Rethinking our perspective on cleansing… “Cleanse” versus “Detox”
I like to think of a cleanse as a seasonal renewal and an opportunity to get into balance, rather than a “detox” for a couple of reasons. One is because I strongly believe it is important to have an empowering, health-affirming perspective in relationship to our bodies and our healing processes. In other words, I don’t find it to be helpful on any level to think of oneself as “toxic”. I also have found that the most effective cleanses tend to be relatively simple and gentle, and are ones that allow the body’s own inherent cleansing mechanisms to take place. I strongly believe that the body has its own inherent wisdom for finding balance, if the appropriate diet, healing practices and herbal allies are utilized. It is my intention as a practitioner to help people in this gentle yet profound way of cleansing.
What is a cleanse?
There are many different types of cleanses. Some are ancient healing traditions from various cultures and some more modern inventions. Some are very specific protocols (such as the Master Cleanse) and some are more a set of guidelines that can be adapted and tailored towards varying constitutions. The cleanse I help people with in my clinic is more the latter kind-- a set of guidelines and principles, largely based on dietary choices, but also using herbs and other healing modalities. A big part of a cleanse is of course supporting the detoxification and elimination processes in the body, but a balanced cleanse should at the same time support and nourish the body's vital energy.
Why do a cleanse?
Cleansing can greatly benefit a person’s overall health, because essentially it is giving the body a break. By cutting out foods and substances that put strain on the body, we free up the body’s own inherent healing energy. The liver doesn’t have to work so hard processing toxins when we are not taking in any toxins! In addition to cutting out the things that put a strain on our health, we emphasize incorporating foods, herbs, and self-care practices that strengthen the body’s own inherent cleansing and healing capacity.
I believe that most people can benefit from doing a gentle spring cleanse every year, because even if we don’t have any specific health conditions we are struggling with, we can all benefit from a “reboot”, where we set aside some time and energy to really focus on our health. But there are some specific health conditions that can often really benefit from this type of cleanse. Some of these include:
When do we cleanse: aligning with the Wood Element, and why we cleanse in Spring
In Chinese Medicine, each season corresponds to one of Five Elements. Spring corresponds to the Wood element, represented by trees, plants and all green living things that grow and thrive. The Wood element has the Liver and Gallbladder as its associated organs and acupuncture channels. The liver and gallbladder, as we know, are vitally important in the cleansing process. When these organs or energy pathways have stagnation, there can be an incredible amount of frustration, irritation, even depression. There is a sense of not being able to move forward, a sense of stuckness. It can go the other way too: when we are chronically stressed, frustrated or irritated this can create stagnation in these organ systems. Springtime, and the Wood element, is about new beginnings, growth, and rebirth. When we do a cleanse, we are allowing our bodies (and our spirits) to get unstuck, to grow, and to move forward in life with vibrancy. We are getting the energy moving, in a direction of healing and growth. We can do encourage ourselves to let go of old habits and patterns that do not serve our overall health and happiness, and that keep us stuck on any level.
Interestingly, the element that keeps Wood in balance (through the K’o cycle of the Five Element framework) is the Metal element, which is the element associated with Autumn. Here is one way to think of the relationship between these two elements, and how they relate to the cleansing process: If a tree doesn’t let go of its dead and dried up leaves in Autumn, there will be no room for the vibrant, new green growth of Spring. We need to release old, stuck energy before we can truly heal, grow, and thrive. This is the energetic dynamic I like to focus on when helping people do a Spring cleanse, working with these two elements. It’s also interesting to note that one of the organs associated with the Metal element is the colon. An important part of the cleansing process is elimination, letting go. Thus, it is important to make sure that we also focus on the colon and bowel elimination when we do a cleanse. On a physiological level this is how toxins that have been released from the cells then can be released from the body (also through urination and the skin via sweating). There are many different ways to facilitate colon cleansing, through many different healing traditions. I prefer the gentle method of increasing water intake, probiotic-rich foods, and whole plant foods that promote regularity. Supplementing with foods like ground flax seed or chia seed can also be helpful.
