When I first heard about dry brushing a few years ago, all I could think was “Who are these people that brush their skin? I’m doing good to brush my hair and change out of yoga pants.” Although it’s often recommended for improving skin softness and texture, I did a little reading and it turns out that the benefits are more than skin deep. This ancient technique is considered helpful for supporting lymph flow and detoxification, as well as immune function and balancing hormones. (source)
Obviously, I had to give it a try.
What is dry brushing?
According to Todd Caldecott, an Ayurvedic herbalist who has studied the ancient healing modality in India, dry brushing is an Ayurvedic practice called gharsana. (source) The goal is to move lymph towards the heart to mix it with blood, with the ultimate goal of sending metabolic waste and stored toxins to the kidneys and liver for elimination.
If you’re not familiar with it, the “lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.” (source)
Dry brushing is commonly combined with stimulating and drying powdered herbs like triphala ( a blend of amla, bibhitaki, and haritaki fruits), trikatu (a blend of long pepper, ginger and black pepper – see Alchemy of Herbs for a homemade recipe) or ginger to assist in improving circulation and the flushing out of metabolic waste.
Benefits of Dry Brushing
Dry brushing was historically used for those with the Ayurvedic “Kapha constitutions” – think Type B personalities – and some health conditions. However, the practice is probably additionally just as useful now for Type A folks who spend a lot of time in front of a computer, thus leading to stagnant circulation and lymph. In a nutshell, it’s beneficial for:
#1- Immune Function
Dry brushing supports lymph flow, which is essential to immune function. If you have a few minutes to be impressed, I highly recommend this video for a visual explanation of how the lymphatic system supports immune function.
If not, here it is in a nutshell: When most of us get an infection like a wound, the infection stays localized to that area. That’s because contrary to the common perception that most infections are in our blood, they’re often in other tissues. In those cases, the body uses lymph fluid to draw the bacteria or virus into a nearby lymph node, which is standing by with B and T cells. Those cells are part of our adaptive immune system, which means that they are able to adapt to address the specific infection rather than mount the generalized response you see from macrophages.
#2- Hormone Balance
Because the lymphatic system helps to circulate hormones throughout the body, it follows that stagnant lymph may not get hormones where they need to be as effectively. Another technique that supports lymph flow – manual lymphatic drainage – is sometimes recommended by fertility experts for couple that are trying to conceive. (source)
#3 – Detoxification
The lymphatic system is one of two circulation systems in the body – the other is the cardiovascular system. While the cardiovascular system pumps blood, the lymphatic system collects blood that leaks out of vessels and returns it to it’s place. That’s not it’s only job, though. It also distributes immune factors and hormones (see above) while carrying away metabolic waste and toxins.
#4 – Soft, Smooth Skin
Dry brushing removes dead skin cells and encourages the production of new cells.
#5 – Emotional Groundedness
Dry brushing is also a great way to improve our mind-body connection. Often we spend all day go-go-going, juggling to-do lists and schedules – sometimes this mental load can keep us “in our head” and feeling disconnected from our physical selves.
Spending a few minutes dry brushing (try deep breathing at the same time if you want to multi-task those benefits) at the beginning or end of each day can re-establish that connection and help us feel more grounded. If that sounds a little woo to you, here’s why it works: dry brushing helps to balance the autonomic nervous system, which supports adrenal function by reducing stress. (source)
Is dry brushing right for everyone?
Like with most things, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to life that works for everyone. Some traditional cultures flourished on a high-fat diet while others have done well on a high-carb diet, and where we fall on that continuum is probably influenced at least in part on our genetic inheritance. In the same way, whether or not you love dry brushing has to do with your bioindividuality. There are also some instances in which dry brushing is discouraged – over varicose veins, for example.
How to dry brush
First, make sure you have a non-synthetic brush to use. I’ve purchased more than a few because apparently I’m the Goldilocks of dry brushes. Here are the ones I currently recommend:
- This is a great starter set. It’s well made and comes with a stiff brush and a softer one, both of which I love. This set is not waterproof and will mold if you use it in the shower.
- This brush has longer, firmer bristles than you’ll find with most brands, which makes it a great choice for people with a solid dry brushing routine. I am able to feel more movement when I use it, which I love. Because of how stiff the bristles are it’s probably not a good starter brush for people with sensitive skin or are new to the practice. Like the set above, this brush is not waterproof and will mold if you use it in the shower.
- This set of two dry brushes (firm and soft is water resistant and can be used in the shower. I haven’t had it for very long but so far I’m very happy with them.
Before getting started, take a moment to notice whether or not you’re thirsty. It’s important to be well hydrated so that metabolic waste and toxins are moved toward the body’s exit systems. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to hydration levels after dry brushing. It’s not necessary to guzzle water, just listen to your body. (I also recommend adding a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon to water in order to improve hydration levels.)
Now, to the actual technique. Most dry brushing tutorials say that you should brush toward the heart. While that approach can be helpful for improving skin softness and texture, there’s another approach that I believe may be more helpful for improving lymph flow. It’s based on the techniques used in Manual Lymph Drainage Massage, which was developed by Emil Vodder PhD and his wife, Estrid Vodder, ND.
The benefit of this approach, as explained this book by UK International Institute of Health and Holistic Therapies member Mia Campbell, goes something like this:
Imagine you have a bag full of cake frosting and the tip is clogged. If you try to apply pressure by squeezing the very back of the bag forward you might eventually release the clog, but it will be more difficult and you have less control over how much frosting is released. It’s better to start by opening up the tip using pressure applied close to the area, then working from there. Although brushing toward the heart does basically lead lymph toward the lymphatic watersheds (drains) in the body, it assumes they’re already open which is not always the case.
The technique I use works to open the lymphatic drain by the heart first, then works out from there. The technique I use is described in Mia’s book, but there is a similar approach outlined in the video below. Please note that in sharing this video I am not endorsing all the views expressed. I do, however, believe it contains valuable information that was very generously shared, and am very thankful for that. 🙂
When, where and how often should I dry brush?
Most people say that morning is best because they find dry brushing to be energizing. However, a slightly less intense session can be very relaxing before bed, so do what works best with your schedule. Regarding where to dry brush, I think the shower is the best place because any dead skin that sloughs off is rinsed away without cleanup.
Regarding frequency, some people dry brush a few times per week, while others dry brush daily. It’s best to start slow – a couple of times a week – and work up to a point that feels right for you.
Other ways to naturally support detoxification
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Mariza Snyder, a functional practitioner. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
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Additional source for this article: The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs
About the authors: This article was coauthored by Heather Dessinger and Dr. Lori Valentine Rose (PhD). Dr. Rose, PhD is a college biology, nutrition, herbal, and wellness instructor, Certified Nutrition Professional (CNP), Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and is Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition. She created, developed, and instructs the Hill College Holistic Wellness Pathway, the most thorough, affordable, degreed wellness program in the country. She loves spreading love and light, and helping others feel awesome on the inside and out so they can live their dreams and make this world more awesome!