In This Issue
Process of Elimination
(Please note that information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. For conditions requiring medical attention, please seek out a qualified health care provider.)
When I sat down to write this, I thought it would be about the sacredness of sex. After all, that has been the focus of my practice and my teaching for a few years now. Apparently I have become much too comfortable with sex, with talking about sex, with writing about sex. She Who Inspires Me likes to push me toward the edge of my comfort, to the places that make me squirm a bit.
So I find myself writing an article about shit. More accurately, it is about how elimination of waste is a sacred aspect of being embodied. And just as I once found it a challenge to embrace sexual expression as a sacred act, so now I am challenged to embrace the sacredness of elimination.
The Body is Sinful/The Body is Dirty
There are a lot of parallels between the topic of sex as sacred, and
that of elimination of waste as sacred. In English, the non-blasphemous
vulgarities that we use to express anger, dismay, or pain fall into two
categories: words about sex acts and sex organs, and words about eliminating
waste. Sex and elimination are two things we are taught to do in private,
behind closed doors. They are not to be discussed in polite company, and
any necessary reference is made indirectly ("I must go powder my
nose!") or through euphemism ("For occasional irregularity.").
As a culture we seem to be simultaneously repelled and fascinated by both
"My body and all of my bodily functions are sacred."
"My body and all of my bodily functions are sacred." I have used these words in my writing, in teaching, and in ritual. Yet this is the first time I have given serious thought to the sacredness of our bodies' excretory processes. In the same way that most of us are alienated from our sexuality, we are alienated from our body's need to produce and eliminate waste. Like sex, urination, defecation and exhalation are reminders of our physicality, our embodiment, our animalness, our place in the natural world.
Shit is sacred. It is produced by my sacred body; it is the manifestation of the transformation of food into flesh, warmth, and movement; and it is something I can (under less urban circumstances) return to the Earth for her nourishment.
A Shit-Eating Goddess
The various Goddess encyclopedias and listings that are my usual references do not contain any information on Goddesses whose attributes include an association with elimination, feces, or dung. An internet search turned up references to Tlazeoltecotl, an Aztec Goddess variously described as a Mother Goddess, a Sex Goddess, and the Eater of Feces and Filth. I see Her role as filth eater to be perfectly congruent with Her Mother and Sex/Fertility aspects anyone who has composted or fertilized with dung knows how nutritious it is for the Earth. I was not surprised to find that nearly every reference I found to her as Filth Eater interpreted this as a reference to Her removing sin the equation of sin and shit is in keeping with our culture's body/spirit split.
Tlazeoltecotl is the Earth the microbes and fungi, insects and worms in Her soil that transform animal waste of all kinds into plant food. She completes the cycle of ingestion, digestion, and elimination. She is embodied in each of us, in our liver, kidneys, intestines, and lungs the organs of ingestion, digestion, absorption, purification, and elimination. She keeps us clean, just as she keeps the Earth clean.
The Dirty Body Belief System
The Dirty Body Belief System is my name for the beliefs that seem to permeate one segment of the teaching about, and marketing of, "natural" healing. The Dirty Body Belief System is a reworking of the denigration of the body generated by the spirit/body dichotomy. In this belief system, the body is not explicitly described as inherently shameful or sinful, but it is regarded as inherently dirty and in constant need of cleansing.
The fear generated by this set of beliefs is exploited by companies and individuals who charge exorbitant amounts of money for products and procedures aimed at "cleansing" the body. These range from the relatively benign (for example, diets that purport to eradicate "systemic yeast infections") to the very risky (use of herbal "cleansers," purgatives or "colonics").
Dirty Body Belief #1: Our bodies contain a lot of "toxins."
The definition of toxin is "a poisonous substance, usually a protein, that is produced by living cells or organisms and is capable of causing disease when introduced into body tissues but is often also capable of inducing neutralizing antibodies or antitoxins." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996) While the word is now used to refer to any chemical substance that can harm the body (and the analogy sometimes is extended to describe emotions or even individuals as "toxic."), in its original meaning, toxins are perfectly natural substances. We do ingest them in our food and drink for example, many edible plants produce toxins as a means of defense against predators. Our bodies have evolved ways of dealing with many of the toxins we ingest. The liver breaks down and eliminates many natural toxins, as well as other substances that might damage the body. Each of our cells has a DNA repair system that can undo genetic damage. This is not to say that our bodies are unaffected by toxins, only that we are not entirely defenseless against them.
Substances like industrial pollutants, pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and other chemicals introduced into the environment by human activity are harmful to the body (some are potentially lethal). Many of these substances are damaging to the body because we have not evolved ways of breaking them down and eliminating them from the body, or of repairing the damage they cause. I would include in this category two substances that are particularly harmful to women: the UV radiation in sunlight (increasing due to depletion of the ozone layer) and the carcinogenic chemicals in cigarette smoke.
Concerns about the impact of environmental pollutants on our bodies is
justified, and there is plenty of evidence that the harm we do to the
Earth we do to ourselves. However, the remedies and regimens marketed
and sold as "natural" ways to eliminate such toxins have never
been shown to be effective or even safe.
In fact, our bodies do a pretty good job of eliminating the things that we ingest but don't need. We eliminate water-soluble waste products through urine, solid waste through feces, and gaseous waste (usually carbon dioxide, but in untreated diabetics or extreme low-carbohydrate dieters this also includes ketones) in exhaled air.
