse is not appropriate for everyone, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, or the debilitated. On the other hand, if you are considering becoming pregnant, Ayurveda highly recommends that both partners undertake a cleanse approximately three months prior to conception.
There are 4 key steps to undertaking a successful Ayurvedic cleanse
A simple first step is to eliminate sugars, additives, refined carbohydrates, gluten, meat, dairy, processed foods, caffeine and alcohol which tend to create ama. You are likely to feel cravings for these foods during the first few days and caffeine withdrawal headaches can be severe. Eat simple, whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds) to set the stage for the actual cleanse, though for some a shift to just eating these foods may be a suitable cleanse in itself.
This stage involves a ‘mono-fast’ of eating one type of simple, easily digestible food such as green juices, mung dhal soup or kitchari (basmati rice with mung) with plenty of fluids. This allows the digestive system to rest while providing nourishment. Two foods which often feature are basmati rice and mung beans. Rice is considered the king of grains in Ayurveda, being sweet to taste, aromatic, cooling and light, healing the digestive tract and clearing stagnation. Mung beansaresweet and astringent, cooling, light, and dry in quality. They are an excellent detoxifying food for all the doshas, cleansing the tissues, strengthening the eyes, tonify the heart, draining dampness and clearing toxic heat from the body. Research supports that they are one of the healthiest sources of plant protein there is: Mung beans have biological activities including antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antihypertensive, lipid metabolism accommodation, antihypertensive and antitumor effects (Chung et al, 2011).
Using the Ayurvedic doshas (mind body types) can be a helpful way to find a suitable cleansing regimen.
Airy and coldvata specific cleansing regime must support strength and energy levels, so a short cleanse of up to 3 days with simple nourishing foods is best. Warm food is vital, so no raw, cold foods or juices favouring simple, warm and lightly spiced foods such as kitchari, dahl, soups and vegetables, along with aromatic herbs such as fennel, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Hydrate with warm herbal teas that support digestion such as fennel, cardamom and ginger.
Fiery and warm Pitta types benefit from cooling cleanses that help reduce excess heat and can tolerate cooler and raw foods. Favour green juices, fresh fruit and vegetables whilst hydrating with cooling juices and herbal teas that include herbs such as aloe vera, mint, dandelion and licorice.
Watery and earthed Kapha types benefit from regular, prolonged cleansing being most susceptible to congestion with slower digestion and metabolism. They have a naturally lower body temperature and need some heat to encourage detoxification. Foods should be simple, vegetable based, warm and spiced with ginger, black pepper, ginger, fennel and turmeric limiting any cooking oils.
Whatever foods are chosen, its vital to use fresh, organic and nutritious food full of prana (life-force) so the amount of toxicity the body is having to deal with is reduced. Prepare all your food for the day first thing in the morning and avoid leftovers from the previous day. Allow at least three hours between meals, aiming or three- four small meals per day though two meals may be enough for kapha types. Eat enough to feel satisfied but do not overeat. Try not to eat anything after 7 p.m. and drink at least 8–12 cups of room temperature, warm, or hot fluids each day to ensure adequate hydration and to flush toxins as they are released. Most fluids should be taken between meals to avoid diminishing the digestive fire. As toxins are released it is normal to experiencetiredness, headaches, rashes, belly noises, loose stool/constipation, odorous sweat/urine and stool, muscle ache and a foggy head. It’s key to rest and stay hydrated if you experience these. This process can also stir up unresolved emotions, which need to be witnessed, honoured and released. Having support of family or friends, as well as from a health practitioner, can be key for this.
Herbs to support the active cleansing
Ayurveda’s most famous ‘three fruit’ formula Triphala has sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes, pacifies all doshas, rejuvenates all tissues and cleanses all channels, especially those of elimination. Constipation is common during a cleanse, making this formula especially relevant. Amla has one of the highest vitamin C contents in the plant kingdom and helps regulate the liver. Haritaki means ‘remover of disease’ and helps promote the bowel and tone intestinal muscles. Bibhitaki helps maintain healthy mucus membranes. Its balanced spectrum of the five tastes can also reduce food cravings and over eating. Take one teaspoon at night with warm water to detoxify the bowel.
Another useful formula is Trikatu (‘three hots’) with ginger, black pepper and long pepper providing a pungent taste and strongly heating effect, along with light, drying qualities. It pacifies vata and kapha but aggravates pitta so is not suitable with hyperacidity, ulcers, with signs of aggravated pitta (heat) or in pregnancy.It acts on plasma, blood, muscle, fat, channels of digestion, respiration and the colon, being used in Ayurveda to support weight loss, metabolism, digest fats and ama (and LDL cholesterol). Take ½ teaspoon after breakfast and dinner, traditionally taken with honey.
Aloe Vera juice is bitter and sweet in taste with a cooling effect, reducing all three doshas with heavy, unctuous, slimy nature. It is nourishing, balancing and clears inflammatory heat from the body, whilst supporting gentle detoxification of the liver. It is one of Ayurveda’s most potent cleansing and rejuvenating elixirs. Take 1-2 tablespoons every morning on an empty stomach.
Lifestyle to support the active cleanse
Massage is a key part of Ayurvedic cleansing. You can give yourself a daily self-massage during the cleanse. Massage yourself from head to foot every day with 50ml of warm organic oil such as sesame oil. Leave the oil on your body for 15 minutes, then wash off in a hot bath or shower. By helping congested lymph return to the heart, massage also enables residual toxins to be excreted via the liver and kidneys or surface of your skin and will have an improved cleansing effect both internally and externally.
