Annual detoxing can be a great way to reset your body and mind and keep your system running in optimal health. But just as cleansing can be healing for you, when performed improperly, it can become equally as harmful. If you feel like you need some deeper cleansing in your life, it will be essential to take the time to plan it out and move forward slowly using wisdom and awareness. Without taking proper precautions, you can easily find yourself feeling sick, tired, and worse off than before.
There are countless styles and programs for detoxing these days. When deciding on a program for yourself, it will be important to make sure the cleanse goes in line with your body type (e.g. Vata types should avoid fasting or juice fasts), appropriate for the season (e.g. intense cleanses are not recommended in the peak summer or winter months), and not overly invasive (e.g. using extreme laxatives or excessive enemas). No matter the cleanse, if you try to do too much, too soon, or simply go in and out of your cleanse half hazardously, unwanted detox symptoms are likely to wreak havoc in your life.
Call me biased, but Ayurveda is a head runner when it comes to detoxing in a healthy and balanced manner. This age-old science not only looks into all of these important factors (body type, season, etc) but almost all of the complementary practices that are recommended during an Ayurvedic cleanse happen to be quite beneficial for avoiding negative symptoms (often called detox or die-off reactions) during and after your cleanse.
What is a detox reaction?
A detox reaction is a flare-up of symptoms (see a list of common symptoms below) that come on during a detox program. They can be mildly unpleasant or more severe, impeding your daily activities. Although this reaction is a clear sign that detox is occurring, it can be very disruptive and uncomfortable for you. It is often an indication that your system simply cannot handle the upheaval of toxins that are being released. This is considered overly invasive, and therefore it is likely that you should let up on the herbs and cleansing therapies in order to detox in a more balanced manner.
Why do detox reactions happen?
Detox reactions often occur when you are releasing toxins at a quicker rate than your system can process. This is often due to a high level of toxins in your system, resulting from previous unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices, weak or imbalanced Agni (digestive fire), and/or potential low liver energy. The unprocessed toxins are left to float through your bloodstream and GI tract until they are able to be eliminated properly. Until this occurs, disruption and discomfort arise and you are left feeling sick, tired, achy, and foggy-headed.
A detox reaction from a general cleanse is very similar in symptoms when compared to a “die-off reaction” from a parasite cleanse. A die-off reaction typically occurs when the parasites are being killed off too quickly and they cannot be eliminated fast enough to avoid a negative reaction. The parasites can also release toxins and heavy metals as they are being attacked, both of which will create similar undesirable reactions.
Whether it is a detox or die-off reaction, this indicates that your body is working hard and is under extreme stress trying to eliminate these toxins. Although some symptoms may be inevitable for certain individuals, if they are presenting in a very intense way, this may be a sign that you should ease up on your cleansing regimen until they become milder and balance is retrieved.
Certain individuals are more sensitive than others, and this can also play a factor in the way your body reacts to a detox. If you know yourself to be sensitive to herbal medicine and supplements, then it will be wise to keep this in mind as you plan out your cleanse, and move into it slowly with ease. This will likely mean to begin any cleansing herbs at a very small dosage, and make sure to include as many complementary practices (see specific ideas below) as possible to prevent (or lessen) these negative reactions.
What are some common symptoms of a detox reaction?
If you are experiencing a detox reaction (or die-off reaction), your symptoms will likely be unique and a reflection of the areas that are weak or need improvement in your system. Here are some of the most common symptoms to look out for:
- Body ache
- Foggy mind
- Skin rashes
- Lack of appetite
- Gas and bloating
- Emotional upheaval
- Sleep changes
Now that you have an overview of what a detox reaction is and why it occurs, it is time to discover some important regimens to adopt during your cleanse, so you can avoid them before they come on.
As I mentioned above, some symptoms may simply be inevitable, but the goal is to minimize them as much as possible (if we cannot prevent them completely) and send them on their way as quickly as possible, if and when they do come up.
How to Prevent Detox Reactions
1. Start your herbal regimen in small doses.
One of the best ways to prevent over-detox symptoms will be to take your cleansing herbal regimen at smaller dosages than recommended. If you know yourself to be extra sensitive to herbs and supplements, this will hold even more true!
