“If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.” ~Nadine Stair
Spring Lilac Buds
Spring is a time of renewal. Its invites the vigor of youth, and the release of winter. Its a time to shake off the sleepiness of cold hibernation, and to embrace the newness of life's beginnings again.
About this time of the year, its inevitable that I'll get this question from personal training clients and patients, "Should I do a spring cleanse or detox?" My answer: it depends.
There are many health care providers, yoga instructors, and practitioners of Chinese medicine that advocate spring detox or cleansing regimes. There is a lot of information available to the public on a variety of "detox diets." In this wellness post, I'm going to do my best to offer the essence or "bullet points" on what I recommend for spring cleansing. I'm going to try to help you wade through all the myriad opinions out there on what to do/what not to do.
I would never say that I think that doing a little spring "cleaning" of the body is a "bad" thing. We take our cars in for tune-ups, and oil changes. Why not give the same attention to our bodies? Our bodies give us so much each day. They are the vehicle, which human experience is played out in. To think the two words "maintenance" and "prevention" can only enhance your experience of activities you like to enjoy in the long run.
The "In's" and "Out's" of spring cleaning. Let's break it down into parts, and then go into detail with each one:
DIET: First and foremost, the topic of diet is what's brought up with patients. They want to know of a specific "detox" diet to do while undergoing a cleanse. This is up to several factors: what's your goal/aim, how long do you want to cleanse, do you have any current/prior medical conditions (if so, what are they?), what's your constitution. You can cleanse the body as gently or as vigorously as you want. It all depends on what you're up for, and what your goal is. If you have ample time to rest during a cleanse, say you're on a week-long relaxing retreat of some kind, then by all means, entertain the thought of doing a deeper cleanse (with more detoxifying foods/herbs/supplements). If you have a weekend alone, while the kids are away with dad, then maybe a mild-moderate one might be more appropriate due to timing. If you're looking for something to do, more consistently, over a period of weeks, then a mild, gentle ongoing cleanse may be a better option.
Ayurvedic and Oriental medicine advice recommends 2 main things with cleansing/detoxing regimes: #1: The optimal time to do them is at the crux of the seasons, as they're changing, to ensure healthy immunity for the coming season ahead (say around the equinox or solstice). #2: The body should rest during a moderate-heavy detox. Let's define "rest" then: yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong or other forms of what is termed in western fitness as "active relaxation" are all appropriate. Vigorous strength-conditioning, anaerobic functional fitness, running, etc. are not considered best to do during this time. In fact, it can be considered retrogressive to the cleanse.
Running Through Old-Growth Forest Along The OR. Coast, Newport, OR.
To just do a "detox" diet you read out of a book or magazine is not the best option. Constitution comes into play here, and unfortunately, the West has not yet grappled with this concept. The East has, for thousands of years, stated that it is paramount to have cleanses done according to a person's constitution. An example: if a "Vata" constitution (and Ayurvedic term) individual is interested in cleansing, then a soup-broth, or easily-digestible meal (cooked) dish cleanse would be a better option. For a "Pitta" constitution (Ayurvedic term) a raw-food diet, with "cooling" herbs and foods included such as: sprouts, raw leafy greens, raw juices, melons, etc. would be more appropriate. For a "Vata" person to do a "Pitta" cleanse would not enhance his/her health. It would make it more deficient and thereby weaken immunity for the coming season. If you want to get more "bang-for-your-buck" from your cleanse, see either an Ayurvedic or Oriental medicine practitioner to help determine what your constitution is. If you're going to go through the trouble of shifting your lifestyle for 3,5, even 7 days during a cleanse, you might as well ensure that it will work for you. There are as many types of cleanses as there are constitutions. Depending on what system your health care provider uses (Ayurvedic or Oriental medicine) there may be 3 constitutional body types, or 5 (with sub-constitutions as well). Determining constitutions is an art. Its not something you just figure out by taking a self-test online or from a book. My Tibetan medicine teacher, Dr. Keyzom Bhutti, shared with me it takes 15 yrs. to master constitutional diagnosis. This type of learning only comes with experience of working with thousands of patients.
In addition, eastern medicine puts a large emphasis on weather and external environment. If you're living or vacationing in Fiji, its much easier to do a raw-food diet cleanse vs. if you're in Scandanavia or Alaska. A warm, cooked food cleanse may be a better option in colder regions. Then layer constitutional analysis, per individual, on top of geography, and you begin to get a picture of what a good practitioner will do to ensure you're on a cleanse that's advantageous for you.
