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The Controversy of Cleanse

For a few years I've noticed "cleansing" has become one of the more popular health trends. From juice-fasts and the “master cleanse” to shake replacements and fasting, the idea of purgation for health is a huge fad. Several patients have asked my opinion, so hopefully this article sheds some thoughtful consideration.

Generally, my first response echoes a Taoist teacher’s proclamation: “extremism!” Many current trends urging us to cleanse are clever marketing tools that successfully manipulate a pervasive Victorian idea we Americans buy: that we are fundamentally “unclean.” This is much like the current misrepresentation of germ theory, which ignores the equally important factor of internal environment, with an over-focus on fear of invaders (I’ll digress from political parallels). The assumption that we must force the body to purge itself of evil disregards the genius this body already employs every second of each day; always taking what it needs and discarding the rest, without our help or knowledge. The push to cleanse also employs a dualism of bad/good, which is an unrealistic black-and-white view. From the Taoist perspective, everything is qi, so by purging, we get rid of the good with the bad. Inevitably, this creates a pendulum affect; our intelligent organism reacts to being “cleansed” by holding on tighter, to brace for what
might be coming again. In other words, purgation is often followed by
congestion, the very thing the “cleansing” was attempting to address. A similar example is the epidemic of overweight/undernourished bodies suffering in our culture; when presented with nutrient-deficient products (masquerading as food) and nothing to burn, the body in all its wisdom holds on tight to any energy source available.

All that said, there is also time for everything in the seasonal cycle of life, and our job in natural medicine is to support this process. Though its not here yet, soon spring (cycle, not necessarily weather!) will bring its time for renewal, starting over, and cleaning the slate. Throughout agricultural history, it was naturally time for cleansing, because of the scarcity of food; as storage of last fall’s harvest thins, plants shooting up are sparse and small, and animals (us included) just begin to tap into the energy stored during winter’s hibernation. Like a pea shoot pushing up or a baby goat finding its first legs, the qi of spring is new, and delicate.

Also, the environment and our bodies are now forced to act less subtle and rhythmic than for much of history. Thousands of chemicals have been introduced in the last 50 years, with little study and/or regulation. For instance, the FDA still doesn’t regulate cosmetic products (so you might find this site helpful in the meantime: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/). I once found the following interview that was compelling for two main reasons (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/nature/interviews/vomsaal.html, with studies here; http://endocrinedisruptors.missouri.edu/pdfarticles/pdflist.html). First, that there is such a clear link between plastics and endocrine disruption (particularly when endocrine disorders such as thyroid dysfunction are rampant). Secondly, that this article is twelve years old; we know what hurts us, but continue to mass-produce, and blame disease solely on genetics. Of course looking at examples in a bigger picture such as how some get sick and others don’t, we know there are multiple factors, like one I often address in my practice; the state of the gut flora. But we can’t deny that an overload of chemicals known and unknown on our unprepared bodies is likely at a level unprecedented in history. So how to look at this evidence without fear but with respect for both the cycle of changes in which we find our current situation, and the delicate nature of our qi?

First, we need to be very mindful of the season. When I talk about season, I actually mean the timing of things, in the cycle of life, more than weather. However, in Vermont the weather is also an enormous factor. As a colleague once said, “most don’t realize that cold, in our (Chinese Medical) tradition, is a pathogen!” This means that during winter we can learn from nature, that this is the time to hibernate and store, not to purge. You can look at Lake Champlain for a great example of this; ice forming is an example of fluid consolidation; things are getting slower and quieter. Our bodies are doing this in a similar sense; slowing down, consolidating, bringing everything down and in. If you honor this now, you have more to offer during the rest of the year. Think of it as investing in savings, so you don’t blow through all of your cash and end up in debt when spring and summer come!

Then when spring arrives, if you still feel naturally drawn to give your body a little cleaning out, you can follow these guidelines to ensure it is gentle and effective. The first and simplest way to cleanse is to notice what is not in line with our natural, easy state of being, and remove it. For instance, “I can’t work through the afternoon without a sugary snack,” or “I can’t relax without a glass of wine.” This can be tricky at first, because as members of modern life, most of us have subjected ourselves to everything from artificial light to caffeine to supplements to replace our inherent ability to perfectly cycle with natural movements of sleep, wake, work, enjoy. So if life doesn’t currently allow time and space for noticing, the next option would be to remove what is stimulating/sedating; take out caffeine, sugar, and alcohol for a few weeks.

To further support the liver, eat organic produce and grass-fed/pastured animal products. We are lucky in Vermont, because we can be directly in touch with nature’s wisdom. Root vegetables, sustainably-raised animal foods, and other sources of “qi-storage” such as fermenting and canning are easily available and commonly practiced. Fairly soon, spring greens such as mustard, dandelion and arugula will be available from CSA's and at farmers’ markets. These greens are bitter--stimulating bile--thus draining, the perfect cleansers. You can also add starting the day with half a lemon squeezed into a glass of water, which encourages the liver to flush.

Lastly, acupuncture and herbal medicine are the ideal cleansers; non-invasive, and perfectly balancing, by consistently supporting the body to store what’s needed and flush the excess. There are particular point
prescriptions designed for “detoxification,” and a plethora of herbs
that can be tailored in your specific formula to gently flush the
system.

Ideally, our lifestyle year-around provides a light load for the
liver, enabling it to “clean” on a regular basis. However, since life
is multi-faceted, with some components more toxic than others, spring
will be a perfect time to tap into our natural cycle and start fresh. But for now, continue storing a little longer. With the new year upon us (Chinese, of the Wood Horse, starting today!), you are probably feeling the urge to move forward already. But if you can continue to cultivate a little patience and a lot of nourishment, this summer and especially a year from now, you will notice how much more deeply energetic you become.

Enjoy the last weeks of cozy reflection, while dreaming of all the potential and possibility soon to sprout up. Please call or email with questions, and to set up an appointment for some storing and cleansing support!