What is panchakarma? The 5 Ayurveda detox therapies

Panchakarma: The 5 Actions of Detox in Ayurveda

Why does your body need panchakarma (detox)

Today’s conversation is all about a four letter word: detox.

Detox has become so mainstream nowadays that it feels like everybody’s doing a liver cleanse or a juice cleanse or some type of cleanse.

And, in case you’re so sick of talks about detox that you’re ready to hit the skip button, hang on a sec.  Let’s talk about what this word really means and how your body does detox without you even needing to think about it.

When you eat food, your body breaks it down into things it can use.  What kinds of things?

  • Fats are broken down into fatty acids (and then reassembled into triglycerides and packed around your body in suitcases made of cholesterol to get to where they’re needed… different story for a different day)
  • Proteins are broken down into amino acids
  • Vitamins and minerals are isolated from your food and taken to where they need to go
  • Other nutritious nuggets and macronutrients are also pulled from your food as it makes its way through your digestive tract

What’s left over at the end of the process?  Food stuff that can’t be used like insoluble fiber and cellulose from certain veggies.  And, while this makes its way through your digestive tract adding bulk to your poo, where detox really comes into play is in how your body uses all the nutrients, the fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals from your food.

Once these nutrients make it to your body’s tissues, they get transformed into things your body needs or used as fuel for enzymatic processes.  For example, minerals are fuel for many of the enzymatic processes in your body for making things like proteins and anti-oxidants.

The fatty acids from your food are used to build the cellular membranes of your body’s new cells.

Meanwhile, spent things within your body, whether that’s spent antioxidants or dead cells get transported back to your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) for elimination.

And, supporting that natural detox process is ultimately one of the main pillars of Ayurveda.  Ayurveda places a heavy focus on your body’s digestive process and goes so far as to view disease as starting with improper digestion. 

We’ve talked about this in a previous podcast episode that you’ll find linked in today’s shownotes just in case you want extra detail.

In short, if you think of your body as a gas powered car, then the food you eat is the fuel.  When that food gets converted properly, it gives you the energy to run.  However, just like your car, when you put bad fuel in (for your car, that’s poor quality gasoline and for you, that’s poor quality food), then you gunk up the works with improperly combusted fuel, and over time that builds up. 

When that happens in your car, gas mileage suffers at first and then as the build up continues, you wind up with weird noises, stuck valves, and engine failure.

In you, you wind up with aches and pains, arthritis, an autoimmune disease, clogged arteries, or any of the wide variety of diseases out there that aren’t communicable.

Even when you put the best food in you (and the best fuel in your car), you (like your car) don’t convert at 100%.  And, this is especially true when you’re stressed.  That metabolic byproduct or fumes from your spent food still wind up gunking up the fine channels of your body, and over time, as that improperly metabolized stuff builds up within your body, it leads to disease.

What is panchakarma?

Which brings me back to Ayurveda’s concept of detox.  In Ayurveda, there’s a way to cleanse your body of the metabolic exhaust through a process called panchakarma.

Panchakarma is a Sanskrit word that literally translates into 5 actions, and all of these actions are focused on lubricating and opening the channels within your body to aid the removal of metabolic exhaust.

What are the channels?  The largest channel within your body is your GI tract, and your blood and lymph vessels are additional channels within your body.  Because Ayurveda is interested in the energetic as well as the physical channels within you, there are also energetic channels more or less defined by your fascia network. 

In case fascia is a new term for you, this is the webbing that wraps around all of your body’s organs keeping them in place and also wraps around your muscles.  In Chinese medicine, the meridians are formed along the body’s fascial network, and modalities like acupuncture use those meridian channels for treatment.

In Ayurveda, those meridians are known as nadis.  For more on fascia, check out the previous podcast episode with Bon Crotzer.

The metabolic exhaust is sticky, much like poorly combusted material in a furnace or in a car engine and things burned onto a cooking pan.  Once the metabolic waste begins to build up, it becomes difficult to dislodge because of its stickiness, and this is why lubrication is so important in panchakarma.  Opening the body’s channels as much as possible also helps that metabolic waste move, and it’s important that this waste move back towards your GI tract where it can be eliminated from your body.

Panchakarma:  Eliminating excess doshic energy

There’s one other aspect of the metabolic waste.  We’ve talked before about how Ayurveda views everything in nature.  Whether we’re talking about physical objects, like the earth or your body or things that don’t have a body, like the seasons, Ayurveda views each of these as being composed of a unique blend of three energies

  • Vata, the energy of movement
  • Pitta, the energy of transformation
  • Kapha, the energy of substance & stamina or inertia

Each part of your GI tract is governed by a different dosha.  Kapha dosha dominates in your upper GI tract, specifically in your stomach.  The upper GI tract is where digestive secretions like your saliva and your stomach juices begin the work of mixing with your food, softening it and blending it so that it’s better able to be transformed from food into its nutritive components in the lower parts of your GI tract.  In this part of your GI tract, your body adds to the volume of food you eat with saliva and stomach juices, lubricating your food.