Exercise: We touched a bit on "active rest" above, and what some of those exercises might be. Its very rare that a system of medicine, either indigenous or eastern, will advocate complete rest (i.e. inactivity) during a cleanse. Reason behind this? The lymph is an under-appreciated system. Its the system in your body that is your primary pathogen-defense. You could think of it as the "garbage man" who comes to pick up the trash, and properly dispose of it. How can we stimulate the lymph best? Movement. As your body cleanses, and begins to push free-radicals (toxins) out of the body, it needs your help.
Movement of the muscles produce a "pumping" action of the lymph nodes, thereby increasing movement of toxins out of the body at an increased rate. The #1 lymph system enhancing exercise studied at NASA? Rebounding. Yes, this is a fancy word for jumping on a trampoline (big or small). Vertical movement is powerful. Most movement that we do on a daily basis (running, cycling, walking, etc.) is horizontal. Vertical movements (and inversions in yoga) are like the lymph system equivalent of shaking up a snow-globe. It enhances detoxification, & powerfully moves free-radicals out of the body.
This is why, on a consistent weekly basis, I love intertwining "CrossFit" and jumping on my mini-trampoline at home (at least 2x per week for 45 mins. per time). At "CrossFit" a variety of vertical movements are introduced: jump-rope, box-jumps, "frog jumps," headstands, handstand push-ups, upside-down gymnastics on the rings, etc. You are introducing vertical motion into a normally horizontal movement day. This will powerfully move free-radicals out of the body at a faster rate. Add yoga into the mix, and you have a win-win on a consistent basis, not just once or twice a year.
"Skin-The-Cat" gymnastic movement at "CrossFit"
Supplementation: This is also along the same lines as diet. There is no one "liver cleansing" herb or "colon cleansing" herb for everyone. With one exception: "TRIPHALA" In India there is a saying: "Don't have a mother? Its okay, if you have triphala." What does that mean? Triphala nourishes our body "like a mother." Its considered a tri-doshic (no matter what dosha/consitution/condition) formula. It will help you. It has an unusual "dual nature" as an herbal Rx. Most herbs and/or herbal formulas fall into one of two "actions:" cleansing or tonifying. The combination of the 3 berries (hence the "TRI" in "Triphala"), have an unusual nature. They both cleanse and tonify at the same time, so as not to deplete the body while cleansing the vital organs and tissues. This can happen if you unknowingly take "liver cleansing" herbs without this knowledge. In other words, you could deplete your organ "Chi" versus building and strengthening it over the long haul.
Western herbalism basis its information on research. While I'm one of the biggest research buffs I know (I love it), I also realize that thousands of years of emperical evidence have gone into eastern medicine. Its tried and true. Just because milk thistle or dandelion root is high in "anti-oxidants specific for the liver" doesn't mean its the appropriate herb for your liver cleansing regime. In western herbalism cleansing is cleansing. This is not so in eastern medicine. For instance, we have several liver/g. bladder syndromes, which may need addressing. For example:
-Liver "Chi" Stagnation
-Liver Yin Xu (deficiency)
-Liver Blood Xu
-Damp-Heat In The Liver
-Liver Wind (which may be caused by a combination of any of the above syndromes)
-G. bladder "Chi" Stagnation
-Damp-Heat In The G. bladder
So, you see, "liver cleansing" is not just a matter of taking some artichoke leaf, eating raw veggies for a week, and calling it a day. Individuation of diagnosis is paramount for proper cleansing. One or more of any of the above syndromes may be present, and should be addressed. There are several herbal formulas for each of the above listed syndromes. One or more may need to be taken for effective cleansing to occur. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, you may get a "half-baked" detox going for you.
The majority of the American public, including employees at health food stores, have zero concept of supplementation individuation. This is why one herb make work for someone, and not for another person. Its not that the herb doesn't work. Its not working on the right constitution, syndrome, etc. See you local practitioner of Ayurvedic or Oriental medicine to determine which herbal formula(s) is right for you.
Adjunct Therapies: Are there additional adjunct therapies that can be done during a cleanse that can help to promote cleansing of the body? Yes, there are a few: sweating, stretching, dry-brushing. Why do I love "Bikram Yoga" so much? Because it combines many of the elements we've discussed: stretching, sweating, vertical inversion asanas, and heat. In Scandanavia saunas (the word "sauna" is Finnish) are a non-negotiable. There are more saunas in Finland vs. any other country in the world. Indigenous Scandanavian medicine states: "To sweat from every pore of your body enhances your immune system." When we stretch the muscles, free-radicals from built-up toxins that have been latent in them get released. They need to go somewhere. Out the pores, is better than re-circulating in the blood stream. Bikram Choudry was smart upon realization of this simple fact. Heat elongates muscles. Muscles thereby stretch more effectively. Stretching muscles release stored up inflammation and free-radicals. Free-radicals should exit the body via pore sweating to properly remove them out of the lymph and blood. Simple. Effective. Brilliant, really.
