Taking Care of Toxins: Detoxification with Maharishi Ayurveda
In this newsletter, our ayurvedic expert from The Council of Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians discusses the seasonal ayurvedic ritual of internal cleansing.
Q: What kinds of toxins build up in the body?
A: Maharishi Ayurveda describes three kinds of toxins. The most common type is ama, which is the sticky waste-product of digestion that builds up in the digestive tract when your digestion is either weak or overloaded with the wrong foods. If ama is not cleared from the body and continues to build up, after some time it can leave the digestive tract and start circulating throughout the body.
Once it settles in an area of the body, it can aggravate the doshas or subdoshas, causing an imbalance in that area of the body. If the causal factors are not addressed, and ama continues to sit in one place in the body, then ama becomes reactive and mixes with the subdoshas, the dhatus (body tissues), or malas (waste products such as urine). When it mixes with these parts of the physiology, it becomes amavisha, a more reactive, toxic type of ama. The third type of toxins are those we would call environmental toxins today. Environmental toxins come from outside the body and include pesticides and chemical fertilizers in food, as well as preservatives, additives and genetically engineered foods. Food that has "gone bad" and is filled with harmful bacteria also falls in this category. Other garavisha toxins include arsenic, lead, asbestos, chemicals in detergents and household supplies, poisons, air and water pollution, chemicals and synthetics in clothing, and recreational drugs.
Q: How do you know if your body needs cleansing?
A: An expert trained in Maharishi Ayurveda can tell that there are toxins in your body through nadi vigyan, or ayurvedic pulse diagnosis. If your pulse is very slow and sluggish, it's a sign that there are toxins in the body. That's why it's a good idea to have a check-up every season, to clear away the toxins that have formed from the previous season before the new one begins. The ayurvedic expert can determine which type of toxin is in the body and where it is located. This is very important, because the treatment will be different depending on the type of toxin and where it has settled.
Q: Are there general signs you can look for, to tell that you have ama building up in the body?
A: Yes. If you have a heavy feeling in your body, if your joints are stiff, if your tongue is coated when you wake up in the morning, if you have an unpleasant body odor, if you feel dull and sleepy after eating, if your mind is foggy — these are all indications of ama in the body. Diarrhea, constipation, joint pain, sadness, dullness, lowered immunity, frequent colds and flu are all health problems that can be caused by ama. These problems are caused because ama clogs the channels of circulation in the body. It can prevent nutrients from flowing to the cells, organs and brain. Or it can clog the channels that carry waste from the cells and tissues, resulting in a toxic build-up.
Q: What are the signs of amavisha?
A: When ama settles in one place for a long time, it disturbs the subdoshas and eventually, if the person doesn't stop the actions that are causing the imbalance, it becomes the more advanced form of ama, called amavisha. Amavisha often mixes with the subdoshas and causes disease. For instance, if ama settles in the chest, the subdosha Shleshaka Kapha can get disturbed there, and if Shleshaka Kapha mixes with ama, it causes a type of amavisha called shleshma. Shleshma is a really, thick, yellow-colored, nasty sort of toxin, and when it settles in the lungs, it becomes a fertile ground for bronchial infection. Once amavisha (such as shleshma) is present in the body, disease symptoms usually follow. This is just one example of a disease caused by amavisha mixing with a particular subdosha. Symptoms can also result when amavisha mixes with the dhatus (body tissues). The symptoms will vary depending on the dhatu involved. For instance, when amavisha mixes with Rasa Dhatu (the nutrient fluid), the symptoms may include diarrhea, loss of appetite, and a feeling of being overheated. When amavisha mixes with Rakta Dhatu (blood plasma), it creates different types of skin diseases, such as psoriasis, excema, or severe acne. Amavisha can mix with the other five dhatus and the seven waste products (malas), creating different symptoms depending on which dhatu or mala it is mixing with. If it is not corrected, over time amavisha can cause diseases such as kidney dysfunction or a hyperactive liver. Depending on where amavisha is located, it will create different effects — mental, emotional or physical. Coronary heart disease, for instance, is caused by amavisha blocking the coronary artery. Wherever it settles, it causes problems. You could say that the symptoms caused by ama are more general, while the symptoms caused by amavisha are more specific and severe. But both can cause problems with immunity, as can garavisha.