Although there is not a definitive amount to recommend for everyone, you can often start at ¼ the recommended dosage and slowly work your way up to taking the standard amount. For example, you may start the first several days with the ¼ dosage, then move up to taking ½ by the second week. Once your body has acclimated to this, you can then begin to take the full dose.
Please note that some individuals are simply more sensitive to herbs and may never reach the full dose. Therefore, it will be best to listen to your system and only move forward with increasing the dose if and when you can handle it.
2. Don’t forget to pre-cleanse!
It is extremely important to include a pre-cleanse phase, one to four weeks before your cleanse, in order to prepare your body (and lessen the blow, so to speak). A typical Ayurvedic pre-cleanse includes many of the recommendations listed below, and when done properly, these practices will begin to gently loosen the toxins from your tissues and encourage their elimination in a mild manner.
By preparing your body with these intelligent practices, you can start slow and ease your way into your cleanse, rather than go from one extreme (say a week of binge junk-food eating) to another extreme (going full force into your cleanse using intensely cleansing herbs, enemas, or laxatives). Without these pre-cleanse measures, detox reactions will be much more common and likely.
3. Drink cleansing tea between meals.
To encourage your system to flush out toxins that are being released while also igniting your Agni (digestive fire), it is very helpful to drink a cleansing herbal tea between meals each day of your cleanse. In fact, it will be best to begin this step before your cleanse even starts to help prepare your body and prevent over-detox symptoms. Some great herbal tea options include CCF Tea, Ginger Tea, Detox Tea, and Tulsi, Turmeric, & Ginger Tea.
Directions: Drink one to two cups of a cleansing herbal tea between meals beginning seven days before your cleanse, and continue throughout your entire cleanse. After your cleanse, you can reduce this amount to one cup daily until your post-cleanse phase is over.
4. Drink plenty of warm to hot water throughout your day.
Similar to the previous recommendation, drinking a continuous amount of warm to hot water will help to flush out your system and will aid in the removal of toxins that get released during your cleanse. Warm to hot water is much more cleansing than room temperature water, just as washing a dish with hot water is more effective than using cool water.
Iced or cold water is the worst of all (sorry!), as it will actually slow down your digestion and solidify toxins (think of what cold water does to oil). Therefore, cold water should be avoided altogether – before, during, and after your cleanse.
5. Keep your colon clear!
It is hard to cleanse properly if your system is clogged and your bowels are not eliminating regularly. Therefore, ensuring a healthy bowel movement each and every day (ideally in the morning before food intake), will be essential during your cleanse for keeping toxins flowing out freely, and in turn, preventing (or reducing) symptoms of a detox reaction.
To encourage regularity in your bowels, you can take Tikta Ghrita (aka “bitter ghee”) each morning and Triphala Churna each night. These formulas are very cleansing and possess mild laxative properties that will promote healthy digestion and elimination during your cleanse.
Directions for Tikta Ghrita:
Starting seven days before your cleanse begins, take 1 tablespoon of Tikta Ghrita each morning on an empty stomach. You may need to begin with ½ to 1 teaspoon and work your way to 1 tablespoon (equals 3 teaspoons), as appropriate.
Take the Tikta Ghrita in 1 cup of warm to hot water. Stir well and make sure the ghee is melted completely before drinking. Follow with some warm to hot water and avoid any food intake for at least 30 minutes. Continue this regimen until the last day of your cleanse.
- If you are experiencing more severe constipation issues, this dosage can be taken as 1 tablespoon, 30 minutes before each meal. Once again, you may need to work yourself up to this amount.
- If nausea occurs, reduce the dose and only increase as appropriate. Avoid food and herbal tea until the nausea has subsided. Sips of warm water can still be taken.
- If you have high cholesterol, Tikta Ghrita should be replaced with equal amounts of flax oil.
Directions for Triphala Churna:
Starting seven days (or more) before your cleanse begins, take ½ to 1 teaspoon of Triphala Churna each night before bed, at least one to two hours after food intake.
Mix the Triphala in ½ cup of warm to hot water and steep it for three to five minutes. Stir well (but do not strain) and drink the mixture. Triphala has a strong taste, so it is usually best to drink this tea fairly quickly. Follow with a few sips of warm to hot water.
- If you are starting with a smaller dose and building toward the full recommendation, I would suggest to begin at ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon and increase as appropriate.
