In the world of holistic health, the concept of cleansing, or fasting to increase quality of life, and prevent or even cure disease is widespread. A quick Google search of “cleansing supplements” prompts 45, 500, 000 results, and “fasting supplements” brings up 34,100,000 results. It would appear that the market for “detox”, “cleansing”, and “fasting”, different words used interchangeably to promote the same concept, is big business. But what are the main reasons someone may be interested in cleansing, or fasting, and what are the actual health outcomes? A study done by Michalsen et. al. (2005) found that 78% of 2021 patients who participated in their study on fasting therapy, reported that fasting had improved their health and quality of life. Similarly, an article on The Health Benefits of Fasting and Caloric Restriction by Golbidi et al. (2017) lists the benefits of fasting as “a complex series of intricate events” including modification of apoptosis, activation of cellular stress response elements, and alteration in hormonal balance. In Pop culture celebrities as famous as J Lo and Beyoncé have vocalized the effective use of fasting for weight loss. Beyoncé told Oprah Winfrey about her use of the master cleanse to loose 20 pounds for her 2006 role in the movie Dream Girls. Similarly, J- Lo’s 10 day no sugar cleanse headline seems to make its way around social media every New Year. So with all of this information on cleansing and detox coming at us, how are we to know, what is safe? When to do it? Why to do it? And whether it is actually beneficial for health or just diet culture rearing its ugly head? In this paper we will explore these questions and more.
What is Cleansing?
Cleansing is a catch – all term for detoxification or purification of an organ system. People may be interested in cleansing for weight loss, to rid themselves of parasites, to promote healthy liver function, healthy kidney function, healthy gall bladder function, healthy intestinal function, to clear the skin, to loose weight, to reverse disease, to prevent disease, and even to clear the mind, etc. The concept of cleansing is very broad, and so it is important to understand the different systems one works with in cleansing, in order to make an informed choice as to what is right for your self as an individual. In their book, 7- Day Detox Miracle, Bennet & Barrie (2002) list six steps to body detoxification. Both men are Naturopathic doctors, and they believe that by following their program one can revitalize their mind and body, and enhance their life. Their steps are as follows:
- Remove obstacles to health: Their premise is that the main obstacle to optimal health by the modern man is the toxic strain that their body is under.
- Improve Circulation: “Infection, trauma, and disease processes respond positively to the circulation of blood and body fluid”. They propose that once enhances circulation by hot and cold hydrotherapy. An example of this would be a person going from a sauna, into an ice bath.
- Enhance Elimination: Using methods to enhance detoxification of the skin through sweat, the kidneys through urine, and the bowels through bowel movements.
- Repair the Gastro Intestinal System: Restoring the Intestinal micro-flora. In their book they ascertain that toxins are released by harmful bacteria in our gut, and that those toxins are absorbed into the bloodstream. Diseases caused by the release of these toxins into our blood stream are: “rheumatoid arthritis, Graves disease, colitis, diabetes, meningitis, myasthenia gravis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and bowel cancer” (2002, P. 82). Pretty scary stuff.
- Stimulate the Liver: Because of the liver’s role of filtering the blood, the idea is that too many toxins in the blood leave the Liver feeling sluggish and not processing blood properly. Promoting healthy liver function through diet, exercise and supplementation will help to move accumulated toxins out with the bile, and therefore unclog the liver.
- Transform Stress: By healing the mind, and increasing the mind body connection the patient will thrive. The idea is that an unhealthy mind will lead to an unhealthy body, and vice versa.
There are many different ideas around what a Cleanse is, and what overall system in the body one should focus on to promote cleansing. The six step process detailed above is a good example of the ideas behind a total body cleanse. Alternatives to a full body cleanse may be: Taking herbs that are known to be anti parasitic in order to kill intestinal parasites. Eating a simple diet, and taking fiber supplements to promote bowel movements, and cleanse the bowels, or abstaining from alcohol and taking milk thistle to cleanse the liver. A cleanse can be a long and intricate process, as detailed above, or as simple as taking an herb with little lifestyle modification to promote a desired effect.