Q: How would you know if your body is overloaded with environmental toxins?
A: The signs of garavisha will vary depending on the type of toxin that's lodged in the body. They can range from lack of taste in the mouth to dizziness, skin eruptions, rashes, excessive body heat, heart palpitations, darkened skin patches, fatigue and heaviness in the body. Sometimes it is very difficult to identify the specific toxin that is causing the symptoms, because there are hundreds of chemicals and environmental toxins that a person could be exposed to. If you suspect that you have been exposed to environmental toxins, it's important to consult an expert in Maharishi Ayurveda right away. The physician trained in Maharishi Ayurveda can recommend a blood test. In fact, many people today do have high levels of mercury and lead in their systems. The ayurvedic expert can then prescribe a safe and natural treatment program for eliminating these heavy metals and toxins from your body.
Q: How would you come in contact with those kinds of environmental toxins in the first place?
A: Environmental toxins are all around us in today's world, and it's important to protect yourself from them. You can have your water tested, for instance, to find out if there are pesticides, chemicals or lead in your water supply. Pesticides are commonly found in the ground water in agricultural areas, for instance, and lead water pipes can be a problem in older buildings. You can install a reverse osmosis water filter to remove most of these toxins in the drinking water, although you'd want to test the water again to make sure it's pure. Otherwise, you can drink bottled spring water. Chlorine is commonly used to purify city water, yet is toxic to the body and especially the skin. You can purchase an inexpensive carbon purifier to attach to your showerhead, or if possible, invest in a whole-house carbon filter to purify all the water in your home. There are many sources of mercury, which is found concentrated in fish and in metal fillings for cavities. If you find that you have high levels of mercury, you will want to avoid eating fish, and may want to have your metal fillings replaced with nontoxic composite fillings. The levels of DDT and related chemicals are on the rise, in part because many fruits and vegetables are now imported from Mexico and South America, where DDT is not banned. To avoid toxins, pesticides and chemicals in foods, buy organically grown foods. If you must buy non-organic fruits and vegetables at times, be sure to wash them with a mild, nontoxic vegetable soap and rinse well. Eating whole, natural foods rather than processed foods is another important way to avoid environmental toxins. Processed, canned and packaged foods are laced with preservatives, food additives, food colorings and other toxins. You can eliminate many environmental toxins by using biodegradable, non-toxic household supplies and detergents. Place purifying plants in your home, such as holy basil, spider plants and philodendron, which are known to absorb toxins and purify the air. Make sure that your washer and dryer are properly vented, so the toxic fumes are not cycling through the house. And use an indoor air purifier if air pollution is a problem. Because environmental toxins instantly affect Pitta dosha, it's important for people with Pitta body type or imbalances to especially protect themselves from these toxins. But anyone can develop symptoms if they are exposed to large quantities of garavisha toxins or for a period of time.
Q: What about ama and amavisha? What causes the body to create these toxins?