- If constipation still arises during your cleanse, you can take a second dosage of Triphala first thing each morning, waiting at least 30 to 60 minutes before food intake.
- If you tend toward loose bowels, this amount should be reduced to a set ¼ to ½ teaspoon.
6. Get proper sleep.
It is probably not too surprising to hear that your body needs proper sleep in order to keep strong, ward away sickness and fatigue, and process toxins properly during a cleanse. Healthy sleep is not simply the amount of time you are sleeping, but also the hours that you are sleeping. Here is a healthy sleep schedule to keep in mind during your cleanse (and beyond!)
- 8 pm – begin wind downtime*
- 930 pm – in bed** (light reading is alright)
- 10 pm – asleep**
- 5 am to 6 am – wake up and get out of bed (great time for gentle Yoga or meditation!)
7. Get proper rest.
Just as your body needs proper sleep at night during a cleanse, it also needs proper rest throughout each day. It is quite normal for your energy to become very low during your cleanse due to the extra work you are putting on your system, as well as the light and mild diet that is often associated with a cleanse. In order to stay healthy and strong during a cleanse and reap the highest benefits, you must honor and acknowledge your reduced energy rather than try to tough through it (like we so often do!)
This simply means to avoid working too much (even better take some time off), traveling, excessive social activity, intense exercise, and intense laborious activities throughout your entire cleanse and even into your post-cleanse phase. Without this important focus, your body will be left depleted, fatigued, and susceptible to sickness.
While you are avoiding these strenuous activities, you can begin to welcome some more relaxing practices into your daily routine such as restorative Yoga, deep breathing, peaceful walks, meditation, sitting, light reading, and simply laying down and closing your eyes.
8. Perform a self-oil massage (Abhyanga).
The Ayurvedic oil massage known as abhyanga, is an essential part of any Ayurvedic cleanse and should be performed daily up to seven days before your cleanse, then continued daily until your cleanse is complete.
Although this will be great for your nervous system and working through some of the emotional upheavals that often arise during a cleanse, its specific purpose in this context is related to its ability to loosen deep-rooted toxins from your tissues and help guide them to your GI tract (via the bloodstream) where they can be eliminated (with the help of cleansing herbs, etc).
Directions: The timing of your abhyanga does not matter so much, although most individuals will perform this as part of their morning routine or their nighttime routine. For the purpose of the cleanse, it is recommended to apply the abhyanga by starting with your peripheral body and massaging toward your center where the GI tract is located. This will help encourage the released toxins to move from your tissues, through your bloodstream, and into your GI tract for proper elimination.
It is recommend to use a medicated oil that is appropriate for your dosha type, your current imbalance, and/or the current season. If these medicated oils are not available, you can use Sesame Oil for Vata types, Coconut Oil or Sunflower Oil for Pitta types, and a blend of Sunflower and Sesame Oil for Kapha types.
Sweating is another Ayurvedic cleansing essential that should be performed daily before and during your cleanse. This practice will help remove toxins from your bloodstream through your skin. It is equally as great for getting your blood flowing to reduce stagnation and prevent toxins from getting lodged back into your tissues. As an added bonus, this amazing self-care practice is great for reducing stress and calming your mind, which will be beneficial for cleansing and healing on a deeper level.
One of the best methods for performing a sweating therapy at home is the Ginger-Baking Soda bath. Other alternatives would be to visit a sauna (best for Kapha) or steam room (best for Vata). Pitta types are often sensitive to heat, and therefore any of these sweating therapies should be performed a bit milder (meaning less heat) with a shorter duration.
Directions: Spend at least 15 to 30 minutes (or until a sweat breaks) in one of the above mentioned therapies daily, beginning seven days before your cleanse and continuing each day of your cleanse. Sweating often goes very well with the abhyanga therapy (#8 above) and they can be done one after the other. I often like to apply the oil before sweating to allow deeper penetration of the oil into my skin.
IMPORTANT NOTE: These heat-based therapies are not recommended if any skin rashes, severe redness, or irritations are present.
10. Drink Cilantro Juice.
This simple home remedy is a great complement to any cleanse to help gently flush toxins from your system, as well as aid in the removal of heavy metals which can often be released through cleanses (especially parasitical cleanses). Further, this plant is great for reducing heat, inflammation, and rashes that can arise during a cleanse. Cilantro is very gentle by nature and can be used daily by most body types without side effects.
