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What Is An Ayurvedic Cleanse?

As a physician, wellness expert, and general healthy living enthusiast, I believe that periodic cleanses are helpful to reset our systems and reduce the load of dietary and environmental substances our bodies have to process. I’ve tried a bunch of options, from a brown rice cleanse to the master cleanse to a strict juice fast, but I had never explored an Ayurvedic approach, and from what I’d heard, I was intrigued.

How To Choose an Ayurvedic Cleanse

A friend recommended John Douillard’s Colorado Cleanse. His approach appealed to me—strongly rooted in Ayurveda, but with a healthy dose of no-nonsense science to support all phases of the cleanse. His idea is that we are all exposed to harmful substances every day as humans on planet Earth. While our filtering organs do a very good job of eliminating water-soluble substances, the fat-soluble toxicants can sometimes get stuck in our adipose tissue, where they take up residence like unwanted guests. His 14-day cleanse is designed to excavate those fat-soluble substances through a three-stage program using diet, proper hydration, and herbal supplements. The cleanse comes with a book (not a booklet), and optional herbs by his company LifeSpa, though he does give recipes for DIY herbal support if you don’t want to purchase them.

(Note: This is NOT a sponsored post - this is simply my experience with a specific program that I selected based on a recommendation from a friend.)

What is the first stage of an ayurvedic cleanse?

The first few days of the cleanse were surprisingly challenging to me. I am a 20-year vegetarian who eats minimal dairy and very little processed sugar, but we did the cleanse after the holiday season, when I’d let some discipline slip, especially in the margarita and dark chocolate caramel departments. So, the transition to zero alcohol, caffeine, dairy, or sugar (not even honey or maple syrup) and minimal fat was an abrupt one. There was a sense of deprivation, to be expected with any cleanse, but the physical effects caught me off guard. I think because I’m an MD, I want things to make complete medical sense to me. I want to understand the physiological mechanisms of my symptoms, rather than throwing around vague phrases like “detox headache” to explain things. At the end of day two, though, the most scientific explanation I could offer for my blazing migraine (despite research) was that my body, accustomed to mild caffeine, moderate natural sugars, and some alcohol, was reacting to the absence of those substances with a detox headache and a pretty irritable state of mind.

What is the second stage of an ayurvedic cleanse?

Phase two of the cleanse gets even more restrictive, so I was worried that my symptoms would worsen, but they subsided. This stage, like the first and the third, consists of three meals a day, no snacking between meals, and no liquids except water (hot or room temperature) and herbal tea with meals. The entire cleanse is very low in fat, but this middle week requires that your only fat comes in the form of your morning dose of ghee, a clarified form of butter, which increases daily. At first, it’s like licking a piece of buttered popcorn, and it’s actually pretty tasty. By the seventh day, it’s more like drinking from a butter firehose, and you’re more than ready for the transition to the final stage. I experienced mild nausea only one day after the ghee, and it subsided when I had a bit of oatmeal for breakfast.

Phase two also emphasizes a dish called kitchari, a mixture of mung beans, white rice, and spices. You can eat it three meals a day, or substitute oatmeal for breakfast and have kitchari for the other two meals, which was the plan I selected. The rules in this phase are designed to send fat (in the form of ghee) into your body to retrieve the fat-soluble toxins and pull them into your digestive tract for elimination. In the process, kitchari is supporting your body with a complete protein (beans + rice) that is easy to digest.

Hydration is a critical element of this ayurvedic approach. Douillard believes, and I agree, that most of us are deeply dehydrated, and probably not very effective in correcting dehydration on a meaningful level. He has you sip hot water throughout the day, as well as 120 ounces of room temperature water. His analogy is that if you pour water on a cold piece of leather (your digestive system), it will bead up and roll off without wetting the leather. If you soak the leather in hot water, it becomes more absorbent and can maintain a state of deeper hydration. My plant analogy is similar: if you water a bone-dry plant, the water runs right through, but if you soak the plant first, it can finally hold water. I definitely felt more hydrated than I have in years, and, while I had to pee often, it wasn’t as often as I would have thought, because my body was actually holding on to water in a more functional way.

Other recommended elements of the cleanse included journaling, self-massage, yoga, and short workouts. Because I was getting a decent number of calories each day, I didn’t feel like I had to change my workouts too much. I still did yoga, strength training, and cross-country skiing, with only a few moments of lightheadedness. I didn’t journal as much as I should have—the cleanse was very time-consuming—but maybe I’ll pick that up the next time I try it.

What is the third stage of an ayurvedic cleanse?

The final phase is similar to the first, adding back green apples, more vegetables and grains, and beets, which I managed to eat for the first time in my life with some mild degree of pleasure. It was in this final phase that I had to wrestle with a few unexpected emotions. Essentially, my body felt great, but my mind was done with the cleansing protocol (and so was my husband, who did the cleanse with me). As the mother of two girls and CEO of a busy company, the obsessive planning and preparation for each meal plus all the herbal supplements before and after meals was starting to wear on me. I was craving a normal flow to my days. I wasn’t missing caffeine or alcohol or sugar, but I wanted ease, and the lack of it was making me crabby. The friend who recommended the cleanse wisely pointed out that maybe the cleanse had done what it needed to do in 12 days instead of 14. As a certified control freak, I resisted that idea, labeling it as a failure. But, the more I considered it, the more it resonated: my body started this protocol in a pretty healthy place, and had gotten what it needed from the experience. So, I let myself ease out of the strict regimen and back into my healthy, vegetarian diet.

Now, almost two weeks after finishing the cleanse, here’s what I think I’ve gained:

  • Not weight! I lost about five pounds from my 5’7” frame, and it felt like a nice reset, even if it wasn’t a goal of the cleanse.

  • A deeper understanding of how to hydrate effectively, and a renewed commitment to that worthy cause.

  • A profound appreciation for a drizzle of honey or a splash of maple syrup, rather than my previously careless amounts of those sweeteners.

  • A substantially slowed pace at the dinner table, involving the acts of chewing and savoring my food instead of Hoovering it.

  • An appreciation for a crisp, tart apple after a meal, which has largely replaced my craving for other sweets.

  • A reminder that moderation is possible, and may be the healthiest habit we can work to cultivate in our daily lives, whether it’s regarding coffee, wine, exercise, or stress: a little is fine, too much simply isn’t.

With love and kitchari from us to you,