A: Ama is the waste product of incomplete digestion, so any dietary or lifestyle habits that disrupt digestion can cause ama. Let's talk about diet first. If you eat foods that are too heavy to digest, such as fried foods, hard cheeses, meats, leftovers, junk foods, processed foods, and rich desserts, these can overload your digestion and cause ama to form. Cold foods and drinks — such as ice cream, ice water and foods straight from the refrigerator — also are hard to digest, since cold temperatures put out the digestive fire. How much food and the type of food you can easily digest depends on your digestive capacity. Digestion can be weak, strong, or irregular, depending on your body type or imbalances. If your digestion is weak or dull (a characteristic associated with Kapha dosha), and you eat too much food or food that is too heavy for your digestive system, you'll form ama. Someone with a strong digestion (associated with Pitta dosha) will be able to eat larger quantities and richer foods without forming ama. A person with an irregular digestion (associated with Vata body type) will find that their appetite and digestive ability fluctuates — sometimes it's strong and sometimes weak. You need to adjust the quantities of food you eat and dietary habits to suit your digestive type. Digestion also fluctuates according to the seasons, and if you don't adjust your diet and lifestyle when the weather changes, you may form ama. (For detailed information on foods and eating habits for each body type and the seasons, click here).
Digestion can also be weakened by poor eating habits. For instance, not eating at the same time every day, not eating the main meal at noon when the digestion is stronger, skipping meals or eating between meals can all throw the digestion out of balance. An irregular daily routine can also disrupt your digestion and cause ama. Mental, emotional and physical stress is another cause of incomplete digestion and ama. If you've ever tried eating when you're upset, and felt the stomach pains afterwards, you know why this is so. In general, any time you act against your own nature, or fall out of harmony with natural law, your digestion will reflect that and create ama.
Q: You've painted a clear picture of what causes ama, but what causes amavisha?
A: Amavisha is caused by the same factors, only in the case of amavisha the causal factors have been going on for a very long time. Ama, on the other hand, could be caused by some temporary lapse in diet. For instance, if you go on vacation and eat out a lot, and break your normal routine, you may accumulate a small amount of ama that can be dissolved by the body when you return home and start eating and resting normally again. But if you continue to strain, to eat the wrong foods and keep an irregular daily routine, ama will start to build up. At the same time, depending on what your mistake in diet or lifestyle is, one or more of the subdoshas will go out of balance, creating a weak spot where ama will start to accumulate. At this point, it's still possible to dissolve the ama through correct diet and lifestyle changes and herbal formulas before it becomes a manifest disorder. But if the lifestyle or dietary mistake is not corrected, over time the ama will turn into the reactive, more dangerous and disease-causing amavisha. Then it quickly turns into disease, and takes more effort to remove.
Q: What are some specific recommendations to rid your body of these disease-creating toxins?
A: If a person has simple ama, it's generally possible to remove it from the body by enhancing or balancing agni, the digestive fire. First of all, it's important to begin an ama-reducing diet. This is a simple diet, consisting of warm, freshly-cooked whole foods that are light, easy to digest, and are suitable for the person's body type and season. The ama-reducing diet includes fresh, organic vegetables; sweet, juicy fruits; whole grains such as quinoa, cous cous, rye, barley, amaranth, millet and rice; and easily-digested proteins such as mung dhal or lentil soup. Lassi — a drink made in the blender with one part freshly-made yogurt, four parts water, and salt or honey for flavor — is an excellent digestion-booster to drink after a meal because it contains acidophilus, a friendly bacteria that aids digestion. Cooked leafy greens such as chard and kale are especially good for improving elimination and helping to detoxify the body. The vegetables and grains should be cooked with tasty spices that are suitable for your body type and the season, such as Vata, Pitta or Kapha Churna. Or make your own Detox Spice Mix, including turmeric, coriander and fennel. Turmeric is an excellent spice to rid the body of ama, amavisha and garavisha, but should always be taken when mixed with other spices. *
Avoid all of the foods that we mentioned earlier as a cause of ama — fried foods, heavy foods such as aged cheese, meat, rich desserts — anything that is difficult to digest should be left out of your diet. Avoid eating or drinking anything cold. Drinking warm water throughout the day is a good way to flush out ama and toxins of all kinds, especially if you add spices to make a Detox Tea.
Q: What kinds of lifestyle tips do you recommend for getting rid of ama?
