Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Cleanse or Not To Cleanse: a TCM perspective

This time of year people tend to make big changes in their lives (or try to anyway--see previous post). A topic that comes up a lot in my practice this time of year is the issue of "cleansing." Patients often ask me my opinion on doing various cleanses, ranging from Kidney flushes to Liver and Colon cleanses, each having a varying degree of fasting or juicing involved, as well as taking various herbal supplements. Do I think cleanses are a good and beneficial thing to do?

The short answer: Not really, no.

The Liver, Kidneys/ Bladder, Intestines, Lungs and Skin are our built in "cleansing" organs. They filter out the bad stuff that we put into our bodies and help us get rid of it so that we don't poison ourselves and make ourselves sick. In theory, Cleansing works by encouraging these organs get rid of the bad stuff, but often in ways that are too extreme as well as unnecessary or potentially harmful. One of the issues I have with cleansing is that many people cleanse to make up for bad eating and lifestyle habits, kind of like taking vitamins and eating only fast food. In the grand scheme of things the cleanse won't really make much of a difference in your long term health. Even weight loss that occurs with a cleanse is only temporary. Go back to bad habits or even regular eating and the weight comes back. Plus, many toxins and metabolites are stored in fat cells. When the body uses and loses fat in this rapid and extreme way, those toxins flood into the blood stream and can cause you to feel sick or flu-like.

If you want to be healthy, you need to eat well. Period. No amount of cleansing will make up for poor eating habits.

The biggest problem I have with cleansing is that it is usually pretty extreme. Anything that is extreme is not going to bring the body into balance, it will just swing you out of balance in another direction. Juice fasting, for example, puts a lot of raw food into the body all at once. Raw is cold in nature, so you are basically infusing your body with cold (not ideal during the Winter when there is snow outside), not to mention an extreme amount of nutrients that your body cannot handle all at once. Would you be able to eat 3 lbs of carrots in one sitting? Me either. So why would your body need that much beta carotene all at once? We don't. Juicing as part of your diet is one thing; being on a juice fast where you consume nothing but raw fruit and vegetable juice (and water typically) is quite another. Not to mention the lack of fiber for proper elimination. Juicing to add fruits and vegetables to your diet can be good, but is probably better during the spring and summer when there is warmer weather, or if you live in a warm climate.

Chinese Medicine is all about balance, finding the middle ground. By simply changing your eating habits for the positive you will start to heal and your health will improve. You will be supporting your Organs of Elimination (OoE) so that they will be doing their job the way they are supposed to (as compared to having to process the toxic overload from too much sugar, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, "food" chemicals from processed foods, smoking, etc.). When your OoE are overloaded, they often "speak" to you with sypmtoms (chronic sinus congestion, skin problems, irregular bowel movements, menstrual symptoms and irregularities, etc). Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables in their natural form can help you "cleanse" without needing to go to extremes.

For people who already eat well, there is no need to Cleanse, your internal organs are already doing that on a regular basis. Good quality whole foods support the internal organs so that they can do the job they are meant to do. And if you are also exercising to sweat, deeply breathing in and out, and moving your bowels on a regular basis, all the better.