One of the most common complaints I hear from my patients is that they “feel toxic.” You may have experienced this feeling yourself. Some describe it in vague terms, saying they feel a bit off-kilter or run down. Others show it with hotter-than-normal body temperatures, frequent dull headaches, or an inability to concentrate, among other symptoms.
One in four Americans suffers from measurable heavy-metal toxicity, according to R. A. Passwater and E. N. Cranton in Trace Elements, Hair Analysis and Nutrition (New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats, 1983), and many Americans suffer from milder forms of toxicity—a health change for the worse caused by a substance produced by the body itself, such as an overproduction of estrogen, or by outside sources, such as heavy metals. Toxicity impairs health to various degrees, ranging from subtle decreases in vitality to serious illness.
Fortunately, natural healing methods can help correct a toxic state. Cleansing, also called detoxifying or fasting, can help you pamper your body’s cleansing organs while ejecting toxins that are causing discomfort. Many herbs provide the body with needed nutritional support and protection while acting as “housekeepers,” dusting and polishing the body’s cleansing systems so they can run efficiently and keep you healthy.
Toxicity’s causes can be classified into two general categories. The body itself is one cause: When normal by-products of metabolism, such as lactic acid, are produced in excess, toxicity results. Even substances that are normally beneficial, such as estrogen, can cause problems in excessive amounts.
Toxicity can be caused by outside sources, too. Smoking, drinking, and drugs certainly contribute to it, as does exposure to industrial pollutants and commonly used products such as pesticides, herbicides, and food additives. A poor diet also contributes—not eating enough fiber, for example, slows digestion, so toxic substances may sit in the gastrointestinal tract longer, increasing their chances of being reabsorbed.
Disease, ranging from mild to severe, also can cause toxicity, both internally and externally; this toxicity results from your body’s increased production of substances to fight the disease, from residue left over from the disease itself, or from drugs used to treat the illness. I also believe that most of us suffer from a low-grade “sluggishness” of the liver, whose cleansing role has increased over the centuries as risk of exposure to toxins has increased. As a result, our livers may now be overtaxed.
When my patients tell me they feel toxic, I listen, because the body lets us know when it needs help. But toxicity is difficult to diagnose. While a variety of blood tests, hair analyses, and tissue biopsies are available, they can be expensive. Physical exams tend to be nonspecific and frustrating because they can’t definitively pinpoint the problem. I find that taking a clinical history—talking with patients about their physical condition and keeping track of their health over time—is the most useful tool in assessing the cause of their toxic feelings.
My treatment approach includes cleansing diets and herbs that support the body’s “detoxification systems”—the liver, gallbladder, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and bladder, lymphatic system, and skin. These herbal supports are available in natural and health-food stores. For dosage guidelines, it’s best to read about them (see the reading list on page 33) or consult a health-care practitioner who knows about medicinal herbs. Labels on commercial products contain general recommendations as well. The dosage guidelines given in “A cleansing plan” on page 33 will give you an idea of how herbs are used in detoxification.
Some people should not cleanse unless under strict medical supervision, including expectant mothers, diabetics, and those who suffer from hypertension, heart conditions, kidney disease, alcoholism, or drug addiction.
Heavy-metal toxicity plagues one in four Americans.
Fasting diets support detoxification by burning fat for fuel. When this happens, fat-soluble toxins stored in body fat, such as pesticides, are released into the body’s circulatory system, where they go to the body’s cleansing organs to be broken down. They then leave the body via sweat, urination, or bowel movements.
A cleansing diet must include nutritional supports or the body may be unable to handle the increased toxic load, leaving you sick and allowing the toxins to re-enter the tissues. But a cleanse that is appropriately supported will provide you with many benefits. Based on accounts from my patients and my own experience with cleansing diets, fasting can result in spiritual and psychological changes for the better, as well as weight loss. It can help heal chronic diseases, soften the blows of addiction recovery, and change relationships to food, which becomes valued for its nourishing, rejuvenating powers, rather than considered the enemy.
Fasts come in a variety of forms, so it should be easy to select one that fits your aims and your lifestyle. The most cleansing—and the most difficult—is a water fast, and I usually don’t recommend it. I most often suggest a diet of fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices (see “A cleansing plan” on page 33). A modified fast of brown rice, steamed vegetables, and fresh-squeezed juices works well when a more stringent fast is inappropriate. Cleansing diets include only fresh, organically grown whole foods, with an emphasis on high-fiber fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
Fasting should be individualized to your needs and desires. You can fast for a day or, if you’re experienced, for as long as two weeks. More hard-core fasts—those undertaken with a health-care provider’s help—can last longer. For the newcomer to cleansing, a three-day fast may be more appropriate than longer cleansing plans. I advise my patients to be flexible; a fast should be modified or broken sooner than planned if they experience any unpleasant reactions.
Before fasting, eat a simple whole-foods diet for several days. When you’ve completed your cleansing regime, break the fast by gradually increasing your intake. Most people break a fast with a simple raw salad or a piece of fruit. Don’t go for a burger, shake, and fries, no matter how hungry you are! You could “overload” your system at worst and feel defeated in your aim at best.
While fasting, take care not to become dehydrated—fasting can provoke disinterest in eating and drinking. It often works best to schedule drinking times: Every two hours, for example, drink a large glass of purified water. You can tell whether you’re dehydrated by checking your pulse. Take your pulse lying down, then standing up. If your pulse increases by twenty or more beats a minute, you’re dehydrated.