A: The most important thing is to eat your main meal at noon, when the sun is strongest and the digestive fire reflects that strength. If you eat too much at night, or eat heavy foods such as meat or cheese then, the food will sit in your stomach and create ama. Eat light at night and your food will be easily digested before you go to sleep. It's also important to eat all three meals at the same time every day. If your body gets used to a regular routine, the digestive juices will start to ready themselves before the meal, and will be more efficient in digesting what you eat. If you eat at different times each day, your digestion will be thrown off. Don't snack between meals unless you are actually hungry, and wait until the food is digested before eating a meal. If your digestion is already occupied with digesting and you add new food on top of that, the result is ama, the sour, undigested waste product of undigested food. Other aspects of the ayurvedic routine are also important. Going to sleep before 10 p.m. is essential, because then during the Pitta time of night (10 p.m.-2 a.m.) your digestion has a chance to cleanse and rejuvenate itself. If you stay up, you'll probably feel hungry about midnight and will want to eat, which will tax the digestion and create ama. Waking up before 6 a.m. is recommended, as if you sleep late into the Kapha time of the morning (6-10 a.m.), the channels of your body will become clogged with ama and you'll feel dull and tired. Daily exercise that is suitable for your body type will stimulate digestion and help cleanse the body of toxins. It's also important to manage your stress, and to have a job that you enjoy and is not too taxing for your body type. Everyone can benefit from spending time each day practicing the Transcendental Meditation® program to remove mental, emotional and physical stress.
Q: Are there herbal formulas that you recommend to rid the body of ama?
A: Maharishi Ayurveda offers a range of detoxification products. For all types of toxins, the first and foremost treatment is to improve elimination. Organic Digest Tone (Triphala Plus) is an excellent herbal formula for supporting regular bowel movements. Taking two to five tablets of Triphala before going to bed will help purification. Organic Genitrac helps flush out ama from the genitourinary tract. It targets the genitourinary channels to help eliminate toxins through the urine. Elim-Tox and Elim-Tox-O are both effective in removing toxins from the liver, blood, sweat glands and elimination system. For example, Elim-Tox contains Indian Sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus Indicus), Sandalwood and Neem Leaf to enhance purification of toxins through the sweat glands and skin. Other herbs support elimination through the urinary tract by balancing lubrication (Shleshaka Kapha) and the downward energy in the body (Apana Vata). Another group of herbs contained in Elim-Tox — including Rose Petals, Licorice Root, Turpeth Root (Indian Jalap) and Tinospora Cordifolia (Indian Tinospora) — support elimination of toxins by lubricating the digestive tract and supporting the process of elimination through urine and stool. If your immunity is low due to toxins, Elim-Tox-O is another product that is effective. It contains an excellent detox herb: Tinospora Cordifolia. It supports the liver, the most important organ for detoxification. Elim-Tox is faster acting, but if a person has a Pitta imbalance, Elim-Tox-O is better because it first pacifies the reactivity of Pitta dosha before flushing out the toxins.
Q: You've given a very thorough picture of how to remove ama from the body. Can you remove amavisha or garavisha through diet and lifestyle changes such as these?
A: Many of these recommendations are helpful, but for both amavisha and garavisha, it's important to consult a physician trained in Maharishi Ayurveda. Depending on where the amavisha is located, and how advanced the symptoms or disease, the physician will also prescribe a specific diet and daily routine. For garavisha, it's also important to consult an expert in Maharishi Ayurveda to design a specific detoxification program and specific herbal formulas. Coriander leaf (cilantro) is a safe way to begin purifying mercury and other garavisha toxins from the body. You can eat Cilantro Chutney with holy basil as an addition to your diet.
Q: What about herbal formulas for removing amavisha and garavisha?