A weight loss cleanse that has been massively popular through the years is the Master Cleanse. Pop celebrity and Icon Beyonce even spoke about her use of the Master Cleanse on Oprah. The Master Cleanse is a good example of a liquid diet that promotes very restricted calorie intake with a primary focus on rapid weight loss. The juice that is consumed on this cleanse consists of Water, Lemon, Cayenne Pepper, and Maple Syrup. Stanley Burroughs developed this diet in the 1940’s, and while it does tout body purification, there have been no studies conducted to corroborate that the body has detoxed its self of anything other than physical weight loss. In fact this type of diet can be considered dangerous to those who are diabetic, as it is high in sugar, with one of the main 3 ingredients being Maple Syrup.
There is also a philosophy around fasting known as Intermittent Fasting. In this method of fasting the person only eats within an 8 hour window of the day, and abstains from food during the evening, night time and morning hours. The window where food is eaten can be lengthened, but generally a person engaging in intermittent fasting will skip breakfast, eat lunch and dinner, and be done eating by about 7PM. The idea is that the person still gets the nutrients that they need to survive, but their digestive organs have a longer period of time between when they need to be actively working and so the body can focus on detoxing itself and balancing its hormones.
Who should cleanse?
According to Elson Haas, MD in her book Staying Healthy with Nutrition (2006), everyone should experience periods of cleansing or detoxification. She describes the process as, “a vacation for your body”. Biomedical research has been conducted on the concept of intermittent fasting has found that there is a positive correlation between intermittent fasting and a reduced inflammatory state and increased metabolic parameters. (Unalacak, 2011).
Any person who is looking to cleanse their body in a significant way, while also managing an illness such as diabetes must consult with their doctors throughout the process. Some medications, such as blood thinners, thyroid medications, and insulin need to be monitored through testing of a person’s blood values. The way someone’s body reacts to medications can be measured through the blood, and altering a person’s diet, can alter the way that their body reacts to a medication, of the amount of medication a person needs. For example, if you have diabetes, and you need to take insulin to manage your blood sugar, it is important that you are taking the amount of insulin that is right for your body. Taking too much insulin can cause you to have dangerously low levels of blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia. Side effects of hypoglycemia are: Sweating chills, tingling in the fingertips, dizziness, lightheadedness etc. So if you are someone who is interested in cleansing your body, but are on prescription drugs, it is important to consult your primary care provider and to get routine blood work done during your cleanse, in order to keep yourself safe. Especially if the goal of your cleanse is to loose weight, and be on a cleanse for an extended period of time. Cleansing can be very beneficial to health, but should not be done in excess. Cleansing is a tool that we can use to optimize our health, but cleansing for too long a time period or too often can cause nutrient deficiencies, and can borderline obsessive eating patterns associated with disordered eating. Supplement companies that promote cleansing once a month, are promoting unhealthy eating habits in return for increased profits, and it is important to be able to recognize this.
What is TCM’s Approach to Cleansing:
In the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine Eating with the seasons is very important, and there are two appropriate times to cleanse the body. Cleansing should be done in either the spring of the fall, because these are the two seasons of change or pivot. Trying a cleanse that would restrict your calorie intake in the dead of winter would be considered detrimental, because winter can be harshly cold, and the body needs extra calories and fat in order to insulate its self from the cold. In the summer time the climate is very hot, and your body is working on regulating your temperature for you once again, so you would not want to throw anything extra at it. The spring and the fall are considered more moderate in temperature, it is neither too hot, nor too cold, and therefore your body can process cleansing more effectively. Cleansing the body can be done simply by using a whole foods approach, and excessive supplementation is not required.
Spring is a particularly effective time to cleanse your body, because the season of spring is all about renewal. The Organ associated with spring is the liver and gallbladder, two organs that help with digestion and detoxification. The liver of course also cleanses the blood. Emotionally the spring is an appropriate time to let go of anger that can be festering inside of you, as anger is the emotion that negatively affects the liver.
