Tuesday, March 19, 2019

An Ayurvedic Approach to Detox - Part 1

by Dr. Leena Athparia, ND

If we were to oversimplify what health is, there are essentially two aspects you need to address: your building blocks and nutrients and your ability to eliminate.

According to Ayurveda, just like in naturopathic medicine, eliminating toxins is a foundation to building good health. There are many routes of elimination known as emunctories through which toxins flow out of the body. This process is also known as 'drainage'. In Ayurveda there is an extensive understanding of how things move through the body.  Waste material or malas are eliminated through the srotas or channels.

The major routes of elimination are:

  • bowels
  • urination
  • sweating
  • breathing
  • menses
  • voice
  • movement

When toxins build up and the routes of elimination are clogged, disease starts to manifest. Exposure to toxins can come from food, environment, body products, hormones, internal metabolites and stress. When your system is healthy, your body is able to detoxify efficiently. Read more about factors that affect an individual's ability to eliminate toxins here. Many supplements support detoxification but unfortunately often only recirculate toxins within the body. You need to work with your naturopathic doctor to ensure that toxins are released through the routes of elimination. For example a heavy metal detox supplement that you pick up in the health food store may help remove heavy metals in certain organs but unless there is something that binds it and pulls it out of the body,  it may only deposit in a different area of the body.

Ayurvedic Detox or Shodhana 

There are essentially 3 categories of Ayurvedic treatments:
  • Rasayana: Rejuvenation and wellness maintenance. This is done to prevent disease and slow down the aging process.
  • Samana: Dosha balancing treatments. This is done when disease is mild to moderate and focuses on pacifying vata, pitta and kapha.
  • Shodhana: Cleansing therapies. This approach is done to drive disease out of the body by 'provoking the doshas'. (An example would be naysa therapy to provoke Kapha out of the sinuses. If you have done this treatment, initially you may feel more congested because Kapha dosha is being provoked, but once congestion clears up, you feel light.)

Many detox treatments in naturopathic medicine and Ayurveda are designed to 'shake up' and expel waste from the body and mind. Shodhana is the basis of panchakarma or 5 -fold detox in Ayurvedic medicine where imbalances are methodically stirred up and driven out of the body. When the body responds it is not always in ways that are always comfortable or pleasant. This is always done under supervision with customized treatments since everyone has a different pattern of imbalance. A typical example in the naturopathic setting might be loose stools or vomiting during a cleanse, or experiencing skin reactions. So before you panic next time you start a new treatment plan, check with your naturopathic doctor with what to watch for. If you block a natural route of elimination - let's say you pop an anti-vomiting pill or an anti-diarrhea pill - you may be hampering what the body is trying to eliminate. So understanding the routes of elimination can help you appreciate how the body is working for you instead of against you.

Depending how imbalanced you are, detox reactions may be absent, mild or stronger. Your ability to process and expel toxins is related to another concept that is prevalent in Ayurvedic medicine: agni & ama.

The Interplay of Agni & Ama

Another key concept in Ayurveda is agni which literally means 'fire' in Sanskrit. Agni is essentially your digestive fire or your ability to break down and transform nutrients while burning off waste products. While digestion is important to provide nutrients that the body can use, elimination of waste is equally as important to stay healthy. For example, if you are eating very healthy meals 3 times a day, but only have one bowel movement, no matter how good your food is, it can become toxic while it ferments in your gut. According to Ayurveda, waste material that your body can neither break down and use nor excrete is called ama or toxins. When your body accumulates ama, it becomes a breeding ground for disease such as cancer, obesity, heart attacks etc. When ama builds up, it can clog the channels in the body where nutrients aren't able to get absorbed properly and waste is unable to move out efficiently. A common example of ama translated into western medicine would be Candida or yeast infections, where the body becomes a breeding ground for yeast due to stress, sugar intake and other factors.

Agni not only applies to the principle of processing food, but also applies to how you process experiences, memories, emotions and sensory impressions. As we need to digest our food, we also need to 'digest' our daily experiences.

Signs of elevated ama or toxic waste:

  • Thick coating on your tongue
  • Excessive body odour
  • Poor digestion or constipation
  • Lack of appetite
  • Frequent colds
  • Brain "fog"
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Heaviness or congestion
  • Lack of clarity and confidence
Accumulation of ama leads to imbalance and diseases, so it is crucial to cleanse ama on all levels. This can be done by unblocking the pathways of elimination while increasing agni. Many people who are new to Ayurveda and take dosha quizzes will find many tips to help balance their dosha (vata, pitta, kapha). While many of these suggestions are effective, dosha balancing can only work well if agni is balanced, so it is crucial that agni is addressed.

Ama in the first stage, tends to accumulate in the digestive tract. When it's identified at this point, it is easier to treat with diet, spices, herbs and lifestyle practices. Once it moves in the body and settles deeper into the tissues, more thorough cleansing is required. The main goal in any detox program is opening the routes of elimination and stirring up toxins so that they can be driven out of the body. We will explore Panchakarma in Part 2 next month.

Dr. Leena Athparia is a Naturopathic doctor & Ayurvedic practitioner at Naturopathic Foundations with a focus on joint health, pain and chronic disease. If you are healthy and looking into preventing disease or learning more about your constitution, Dr. Athparia can help you. Please call the clinic at 905-940-2727 to book an appointment.