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Detox: What It Is and Why to do It

by Cheryl Kain

When I set out to learn more about detox, the first thing I discovered was that I had some outdated ideas, based on college days of enduring water fasts and repeated vows (always broken) to give up sugar. I wanted to debunk the idea of detox as deprivation, or something to white-knuckle through. It turns out there are many different, even gentle ways to approach detox and cleansing, from simply giving up sugar and processed foods to signing on for a guided program. Detox is as much about allowing health as it is about removing toxins. Best of all, you can still do your body good by starting with small actions, feeling lighter each step of the way.

We all know the feeling of overload, and the symptoms that often result. In our society, multitasking and stress are a given, and this can lead to poor nutritional choices, overeating, fatigue, and burnout. One way to address these imbalances in the body is through detoxification, which has been a regular part of European life for centuries. Detoxification is an organic function of our digestion and elimination process—we simply keep what is beneficial and eliminate the rest.

Whether the answer is in your kitchen or at a retreat, there is value in lightening your load. I spoke with Kripalu’s nutritional experts about surprisingly simple ways to reap transformational benefits as we move into spring, the quintessential season of renewal.

“The body, if we treat it right, is working hard to detoxify, on a daily basis,” says Kripalu’s Lead Nutritionist Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RD, whose motto is “Good Gut, Great Health.” “Our own pantry has just what we need to detox,” Swift says. “By increasing fiber through fruits and vegetables, like leafy greens, and whole food sources, we can restore the ecological balance to the gut and transform toxic substances into a form that can be eliminated.”

When you undergo a detox, it’s about avoiding foods that tend to create metabolic waste and choosing foods that facilitate the cleansing process, according to Alison Shore Gaines, Holistic Lifestyle Educator, who leads regular cleansing programs at Kripalu. Veterans of her program, in which participants detox using a combination of grains, juice, and broth, return frequently to reap the benefits, which include breaking addictions to cigarettes, sugar, and coffee, lowering blood pressure, and finding relief from headaches and constipation. “Detox does not have to be about deprivation, and the best detox will offer balanced nutrition, through foods that are cleansing in nature,” says Gaines.

Hilary Garivaltis, Dean of Kripalu School of Ayurveda, suggests eating simply—mostly fresh vegetables—over the course of a few days. “We might introduce a simple diet, for a week or so, to get back into a good rhythm with foods of the season, and add spices, which help enliven digestive fire and aid regular elimination.” Drinking warm to hot water with lemon rids the body of bacteria and fungi, adds Garivaltis, citing its preventative power against colds and flu.

A cleanse gives the body a rest so it can adapt to the new season. One of the centerpieces of Ayurveda is the five-day Panchakarma experience offered at Kripalu, with Ayurvedic practitioner Rosy Mann. Panchakarma goes after the accumulations of excesses in the doshas*. “We do this through a series of process-oriented treatments, herbs, foods, and health evaluations. It’s often done over a period of one to four weeks, starting with a low-key approach,” says Garivaltis.

Everyone agrees that the fiber and antioxidant benefits of vegetables are key to cleansing. Kripalu Nutritionist John Bagnulo, PhD recommends “a very Paleolithic diet, centered around fruits and vegetables. Add some sweating through walking and sauna, and you can feel dramatically different after a short period of time. The fog moves out and you experience life at a different level.”

A realistic, balanced detox program involves more than the body. A cleanse can lighten the mind, heart, and emotions, too. A regular practice of yoga and meditation as part of a program—at home or away—helps reinforce stress reduction. “Every time I see people do a cleanse, there’s an innate shift, whether it’s psychological or physical,” says Gaines.

From my own experience, limiting or eliminating animal protein and flour, per John Bagnulo’s suggestions, changed my skin tone immediately and dramatically. The eczema that plagued me for years has nearly vanished.

“Cleansing is like tuning up your car. We give the organs a rest from the factory production of meals, enhance the body’s own healing energies, and help our immune system kick in,” says Gaines, adding, “When you cleanse the mind, heart, and emotions, there is light and clarity that come with clearing your system’s congestion. We can hear our body’s wisdom and receive new insights.”

Here’s to a new spring in your step!

*Dosha (dosh´ah): according to the principle of constitution of the physical body in Ayurveda, one of the three vital bioenergies (vata, pitta, kapha) condensed from the five elements; the doshas are considered to be responsible for the physical and emotional tendencies in the mind and body. (from www.thefreedictionary.com)


Cheryl Kain is a writer, singer and yoga teacher living on Cape Cod.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.