A: Many of the same products that eliminate ama will also be helpful in eliminating these two types of toxins. Elim-Tox-O, Organic Genitrac and Organic Digest Tone (Triphala Plus) will help with all three types of toxins, so these may be part of an ayurvedic treatment program. Or the ayurvedic expert may also prescribe more specific herbs that are suited for your situation. But as I just mentioned, it takes great care and expertise to remove amavisha from the body, because amavisha is reactive. If the wrong method is used, it could cause the channels or tissue where it is located to become inflamed, or the skin to break out. If you feel that you have amavisha, consult an ayurvedic expert who can take your pulse and determine which organ, channel, or body tissue the amavisha is located in, how long it has been lodged there, and whether the amavisha has mixed with Vata, Pitta or Kapha. By knowing this, they can pacify the reactivity first, and then purify the toxins. For garavisha, it's also important to be tested to determine the specific environmental toxin that is causing the problem. Then the ayurvedic expert can design a specific treatment program to remove that particular toxin that includes diet and herbal formulas.
Q: Are there other types of ayurvedic detoxification programs available?
A: Maharishi Panchakarma — the gentle but intensive purification program that includes massage, mild internal cleansing, and steam baths — can be extremely effective in ridding the body of all three types of toxins. At Maharishi Vedic Medical Centers (such as The Raj in Fairfield, Iowa) both an ayurvedic expert and a medical doctor prescribe and oversee the Panchakarma treatment. This is very important, because together they can determine whether there is ama, amavisha and garvisha; the quantity of toxins in the body; where they are located, and whether they are solitary or mixed with each other. The situation becomes more serious when amavisha and garavisha are mixed in an organ, tissue, or channel, because that combination can become carcinogenic and create chronic illness. All of this needs to be taken into account when prescribing a detoxification and treatment program.
Q: You mentioned earlier that mental and emotional stress can cause toxins to build up. Can you explain why this is so?
A: Emotional imbalance is often associated with an imbalance in Pitta dosha, and results in toxins in the form of Pitta-charged ama and amavisha. For high-Pitta people, agni is always high, which is generally a good thing. But if that person is under emotional stress (or is eating food or living a lifestyle that aggravates Pitta), the strong Pitta quickly goes out of balance, creating a reactive kind of ama. Those who experience mental stress also create more ama, because mental stress throws Vata out of balance. When Vata is out of balance, digestion becomes uneven, meaning that it is sometimes high and sometimes low, and creates ama. People with a Vata body type or imbalance are especially vulnerable to this type of stress and this cause of ama. Mental and emotional imbalances can also be caused by toxins. When any kind of toxin — ama, amavisha, or garavisha — clogs the mental channels of communication, then the heart and mind no longer work in coordination with each other, because the channels of communication between them are blocked. This creates mental and emotional imbalances. Toxins in the mental channels might cause lack of confidence, confusion, anger, difficulty in making decisions, constant changing of decisions already made, desperation, mental weakness, and even minor changes in personality.
Q: Many people feel that heavy, toxic feeling more in the spring than any other time. Why is that?
A: The toxins don't build up more in spring, but rather the toxins that are already in the body start to display their symptoms then. The reason is that if you don't follow the proper seasonal diet and routine during the first two months of winter (November and December), the body can accumulate more toxins then. The channels become clogged, and at the same time, because of the cold temperatures, ama and amavisha get stuck or "frozen" in the walls of the channels. At this point there will not be as many symptoms of ama. But during the second two-month period of winter, January and February, there is a slight warming effect, because the sun is starting to gain in strength and is moving toward its zenith in June, even though it's still cold out. By the time spring comes and it really is warmer outside, the frozen amavisha and ama start to melt, and as they flow into the body's channels, the channels become flooded with toxins. The toxins will flow to the sinuses, the lungs, or the joints — wherever there is an empty space. Your joints may feel stiff, your mind dull, or you may feel tired or heavy. Your immunity may be weakened, and you may become sick with a cold, the flu, allergies, asthma or bronchial infections. Because these toxins are naturally melting in spring, it's the best time to detoxify. The body is already in the mode of eliminating toxins, so it's a good time to support the body in that role. To detoxify in the spring, I'd recommend that for two to three months you take Elim-Tox or Elim-Tox-O; take Organic Digest Tone (Triphala Plus) or Herbal Cleanse; drink plenty of Detoxification Tea mentioned earlier; follow the ama-reducing diet; and follow the ama-reducing ayurvedic routine mentioned earlier.
