The History of Detox – and Why It’s Not a Fad

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So often in the world of “alternative” healthcare, our efforts are mislabeled and misunderstood. In recent years, more and more people are turning to holistic health options, yet some choose to see it as a trend rather than a shift in our cultural perspective. Ironically – even (or especially) with detox methods – the truth is actually quite the opposite: the more we “trend” toward natural and holistic healthcare, the more we move toward our metaphorical roots.

Consumers of natural health practices are often told that their efforts to detox are pointless, that their bodies should detoxify on their own without any assistance, and that the detox and cleanse products made available to them in health food stores are just “scams.” This review of historical detox methods proves that such an accusation could not be further from the truth. While it is true that the body was designed to detox on its own, people sought out advanced detoxification long before the introduction of 21st century chemicals. Today, with those chemicals now more unseen in the environment (but perhaps in increasing amounts), detoxification has only become more of a necessity – but it’s nothing new.

Historical Toxin Exposure

Before you discredit toxin accumulation to our modern technology, chemicals, and lifestyles, take a look back through history. As a thorough and informative article from Dartmouth details, heavy metals have been a known toxin for centuries – though, unfortunately, they were also considered to be powerful and beneficial. (1)

Mercury is found in the legends and stories of basically all major civilizations’ ancient history, with a number of theories and legends surrounding it. Mercury-laden mines were used as prisons; mercury was thought to be at the heart of alchemy; mercury poisoning created “mad hatters”; Mercury was the speedy Roman messenger god. Time and again, mercury was idolized and feared throughout civilization after civilization.

Lead was mined and crudely “manufactured” before Bronze or Iron Age relics, and by 2000 BC there was record of its toxicity. That didn’t stop its use, however, with much of Roman aristocracy using (and becoming poisoned by) lead – so much so that some historians believe lead was part of the decline of the Roman Empire! (2)

So when we look at historical methods of detoxification, we must understand that there was a very real threat of heavy toxin overload, and these methods were used to combat it.

How History Handled Toxins

One of the oldest forms of medicine in the world is that of Ayurveda in India. Detoxification was (and is) a key component of its methods, reminding us again that toxins have been a known problem from the very beginning of medicine and healing.  Herbal formulations and what would be called lifestyle adjustments comprise the focal point of Ayurveda, so that is the approach that was taken with toxins.

So strong is the belief in – and attempted avoidance of – toxins that there is even an Ayurvedic process for removing the toxins from the plant itself, before ever reaching the individual who would consume it. (3) While we know now that there are toxins that simply must be avoided, purification or not, the respect for toxic substances is admirable and should be noted by anyone fighting toxin overload.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), also an ancient system of healing, approached detoxification similarly to modern chiropractors – that toxins are a disturbance in the body that must be removed. As certain points of “energy flow” were considered, attempts would be made to remove disturbances and blockages in that region or a connected one. Supporting the liver as the body’s detox organ is a key component to this process, as well. Acupressure and acupuncture were tools in this endeavor, and as of the most recent decades, they have gained in popularity outside of TCM as well. (4)

Ancient Biblical regulations for life and for temple activity include dietary restrictions, physical cleansing, and aromatic cleansing. Native American traditions include many of the same concepts, combining aromatic rituals with food and herb intake to help clear the body. Ancient Greece and Rome had their baths, and then there was the ancient Nordic practice of saunas. These sweat baths – sitting in a hot, humid room for extended amounts of time to relax the body and mind – encouraged the body to sweat more in order to shed toxin accumulation.

Some of the unifying concepts can be summed up in a way that might still translate today:

  • Removing the source of toxin exposure
  • Including beneficial botanical products
  • Stimulating the body’s natural detoxification pathways

At the core of detoxification, the goal has always been to free the body of disturbance while feeding it with good, balancing habits, foods, and secondary items (i.e. supplements, food, and a low stress lifestyle). Taking these pages from the book of history, the less invasive we can be when avoiding and removing toxins, the better off we’ll be.

Toxic Exposure: Then and Now

In contrast with our idealistic view of ancient life and its healthful food, active habits, and minimal chemicals, their exposure to heavy metals was far more direct than what we experience. No one makes hats from mercury or wears lead jewelry anymore. Our prisoners don’t live in what amounts to mercury mines, and we don’t consider any heavy metals to be representative of mythological deities.

Still, exposure remains a threat.

For mercury, it’s nearly impossible to avoid some amount of concentration completely. Exposure comes from many sources, most of which can be avoided but only to minimize amounts in the body. According to a 2005 study published in the journal Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association,

Subgroups with high fish consumption (e.g., many island and coastal populations, some persons of Asian ethnicity, some individuals following “healthy” diets) can have methylmercury exposures substantially higher than those reported among the NHANES examinees. These subpopulations are not likely to be aware of their blood mercury concentrations or the possible health outcomes associated with such high blood mercury levels. (5)

Lead is even more concerning, particularly for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that there is absolutely no safe level of lead contamination, yet children are not only exposed but are in great danger. Estimates sit around half a million children in the US that have blood lead levels higher than when “public health actions” should be initiated. Living in older housing, where lead paint is likely, increases risks significantly. (6)

The risks for children are higher with their hands in their mouths more regularly and their more immature body systems. Prevention and lifestyle changes should be implemented for our children, and public health steps should be taken for wider exposures.