When Not to Cleanse…
I advise people not to do a cleanse in certain situations. If you are sick with a cold or flu I advise waiting until you have recovered, and your energy and immune system is stronger. Remember, when we cleanse we are moving the energy in the body; if the body is greatly depleted from an active infection, moving the energy will only weaken the person further. I also advise people not to cleanse when they are pregnant or nursing, to prevent transmitting any stirred up toxins to the baby and also because the diet should be more rich in animal protein and building foods at these times.
How Long to Cleanse?
It varies with individual constitutions and health concerns, but most people would benefit from a cleanse lasting anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. When I am guiding people with their cleanse in my private practice I will often take a gradual, incremental approach over the course of a month.
*Components of a Cleanse Part One: Diet*
An important note: I really encourage people to focus their energy and intention more on the foods on that they "should" eat during a cleanse and less on the ones that they "shouldn't." While it is true that we want to cut out or greatly eliminate certain foods during a cleanse, we don't want that to be our whole focus, or we enter into what I call a deprivation mindset. Thinking to ourselves "I'm really excited to eat all of these vibrant and delicious foods that are so nourishing to body" is so much more health-affirming and positive than thinking "Well, I can't and shouldn't eat this or this or that". So I encourage us to shift our perspective towards the positive, and really relish all these wonderful foods we can and should eat during our cleanse. And as someone who is equal parts foodie and nutrition nut, I'm a firm proponent of the fact that healthy food can and should be delicious!
Foods and drinks to reduce, avoid, or eliminate during a cleanse:
All sugars and artificial sweeteners; sodas; breads and flour products such as pasta, crackers, etc.; processed foods; fast foods; caffeine (small amount of green tea ok); alcohol; dairy (small amounts of raw, pasture-raised dairy may be ok for part or all of cleanse, but keep to a minimum); red meat and pork; possibly all animal protein for all or part of cleanse, depending on constitution.
Foods and drinks to emphasis during a cleanse:
A wide variety of organic, in-season vegetables-- lightly steamed, sautéed, and some raw in salads (depending on individual constitution and strength of digestion). Specific vegetables to focus on: dark leafy greens such as kale, dandelion greens, arugula, and other bitter greens; fresh sprouts such as sunflower sprouts; parsley and cilantro; radishes; beets (and their greens!); roasted roots; also naturally fermented vegetables such as raw sauerkraut or kimchi; seaweeds. For some people it is also a good idea to incorporate “green drinks” into a cleanse; there are some very good superfood green powders available in health food stores. Spirulina and blue-green algae are also potent superfoods with both cleansing and strengthening properties.
Properly soaked and well-cooked grains and legumes. Quinoa, millet, rice, and other whole grains are excellent whole grains for a cleanse, if prepared properly by soaking and cooking thoroughly. Kitcharee, made from mung beans and rice, is an excellent cleansing and nourishing food (see recipe, and consider doing a 1-3 day kitcharee fast as part of your cleanse). Congees are also a good way to prepare grains in a highly digestible way. It is very important to soak all grains and legumes to make them digestible.
Optional: Some pasture-raised and traditionally prepared animal protein. While grassfed red meat and pork are often important nutrient-dense foods in a balanced diet, they usually should be eliminated during a short term cleanse, when the emphasis is on lighter, much less nutrient-dense foods. Poultry, wild fish and seafood may be eaten, though some people may choose to eat a completely vegetarian diet during a cleanse, depending on their constitution and preference. Pasture-raised eggs and non-pasteurized and/or fermented dairy such as raw milk, yogurt, or kefir can be part of a cleanse for some people, but should be kept to a minimum. The emphasis should really be on whole plant foods during a cleanse, but for many people it is still a good idea to eat a small amount of animal protein for part or all of the cleanse, depending on one's constitution. A cleanse shouldn’t last much longer than a month, which in general is not long enough to set up nutritional deficiencies that can occur in a long-term vegan diet. If animal protein is eaten it should be pasture-raised/grassfed, and completely free from antibiotics and hormones.
