Detox Series Part II: The History of Detoxification

While the concept of detoxification, including the programs and techniques claiming to successfully accomplish the process, may seem like yet another unnecessary trend currently flooding the health scene, the theory supporting its efficacy actually goes back thousands of years.

Cleansing has been a long-established health and wellness practice around the globe; here are just a few detoxification traditions amongst various cultures throughout time:

  • 4th Century BC – Hippocrates  aka “Father of Medicine” recommends periodic fasting to cleanse and rest the digestive tract.
  • 16th Century – Paracelsus, a renowned physician – called fasting the “Greatest remedy, the physician within”.
  • In India yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners have always promoted the health benefits of internal cleansing.
  • In North America, Native Americans utilized detoxifying sweat lodges.
  • Europeans have undergone colonics and sauna sessions for centuries.
  • Other techniques involve the use of herbs, water, rest and meditation, exercise, and a variety of bodywork techniques.
In addition to these ancient techniques, the passing of time has brought with it the introduction of more modern forms of cleansing and purification, which include the use of juices, supplements, and even restriction of certain foods believed to have toxic effects on the body.
While each process may differ greatly from one another, they all seek to accomplish the same goal; detoxify the body on one or more of the following levels:
  • Physical: Assists the body in clearing congestions, illnesses, and disease potential. It can also improve energy.
  • Emotional:  Helps uncover and express feelings, especially hidden frustrations, anger, resentments, or fear, and replace them with forgiveness, love, joy, and hope.
  • Spiritual:  Many people experience new clarity and/or an enhancement of their purpose in life.
Traditions of Detoxification Around the Globe
India: Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic medicine (also called Ayurveda) is one of the world’s oldest medical systems.  It originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and remains one of the country’s traditional health care systems. Its concepts about health and disease promote the use of herbal compounds, special diets, and other unique health practices.  Many Ayurvedic practices predate written records and were handed down by word of mouth. 
Key concepts of Ayurvedic medicine include universal interconnectedness (among people, their health, and the universe), the body’s constitution (prakriti), and life forces (dosha), which are often compared to the biologic humors of the ancient Greek system. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, and diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.
Ayurveda teaches that the fundamental cause of disease is toxins in the system.  It has two types of treatment for eliminating toxins:
  • Pancha Karma: Physical elimination processes such as purgatives and medicated enemas. Panchakarma is an ancient form of purification developed thousands of years ago in India. It is considered to be the ultimate mind-body detoxifying experience. It involves several levels of purification practices. Pancha means ‘five’. Karma means ‘cleansing action’.

1. Nasya, Nasal Administration of Medication
Usually involves oil, ghee, and powdered herbs, and gentle massage of the nasal passages. Aims to clear sinuses, help with headaches, and eye problems.

2. Basti, Herbal Enemas
Again using oils, ghee, and herbal decoctions. Aims to alleviate constipation, distention, sexual disorders, back pain, arthritis, and even common cold.

3. Virechan, Internally-Taken Purgatives/Laxatives
Oil, ghee, and herbs, you guessed it. Indicated for asthma, colds, indigestion, poor immune system, skin conditions, diabetes, and more.

4. Vaman, Therapeutic Vomiting
Involves drinking lots of salted water, or licorice tea, and inducing the stomach to expel it to clear toxins from the digestive system. Great for asthma, diabetes, colds, and indigestion.

5. Rakta Moksha, Blood-Letting
Ancient practice, indicated for acne, scabies, and liver and spleen problems.

  • Palliation (Shaman): The next step in Ayurvedic disease management is palliation, or shaman, used to balance and pacify the bodily dosha. Shaman focuses more on the spiritual dimension of healing, and uses a combination of herbs, fasting, chanting, yoga stretches, breathing exercise, meditation, and lying in the sun for a limited time. These techniques are useful for people with dysfunctional immune systems, or for those who are too ill or emotionally weak to undergo the more strenuous forms of physical cleansing noted in pancha karma. Because of its curative and preventative aspects, shaman can also be utilized by the healthy person. Like all enlightened healing methods, Ayurveda emphasizes prevention above curing disease.
Greece:  Hippocratic Medicine
The ancient Greeks formulated the first principles of scientific medicine; medical historians generally look to Hippocrates as the founder of medicine as a rational science.  It was Hippocrates who finally freed medicine from the shackles of magic, superstition, and the supernatural.
Hippocrates collected data and conducted experiments to show that disease was a natural process; that the signs and symptoms of a disease were caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process; and that the chief role of the physician was to aid the natural resistance of the body to overcome the metabolic imbalance and restore health and harmony to the organism.  
As his main unifying theory for the holistic understanding of the human organism and how it functions in health and disease, Hippocrates used the concept of the Four Humors. Health is a harmonious balance of the Four Humors.  Disease results from their disharmony and imbalance.  The physician’s job is to restore health by correcting the imbalance and restoring harmony to the humors.  To quote Hippocrates:
     “The body of man has in itself blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; these make up the nature of the body, and through these he feels pain or enjoys health.  Now, he enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in respect to compounding, power and bulk, and when they are perfectly mingled.  Pain is felt when one of these elements is in defect or excess, or is isolated in the body without being compounded with all the others.”
Hippocrates placed great emphasis on strengthening and building up the body’s inherent resistance to disease.  For this, he prescribed diet, gymnastics, exercise, massage, hydrotherapy and sea bathing.  Early treatments (such as bloodletting, massage, and fasting) focused on cleansing and balancing techniques to re-establish humoral equilibrium.
Hippocrates was also a great believer in dietary measures in the treatment of disease.  He prescribed a very slender, light diet during the crisis stage of an acute illness, and a liquid diet during the treatment of fevers and wounds.  As a holistic healing system, Hippocratic medicine treated the patient, and not just the disease.