Directions: Drink 1 cup of cilantro juice, twice daily between meals, everyday of your cleanse. If preferred, you can begin this regimen up to seven days pre-cleanse as well.
11. Take Chlorella.
Chlorella is a green algae that possesses many health properties, including the ability to bind with toxins, hence aiding in their removal. If you are not familiar with toxin binders, these are agents that are known to be receptors for toxins to assist in their elimination from your system.
There are several natural substances that are said to act as binders (such as clay, zeolite, etc), however, I find that Chlorella is less harsh than the others that can sometimes lead to dryness, constipation, nausea, nutritional deficiency, etc. Generally speaking, Chlorella is great for encouraging the removal of heavy metals, pesticides, environmental pollutants, molds, and other toxins.
Directions: It is important to start the Chlorella seven days (or more) before your detox begins. It is recommended to start with a small dose (⅛ to ¼ teaspoon) and slowly make your way to a larger dose by increasing the amount by ¼ teaspoon every few days until you reach a tolerable amount for your system. This may stay at ¼ teaspoon, or it may go up to 1 full teaspoon (do not exceed).
Chlorella can be taken at different times depending on your needs, but generally it is best to take it on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. If you are performing a more intense cleanse, repeat this dosage before bed.
Mix the Chlorella powder in ½ to 1 cup of warm water or cilantro juice. Stir well and let it steep for several minutes. Stir well again and drink down. Follow with a few sips of warm water.
12. Perform gentle Yoga twists.
I highly recommend taking a little time to perform some gentle-restorative Yoga, each and every day of your cleanse. To go a step further however, it will be even more beneficial to focus on at least a couple of twisting postures. All gentle Yoga postures will be helpful for removing stagnant toxins, supporting optimal circulation, and relaxing your GI tract (and mind) to aid in healthy digestion and elimination. Twisting postures go a bit deeper by “squeezing” out the junk in your system, igniting your Agni (digestive fire), and encouraging healthy bowel movements.
Directions: Take some time to sit and quiet your mind, then slowly move into some gentle seated twists. After performing several gentle seated twists, finish in a reclined posture such as supported supta badhakonasana (reclined butterfly), shavasana (corpse pose), and/or legs up the wall.
If you are new to Yoga, there is no need to be afraid! Here is a simple 12 minute video that will give you some ideas of gentle seated twists that you can use at home, at your own comfort level.
If you are looking for a total-body gentle Yoga class, here is a 50 minute video for you!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Although gentle Yoga is very beneficial during a cleanse, power Yoga, hot room Yoga, and other intense forms should be avoided. It is important to avoid intense exercise and movement of all kinds, even in your Yoga practice… so think gentle, peaceful, static postures (don’t forget the bolsters, pillows, and blankets!), with deep breathing and a quiet mind!
What do you do if a detox reaction occurs?
So you have taken the proper precautions and still you are feeling nauseous, tired, foggy-headed, and achy. Or maybe, you forgot to take the proper precautions and you are now regretting this decision. What do you do? Like so many questions in Ayurveda, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on the severity of your detox reaction, the steps that were taken (or not taken) to come to that point, the level of toxins in your system, and the strength of your body to handle the reactions.
In general, an overall assessment should be done. Are you eating properly? Are you having regular bowel movements? Are you resting, sleeping, and avoiding strenuous activities? Are you taking too strong of herbs or too large of quantities? These are all just examples. You may be able to clearly see your answer, or you may be left guessing.
Overall I would recommend gathering the most common causes for your detox symptoms and make the necessary changes. If you have been trying to haul through a normal work week while performing an intense cleanse, you will need to lighten your load. If you feel like you are sensitive to your herbs, reduce the dosage or take a short break from them and reintroduce them in three to seven days at a lower dose. If you have not been consistent with the recommendations above, now is the time to get to it (and stick to it!)
If all else fails, a DIY, at-home cleanse may not be the best decision for you at this time. In this case, you should go off of your cleanse with ease by utilizing some essential post-cleanse procedures (read more here). Once you are feeling better, if you are still intent on cleansing, you can then seek out a knowledgeable Ayurvedic practitioner that can work with you one-on-one and help guide you through a more suitable cleanse.