What is a Healing Crisis?

By Tarilee Cornish, CNP
"The body is a complex organism that does interesting things as it heals."
I prefer to characterize to a "healing crisis" as an "intense healing event". The latter term actively frames the phenomenon as a positive and productive experience rather than implying that it is undesirable. During healing, your body sets to work cleansing and regenerating. It is the sensation of this cleansing and healing process that has come to be known as a healing crisis.

"An intense healing event is a normal part of an accelerated healing process. It occurs when the body gathers enough strength to deal with the cleansing and regeneration needed to achieve an improved condition of health." - David Saterlee

On the road to health, we often encounter bumps and ruts that add interesting and sometimes confounding twists to our journey. The following typical healing event story will likely be familiar to many of you.

In the beginning, your dissatisfaction with your level of health leads you to seek a new approach to the way you take care of yourself. You commit to a healthy lifestyle transition. You change your diet, perhaps start an exercise regime then apply yourself to a personal research project about natural remedies and dietary strategies that are likely to help you overcome your unique health challenges. Next - you design your individualized health program. Or perhaps you leave the designing up to your naturopath or nutritional consultant. Regardless, at this stage, you are wholly dedicated to the idea of doing what it takes to regain your health.

The implementation stage of your new health program isn't easy for you and you suffer through it, trying hard to maintain calm confidence as you adjust to some significantly difficult changes to your diet and your routine. Before long, you start to get the hang of it and things feel like they are starting to flow.

After a few weeks on the program, your dedication and hard work begin to pay off as you are now feeling better than you've felt in years. "Yippee," you think to yourself. "I really can feel better! This diet isn't so bad, not if I can feel like this on it! Wow, I'm going to stick to this! I can do this! This makes Sense." You become so enthusiastic about your success that you want your whole family and all of your friends to join you in your journey towards lasting health!

This is about where the first bump comes into the story. Your initial progress is predictably followed by a healing event. Hopefully your practitioner will have warned you about the inevitability of this event so you will not be devastated with disappointment. The body naturally moves through a process of rebalancing, regenerating and cleansing during healing. This can create uncomfortable sensations and bodily responses that can be rather hard to accept when you've been trying so hard to take good care of yourself. Understanding the process is crucial so that you won't be inclined to abandon your program when you find that you feel a little bit worse before you feel better.

The healing event is a little understood phenomenon. Its misinterpretation regrettably ends many a well-intentioned health program. It is a positive event that we should strive towards. Accurately interpreted, it is seen as a confirmation of successful detoxification and regeneration. Unfortunately, this rather confusing experience presents symptoms similar to illness. It is therefore easily misinterpreted as deterioration in health. In actual fact, you usually have to feel worse as part of the process of getting better.

This is particularly true in the case of an illness related to toxicity of some kind. The healing program requires toxins to be flushed out of the body, thus lifting their suppressive effect from the body's normal functions. Throughout our lives, we build up toxins in our body tissues through exposure to air, water and food pollution, food additives, medications, stress hormones and even through normal daily metabolic activity.

Accumulations of these waste materials stress the body in many ways: by contributing to overall immune weakness, reducing energy and vitality and sometimes by causing an imbalance in our emotional health. Unless you are living a pure, natural, healthy and active lifestyle, as you age, the levels of toxins in your body will rise. This will certainly be the case for those of us who are consuming the average North American diet rich in processed foods, along with alcohol and/or cigarettes. It is equally true for those who are exposed to high levels of stress and pollution. Any degree of toxicity results in acceleration of aging while increasing your vulnerability to any disease to which you may be predisposed.

As the body is cleaned up, previously dormant innate healing mechanisms can be spontaneously reactivated and various types of tissue regeneration can be accomplished. During regeneration, the body destroys defective tissues and cells in order to reconstruct them. This can be experienced as pain or inflammation or even just unusual aches, pains and fever. During healing, the immune system will set to work killing off pathogens like viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. Destroying these can result in the release of by-products released by the pathogenic organisms as they are killed. These must also be flushed out of the body during cleansing. In a severe toxicity-related health picture, long-term toxicity can eventually contribute to serious degenerative illness such as arthritis, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, viral illness, depression, anxiety, diabetes, etc.