Plenty of fermented foods and beverages: miso, raw saurkraut, kimchi, kombucha, beet kvass, water or coconut kefir, etc. A cleanse is a great time to really build up one's internal microbiome of beneficial flora by consuming probiotic-rich foods and drinks.
Small amount of soaked or sprouted raw nuts, seeds, or nut/seed butters: As with grains and legumes, soaking ensures they are digestible.
A wholesome fiber supplement such as ground flax seed and/or chia seed to promote regular bowel elimination
Organic, in-season fresh fruit or dried, unsulphured fruits
Beverages: at least 64 ounces of water a day, warm or room temperature, with fresh lemon juice squeezed into it; kombucha; beet kvass; herbal teas (dandelion is a great one for cleansing); green drinks; a little bit of organic green tea ok
*Components of a Cleanse Part Two: Herbs*
Note: I highly recommend consulting with an experienced and professionally licensed herbalist before beginning any herbal supplements. While many herbs are quite gentle and food-like plants, others have a much stronger physiological effect on the body. Some herbs are not appropriate for certain constitutions or health conditions, and can even be harmful, so please check in with a skilled herbalist before you incorporate herbs into your cleanse. If you are taking prescription medications or have been diagnosed with a medical condition, please consult your primary care physician before taking any herbs.
There are so many wonderful herbs that can facilitate the cleansing process. Here are a few of my favorites, and some key points about them:
Dandelion: the leaf is a wonderful kidney cleanser and diuretic. The root is superb at clearing liver heat and effectively cleansing a congested liver and gallbladder. It stimulates bile secretion and can be used to improve digestive function. The root also has a mild laxative effect, making it a great herb for increasing elimination during a cleanse. It is one of my favorite herbs for clearing up difficult skin conditions. The roasted root in a tea is a delicious alternative to coffee.
Milk Thistle: Milk thistle seed is a phenomenal hepato-protective herb, meaning it protects the liver from damage. It also helps the liver to regenerate. It is thus a wonderful herb for people who have taken or are currently taking any type of drug (whether over-the-counter, prescription, or recreational) or who drink alcohol on a regular basis or have a history of drinking. And it is a good herb for most people to take, because in modern life we are all exposed to environmental toxins to some degree.
Turmeric: Most people these days think of turmeric as a powerful anti-inflammatory, but what many people don’t realize is that it is also a wonderful herb for liver cleansing. It stimulates bile production, decongests the liver, and promotes digestive health. Along with dandelion root, it is also a great herbal ally for chronic skin conditions such as acne, itchy and inflamed rashes, and eczema.
Artichoke Leaf: This is a great one for a sluggish liver and gallbladder, with difficulty digesting fats or sluggish digestion. Its bitter flavor stimulates bile production, and it’s a great one to prevent the formation of gallstones. It is often included in Digestive Bitter formulas.
Bupleurum (Chai Hu): An herb often used in Chinese Medicine to spread or smooth out stuck liver qi. Stagnant liver qi that results in depression, PMS, or mood swings can often be effectively treated with Chai Hu, or a formula with that as a chief ingredient. It is also great for the chest pain or stifling feeling that accompanies liver qi stagnation.
Chinese Herb Formulas: There are many phenomenal Chinese herb formulas that balance and invigorate the Wood element, and the liver and gallbladder system. I have seen incredible results over the years that I have been using and prescribing these ancient formulas. It is best to consult with a practitioner of Chinese Medicine if you are interested in taking Chinese herbs, as it is a completely different diagnostic system than is used in western herbalism, and requires someone with a firm understanding of Chinese Medicine to make an appropriate herbal prescription.
*Components of a Cleanse Part Three: Self-Care Practices*
In addition to dietary changes and herbal supplementation, there are many self-care practices that can greatly enhance and facilitate the body’s cleansing practice. You may choose to do some or all of these practices during your cleanse.
