A Look Behind “Cleansing”

Humans have a long history of healing the body by abstaining from foods and consuming medicinal ingredients (and I don’t mean subsisting on green juice alone). The science around the word “cleanse” is dubious; it includes everything from cayenne water concoctions to algae tinctures to sauna treatments. Call it a curious mix of science and misappropriation.

Here, I identify the three most common ways to cleanse, toss out the gimmicky stuff, and reveal the salient points to help you take better care of your body.


Fasting

For centuries, people have been fasting for physical and spiritual renewal. Fasting has been used to heal the body, attain spiritual enlightenment, and decrease signs of aging. In the early twentieth century, fasting was used as a natural cure for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, digestive problems, and allergies.

Recently, these much-touted health benefits have been the subject of many studies. And the results have been on fasting’s side: it’s proven to assist with weight loss, help prevent diabetes, and improve cardiovascular health.

How does it work? Our body uses glucose (yes, sugar) for its metabolic functions. When you fast, your body depletes glucose supplies (from your digestive system, and from glycogen stores in your liver) and metabolizes fat for fuel. This boosts metabolism and detoxifies the body. Fasting reduces inflammation (and consequently prevents a wide range of diseases) and blood pressure, improves levels of fat in the blood and controls blood sugar levels.

Our human biology is wired for a hunter-gatherer existence, which includes long periods of plant-based eating, and limited our calorie intake, as whole plants are high in fiber and low in calories. It’s part of why people who eat a more plant-based diet live longer and have lower incidence of disease. In fact, studies show that healthy plant-based diets (i.e. ones made up of nutrient-dense plant foods and minimal processed and animal foods) are “associated with significant weight loss and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.”

In today’s world, there’s an overabundance of calorie-dense food, and hence an epidemic of diet-related illness. Incorporating a lower calorie, nutrient dense day into your week will reset your habits, and realign your metabolism with the hunter-gatherer biology that prevents illness and weight gain.

I’m not a doctor, nor am I recommending anyone to fast without consulting with their physician. If this interests you, intermittent fasting is an option to try.


Special Cleansing Ingredients

Humans are suckers for magic. We love the idea of a special ingredient fixing us, a supplement transforming the look and feel of our body, or a beverage improving physical performance. I’m no exception. I have lists of things I wish to try that I hope will smooth my skin, balance my energy, or cleanse my liver. However, I expect, because of numerous failed experiments and my background, that most of these elements will affect little or no change.

There is no special ingredient or pill that will immediately flush toxins from your system, or absorb and transport them from your body. The exception is charcoal, which can bind to toxins within the gastrointestinal tract if consumed within one hour of the toxins. Beyond one hour, the results are inconclusive. You can’t pull all toxins out of your body instantaneously, but you can clean up your diet so your kidneys and liver don’t have to work so hard to remove them.

Your instinct knows best — eat lots of vegetables, limit processed food, and don’t use your weight as the only barometer of health. Keep an eye on regular bowel movements, skin health, and energy levels. Write a food journal, monitor how you feel, and stay in communication with your doctor or nutritionist to make modifications as necessary. Everybody has its own chemistry — it’s powerful to know yours. Sure, stir in some chlorella or charcoal to your beverage instead of having a glass of rosé, but consider it a smart choice rather than a magic remedy.

Sweat it Out

There’s a lot of excitement around infrared saunas and their claim to rid the body of heavy metals that we absorb every day. The idea is that the infrared elicits a similar response to exercise — higher heart rate, dilated blood vessels and sweat — without the effort. Sweating is the big goal here because it incites greater water intake to flush out toxins.

So, can I sit in a sauna instead of jogging for an hour? Roger Clemens, who heads an environmental toxin lab at UC Santa Barbara spoke to Scientific American. “Except when one of the major organs breaks down,” he stated, “there isn’t a medical device or any diet that can accelerate the body’s natural process of detoxification.” There isn’t peer-reviewed science on the benefits of sweating in infrared saunas versus sweating from other sources, so my advice is to pick your favorite way to sweat with movement and stick to it. Exercise happens to have the additional benefit of releasing lots of endorphins: your sneaks still have an edge in the sauna.


Tune into your body and what it needs, and make small, nourishing, consistent changes. A monthly radical overhaul of your diet and lifestyle is not the solution, and when you develop healthy habits, you won’t need it to be.

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