If you can undergo Maharishi Panchakarma only once a year, spring is the best time. All of these measures will help you to clear your body of toxins at this optimal period, paving the way for better health for the rest of the year. If you have environmental toxins, spring is the best time to remove them from the body's channels, organs and tissues. This is because the body is already engaged in flushing out toxins and lubricating the channels, so it will be easier on the body to remove these reactive substances through Panchakarma or herbal formulas such as Elim-Tox and Elim-Tox-O.
Q: Why is the liver so important in detoxification?
A: One of the main functions of the liver is to filter out toxins, so only pure nutrients and pure blood reach the other parts of the body. The nutrient fluid (Rasa Dhatu) and the blood plasma (Rakta Dhatu) pass through the liver and are purified by it. Everything you take in through the digestion gets processed by the liver and then transformed into blood. So the liver filters toxins and holds them so they don't get passed on to the rest of the body. This includes all three kinds of toxins — those created by the body and the environmental toxins such as pesticides and chemicals in food. But if the toxins build up and are beyond the capacity of the liver to purify — or if the liver is weak — then the toxins are passed on to other parts of the body. That's why every detoxification program of Maharishi Ayurveda starts by strengthening the digestive system, so the liver does not get overloaded.
Q: So you can prevent toxins from building up by cleansing your liver?
A: That's a good question. Cleansing the liver causes toxins to be eliminated through the large intestine, so it's important to supplement any liver cleansing by cleansing the bowel as well. This brings up a very important point. In Maharishi Ayurveda, we never recommend a partial detoxification program. All of the recommendations made earlier — including the diet, lifestyle tips, Maharishi Panchakarma and our herbal detoxification products — contain three important steps. These are: strengthening the digestion, cleansing the liver, and cleansing the bowel. If any one of these steps were left out, the toxins would not be completely eliminated and further imbalances would be the result. The first step is to strengthen digestion. An ama-reducing diet and dietary habits are recommended to strengthen the digestive fire (agni) and prevent ama, amavisha or garavisha from mixing with the nutrient fluid and the blood plasma. Then the liver will not be overwhelmed and can perform its function of filtering out toxins. Secondly, the liver must be cleansed. The liver itself should be cleansed each spring, so it has more capacity and flexibility in filtering toxins. That's why Elim-Tox and Elim-Tox-O are recommended, as well as eating more leafy green vegetables and small amounts of spices such as turmeric. All of these cleanse the liver. Finally, a detox program includes cleansing the bowel. That's why taking Organic Digest Tone (Triphala Plus) or Herbal Cleanse is an important part of a home detoxification program. You can keep your elimination running smoothly on a daily basis by eating prunes and figs cooked with an apple for breakfast. A healthy elimination means having a bowel movement once or twice a day.
Q: Thank you. You have given us a very complete program for eliminating toxins and preventing new ones from building up. Do you have any concluding remarks?
A: It's a matter of following the ayurvedic diet and routine suitable for your body type and imbalances throughout the year, and following an ama-reducing diet and daily routine in spring or any time that you feel a toxic build-up. In this way you can take care of these three areas of the body — strengthening the digestion, cleansing the liver, and cleansing the bowel. If you do this, over time you will find that less and less toxins build up in your body, and you will enjoy the energy, clarity and lightness of a toxin-free body, mind and emotions.
* Important note: If there is any history of garavisha or amavisha in the liver, or if there is a blocked channel in the bile duct, turmeric can cause problems by detoxifying too quickly for these conditions. If these conditions are present, check with your physician first before adding turmeric to your diet.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.