Learn how to detoxify your body and strengthen your system naturally with this helpful guide.
Spring—ain’t it grand? If you are anticipating warm weather, flowers and the feeling that life is starting again after a long, sleepy winter stuck indoors, then you may be interested in a spring cleanse. And spring is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf, physically and spiritually.
Regardless of how conscientious we are about our health and fitness, our bodies are under constant assault from pollutants. Many toxins are as close as the air we breathe. Although our bodies are designed to eliminate toxins, the sheer volume of pollutants we encounter can tax our natural detoxification systems. Learn how to detoxify your body naturally with the following herbs and tips.
Strengthen and Detoxify Your System
Many natural healing systems take account of the seasons and the effect that cold, light and weather have on the body. According to Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine), naturopathy and Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, body energy mirrors the seasons. Winter is the time to nourish the body and let it rest, to conserve and build the qi (vital energy).
Come spring, we feel the need to get up and exercise, not to mention cleanse and detoxify our systems with the young greens that are beginning to grow. Increasing physical activity, as well as the amount of natural fiber we eat, helps rid the body of all that waste accumulated over the winter.
Spring also is the time of year in which the liver’s energy is resurging and is seen as an excellent time to cleanse this most important of organs.
The body possesses an amazing ability to cleanse itself, through the urinary system, the gastrointestinal system, the respiratory system, the lymphatic system and the skin. But the liver does the yeoman’s work in running interference for any excess eating, drinking or medicating we might do, as it converts toxins into easily excretable substances and helps remove them from the body.
The liver also helps filter pollution and other unhealthy environmental toxins we may come in contact with. For all the work it does, we owe it to our liver to make sure it’s as healthy as possible.
Adding detox herbs to your diet is a great place to start a healthy natural cleanse. The following herbs all have a cleansing effect on the liver.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is the best-known plant in the treatment of liver disease. In Roman times, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 77) reported that milk thistle was “excellent for carrying off bile.” 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote of its effectiveness in removing obstructions of the liver and spleen.
The active agent in milk thistle is found in the seeds of the plant and is composed of three isomer flavonolignans, which are collectively known as silymarin. Silymarin acts as an antioxidant by reducing the production of harmful free radicals. It also may act as a toxin blocker.
Another plant that helps the liver is licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). The extract of the root has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Licorice should be used cautiously in patients with hypertension or a history of renal disease.
The beautiful globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) contains cynarin, a substance somewhat similar to silymarin. Like milk thistle, artichoke stimulates the regeneration of liver tissue.
Eliminate Unwanted Body Waste Naturally
In the naturopathic view, disease is caused by uneliminated wastes. Many practitioners feel that we are all hard-pressed these days—what with junk food, coffee, alcohol, nicotine and chemicals to contend with—to be at our most healthy. They use the word “detox,” which originally applied to those who were trying to withdraw from drug use, to describe what we should do for optimum health: Avoid the things that make us ill.
The typical diet includes too much salt, sugar, alcohol, chemicals, pollutants and food allergens. But “detox” implies cleansing, a fresh start and a fresh approach to diet and exercise. We can, once we give the body a break, rely on its inherent ability to cleanse itself. How? It’s easy: Initiate the process with a diet that avoids the intake of toxins, encourages elimination, and includes lots of water and exercise.
There are a lot of crazy diets out there, as well as people advocating fasting and colonics. “Forget detox diets,” says Andrew Weil, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “The best thing you can do is to stop putting toxins into your system. Eat organic foods, drink water that is purified, don’t be around secondhand smoke—the obvious things.”
I like Weil’s gentle approach to detox. Instead of fasting altogether, I am happy to give up a few things for a while. I really want to detox, but can I live without coffee, butter, chocolate, wine, milk, eggs, meat, food additives and preservatives—for a week?
Elson M. Haas, author of The New Detox Diet, advocates fasting with the aid of a “master cleanser,” a tall drink of water with a pinch of cayenne, two tablespoons of lemon juice and a tablespoon of maple syrup. I am not one bit tempted to go there, because I’m really averse to the idea of giving up solid food. So I was interested to see that Haas also recommends a “detox diet” that actually includes eating.
Sometimes, we need a little help getting back on track—or in my case, a little help finding the track! I’d been feeling that I needed to jumpstart my New Year’s resolution to eat more vegetables, drink less wine and cut down on sweets. Haas’ mainly vegetable diet (see “Dr. Haas’ Detox Menu”) appealed to me.
My Detox Experience
I warned my husband that I was going to be caffeine-less for the next few days, bit the bullet and began my three-day detox. Upon arising, I followed Haas’ directives rigorously. Instead of my usual slug of coffee, I drank two glasses of water with half a lemon squeezed in. Half an hour later, just as Haas prescribed, I had cooked cereal. For lunch, I ate one to two medium bowls of steamed veggies. Ditto for dinner. There were absolutely no chocolate-chip macadamia nut cookies for snacks at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The menu said to drink a bowl of the water I’d steamed the veggies in instead. Following Haas’ strictures to the letter helped me to feel in control. The instructions were not complicated, a feature that I found quite welcome.
