Internal cleansing is an integral part of maintaining health. Shedding accumulated toxins seasonally is in harmony with the cycles of the seasons and our bodies’ needs. This idea of cleansing appears in traditional healing systems throughout the world and in a variety of forms, including naturopathy, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Euro-American herbalism. According to these systems of holistic healing, the need for cleansing is indicated whenever any of the following signals are present: constipation, sluggish appetite with low energy, skin eruptions, digestive disturbances, chronic mucous accumulations and sometimes depression and poor resistance. We often feel one or more of these crop up in midwinter or early spring.
In natural traditions of healing, the eliminative organs are thought to innately let go of their toxins most easily in certain seasons -the liver, for instance, in spring or the colon in fall. These traditions also recommend that, if you wish to cleanse the liver, you must also cleanse the colon and kidneys first in order to handle the added load of toxins released from the liver waiting to exit.
Colon Cleansing Herbs
Colon cleansing traditionally combines laxative herbs, bulking fibers, softening or moistening agents (known as demulcents) and carminatives (or "digestive harmonizers"). The balance of these elements depends on your constitution. For instance, those with chronic, stubborn constipation and a tendency towards dryness are more likely to need stronger herbs all around while others may do well with milder ones. Luckily, there are many choices of herbs to do these different jobs.
In the laxative category are moderate to strong herbs like cascara sagrada, aloe vera, senna, rhubarb, cayenne and psyllium seed . These herbs, used singly or in blends, should be limited to 8 to 10 days of use and can cause cramping if not combined with carminative herbs (see below). Rhubarb is a laxative when used in large amounts. When used in small amounts it works very well as a digestive tonic and an astringent. Aperient herbs are gentler forms of laxatives and include milk thistle, flax seed, artichoke, chlorella and licorice. They are suitable for more sensitive constitutions or when a hardier constitution desires a slower, gentler action.
Bulking fibers include the perennial favorite psyllium husk, flax seed or meal, chia seed, wheat bran, alfalfa and fruit pectin. Fibers are thought to provide the figurative "scouring" and toxin absorbing action necessary for thorough cleansing. These herbs also require the companionship of carminatives, laxatives and large amounts of water to keep the colon moving in order to avoid bloating and other discomforts.
Carminative herbs are employed by traditional herbalists to stimulate digestion and peristalsis while reducing the laxatives’ tendencies towards gripping and cramping. This includes such favorites as ginger, garlic, papaya, peppermint, aloe and cayenne. Demulcents are herbs added to traditional herbal formulas for those who tend towards dryness and should be avoided or reduced by those with excess mucous conditions. They can also help to deflect the sometimes irritating side effects of stronger laxative herbs on sensitive mucous membranes. In this category, for instance, are slippery elm, marshmallow, licorice and flax seed. [A note of caution: if using licorice root as a single herb, limit its use to 7 days or less to avoid the unwanted side effect of elevated blood pressure noted with extended use of the whole herb.]
Guidelines For Healthful Cleansing
The modern penchant for "more is better" or "stronger is better" does not necessarily apply to cleansing. "Easy does it" is the motto here. It is important to go slowly to avoid weakening the system, to not cleanse for too long or too often and to work with mild herbs initially, graduating to stronger herbs only if necessary.
The choice of herbs by strength is one obvious way of controlling the degree of cleansing action; preparation style is another. For example, teas will generally have a gentler action than capsules or tinctures. You can switch herbs or preparation styles as you need in order to accommodate your constitution’s needs. Working with formulas that blend colon or liver cleansing herbs is another option. With these you get a wider range of action and each capsule has less of each herb than a capsule containing a single herb. This is advantageous as you can have better control over dosage. By using a multitude of separate, single herbs there is greater risk of initially getting too much for your system and inadvertently having cleansing reactions. Also, to introduce all new supplements, including herbs, in small doses and to gradually increase to the desired dosage over several days time is best. This gives you time to read your own "biofeedback" as to what the best dosage is for your constitution.
Although there are factions within traditional herbalism that will say a "cleansing crisis" or discomfort is necessary, this is not so. In fact, this sort of practice can often drain vital energy from the body and leave it "cleaner" but lacking in energy to maintain its future health. Cleansing crises occur when too much of an herb, too strong of an herb or too strong a combination of herbs has been used and the following may occur: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, joint pains, headache, pressure behind the eyes, rashes or irritations of the mucous membranes. If you experience any of these symptoms, discontinue the herbs and flush the system with water, vegetable soups or vegetable juices until the symptoms settle down. Then you can resume your cleanse but at lower, slower doses.
Generally, a 7 to 10 day period is adequate for most constitutions on each of the organs - colon, kidney and liver respectively. A repeat treatment can be used the following month if necessary. Extra water consumption is a must, as well as supplementing with a whole food, low fat, high fiber, low sodium and potassium rich diet. Generally, fruits tend to increase the tendency towards cramping and it may be best to temporarily avoid them. Physical exercises, breathing exercises, herbal baths, saunas, massage and skin brushing help to ease the detoxification process.
If you wish to also cleanse the kidneys and liver, here are some herbal suggestions from traditional herbalism. Some gentle diuretic herbs to clear wastes from the kidneys are cornsilk, cranberry, parsley leaf and marshmallow. Some gentle to moderate cleansing and strengthening herbs for the liver are yellow dock, milk thistle, alfalfa, dandelion, gentian, fumitory and artichoke. Foods that are high in chlorophyll are also considered liver toning in holistic systems.
Long-Term Colon Health
Maintaining the ground you’ve gained by cleansing can be accomplished in a number of ways. To prevent accumulations from insufficient digestion, try a digestive herbal supplement like papaya, ginger, bromelain or an herbal bitters combination. Herbal bitters formulas are traditional ways of improving digestion and preventing mucous and incompletely digested foods from accumulating as wastes in the body. They also double as liver tonics. Some herbs in this category are wahoo bark, gentian, fumitory, Oregon grape root, milk thistle, artichoke and goldenseal. These are usually mixed with stomach soothing herbs for balance like ginger, licorice, cardamom, cinnamon or peppermint. Eating a high fiber diet with a minimum of mucous forming foods and plenty of fresh culinary herbs and spices goes a long way towards maintaining a healthy colon.
Some cleansing may deplete a portion of friendly bacteria so it is a good idea to supplement with acidophilus afterwards. The amino acid taurine also helps the body create its own friendly bacteria.
Lastly, occasional fasting can be incorporated for a half day or a day a week during the colder months of the year as a full or partial fast using vegetable soups and juices. More extended fasting may be undertaken during the warmer months only, after an abbreviated herbal cleanse to ease the transition and under the supervision of a health professional. Full fasting should not be undertaken in any weakened condition, including colds and flu. Partial fasting is a better choice and should be brief.
Traditional cleansing techniques can help to bring you renewed vitality in the spring or anytime during the year when you feel you need a lift. With care and attention to these guidelines and your body’s own signals, you’ll have a safe and rejuvenating cleanse!!
- Healthy Healing, Linda Rector Page, N.D., Ph.D., 8th Ed., 1990.
- How to Be Your Own Herbal Pharmacist, Linda Rector Page, N.D., Ph.D.
- Planetary Herbology, M.Tierra, Lotus Press, 1988.
- Prescriptions for Nutritional Healing, Balch & Balch,
From Spring 1996 Herbal Insights.
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