As I mentioned above, the liver's main job is to pull unwanted chemicals (both waste products of tissues such as muscle, and substances absorbed from the gut) out of the blood, metabolize them into chemicals that can be easily eliminated in urine or feces, and release the metabolites back into the blood for processing by the kidneys or intestines.
Often the liver processes substances to make them more soluble in water, so that they can be eliminated in urine. The kidneys are responsible for production of urine, and do some biochemical processing of waste products similar to the liver. The most effective way to ensure elimination of water-soluble wastes through the liver and kidneys is by drinking enough water every day.
There are products touted as "blood cleansers" that purport to assist or boost the function of the liver and/or kidneys. Unless liver or kidney function is impaired by infection or other damage, these organs are fully capable of doing their job without assistance. And if liver function is impaired, it is possible that the substances in "blood cleansers" could do more harm than good. (It is important to keep in mind that all products that are sold as "food supplements" can be marketed without undergoing any testing, and with no assurance that what is described on the label is actually in the product.)
More to the point, "blood cleansers" do nothing to eliminate damaging substances that are stored in the body. Most chemical toxins, ranging from caffeine to nicotine to pesticide residue to polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), are stored in body fat. These substances are released only when body fat is lost, and no amount of "blood cleansing" or"liver cleansing" can remove them otherwise. Currently, research is being done on ways to remove chemicals, particularly PCBs and dioxins, from stored fat safely.
Physicians use a process called "chelation" to remove heavy metals from the body. Chelation is a risky procedure because the chemicals used to chelate and remove heavy metals also remove calcium, a mineral crucial to bone health and nerve and muscle function. Doses of chelating chemicals must be carefully adjusted to remove only the heavy metal. Unscrupulous practitioners have touted chelation as a "natural" remedy for everything from atherosclerosis to absent-mindeness. There is no evidence for any benefit of chelation except in cases of heavy metal poisoning.
Dirty Body Belief #3: Waste Material Can Become Lodged in the Intestines and "Stagnate" There.
The elimination of solid waste seems to be a focus of particular fascination for those concerned with purging the body of "toxins." Products and services aimed at cleaning out the lower portion of the digestive tract are a staple at natural health fairs and in publications. These seem to play on the beliefs that unless solid waste is removed from the body as thoroughly and expeditiously as possible, illness will result, and that our bodies simply cannot remove solid waste thoroughly or expeditiously enough without assistance. Such beliefs are a symptom of our alienation from our body's natural processes.
The best thing you can do to maintain digestive health is to eat plenty of fiber. Fiber, which is simply the parts of plants that our body can't digest and absorb, adds bulk to feces and holds water to keep the feces soft. In a healthy individual who eats enough fiber, material passes through the digestive tract from mouth to anus in about 48 hours. Unless one has diverticulosis (a condition in which sacs or pouches form in the intestinal wall), there is nowhere in the intestines for material to get stuck and "stagnate."
One of the worst things you can do is to try to speed up the elimination process using purgatives or "colonic irrigation." While the occasional use of a laxative to relieve constipation is not harmful, the use of laxatives, in particular the harsh irritants in purgatives, can lead to dependence on these products due to cessation of the normal rhythmic contractions of the colon.
Enemas or colonics are risky for this reason, and because, in the case of colonics, water is being forced into parts of the intestine that are designed to reabsorb water and some of the salts dissolved in that water. Use of tap water for colonics may lead to the introduction of undesirable microorganisms into the intestine (unless the water and equipment are sterilized and handled to prevent introduction of microorganisms). Use of distilled water may lead to a salt imbalance. The colon does not absorb food materials, so use of this route to deliver nutrients or other substances (e.g. coffee enemas) is pointless.
One argument I have heard for the use of purgatives and colonics is that the colon is "full of mucus" that must be cleaned out. Mucus is a clear, colorless mixture of protein and water that has a slimy texture, and it is produced by the colon so that the feces can slide through without getting stuck. It is supposed to be there, it is desirable to have mucus in your colon, and without it you would never be able to move your bowels.
Dirty Body Belief #4: "Toxins" are eliminated through the lymphatic system and in perspiration, and blockage of that elimination causes disease.
Fluid circulates through our bodies in blood, and in lymph, which is a clear liquid that is squeezed from the blood capillaries to deliver nutrients to tissues. Lymph drains into a system of tubes that eventually return the lymphatic fluid to the circulation. The lymphatic circulation does not eliminate waste substances from tissues. Sweat is a mixture of water and salts that serves to help regulate body temperature through evaporative cooling. It serves no excretory function. Claims that breast cancer is caused by localized constriction of lymphatic flow by bras or by the use of antiperspirants are not based in reality. Blockage of lymphatic flow by parasites does cause the severe swelling of limbs known as "elephantiasis," but this is a mechanical effect and not the result of toxins.
The Body and All of Its Functions are Sacred
At the heart of the Dirty Body Belief System is the conviction that our
bodies are inherently dirty and in need of cleansing the equation
of shit with sin. The truth is, our bodies are sacred beings of flesh,
blood, breath, and heat earth, water, air, and fire. In the ongoing
dance of creation they have evolved to live and thrive upon the Earth,
to take in and give back, to absorb and eliminate, to inhale and exhale.
A healthy body is a miraculous interweaving of systems and cycles that
needs simply water, food, movement, and breath to keep itself in balance.
And our shit is sacred enough for a Goddess to eat.