Native America:  Purification Rituals

  • Sweatlodge:  An enclosure physically similar to a steam sauna that induces sweating and therefore the release of toxins. With the help of Medicine Men and Women, individuals could repair the damage done to their spirits, minds and bodies. The Sweat Lodge is a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, a place to get answers and guidance by asking spiritual entities, totem helpers, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power. The aim of the ceremony is to purify one’s mind, body, spirit and heart.

In many traditions the entrance to the sweat lodge faces to the East and the sacred fire pit. This has very significant spiritual value. Each new day for all begins in the East with the rising of Father Sun, the source of life and power, dawn of wisdom, while the fire heating the rocks is the undying light of the world, eternity, and it is a new spiritual beginning day that we seek in the sweat ceremony.

Many sweats start with the participants fasting for an entire day of contemplation in preparation for the sweat while avoiding caffeine, alcohol and other unhealthy substances. Prior to entering the sweat the participants usually smudge with sage, sweetgrass or cedar smoke as a means toward ritual cleanliness.

During the purification of one’s spirit inside a sweat lodge, all sense of race, color and religion is set aside. As in the Mother’s womb and the Father’s eyes, we are all the same, we are One. Each of us has the ability to sit with the Creator himself. Healing begins here for dis-ease, physical, emotional, directional and spiritual.

  • Smudging: Sage is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings, or influences, and also to keep bad spirits from entering the area where a ceremony takes place. In Plains nations, the floor of the sweat lodge is frequently covered with sage, and participants rub the leaves on their bodies while in the sweat. Sage is also commonly spread on the ground in a lodge or on an altar where the pipe touches the earth. Some nations wrap their pipes in sage when they are placed in pipe-bundles, as sage purifies objects wrapped in it. Sage wreaths are also placed around the head and wrists of Sundancers.


China:  Detox Methods

For thousands of years the Chinese have practiced numerous detoxification methods designed to expel toxins and bring balance back to the body.
  • Chinese Detox Tea: The Chinese use herbs to clean the liver, kidneys, lungs and blood. Drinking detox tea regularly will help you feel calmer and give you increased energy and clearer skin. The teas contain numerous potent herbs such as red clover, honeysuckle flower, dandelion root and ginger root. Combined, these herbs promote the flushing of toxins absorbed by your body through the environment, smoke, alcohol, caffeine and more.
  • Cupping: Cupping, a generally painless detox technique the Chinese have practiced for millennia, has spread to the rest of the world in recent years. Similar to acupuncture, cupping stimulates blood circulation and treats colds, infections and muscle and joint pain. The practitioner will place cups made out of strong glass directly on your skin to create suction. Pumps will increase the suction, and your skin inside the cup will rise. The suction and pressure free up blockages and let your energy flow.
  • Meridian Tapper: Chinese holds that the body contains hundreds of meridians, or energy centers. The meridian tapper process clears your meridian paths and removes waste from deep in your muscles. The practitioner uses a special meridian tapper to clear the path, and elevated bruises will appear where your blood had previously stagnated. If your body is in balance, the tapper will not produce purple welts.
  • Foot Detox Pads: Your body has 360 acupuncture points—many of which are found in the soles of the feet—where toxins can escape. Chinese foot reflexology maintains that these points connect to corresponding parts in rest of the body. Place Chinese foot detox plasters on your feet overnight; the pads draw the toxins out through the acupuncture points while you sleep. The pads will appear darker in the morning, reflective of the toxins they have drawn out. With increased use, the pads should show progressively lighter staining.
  • Scraping: Scraping is another Chinese detox process aimed at improving circulation and energy flow in your body. Before beginning the treatment, dab your skin with oil. The practitioner will scrape the parts of your body needing stimulation to improve what ails you. Commonly scraped areas include the back, chest, arms, shoulder blades and legs. Tiny red or purple dots that look like rashes will appear on the scraped area. Despite the appearance to the contrary, the process is also relatively painless; the dots indicate stagnate blood filled with toxins. After the procedure, you should feel better blood circulation and as well as relief from headaches and sinus pain, among others.

As you can see, the practice of detoxification, be it in the form of purification or cleansing, has been prevalent in different cultures and societies for thousands of generations.  Whether used for physical, emotional, or spiritual detoxification, the traditions play such important roles within each culture that may continue to be passed down even today. 

Do you engage in any detoxification, purification, or cleansing traditions that have been passed down through your family or culture? 


Next week we will be entering the world of detoxification, learning all about the different pathways utilized by the body to keep us functioning, healthy, and (hopefully!) happy.  


Join us!