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Get the Skinny on Cleanses

Intrigued by the juice cleanse trend? Find out about its history—and its risks and rewards.

| September 2nd, 2011
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Get the Skinny on Cleanses

Long before people hopped on the organic bandwagon to keep pesticides out of their produce or sought out BPA-free containers, cleansing was an established health- and beauty-bolstering practice around the globe.

Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, recommended periodic fasting to cleanse the digestive tract and rest the digestive system back in the fourth century B.C. And Paracelsus, a well-regarded 16th century physician, called fasting the greatest remedy—the physician within.

But even beyond its use as a healing tool for the body, cleansing was a practice deeply rooted in religion and culture, thought to purify the mind and spirit.

The fasts practiced years ago prepared the body, mind and spirit for religious worship, celebration and mourning in both Western and Eastern tradition. “For centuries, people have taken advantage of cleansing as an integral part of their cultural and religious tradition,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., author of “The Fast Track Detox Diet.” “They did it to enhance their spiritual and mental power. They did it for preparation for ceremony and for atonement.”

Even today fasting remains an important element of religious observance, from Lent in the Christian faith to the Muslim observance of Ramadan to Yom Kippur in Judaism. In the past, Ayurvedic practitioners and yogis promoted cleansing in India, Native Americans built detoxifying sweat lodges and Europeans underwent doctor-prescribed health treatments like colonic irrigation, water treatments and sessions in the sauna.

MORE: Guide to Alternative Medicine

But the times, they are a-changin’. Thanks to the post-Industrial Revolution, environmental pollution, chemicals, processed and pesticide-laden foods, as well as the stress of everyday life, have increased—and so has the burden on our bodies. According to the National Resources Defense Council, more than 80,000 chemicals used in the United States have not been fully assessed on how they affect human and environmental health. “We are finding that over two billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the environment every year,” says Gittleman. For some, that’s all the reason they need to make use of an ancient practice. 

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