Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Understanding “Cleansing” through the lens of Traditional Herbalism

The digestion system is often the first thing to
address when dealing with chronic disease.
What is the best cleanse or detox?
Walk down the supplement aisle at any health food store and you will be bombarded with detox and “cleansing” products. But what exactly is detox and why would we need to do it?

Treat the Person, not the Disease
As an herbalist I do not diagnose or treat diseases. This method is reserved for professionals in the medical industry. 

What does it mean to treat disease? 

Health care in the medical industry can look like this.... Let’s say you have a rash. You go to your doctor. Your doctor diagnoses you with eczema, prescribes a pill or a cream for eczema and then sends you on your way. This is typically a steroid cream which may temporarily take away the rash with frequent applications. 

This is not the way of a traditional herbalist. I do not diagnose diseases and I do not give treatments for disease. That’s fine by me because herbs often don’t work well when using this simplified treatment methods. There are no “rash” herbs or even “eczema” herbs. 

Herbs are most effective when they are used to address underlying problems and bring balance to a person. They are least effective when they are used to suppress a symptom. When a person comes to me with a rash I don’t ask myself, “how do I stop this rash?” Instead I ask, “What is causing this rash?” 

When someone comes to me with the primary complaint of a rash my first questions maybe directly related to the rash. What color is it? Does it itch? It is moist? dry? When did they first notice it? Does it change in severity? 

However I will certainly have a lot of other questions as well. How is that person’s digestion? Do they have frequent bouts of constipation? Do they often feel bloated? How is their immune system? Do they often get sick? How? How is their general emotional state? Are they frequently happy? Frequently angry? 

At the end of all these questions I begin to form a differential diagnosis (based on Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda). This enables me to understand WHY this rash is happening. By addressing the underlying reason, we can get rid of the symptoms, in this case, a rash. 

Understanding the perspective of the traditional herbalist will help you to understand cleansing through the lens of traditional herbalism. 

Skin is an important eliminatory pathway. Sometimes rashes indicate another eliminatory organ like the liver or colon isn't functionally optimally. 

So, What is the best cleanse or detox?
When a person comes to me requesting a cleanse my first question to them is what are their goals of the detox. 

Sometimes people have very specific health orientated goals. “I don’t want to be constipated.” “I want to have more energy in the morning.” Some have vague complaints or feel they may have a candida overgrowth. 

Oftentimes people want to cleanse because they feel dirty. Perhaps they don’t always eat healthy food. Perhaps they are concerned about environmental toxins. Perhaps they party a lot on the weekends. 

Whatever the reason, these people want to be CLEAN!

How the body works
A simplistic overview of your body is that it takes in nutrients such as air, food, and water. The absorption of these nutrients results in natural metabolic wastes. This may be carbon dioxide from the lungs, bile from the liver, or uric acid from the kidneys. 

Our bodies are designed to eliminate these metabolic wastes. The main organs of elimination are the lungs, liver, colon, kidneys, and skin. When these organs are in balance the naturally occurring metabolic wastes are successfully removed from your body. 

Our bodies are amazingly well designed to keep us healthy! No magic bullet pill or outside measures can replace the job our various organs and systems are designed to do. 

However these organs can get out of balance because of environmental toxins, the inappropriate intake of nutrients, stress, lack of exercise, poor digestion, etc. 

Herbs and lifestyle choices can be employed to help our normal eliminatory functions. 

In my mind a detox is not something we force on our body because it doesn't know how to work. Instead each person's entire body can be analyzed for health, and if appropriate, herbs, food and lifestyle changes like exercise and deep sleep can help the body do it's job. 

When the systems of elimination are out of balance you may experience 
  • chronic pain and inflammation frequent headaches
  • fatigue
  • water retention
  • digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating
  • problems associated with PMS
  • skin blemishes
  • frequent illness

The lymphatic system plays an important role in cleaning extracellular space
and supporting immune system function. 
The importance of personalized care
You may have noticed in your life that what works for Aunt Jane or what works for your best friend is not what works for you. Because each of us is unique our path of healing will be unique as well. 

So, What is the best cleanse or detox?
Most modern day cleanses are a way of purging “toxins” from the body. Sometimes this is necessary. Every system of traditional herbalism has a tradition of these therapies whether they be fasting, sweating, enemas or even therapeutic vomiting. However, traditional herbalism applies these methods for specific individuals, not for the general public! 

A more holistic approach to this would be to evaluate the person’s elimination pathways and use therapies to help them work optimally. 

Is this person constipated? Do they have problems breathing? Are their pores closed and they are unable to sweat? Is their metabolic fire running low? 

Once the individual is understood, a customized path towards wellness can be created. 

No ONE Way
There is no one way towards health. Anyone who tells you that EVERYONE needs to do colonics, or everyone needs to drink bentonite clay or everyone one needs to take a cayenne lemon juice fast is simply misguided. 

Most people who come to me interested in a cleanse are people who really won’t benefit from purging their body. Instead, many of these people need to be nourished with healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle, they need their digestive process to be supported, and most importantly they need personalized care to achieve their optimal health. 

A one-size-fits all cleanse or detox does not often accomplish long term optimal health. 

Simplistic view of Individuals
So how do you choose the appropriate path to wellness? The answer to that is as varied as the population! However here is a very simple view of two types of individuals and the different avenues they may take.  

Cold and Deficient
A person who is cold most of the time, has a pale face, frequently wakes up groggy, has loose stools and dry skin needs a warming and building therapy. Fasting, eating raw foods, herbs like dandelion or burdock are poor choices for this type of person and can exacerbate any problems they are having. Instead this person will likely benefit from building and warming therapies. 

Warm and Excessive
On the other hand, someone who has a red face, always feels hot, sweats easily, has a bellowing voice, and gets pounding headaches frequently would most likely need more cooling and drying therapies. 

What is the Best Detox?
Be wary of the seemingly magical panacea of cleanses and detox. Understand that we are all unique and our paths to wellness will also be unique. 

The best “detox” is one that was designed specifically for you. 

Traditional herbalism is not interested in fads or in temporarily purging the body as a quick fix towards health. Instead, my goal is to optimize digestion and strengthen the various systems and organs of elimination to creating lasting vibrant health. 

Our bodies are miraculous and they are designed to keep us strong and healthy. Supporting the body's natural eliminatory functions goes beyond the temporary fix of purging and serves you better in the long term.

Sign up for your own journey towards health! 

Here are some other alternative views of Detoxing and Cleansing