Pitta takes over in your small intestines.  Here, secretions from your pancreas and liver join to really start the conversion of your food into morsels the body will use to nourish it.  Whether bile or a number of enzymes like trypsin, chymotrypsin, amylase, or lipase, all of these enzymes and emulsifiers help to break down your food into its components and also to carry your food into your lymph and bloodstream for distribution throughout your body.

Your large intestines are where remaining moisture in your food is removed along with any remaining minerals and nutrients.  Because of this separating and drying action, vata governs your large intestine.

When any of the doshas becomes agitated, it’s possible for the excess energy associated with that dosha to leave its home in your GI tract and spill out into your body.  It spills out through the lymph first and quickly mixes in with your blood because your lymph system empties into your circulatory system.

Once the excess energy is circulating, if it doesn’t move back to your GI tract for elimination, then its possible for it to lodge somewhere within your body, and generally lodges wherever there’s a buildup of metabolic waste.  So, now you have sticky metabolic waste that’s mixed with excess energy, whether that’s energy of movement, energy of transformation, or energy of substance, and according to Ayurveda, this is when preliminary signs of disease arise.

At this point, the disease can’t be diagnosed by Western medicine yet because it hasn’t reached that stage where Western medicine diagnostics are able to detect it, however, you begin to notice signs and symptoms of a state of imbalance within your body, whether that’s aching joints, sluggish digestion, feelings of tightness and stiffness, fatigue, and other symptoms.  Often, these symptoms come and go at this stage.

If left untreated, over time, as metabolic wastes and excess doshic energy continues to accumulate, you’ll eventually develop a diagnosable disease, whether that’s arthritis, plaque buildup in your arteries, Hashimoto’s, or any of the other myriad of diseases.

The role of detoxification (panchakarma) in Ayurveda is to return the metabolic waste and the excess energy from your body’s tissues to your GI tract so that they’re able to be eliminated.

Panchakarma, Sanskrit for 5 actions, encompasses the 5 detox actions used in Ayurveda.  Which one or ones are used depends on which dosha is aggravated in your body, and sometimes it’s necessary to combine more than one therapy to most efficiently and effectively dislodge the metabolic waste and upseat the excess doshic energy that’s accumulated within your body.

What are the 5 actions in panchakarma? 

Briefly, these are:

  • Emesis: known in Sanskrit as vamana, this is therapeutic vomiting. 
  • Purgation: known in Sanskrit as virechana, this is therapeutic voiding from the posterior end of your GI tract, and the goal here is to cleanse your small intestines.  We’ll talk in more detail about each of these here in a minute.
  • Enema:  known in Sanskrit as basti, this is also treating the latter part of your GI tract with a focus on your large intestines.
  • Nasal irrigation: known in Sanskrit as nasya, and not to be confused with nasal oiling which is a different topic for a different day.
  • Bloodletting or phlebotomy: known in Sanskrit as raktamokshana.

These may sound archaic, and let’s be honest, gross.  Forced vomiting, purgation, and bloodletting sounds very old fashioned and may conjure images of an era when leech therapy, smelling salts, and strange poultices were used for medical treatments.

Hang with me here as we talk through each of these.

Emesis or forced vomiting is used to dislodge excess kapha dosha, the energy of stability and substance.  Kapha energy dominates in the upper part of your GI tract, namely, your stomach, and this is why emesis is used to return kapha to your stomach and then forced outwards through your upper GI tract.  Emesis is performed typically by having a patient drink large quantities of licorice tea and then inducing vomiting.

Purgation is where specific herbs with a laxative quality are taken to encourage going to the bathroom.  These herbs typically stimulate bile and pancreatic enzymes to help flush the small intestines.  The purpose of purgation is to remove excess pitta, the energy of transformation from your body.  Pitta is hot, and it’s generally associated with any condition ending in -itis because -itis indicates inflammation.

Basti is where a medicated enema is given to encourage the elimination of vata from your body.

Nasal irrigation, or nasya is where medicated oil is administered nasally.  This type of cleanse helps remove excess kapha dosha from your body as well and is one of the two panchakarma therapies not associated with your GI tract. 

The second of the two panchakarma therapies not associated with your GI tract is bloodletting or phlebotomy.  This therapy works in tandem with purgation to help remove excess pitta from your body.

With all panchakarma therapies, there are preparation phases with a focus on lubricating and opening the channels of your body, and this typically involves taking a prescribed quantity of ghee for several days to a few weeks before your treatment along with following a specific diet, namely avoiding foods and drinks that constrict your body’s channels and also foods and drinks that clog your channels.

This pre-work helps the metabolic wastes and the excess doshic energy begin to move back towards your GI tract, and when the pre-treatment is proper, this makes the panchakarma therapies much more effective at reducing the excess doshas and removing accumulated wastes from your body.

Today’s episode is simply an intro to panchakarma, and if you’re considering panchakarma therapy, I cannot overstate the importance of working with a skilled practitioner for these therapies.  Next time, Kate O’Donnell shares more about her personal experience with panchakarma, and more about the spiritual nature of Ayurveda.

Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

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