When Samuel Thomson (1769-1843) was four years old, he happened upon an herb called lobelia growing near his New Hampshire home. Curious about the seed pods, he chewed some and promptly threw up. “Afterwards,” he later wrote, “I used to induce other boys to chew it, by way of sport, to see them vomit.” By “afterwards,” he meant for the next twenty years.
In his early twenties, he was out mowing a field with a group of men when he was happy to spot some lobelia. He tricked one of his coworkers into eating it, and the man immediately turned pale and began sweating and trembling. As he puked his guts out, the man told Thomson that he believed he was about to die. But after taking a nap, he ate lunch, did a full afternoon of labor, and, “told me that he never had anything do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt better than he had felt for a long time.”1
Thomson went on to become the founder of a system of natural medicine based largely on using lobelia to purge the body of toxins. It had great appeal to the gritty, anti-elitist, and sometimes puritanical sensibilities of many early Americans.
While it may sound trendy and modern to hear that a certain celebrity is “doing a cleanse” it’s actually an old and enduring tradition. About 70 years after Thomson’s death, Arnold Ehret published the acclaimed Rational Fasting, with a similarly empowering do-it-yourself and clean-yourself-out message. 1939 brought Jethro Kloss’s Back to Eden – often regarded as a kind of bible of natural medicine – also focusing chiefly on the idea that disease comes from too much garbage in the body. Such philosophies have even older roots in Europe and Asia.
It’s an attractive idea to consider: maybe you can simply undo all your crappy eating habits. Maybe you don’t need supplements or surgery – you just need to get the evil out of you. Maybe you’re not lacking anything – you feel ill because of something bad that you’re carrying around or keep exposing yourself to. And maybe there’s some crossover with your religious upbringing – you need to repent for your sins and perhaps this is the way to do it. So, does it work?
As with many D-I-Y health trends, there’s a lot of hope that it’s going to fix everyone. But sometimes a cleanse is the right thing and sometimes it’s not; it can be difficult to discern. I’ve had patients report that all their symptoms – pain, insomnia, digestive upset, skin problems, fatigue, ADD, anxiety, depression, and more – disappeared when they did a cleanse. Most of the time, though, people say they aren’t sure if anything useful happened. And occasionally, they tell me they felt bad – achy, tired, foggy, depressed, etc. – which could be part of a healing process, or might just mean the cleanse wasn’t ideal for them.
From the perspective of Five Element philosophy, this would be the most appropriate time of year for a cleanse. We’re emerging from winter – the season of storage, rest, and inertia – and entering the “resurrection” of spring. (There’s a reason Easter was combined with pagan symbolism of spring – the “rebirth” we witness after the “death” of winter – flowers, eggs, chicks, bunnies, etc.) It’s a phase of new plans and rapid growth, and there’s a certain shedding that happens now. If you have cats and dogs, you’re well aware of what’s coming. We humans shed our bulky layers of clothing and extra “insulation.” Symbolically, it’s a good time to release an outdated image of yourself – to shed the limitations of your former life even – so that you can create yourself anew. Given these different expressions of shedding, a spring cleanse might take the form of a physical cleaning out, a psychological release, or a spiritual process (or all three).
We usually think of a cleanse as a deliberate expulsion of the unhealthy – an act of purging, scrubbing, or active detoxification – and it can be this, if necessary and appropriate. But more importantly, I believe it should entail a simplification and reduction of what you’re putting into the body (and mind). The body knows how to get rid of waste, but it may have a hard time doing so if it’s continually struggling to keep up with what you’re adding to it. So, as a general principle, aim to consume less and to reduce your consumption to things that will be gentle and easy to assimilate.
Unless you’re doing a more active detoxification or water fast, it’s enough to just supply your body with its nutritional needs in a simple, digestible format while cutting out anything that might be an irritant or harder to digest. The goal is to cause the body to expend a minimum of energy on digesting the food so that its resources can be dedicated to cleaning house.
During a cleanse, it’s also important to reduce your activity level. Again, the idea is to maximize the resources that are available for the cleansing process. The more intensive the cleanse, the greater the need to be really devoted to it. Besides doing less physically, it’s worthwhile to conserve mental energy. Likewise, while limiting physical consumption, it’s also advisable to limit mental consumption – take a break from news and other media so there’s less to digest on all levels.
Always stay well hydrated during a cleanse. Movement in the body occurs via liquid pathways, and the metabolism and excretion of toxins works better with sufficient water in you. Figure out how many pounds you weigh and divide that number in half. Then aim to drink that many ounces of water evenly over the course of each day. Ideally this water should be room temperature. You can drink more if you wish, but don’t have so much at once that you feel bloated or “sloshy” inside.
Next week I’ll discuss some specific kinds of cleanses and common simple diets for cleansing. Meanwhile, if you’re up for a cleanse, I recommend taking some time to ponder and write about what exactly you intend to release (physical and/or mental) and what will be liberated, revitalized, or birthed through the process. Set a clear intention. If you resonate with moon symbolism, you might consider beginning your cleanse with the new moon (the next one is April 5th).
 Thomson, S. (1835). A narrative of the life and medical discoveries of Samuel Thomson: containing an account of his system of practice, and the manner of curing disease with vegetable medicine, upon a plan entirely new. Columbus, OH: Jarvis Pike.