Detoxifying the body with a cleanse continues to grow in popularity as a health practice. But while some might cleanse by temporarily eliminating sugar from the diet, or by going on a 10-day juice fast, ayurvedic practitioners take a more whole-body approach, through a practice called panchakarma.
The ancient practice (its Sanskrit name translates to “five actions”) works to clear toxins from the body and build agni, or digestive fire, through special foods and teas, self-massage, and intensive purgation therapies, including enema treatments, the clearing of nasal passages, and, in some cases, even therapeutic vomiting and bloodletting. Some treatments might be prescribed for specific ailments, while others are used for an overall yearly or seasonal cleanse.
“From an ayurvedic perspective, PK provides a more systematic way of cleansing the body than most popular detox therapies,” says Sivarama Prasad Vinjamury, an ayurvedic practitioner and a professor at Southern California University of Health Sciences in Whittier, California.
In other words, where simple dietary cleanses can help promote healthy gastrointestinal functions, he says, panchakarma is intended to deeply cleanse the entire body and spirit.
If that sounds daunting, Vinjamury says he recommends practitioners gear up for the cleanse with a period of preparation. That might consist of taking herbs, drinking ghee (clarified butter), or performing special oil-massage or sweating therapies—all designed to dislodge water- and fat-soluble toxins in the body’s tissues and send them toward the gastrointestinal tract for elimination.
He also recommends that any panchakarma cleanse be conducted under the supervision of an experienced practitioner, who can select the best course of treatment for the individual and monitor the process.
“Panchakarma needs to be applied very systematically,” he says.
Enthusiasts often choose to go on retreat for their panchakarma, but for those who want to experience some of its cleansing benefits at home, Vinjamury suggests simple practices such as drinking a glass of hot water in the morning, or performing a daylong fast once a month.
Although research is limited—most studies so far have been poorly controlled and small—a growing body of science supports panchakarma’s therapeutic claims. A 2013 study published in the ayurvedic research journal Ayu concluded that panchakarma helped improve blood-sugar control in diabetic patients. Another study in 2012 found that ayurvedic therapy helped alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Other researchers continue to investigate panchakarma’s effects in people with ailments ranging from skin disease to dementia.
But while researchers are still studying how it works, practitioners like Vinjamury are already convinced of its benefits. “Panchakarma is time-tested,” he says, “not something that someone thought up overnight.”