Students Doing "Bikram Yoga" in 105 degrees
Dry-brushing (brushing with a dry-bristle brush) is good for lymphatic movement. Always brush towards the heart, not away from, for proper cleansing. This should be done on a dry body. Doing it on a wet body (in the shower) is not as effective. The skin should turn a bright red to give you an indication that blood circulation has increased, and that pores are opening. The skin is the largest organ in the body. It only makes sense to use the pores on it to our advantage...to remove waste. To dry-brush it regularly, 2-3x per week during "non-cleansing" times to everyday during a cleanse is wise. Snakes shed their skin. Unfortunately, we don't have this built-in cleansing mechanism. We only have one "skin suit," so its best to dry-brush it regularly to remove dead skin, increase circulation, etc.
Emotional Well-Being: During a cleanse emotions can come up. This is also spoken of in "Bikram" yoga. Bikram says you may particularly feel this in asanas like "camel," where there is deep back-bending. The incredible cleansing effect back-bending has on the vital organs cannot be overemphasized.
In Chinese medicine the liver "rules" the emotion of "resentment and anger." This is NOT necessarily good or bad. Its important not to judge anger. Anger, while indulged in consistently, is never healthy. Neither is indulging in any one emotion ever healthy (sadness, fear, etc.). However, anger can produce change in our lives. When we are angry we want to change something, whether it be standing up for justice, defending a principle, or creating boundries in our lives. Anger has power. Power is a word that scares us. Its neutral, like water: it can harm or heal. If you feel anger during a cleansing regime, don't judge it as "good" or "bad." Its there for a reason. What is the reason? Meditate, journal, take a walk, get clear on what you're really angry about. Maybe it will spark you to change various behaviors, or political situations.
In the new age movement there is a lot of fear about anger. Its considered not "spiritual." I would disagree. There is not one prophet or sage who has not exhibited "holy wrath" in the world's major scriptures. Martin Luther King described himself as "Angry enough at what he saw in the world to change things." Every world tradition has an archetype showing this emotion...inviting us to look it square in the face, vs. running away from it. From the Hindu goddess Kali to the Celtic Cerridwen. From the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet to the Greek Minerva. Look at it. Don't run from it. You can make lasting changes by getting in touch with your defiance about injustice, and what you want to change in your life. Perhaps your liver cleanse will make you aware of what those injustices are, and give you clarity on how to proceed?
Two "side notes:" One is that women, in eastern medicine, are advised to cleanse "less heavy" then men. Why? We lucked out, girls. Whether its inconvenient or not (and I agree that it can be), we do a "mini" cleanse 1x per month. By shedding the endometrial lining, we are coming as close to the snake does in shedding its skin. Women are said to live longer, because they have this "built-in" cleansing mechanism. We expel waste, toxicity, etc. every month. In Native American lore, men were said to need to do longer sweat lodges, and take heavier herbal remedies to cleanse their systems because according to a friend of mine, whose a full-blood Cree sweat lodge leader, "Men's bodies are inferior to women's in immunity, cleansing, and maintenance." They, therefore, need to make up for what their bodies lack in natural cleansing each month. See, ladies, its a pain sometimes (& I know it is), but really, medically speaking, we're the better for it. ;-}
Second "side note:" It is of the utmost importance that your bowels are moving consistently during a cleanse. This liver dumps toxins into the "waste receptacle" of the body. What's that? Your large intestine. It must move these toxins out on a consistent basis, or the toxicity will go right back into the blood stream, and make you feel sick (nauseated, headaches, etc.). You could think of this in the analogy of a "kink" in a hose with muddy/"sludgey" water re-circulating over and over in it. Each time it circulates it gets darker and thicker. Not fun for the person cleansing.
How to increase bowel movements while cleansing? Acupuncture is wonderful for this. In addition, the acupuncturist can also put in points for your liver and gallbladder to assist with their cleansing process as well. To receive acupuncture 2x per week during a cleanse is the most beneficial. "Triphala" will assist with this as well, gently and effectively. Chances are, with the proper cleansing foods and herbal remedy, analyzed by your health care provider, this should already be taken into consideration, and shouldn't be a problem.
I invite you to enjoy the spring, all of the new foods available to you at your local farmer's market, and to embrace the process of renewal in your life. Spring is a time to contemplate the cycle beginning again. The return of longer days, and increasing warmth. ;-}
Riding My Mtn. Bike On One Of My Favorite Trails
“Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.” ~Robert H. Schuller