As adults – especially those of us who grew up before lead paint changes were implemented – we can expect a high likelihood of childhood exposure to have done its work and stuck with us into adulthood.

Clearly, though our exposure is less than that of the ancients, it remains problematic. To compound the risks, as we began to take avoidance more seriously, we seem to have considered detoxification less. The regular steams and saunas, source removal, and other prevention and cleansing methods that the ancients employed have all but disappeared from most cultures and routines.

Evidence for Ancient Methods

There are lessons to be learned from the ancient methods of detoxification. After demystifying the picture perfect image of a healthy ancient life, it might seem strange to consider their actions as advisable in any way.

Still, there is something to be said for generations of wisdom, and scientific knowledge is not new or unique to recent generations. The ability that we have gained to analyze mechanisms of action, document experiments and clinical trials, and otherwise confirm our hypotheses, traditions, and actions helps us to see the wisdom (or folly) in the health and medicine of old.

Saunas, for example, are indicated as a clinical tool for multiple ailments. The temperature, humidity, and duration of the sauna can change based on need. According to an Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine publication, saunas can be used for heavy metal detoxification in long sessions that should be monitored by a care practitioner. (7)

Ayurvedic methods of detoxification were employed after the tragic World Trade Center attacks of 9/11. Fifty survey respondents who had used Ayurvedic herbal treatments all indicated improvement in respiratory symptoms, fatigue, and depression. (8) This is obviously for more acute exposures than most of us – God willing – will ever deal with, but it documents efficacy of this ancient medicine when applied to modern situations.

We need little evidence to know that removing toxic sources is useful and necessary when removing toxins from the body. Unless the lifestyle that led to the exposure changes, there is little that can be done in terms of removal.

Where there is little or no evidence to this point for the efficacy of historical methods of detoxification, we can look to the principles of the efforts for guidance. Perhaps, as more and more attention is focused on removal of toxins from our environments and our bodies, researchers will devote more attention to the analysis of ancient methods and we will learn more about them in time.

What We Can Learn from the History of Detox

The basic principles and methods of a detox lifestyle outlined in ancient texts give us guidance, even when it’s not for step by step actions. Recall the unifying concepts that apply no matter the application:

Removing the Source

The Ayurvedic model focuses on removing toxins, from substances as well as bodies, in order to prevent build up. Of course, this refers to a variety of types of toxins, but it can apply to heavy metals just as well. Avoiding food, supplements, and products that are contaminated with heavy metals – especially mercury and lead – helps to minimize the toxic load on the body to begin with. If you are currently in a detoxification protocol, it’s even more vital considering the effort going into the detox. You certainly don’t want it wasted by haphazard, continual exposure.

Including Botanicals

Many ancient cultures used botanicals for their aromas, internal use, and external use intending to remove toxins or discourage their accumulation. To this day, supplementation is used by detox practitioners and by those hoping to keep their body free of toxin accumulation.

When you step back to think about the big picture, plant life is incredible. From trees “detoxing” the air we breathe to herbs providing the constituents necessary to remove toxins from our bodies, the botanical world can be our biggest ally. Its power in beneficial actions is matched only by its power in detrimental effects, so be sure to work with someone skilled and trained in herbalism and aromatherapy when seeking supportive botanicals for detoxification.

Stimulating Natural Detoxification

Support is really the key here, as we ultimately hope to support the body’s natural efforts in detoxification. Every second, your body is analyzing, cleaning, and clearing cells from head to toe. You have detoxification pathways in all parts of your body, and the liver is so integral in the dirty work of detoxing that it will regenerate fully countless times throughout your life. Toxins exit through the kidneys and sweat, as well, as your body works tirelessly to clear itself of danger.

However, with our heavy diets lacking the nutrients required to operate effectively, our sedentary lives slowing the body’s processes down, and our steady “drip” of toxin exposure through food, gadgets, workplaces, and homes, even a good liver can only do so much.

Some of the most effective strategies for detoxification include simply removing the obstacles that keep the body from detoxing well. For more severe concerns, the next step is still to simply seek processes and supplemental substances that help the body bridge the gap between what it can do and what it must do.

Holistic care always prioritizes the body as a whole rather than a symptom or condition on its own. Toxin accumulation isn’t something to be treated individually or singled out for care. It’s a component of an entire body’s worth of issues, and the body as a whole must be brought back to health.

And, as we can see, it is not the health of the ancients or the health of modern medicine that we seek. Rather, it’s the health of a body in balance with its environment, pursuing the middle ground between the wisdom of years past and the understanding of science today. In this sweet spot, we have discovered effective prevention and detoxification methods used by practitioners all over the world. I have written about many of these strategies on my website, and covered most of them extensively in my 92-page e-Book, Real Detox.

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Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More