To Juice or not to Juice? Is cleansing for you?

There are two common responses when you tell people that you are planning to do a juice cleanse. The first is filled with approval: That's so great! Cleanses are so good for you. You'll detoxify your body, clean out your system, and lose excess weight! The second, is more skeptical: What?! Why would you starve yourself? I've heard that cleanses don't even work- it's all water weight that you lose! While all sorts of people decide to take on juice cleansing for a wide variety of reasons, the debate is most heated in the Yoga and wellness community. So, where do you land in this split argument? Who do you believe?


To begin the conversation, let's start by defining what this 'Juice Cleansing' thing is. Fasting is usually defined as the practice of abstaining from solid sustenance for a set period of time. In the staunchest definition, this means water only, no caloric intake of any kind. The history of this kind of fasting is rooted in many different religious traditions. Muslims fast for Ramadan, a 30 day observance, in which they do not eat while the sun is in the sky. Christians have fast days, like Good Friday, two days before Easter Sunday. In traditional Judaism there are 6 different days of observed fasting. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Jainism also observe fasting, often consuming neither food nor water for spiritual Holidays. In most of these circumstances the intension of forgoing or limiting food is meant to purify not only the body, but the soul, and to bring participants closer to their deities. 


Juice Cleansing or “detox dieting” is a much newer concept. While enthusiasts claim that juice cleansing has ancient origins, in it's current form, these kinds of Juice therapies really start to show up about 100 years ago in the 1920s. The process of a juice cleanse is similar to that of a Fast- on a cleanse you don't eat solid food, only the juice of fruits and vegetables. There are many different prescriptions for which kinds of juices you should drink during which days of a juice cleanse, but most recommend a mixture of fruit juices for their sugar-based energy and vegetable juices for their vitamin content and fiber. Some Cleanses include the milk of certain nuts and broths, eventually even adding raw solid food at the end of the plan. At its most extreme, you might take in juices with very low caloric counts, like cucumber juice or sunflower sprout juice. There is a popular version in which fasters only drink a mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup, which is sometimes recommended for more than 70 days. Juice Cleansing is seen by most as an alternative therapy applied for weight loss, physical purification, detoxification and the clearing of the digestive tract of held waste. 


The real question is: Does it Work? This boils down to two, separate issues: Is Juice Fasting healthy, and if so, is it effective? Many yogis who utilize Juice Cleansing site the concept of Sauca or Purity which refers to the philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga or the 8 Limbed Path. Sauca is one of the 5 Niyamas- personal practices, or 'dos' that make up the second branch of the 8 limbs to enlightenment. As good yoga practitioners we are supposed to purify the body and the mind equally. Different yogis apply Sauca to different degrees- anything from making sure you have showered, to eating raw or vegan, to receiving enemas and sending clothes through the cavities of the body to clean them out. 

If you do a juice cleanse, will it clean or purify your body? Well, your body is actually constantly purifying and detoxifying itself. In fact, every time you take a breath your cardiovascular system sorts out the oxygen you need to survive, and cycles out the carbon dioxide waste that you don't, removing that toxin from your body. Sweat pushing through your sweat glands presses stored toxins out of the skin and drips them away. Your liver detoxifies the body in several different ways. First by breaking down and digesting proteins and utilizing enzymes to burn away toxins stored in fatty tissue. Then by clearing your blood of other substances that can't be processed into nutrients and evacuating them through liquid waste. Your overall digestive tract is brilliant at waste removal, and a healthy tract that is being fed a balanced diet will do a perfect job of ridding your body of solid waste- both what is indigestible and also what is unneeded. In theory, Juice Fasting can aid your body in its pre-existing detoxifying mechanisms. If done correctly, juicing can help flush out fatty tissues- taking with them the toxins held inside, and many fruit juices help your body create enzymes which can help the liver do its job more effectively. The sheer amount of liquid you’re taking in can make the operations of both solid and liquid waste removal more efficient in the body. 


Or you could just drink a lot of water. Most scientific and medical sources believe that this form of Juice cleansing is sort of a scam, because many of the benefits could be achieved by eating the same dollar amount of those fruits and vegetables to gain more of their health benefits without losing the fiber needed to aid digestion. And drinking a lot of (often free) water along with a diet of such whole and unprocessed foods is much cheaper than drinking their juices. You need less of them, and you get more from them. And, if your body interprets your Juice Cleanse as starvation, it shifts gears and holds onto fats and excess liquid waste to help you survive the perceived famine- instead of clearing you out, it clogs you up. It has the inverse effect of that intended. Particularly if you are active, your metabolic process seeks a balance of calories and without them, the body can quickly go into starvation mode, effecting the important functions of the brain and the heart. 