In order to eliminate toxins from your body, optimize your immune strength and stimulate tissue regeneration, the most important first step is to stop putting the wastes in. Once you stop putting poisons in, the body will begin to expel accumulated poisons from the tissues. Supporting this detoxification process by eating small meals of simple organic foods and using detoxifying herbs, homeopathics, purified water and herbal remedies can make the process of elimination more efficient and more comfortable.

Both the purge of toxins and waste materials and the activation of your body's repair and healing mechanisms will likely be evident to you as they are happening. As the body cleans itself, it releases stored toxins from deep within our tissues and which are then moved through the blood and lymph and eliminative organs (liver, kidneys, colon, lungs and skin) on their way out of the body. As these toxins and metabolic debris make their way out they can temporarily congest our eliminative organs, lymph and blood; causing the various symptoms associated with a healing event (see below). In fact, they can become more concentrated in your blood on the way out than they were on the way in and their effect on you can be temporarily quite acute.

The actual symptoms experienced during a healing event can include fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, boils, chills, aches and pains, skin eruptions, flatulence, irritability or depression, headache, nausea, chest of head cold, shooting pains, disorientation, mental fogginess, dizziness, coughing, build up of mucous, etc. Transitional restlessness, unusual dreams and a change in sleep patterns or an increase in sleep requirements are also common. If you are healing from a chronic illness, your symptoms of illness can become more pronounced for a short time.

The more severe your condition, the more pronounced your healing events are likely to be. If you become very uncomfortable, you may be tempted to turn to over the counter medications for relief. Pain killers, for example, may be seen as welcome relief, but can actually suppress the healing process and prolong the rebalancing process. As an alternative, appropriately chosen herbal remedies can be a desirable option as they can reduce the discomforts such as pain, swelling or gastrointestinal distress while supporting the healing process (see more on this below).

The severity or mildness of your reactions to this process will depend upon how resilient your health is, how long standing and how serious your illness is and how quickly you are pushing your body to cleanse itself.

You can't speed the healing but you may be tempted to rush the detoxification part of the process. Rushing can actually create a strain on the eliminative organs by overwhelming them with toxins thus hindering healing. I always say that there is no such thing as heroism in any kind of detoxification program. Rushing the detoxification process can cause severe stress on the organs, actually hindering healing.

Detoxification is more effective if done slowly and patiently, paying attention to the body's signals about how quickly to proceed. You can regulate your cleansing rate by increasing or decreasing detoxifying, antifungal or antibiotic herbs. If your symptoms become too uncomfortable, this is an indication that it is time to slow down on the catalysts. IF this does happen, you need only to abstain from 'treatment' with the catalysts until the intensity of the symptoms subside and then gradually build back up to a higher dose with considerably more patience and gentleness. Drinking lots of water and using blood cleansing and lymph cleansing herbs can ease reactions, as can healthy supports like green drinks, sea salt and herbal baths, skin brushing, yoga, etc.

Your naturopathic doctor or herbalist can help you to customize an herbal and homeopathic strategy to support the drainage of toxins while bolstering your weakest organ systems to make your healing program more comfortable and efficient. The healing events will commonly pose a particular challenge to your weakest organs so it can be very useful to have an expert practitioner helping along the way.

Holistic healers have been familiar with the phenomenon of healing events for over two thousand years. Constantine Hering (1800-1880) was an MD who is known as the father of homeopathy. He observed several characteristics of a healing event and his observations became so well known and respected that they are still taught today. The principles of the Hering Law of Cure follow:

  1. The human body seeks to externalize disease from deep internal organs to more superficial levels like the skin. It will also heal from the inside out. Healing will usually occur on the inside of the body before the outside and the curative process will work its way out of the body from there. For example, someone with asthma may develop a skin rash as his or her body attempts to resolve the asthma. Unfortunately, in modern medical protocol this rash would most likely be treated with cortisone cream. This type of suppression of the body's natural healing process could result in the condition going back inside again to re-affect the lungs.
  2. Healing events tend to proceed from the head downward. By this he meant that the body typically exerts healing energy to resolve ailments at the top of the body (near the head) before it will tend to ailments at the bottom of the body (near the feet).
  3. The healing of illnesses in the body will occur in the reverse order to development. The most recent health challenges will be resolved first and the old illnesses will be healed last. For example, the body would work on healing lung tissue from a recent bout with pneumonia before it would work on healing kidney tissue from a childhood kidney disease. This experience of healing through our past health challenges has been called "retracing".
  4. The healing will occur in a cycle. We will endure a healing event followed by feeling wonderful and then we'll just "coast along" for a while until our body has gathered up enough strength to tackle another healing task. Just as we will consciously ensure that we are well rested before taking on a big job like cleaning out the garage for example, our body will only address big issues when it has the strength to do so. In between these healing events we can experience periods of glorious wellness as we begin to know what it feels like to be 'in balance'.
An emotional issue, associated with a particular layer of healing, may arise during the physical healing. It may emerge alone or in combination with a healing episode that is physical in nature. This can be seen as an opportunity to achieve healing on more than one level. You can interpret the emergence of a specific emotional issue as a gentle signal from your psyche that it is time to deal with it.