Suggested Detox/ Cleanse:
Based on the above information, I would suggest a cleanse or detox regime once or twice a year, in the spring or fall seasons. I would recommend that anyone looking to cleanse consult with their doctor, or alternative care practitioner in order to come up with a cleansing protocol that is right for your body, and also will give you the desired outcome, especially if you are taking prescription medications for ongoing health issues. Here are some Sample Guidelines for cleansing or detoxing the body.
- Cut out any of the common allergens, as they are foods that are known to cause inflammation in the human body. The most common allergens are: Wheat, cow’s milk, eggs, soybeans, corn, beef, coffee, chocolate, yeast, tomatoes, shellfish, and mushrooms (Haas, 2006). I would include abstaining from alcohol and processed sugar, as they are also known to be inflammatory. Cut out all processed and fried foods, and especially any fast food.
- Move your body in a healthy manner at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This can include walking, hiking, running, yoga, and weight lifting. Be careful not to over exert yourself in exercise while fasting, as your caloric intake may be decreased, and your body will not have as much nutrients to fuel it, therefore gentle exercises are recommended.
- Supplements: Include more fiber rich foods in your diet, or supplement with a gentle fiber such as triphala, or apple fiber supplement to keep your bowels moving and promote detoxification through your intestines. Include a high quality Chlorella supplement. Chlorella is a type of blue green algae that is both high in protein and also assists your liver in promoting detoxification (Haas, 2006).
- This would be a good time to introduce intermittent fasting. So, eat for an 8 to 10 hour period in the day, and then fast with water during the evening and night for 16 to 14 hours.
- Drink an ample amount of water to help promote elimination and detoxification. A basic rule for the amount of water to drink is to take your body weight, divide that number in half, then drink that much water in ounces a day. For example, if you weight 150 pounds you would drink 75 ounces of water a day.
- If your normal diet includes a lot of raw fish, or you often travel to foreign countries including an anti-parasitic supplement to your detox protocol may be a good idea. Anti-parasitic supplements can include ingredients such as black walnut, clove, holy basal, wormwood, etc. Talk to your health care professional if you think this might be suitable for you.
- Lifestyle recommendations: If you have a sauna accessible to you, a daily or weekly sauna to help eliminate toxins through the skin is helpful, but only stay in the sauna for up to 30 minutes, and get out if you begin to feel dizzy or light headed. Taking a warm bath with Epsom salt can also be an effective adjunctive therapy to help increase detoxification. If you have access to alternative health care, acupuncture and cupping therapy can be a helpful way to help your body adapt to the cleanse, manage any stress that your body experiences due to the cleanse, and can assist with the detoxification process.
- Follow an active detox protocol for 2 weeks to 30 days. It is a good idea to ease yourself into your detox for about a week prior to following the regime. For example, if you drink a lot of coffee, slowly wean yourself off coffee for a week prior to the cleanse to avoid getting bad headaches as a result of cutting yourself off of coffee cold turkey. Then once you have finished your detox protocol, slowly add foods back into your diet over the next week. By doing this you may also gain some perspective on foods that naturally don’t suit you. For example, on the day you decide to add dairy back into your diet, if you break out in a rash, develop a headache, or experience diarrhea, you may not be able to tolerate dairy, and it may be a good idea to remove it from your diet more permanently.
Cleansing and detoxing can be an effective way to increase a feeling of well being, and decrease overall inflammation in the body. However, cleansing should be done in an appropriate manner, and with a mild season, and should not be done in excess. If you have any concerns about how cleansing may affect you, or an existing health condition, consult your doctor, or health care practitioner.
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Bennett, P., Barrie, S., & Faye, S. (2002). 7-Day detox miracle: restore your mind and body’s natural vitality with this safe and effective life-enhancing program. Rocklin, CA: Prima Health.
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