Generally, its vital to rest and to keep activities as quiet and mindful as possible to ensure your energy is devoted to cleansing. Surround yourself with things that you find uplifting and nourishing, and minimise screens, stress and exposure to busy environments. Slow, gentle exercise (ideally in nature) supports cleansing but more than that can be counterproductive. Walking, tai chi, qigong, or gentle yoga are ideal. Sleep is the body’s best time to detox so be sure to get plenty of it throughout the cleanse.
After the active cleansing phase, your body is still processing toxins and the digestive system has got used to a very easy to digest diet. It’s key to take time to go back to your normal diet as digestion needs time to gain strength. Keep the diet light and nourishing, or more toxins can form, gradually reintroducing diverse whole foods over a period equalling the time you spent actively cleansing. Avoid heavy foods (meat, fish, eggs, sugar, bananas, bread, cakes, biscuits). This can be the most challenging phase as eating a monodiet is often easier than starting to reintroduce only certain foods. Even after this phase, it may take more time before you feel the benefits of a cleanse. This is normal because the body is often still working to eliminate the toxins released. For women who menstruate, the first menstrual cycle following a cleanse can deliver a meaningful sense of completion to the cleanse.
This is the time to offer deep nourishment to the tissues as the body is a little vulnerable after cleansing. Apoptogenic, tonifying herbs like ashwagandha and shatavariare very helpful, alongside the Ayurvedic herbal jam Chywanaprash. Made in a base of Ayurvedic superfruit amalaki, it is full of antioxidants, and it is said to have been created by an ancient sage to promote energy, vitality, youthfulness and longevity. It contains many of the major Ayurvedic rejuvenative herbs (including ashwagandha, shatavari, guduchi, punarnava, pippali) bringing replenishment to the immune system, metabolism, respiratory, nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Focus on foods with high antioxidant capacities, which kindle the digestive fire, build ojas (the essential vitality of the body), and support immunity- such as ghee (clarified butter), dates, almonds, figs, organic raw milk, mung beans, sweet whole grains, and nutritive vegetables like greens and asparagus. Spices that kindle the digestive fire include turmeric, ginger, fennel, saffron, cumin, and cardamom.
When are the best times to cleanse?
Ayurveda says the best time of year to undergo a cleanse is at the change of the seasons around the spring and autumn equinoxes as we are more vulnerable at these transitions. For example, during the winter months there may be a build-up of accumulated damp and mucus, and during the summer months heat and dryness can accumulate. Our bodies are having to adapt at these times as seasonal changes in temperature affect our body’s metabolic rate. Women should not actively cleanse during menstruation. If her period comes unexpectedly, she can continue simple food but should suspend all other practices such as self-massage and use of herbs until menstruation is complete.
Recipes to support the active cleansing phase
Mung bean soup is simple, nourishing, delicious and easy to make perfect meal for a monodiet while you are cleansing.
Makes 2-3 bowls so double up as needed
- 1 litre water
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 pinch asafoetida or Hing (from Indian stores, health shops or large supermarkets
- 1-2 tsps. of fresh root ginger
- 3/4 tsp each of cumin seeds, ground coriander, garam masala, ground fennel
- Lemon juice
- 1 tbsp Ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil
- Salt or herb salt and pepper
- Fresh coriander or other green herbs to garnish
Wash the mung beans thoroughly and soak overnight or for at least four hours. Add them to a pan with the water with the water and turmeric and simmer gently until soft (around 30-40 minutes), adding more water if needed. Once cooked, heat the ghee or coconut oil in a small frying pan and fry the cumin seeds, hing (asafoetida) and ginger until aromatic. Add the remaining spices and heat for 20 seconds or so and then stir them into the soup. Add salt to taste. Serve warm with a squeeze of lemon juice, and some fresh coriander. For variety, you can add green leafy vegetables (chard, kale, spinach), grated courgettes, carrots or pumpkin. You can also gentle fry some onions and garlic to add a little sweetness. You can blend the soup for better consistency and flavour.
Kicharee is known as ‘the food of the gods’ and is an all-round healing and digestion-kindling meal, balancing for all doshas. It is
- 1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ tea spoon each of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, coriander powder, turmeric, fresh grated ginger root
- 1 pinch salt or herb salt
- 2 pinches asafoetida
- 1 cup basmati rice
- 1 cup split mung dal (yellow, green soaked overnight)
- 4-6 cups water
- 60g diced organic carrots/celery/ seasonal vegetables
- fresh lemon juice and chopped coriander/ herbs to serve
Wash rice and dhal separately in at least 2 changes of water. Sauté mustard seeds in ghee till they pop, then add other spices, starting with the seeds and the powders. Add mung dhal and rice and sauté for 2 minutes. Add boiling water, bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Prepare vegetables that suit your constitution by cutting into small pieces. Add vegetables, salt and extra water if required and simmer for another 20 minutes or until fully cooked. Aim to have minimal water remaining. Vata dosha types can add a little extra ghee and hemp seed oil to counter vata’s dry tendencies Pitta dosha can add extra coriander which is cooling and calming. Kapha types can add extra fresh ginger and green leafy vegetables to add more spicy, bitter flavours.
A Simple cleansing Tea
Throughout a cleanse, the following tea can be drunk during the day. It supports agni and helps digest and eliminate toxins. Ensure you drink regularly throughout the day but avoid drinking excessively. Listen to your body and drink according to its needs.
- 1 litre water
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 tsp. coriander seeds
- 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- 1 tsp. fresh root ginger juice
- 3 cardamom (discard the pods and grind the seeds)
Mix everything and gently heat in a pan. Remove from the heat just before it boils and leave to steep for a further 10 minutes. Filter and drink or keep warm in a flask to consume throughout the day.
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