In some cases, it is essential that we address both the emotional and physical in order to successfully pass through the next layer of healing. If we address one part but not the other, the healing may be incomplete and have to be addressed again at a later date. The old proverb could be said to apply here; "A lesson not learned is a lesson repeated."


How do you distinguish a healing event from an actual worsening of illness? This is not easy to do and can take some trial and error combined with close observation of your emotions and body and a true sensitivity to your inner wisdom. Luckily, to help you recognize a healing event, you can count on a few common characteristics.

  1. You will likely be feeling quite fabulous or at least better than usual just before the onset of a healing event. It seems that the body will tackle healing projects once it has built up enough strength to face them. This strategy is similar to more conscious human strategies. For example, your wisdom tells you that you'll need to be well rested before tackling the task of spring cleaning for example.
  2. During a healing event, you'll usually feel a sense of well-being and congruency about symptoms. Despite feeling ill, you will not likely develop any deep dread or resistance to the experience. For example, you may be nauseous and even perhaps even vomiting (which is never fun), yet able to maintain a sense of peace with these sensations. You may be vaguely aware of an inner confidence that the vomiting is a healing and cleansing event. During an emotional healing event or the emotional component of a whole-body healing event, you will most likely feel the symptoms but identify with them less than usual. It's hard to imagine that you could have anxiety without being anxious about having it. You will still experience the emotion; you will be able to accept it without allowing it to take over your whole being. You will feel a confidence that it is temporary and will be short lived. This could be likened to the feeling you have as you run from the cold car in the winter into the warm car without putting your coat on. You will feel the cold but are not concerned by it because you know you will have relief just as soon as you get into your nice warm home.
  3. The timing of a manifestation of symptoms can be logically related to an increase in your healing or detoxification efforts. For example, you may have just started a new emotional therapy or a new type of massage treatment. Perhaps you increased an anti-viral or anti-fungal herbal remedy. You may even have made a significant step in your emotional development by, for example, quitting a job that was "toxic" to you. It's common to have a healing event in response to significant life changes.
  4. A true healing event will usually be quite short lived. Several hours to several days duration is the norm. In situations of long standing toxicity or extreme candida or other pathogenic infestations, it may last longer because the initial "clean up" from these sorts of conditions can take a significant period of time.
If you feel seriously ill and are not confident that your symptoms are harmless and temporary, consult with your Naturopathic or Medical Doctor.

"Just as in Nature, decay must occur in order to nourish new growth, our bodies must tear down old tissue and detoxify in order to regenerate." Expect that you will have ongoing cycles of wellness interspersed with cycles of discomfort until you have reached a state of stable, resilient health. At this point, you may still choose to integrate cleansing routines and person-growth-stimulating therapies into your life on a regular basis. In doing so, you may find that once in awhile you will again experience a release of something toxic, followed by a feeling of being ill, followed by a feeling of being free and clear of whatever was released (whether emotional or physical). In time, you will learn to welcome these events and to take comfort and pride in them as affirmations that nature is taking its course.

You will most likely experience many healing events throughout the journey towards reclaiming your health. As you understand the importance and predictability of these events and learn to recognize when you are experiencing them, it will be much easier for you to maintain confidence in your chosen healing path. Rather than trying to escape from the experiences, you can relax into them with full awareness of their significance.

During these events, it is important to tune in to what you feel and need and to offer yourself (or ask others for) all the love and care that you need to get through it. Your body is infinitely intelligent. With adequate resources: healing, rest, clean water, fresh air, exercise, sleep, a healthy emotional peace and an individualized healthy diet, it can work miracles in healing.

"For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin...But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life." ~Alfred Souza~

The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not designed to diagnose, prescribe or in any way replace supervision by a qualified physician. Please see your physician with any serious health concerns.