So let's say that your Juice Cleanse might aid your body in its detoxification process.... will it help you lose weight? It seems that the answer to this question really depends upon what kind of weight your body is holding onto. Let's start with the clear understanding that your body needs a balanced degree of fat. Fatty tissue supports higher brain function, muscle rehabilitation and is essential in the construction of hormones that govern not only reproduction, but also glandular control of your metabolism and immune health. Fat is Good! Your body needs Fat to be healthy and do all the awesome things it does for you!


However, because of our long and successful adaptation process, human bodies have learned to store fats in large quantities to help us survive times of scarcity. We have been evolutionarily trained to crave and consume excess sugars and fats because those of our ancestors that stocked up, survived. Now that we live in a culture of abundance, such tactics are no longer required, and holding onto excess fats can put an undue strain on the heart, circulatory systems, muscular-skeletal system and the digestive organs. So, if you are holding onto extra weight in the form of fat that is stored, doing a Juice Cleanse can actually help clear the cells of your body of sugars and fats, that act like any other addictive drug in your system, and make you physically crave more of them. That is- if your cleanse has no added sugars and plenty of water included. Breaking this cycle can help you to change your eating patterns- both physically and mentally shifting your perspective on how and what you consume. Especially in cases in which the body has been holding onto fat in this survival-mode way - if it then believes you have hit a time of famine, it will start to utilize stored fats and your body shape might change as a result. However, if you go right back to consuming as you did before the cleanse, your body will just go right back to storing fat (in anticipation of the next cleanse/famine!)


Water weight also usually shifts when Juice Cleansing. Even if you don't feel it, most people are dehydrated or under-hydrated most of the time, in which case the body will retain extra water to help keep you alive in times of draught - (think of a camel storing water in its hump to survive in the desert.) When taking in so much liquid during a cleanse, your body becomes accustomed to feeling well hydrated and may let go of excess water weight that is previously held onto. Just like excess fat, however, if you go back to your old ways of under- hydration after a cleanse, your body will go right back to storing water as well. Along the same lines, if your digestive tract is clogged up with solid waste (usually in the small or large intestine) drinking so much liquid often with a high acid content like juice, can move things along, but generally the mass you lose in this process is unnoticeable. 


So really, if you're trying to lose weight, a Juice Cleanse can be a nice reset, but must be followed up by sustainable change in diet, sleep and exercise. A healthy body really has more to do with balance than exterior appearance, so if a cleanse or fast will help you find equilibrium, it might be a good idea. If you know it might throw off your balance- it might not be. It can be a taboo conversation, but those with eating and body issues show up in the yoga population in high numbers. This conversation about the practice and eating disorders is a sensitive one, because yoga can help heal illnesses like body dysmorphia and anorexia, but also because it can be used a weapon for self torture to encourage such maladies. As much as we all want to look good in our yoga pants, the saturation of the yoga culture with skinny- svelte beauties with incredible bodies is not easy to ignore, especially if you already have insecurities or mental illness in that area. Juice Cleansing can quickly become self hatred and deprivation hidden under the cloak of good health. 


Because the Tradition of fasting is rooted in religious and spiritual practices we can pretty safely assume that if you have the right intentions, juice cleansing has a good chance of bringing you closer to a spiritual connection to yourself or to whatever it is you believe in. And as far as general yoga philosophy is concerned, the body isn't to be viewed as a dirty thing that needs to be 'made-clean' or punished as in many puritanical systems. The point of fasting and purifying, as far as yogis are concerned, is to strengthen the physical powers of the body so that it can be better integrated with the mind and soul. This concept dates back many thousands of years ago to the first Indian Tantrics who sought to create a body as powerful and efficient as possible so that it could work in concord with the spirit. It is also important to remember that on the same 8 Limbed Path where we find Sauca (purity) on the second branch, Ahimsa (nonviolence) falls in the first. So all choices made towards purification must be grounded in nonviolence- that includes not imparting violence upon yourself. 


All actions are colored by the intentions behind them. Juice cleansing is just the same. Fasting can be a powerful tool, physically, mentally and even spiritually, but only if it is wielded with balance and care.