Herbal teas throughout the day were allowed, but I couldn’t help feeling deprived. Day One found me a bit ratty, missing my coffee and chocolate. By Day Two I was feeling virtuous, and a bit nun-like, but still moody. But by the third day, I felt alert and energized, as well as cleaned out, figuratively and literally.
In fact, I felt so well that I continued the diet for a week. A funny thing happened as the days wore on: I began to think not about what I was depriving myself of, but of what good I was doing my body. The food, which, let’s face it, was pretty plain-Jane, did not seem a bit boring. I began to attend to what I was eating like never before, and to feel grateful for it in a way I can’t really explain.
One of the reasons to detox is to stop a pattern of overindulging or to begin a new way of eating. My experience certainly made me feel better and more aware. On a practical note, I’ve become adept at steaming more vegetables than I need at one meal, so now I always have plenty on hand. Although I have eaten chocolate and drunk red wine since, I have not done so with my usual abandon. This is a good thing: My liver has told me so. And for the first time, I am listening.
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Texas.
Dr. Haas’ Detox Menu
Promote healthy liver function by following this detox menu for a week. Supplement it with as much herbal tea as you like. For convenience, steam many servings of vegetables ahead of time and save the vegetable water; it’s part of the menu. Please note that detox regimens are intended for short-term use. Always consult your health-care practitioner before changing your diet.
Upon rising: Drink two glasses filtered water; squeeze 1/2 lemon into one of these glasses.
Breakfast: Eat one piece organic fresh fruit such as apple, pear, banana, grapes (about a cup) or citrus fruit.
15 to 30 minutes later: Eat one bowl cooked organic whole grains—specifically millet, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa or buckwheat. Flavor grains with 2 tablespoons organic fruit juice, or add a teaspoon of “Better Butter” (recipe below) with a little salt or tamari.
11:00 a.m.: Drink one to two cups veggie water, saved from steamed vegetables. Add a little sea salt or kelp and drink slowly.
Lunch (noon to 1:00 p.m.): Eat one to two medium bowls steamed organic vegetables such as potatoes, yams, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, asparagus, chard, kale and cabbage. Use a variety and include roots, stems and greens.
3:00 p.m.: Same as 11:00 a.m.
Dinner (5:00 to 6:00 p.m.): Same as lunch.
Evening: Herbal teas only.
Better Butter: Mix 1/2 cup cold-pressed flax seed or olive oil into two room-temperature sticks of butter and refrigerate. Use 1 teaspoon per meal or a maximum of 3 teaspoons daily.
Note: You may feel mildly weak the first couple of days. This will pass. Clarity and vigor should appear by day three or four, if not before. If you feel overly weak or hungry, assess your water intake. If needed, eat a small portion (3 to 4 ounces) of protein in the midafternoon. Opt for low-mercury fish (find a list of “lowest in mercury” fish at ewg.org/research/brain-food/fish-women-should-avoid); free-range, organic chicken; or beans such as lentils or black beans.
Elson Hass, M.D. is the author of The New Detox Diet. Haas is the founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, an integrated health-care facility in San Rafael, California. Visit his website at elsonhaas.com.
The Spring Cleanse: An Herbalist’s Perspective
Ellen Zimmerman, founder of the Austin School of Herbal Studies in Austin, Texas, blends her own teas, tinctures and salves from herbs grown on her 5-acre homestead.
What’s your notion of “detox”—and how can we accomplish it?
Zimmerman: I think of detoxing as cleansing, supporting and nourishing your body. A gentle detox can be accomplished by drinking cleansing herbal teas; by eliminating sugar, alcohol, processed foods, white flour and preservatives from our diets—which we should consume in moderation or avoid ordinarily; and by eating light, nutritious meals for one week.
What are the best herbs for detox?
Zimmerman: I think the best herbs for supporting the liver are dandelion root, echinacea root, burdock root, wild yam root, milk thistle seeds, licorice root, sassafras and ginger root.
How long is the process?
Zimmerman: I recommend a cleansing regime for one week in fall and one week in spring. You can drink cleansing tea whenever liver support is needed. You should also get plenty of fresh air, rest and light exercise.
How will I feel during and after the detox?
Zimmerman: There may be a laxative effect during detox; elimination is one of the body’s natural ways of expelling toxins. I believe you will gain a nourished liver, gallbladder, spleen and pancreas. Better health is the greatest gain.
Will I lose weight?
Zimmerman: You may experience a slight weight loss—most likely water weight—during the detox, but that is not the aim of the cleanse.
Are there any health risks?
Zimmerman: Allergies are one potential issue to consider. Take responsibility for yourself and make sure all of these herbs are agreeable to you. In most situations, the herbs I have mentioned are used safely and effectively by the majority of people I work with.