Massage: Therapeutic massage helps improve circulation and increases oxygenation. It also moves the lymph and helps with the elimination of toxins. It is ideal to get a professional massage once a week during your cleanse, but you can also do a self-massage. You can do your full body self-massage after a bath or shower using a blend of essential oils in a pure oil base such as olive oil or coconut oil. Some essential oils that are particularly helpful during a cleanse include grapefruit, lemongrass, juniper, lemon, and rosemary. Be sure to drink plenty of water after a massage.
Dry-brushing: The skin is a huge organ of elimination, and we can greatly facilitate our cleansing process by doing some dry brushing. Using a natural skin brush or loofah, brush the skin starting at the feet and moving upwards. All strokes should go towards the heart. Be sure to shower after dry brushing to rinse away the dead skin and debris.
Therapeutic Baths: Taking baths with natural mineral salts, seaweed, essential oils, and/or herbal infusions can greatly enhance the cleansing experience. Remember that the skin is an organ of elimination, so when we sweat we help the cleansing process. Saunas and sweat lodges are another wonderful cleansing ritual. You may want to do a facial mask with a clay, such as bentonite, kaolin, or French green clay, during your bath to pull toxins out of the skin. Drink plenty of water when you do a therapeutic bath, sauna, or sweat lodge.
Oil pulling: An ancient Ayurvedic practice in which you swish oil around in your mouth (I suggest coconut oil) first thing in the morning, for 10-20 minutes, then spit it out. This helps cleanse the mouth and gums of toxins and bacteria, and many people report feeling whole-body healing benefits from regularly doing this practice.
Exercise: During a cleanse it is ideal to do at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and longer stretches if possible. Qigong, yoga, brisk walks, hiking, dancing, swimming, and bicycling are all wonderful ways to move. There are some specific Qigong exercises that support the Wood element and Liver/Gallbladder meridians, as well as certain yoga postures. Remember, the Wood element is all about movement, so get out there in the fresh spring air, amongst the living green trees, and move your body!
Acupuncture: Acupuncture is an amazingly powerful way to move stuck energy in the body, mind, and spirit. It is also great because each treatment is tailored to YOU and your specific health concerns and needs. A relaxing acupuncture session is a wonderful way to turn inward and “check in” with yourself at a deep level, while at the same time getting emotional support and herbal expertise from a skilled practitioner.
Journaling: Write about your vision for this next season of growth. Think about your life as a garden. What seeds do you want to plant? What seeds are beginning to sprout already? What do you want to manifest? Where are you headed? What are some potential blocks (internal or external) keeping you from this new growth--what weeds need to be pulled? What do you need to let go of?
Spring cleaning: Clean your house, smudge it with sage or cedarwood, get rid of/donate any clutter you no longer need, put fresh flowers in vases. We are profoundly affected by out physical living environment. Make yours a peaceful and beautiful sanctuary, free from excess clutter.
Cleansing the mind: Allow a bit of time each day to empty and quiet the mind with meditation. Consider doing a media fast, where you “unplug” from TV, radio, Internet, I-phones, Facebook, etc. Even if you just do it for one day, this can be a powerful practice for finding the spaciousness and quietude within, especially if combined with meditation. You might want to combine this media fast with a day (or more if possible) of total silence, where you completely refrain from speaking.
SPRING CLEANSE PACKAGE!!
Last year in my clinic I offered a guided spring cleanse package for some of my clients and I got such good feedback that I've decided to do it again!
In this package you will get:
Four 90 minute private sessions that combine acupuncture, massage, and consultation. I will provide guidelines, specific self-care suggestions and counseling, meal plans, shopping lists, and recipes tailored towards your needs and constitution. I will also prescribe an appropriate herbal formula for you. We will go over your specific health concerns in each session and you will have unlimited email support for the entire four weeks of your cleanse. The combination of massage and acupuncture in each session will not only be deeply relaxing, but it will also be helping your body cleanse and move stuck energy.
This entire month-long package is only $300, though its actual value is well over $400! I will be offering this exceptional package for the months of March, April, and May only. Payment plans accepted.
This is an amazing way to do your yearly spring cleanse under the guidance and care of a practitioner, and with weekly massage and acupuncture sessions in addition to all the nutritional and herbal support!
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I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.