Detoxing: A Global Practice with a Long History

Published by Rich Chambers on

A detox cleanse is intended to rid the body of toxins that build up in a person’s system over time. These toxins may come from the food we eat or the environment, but regardless of their point of origin the goal of the detox cleanse is to create conditions that enable your body to purge them.

Opinions are split on the efficacy of detoxification. There are many who believe them to be indispensable to overall health, and there are some convinced the modern detox industry is nothing more than a scam to entice the gullible to buy things they don’t need.

But here’s the thing: there is nothing “modern” about the detox cleanse. It is a practice that has been with us, not for decades, but for millenia. The ancient Chinese, Indians, and Native Americans all practiced some form of detoxification rituals thousands of years ago.

In an effort to provide some context for the current detoxification movement let’s take a closer look at the history of the detox.

The Checkered History of the Detox


The problem with researching the history of the detox is that, thanks to the internet, there are now thousands of websites that make fantastical claims about that history without providing much of anything by way of proof. So we are going to restrict ourselves only to those claims or events that are reasonably credible. That said, let’s get started.

Detoxing in Ancient Egypt


While pharaonic Egypt left us monuments that boggle the mind their impact on subsequent cultures is almost zero. With one exception. Evidence suggest it was the ancient Egyptians who invented the enema (1) and used it regularly to cleanse their bodies of toxins, which they believed entered the body via the food they ate. A point of view shared by many people today.

Detoxing in Ancient China


So much of current “alternative” medicine originated in China that it would be a shock if detoxing didn’t have deep roots there too. And that certainly seems to be the case. The Chinese approach to detoxing though goes well beyond simply waiting until all the booze has left a person’s system and extends to purging the body of bad energy as well.

Two ways Chinese healers have traditionally used to achieve this goal are acupuncture (2) and what is called “cupping”. Acupuncture is well known, even in the West, and is no doubt effective in certain circumstances as an anesthesia and in helping to relieve pain. Whether it does so by purging negative energy is an entirely different matter and one that cannot be quantified.

Cupping is also touted as an effective method for exhuming toxins and ridding the body of negative energy. Unlike acupuncture, however, there is almost no evidence to back up any claims of its effectiveness. Even the Chinese medical establishment, (which understandably often promotes aspects of traditional Chinese medicine) acknowledges there is not enough evidence to prove cupping provides any benefit (3).

Detoxing in Ancient India


Ayurvedic medicine (4) dates back to at least 200 BC and, like its Chinese counterpart, was and is heavily invested in the idea of purging the body of toxins. Ayurvedic medicine relies on what is called the “five actions” or “pancha karma” to cleanse the body.

These “actions” include laxatives to promote bowel movements, vomiting to eliminate poisons in the GI tract, enemas to remove toxins from the colon, dripping oils in the nose to cleanse and clear the sinuses, and the long-discredited practice of blood letting (5).

Native American Detoxing


Detoxing rituals have long been part of Native American culture. Thousands of years ago Native Americans were among the first to incorporate fasting into their culture as a way to cleanse their systems. A practice that is at the heart of many a detox cleanse routine today.

They also relied (and to a certain extent continue to rely) on a process called “smudging” (6) that entails the burning of specific herbs which they believe will cleanse the air of negativity, thereby lifting the spirit and improving people’s mood.

The Native Americans were also well ahead of the curve in their use of so-called “sweat lodges”, which were essentially an early form of sauna (7). They believed, as do many people today, that sweating profusely was an effective way to purge impurities from the system.

Alcohol and Chemical Detox: The Same Thing?

Beside the historical precedents for detoxing it seems a lot of people looked at the success of alcohol and drug detoxes and concluded “If they can do it with alcohol, why can’t I do it with food and environmental toxins?”

On the surface that might seem a logical conclusion. However, detoxing from alcohol and removing toxins like mercury that may be absorbed from fish consumption are two fundamentally different things.

Besides providing supervision and medications that can help make withdrawal easier not much really happens at an alcohol detox. The affected person is simply given a safe place to stay and food to eat (along with the aforementioned medications) while the alcohol works its way out of their system.

In most cases it only takes a few days to metabolize alcohol and clear it from the body. Mercury on the other hand, has a half life of 30-60 days (8) in the body, meaning a detox cleanse a few days in duration won’t do much. The half life of mercury that reaches the brain is thought to be as long as 20 years. Meaning, in effect, that it cannot be purged during the average lifetime.

The Bottom Line

The detox has been with us since the dawn of civilization and has no doubt helped countless people achieve a higher degree of overall health. The effectiveness of a detox cleanse however, depends almost entirely on what it is the person is trying to clear from their system.

Remember, your body has its own built in detox system that has evolved over millions of years and includes your kidneys, liver, lungs and immune system. It works pretty good. Fasting, juice cleanses and other methods may help you feel more lively and alert, especially after a period where you haven’t been eating particularly well, but they are not likely to purge your system of heavy metals or other dangerous toxins.

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