Cleansing and fasting are integral to holistic healing. The basic tenets of functional medicine are clean the body; remove any irritants, whether they be food, medicine, or microbes; provide the proper nutrients for the body to use as building materials; replace missing intestinal flora, enzymes, and hydrochloric acid; and give the body time to heal itself.

We are exposed to toxins everywhere—from the air we breathe to the foods we eat, even as a result of metabolism. These toxins cause irritation and inflammation throughout our bodies. People have always been exposed to toxic substances, but today’s exposure to contaminants far exceeds that of previous times.

Each week, approximately 6,000 new chemicals are listed in the Chemical Society’s Chemical Abstracts, which adds up to more than 300,000 new chemicals each year. Each year, we consume, on average, fourteen pounds of food additives, including colorings, preservatives, flavorings, emulsifiers, humectants, and antimicrobials.

In 1990, the EPA estimated that 70,000 chemicals were commonly used in pesticides, foods, and drugs. Our body normally produces toxins as a by-product of metabolism. We call them endotoxins, which means they come from within us. If not eliminated, these endotoxins can irritate and inflame our tissues, blocking normal functions.

Endotoxins formed by bacteria and yeasts can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Antibodies formed to protect us against the harmful effects of these endotoxins often trigger a systemic effect, causing an autoimmune reaction, so our body begins fighting itself.

By assisting your body in removal of stored toxins through detoxification programs, your body can more easily heal itself. One of the many functions of the liver is to act as a filter, to let nutrients pass, to “humanize” other substances if possible, and to transform toxins into safe substances that can be eliminated in urine and stool.

When the liver enzymes fail to break down these toxins, they are stored in the liver and fatty tissue throughout our bodies. Common medications can inhibit the liver’s ability to adequately process toxins. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) causes liver damage when used in combination with alcoholic beverages.

Cimetidine, an ulcer medication, limits the liver’s ability to detoxify foreign substances. A thorough cleansing program works systemically, cleansing all the cells in your body of harmful toxins. Throughout time and in various cultures, people have seen the need for periodic internal cleansing.

Native Americans and Mexicans use sweat lodges. Ancient Roman bathhouses had rooms for bathing in steam, warm water, and cold water. Jewish women have used ritual mikva baths to cleanse both body and spirit. Most Swedish people have home saunas, and our own health clubs have saunas, steambaths, and jacuzzis.

People “take the waters” in Europe and parts of the United States. Hawaiians use steam and a form of massage, called lomilomi, where they scrub people clean with the red Hawaiian dirt and sea salt. In fact, mud and clay have been used worldwide to draw toxins from the body while simultaneously providing essential nutrients.

Fasting is an important part of many religious holidays and customs. Both Jesus and John the Baptist fasted to gain mental and spiritual clarity. During Ramadan, an important Muslim holiday, people fast during daylight hours for a month. Jewish people fast on Yom Kippur.

Indigenous people of many cultures use fasting as a way to clarify thought and provoke visions. Removal of waste material—detoxification—is essential to the healthy functioning of our bodies. This is shown in the many different ways the body cleanses itself. Skin is our body’s largest organ.

In addition to being a protective organ, it is also an organ of elimination through perspiration. Sneezes clear our sinuses. Lungs breathe out carbon dioxide, and even the breath allows for removal of some wastes. Kidneys filter wastes from the bloodstream. Stool is the residue from the digestive process.

The liver filters the substances that are absorbed through the digestive barrier into the bloodstream. White blood cells gobble up bacteria and foreign substances, and the lymphatic system clears the debris from circulation. During a cleansing program, your body more rapidly recycles materials to build new cells, take apart aged cells, and repair damaged cells.

Most detoxification programs focus on the liver or colon. The liver is, in my opinion, the most overworked organ of the body. It has responsibility for manufacturing thirteen thousand different enzymes, producing cholesterol, breaking down estrogen, regulating blood sugar, filtering blood, manufacturing bile, breaking down old red blood cells, and detoxifying harmful substances.

When the liver loses its ability to easily perform these functions, we begin to feel ill, with many systems out of balance. It is best if you follow a detoxification program under the supervision of a medical or health professional who can guide you through the process. Toxins released too quickly can make you feel worse than when you began and can aggravate your symptoms.

Detoxification programs such as fasting, modified fasting, metabolic cleansing, colonic irrigation, steaming, mud packs, saunas, herbal detoxification programs, and hot tubs all have therapeutic benefits. When choosing a detoxification program, it must meet specific criteria: it needs to:

  1. Work with your life and your values.
  2. Be thorough.
  3. Be gentle and nurturing to your body.

During the past several years, I have personally and professionally relied on three main detoxification programs that are effective and gentle: fruit and vegetable cleansing, metabolic cleansing, and low-temperature steams and saunas. I also recommend vitamin C flushes between cleansings. Other professionals may prefer fasting programs or colonic irrigation, which in the right hands can be powerful tools for healing.