During a fast, you may experience some unpleasant symptoms, including hunger, nausea, headaches, lightheadedness (check for dehydration), unusual body odor (including strange odor in the urine or breath odor), fatigue, and weakness. You may also have wide-ranging emotional responses, including intense negative feelings, such as depression or rage. Or you may be lucky enough to have feelings of peace, exhilaration, and enlightenment. Whatever your emotions, it is best to simply accept and observe.
The liver helps clean the body by using enzymes to break down toxic substances. It does this in two “detox” phases. Phase I uses enzymes that prepare toxins to leave the body. This detox phase needs some specific nutrients to work, including vitamins B2 and B3, magnesium, iron, molybdenum, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids.
In phase II, the liver converts substances from a fat-soluble to a water-soluble form, so that the body can excrete toxins in the urine. This phase also requires some specific nutrients in order to work, including zinc, copper, molybdenum, thiamine, B6, folic acid, several amino acids, and sulfur.
Many herbal medicines can protect, heal, and enhance the liver’s function, and I include one or more of these important medicines in all detoxification regimes. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is one of the best-known and most extensively studied “liver herbs.” Research shows that milk thistle protects the liver from a wide variety of toxins by altering the liver’s membranes so that toxic substances can’t get in and by accelerating protein synthesis to help cells regenerate—useful if the liver has been damaged.
Turmeric (Curcuma domestica, also known as C. longa) also protects the liver from toxic damage, probably through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Clinical research shows that turmeric breaks down carcinogens and, most likely, other toxins. In a study of smokers who were given either turmeric or a placebo, the group receiving turmeric had significantly lower levels of carcinogens in their bodies.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) also protects the liver from a variety of toxins. It contains glycyrrhizin, possibly its primary active constituent, which inhibits cell injury. Its sweet taste makes it a popular addition to herbal teas and formulas.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) protects liver cells from injury, accelerates liver regeneration, and increases activity of the liver’s enzyme system.
The gallbladder helps the body cleanse itself by carrying toxic substances from the liver into the small intestine, where they begin their journey out of the body in stool. A group of herbs called cholegogues helps this process either by increasing the production of bile, a fluid stored in and released from the gallbladder to help break down fats, or by enhancing the gallbladder’s ability to release bile.
All bitter herbs are cholegogues, including artichoke (Cynara scolymus) and yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea). Many herbs that help the liver also support bile production (bile is secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder), including turmeric, balmony (Chelone glabra), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), blackroot (Leptandra virginicum), boldo (Peumus boldus), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and yellow dock (Rumex crispus).
Some popular gallbladder flushes use combinations of citrus juices and varying amounts of olive oil to stimulate this organ into more efficient cleansing or to support it during times of illness. For a complete look at these flushes and specific instructions on how to make them, see Christopher Hobbs’s Foundations of Health (Botanica, 1992).
Herbs help clean toxins from the body.
The intestinal tract and colon, often referred to as the gastrointestinal or GI tract, are major contributors to detoxification. The basic function of the GI tract is to discriminate between nutrients and waste, keeping valuable material and discarding the rest. Microflora, or beneficial bacteria, in the GI tract play roles in detoxification, immune function, cancer prevention, and hormone breakdown.
GI tract disease contributes to toxicity in many ways, so it’s important to recognize and seek treatment when you suspect that something is wrong. Diets high in animal proteins and fats, sugars, and chemical additives appear to cause the most problems in the GI tract because they are difficult to break down and they contain toxins that may be absorbed into the body. On the other hand, organically grown whole foods, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals are easy to break down and they support the body’s cleansing responsibilities.
When intestinal cleansing is in order, I often prescribe bulk laxatives and “toxin binders”, substances that bind toxins to keep them from being released back into the circulation. Herbal bulk laxatives, especially those that contain soluble fiber, nourish intestinal microflora and prevent and treat constipation. They also help increase stool frequency to speed the removal of bowel toxins. (The longer stool sits in the colon, the more likely that toxins will be reabsorbed by the body.) Herbal bulk laxatives include the seeds and husks of psyllium (Plantago spp.) and flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum).
Toxin binders come from fruit pectin and bentonite clay, which appear to draw toxins out of circulation and into the bowel. It is believed that they do this because they contain ionically charged molecules—electrons that can move freely under the right circumstances. Clay becomes ionically charged when mixed with distilled water (about 1 teaspoon of bentonite clay per cup of water) and left in the sunlight for about six hours.
Cleansing diets can be tailored to suit your needs.
A healthy kidney and bladder perform like an efficient distillation system, circulating huge amounts of blood to extract toxins, which are then deposited into urine. Only water-soluble substances are excreted from the body this way.
To support the detoxifying work of the kidney and bladder, it’s important to increase fluid intake (drink at least eight large glasses of liquid a day), support liver detoxification (like the kidney, it’s involved in cleansing and waste removal), and use herbs that encourage urination, known as diuretics. These herbs increase urine output by stimulating the blood circulating through the kidney and other mechanisms; they include dandelion leaf, couch grass (Agropyron repens), corn silk (Zea mays), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), and chickweed (Stellaria media). Dandelion is not only a diuretic, it contains potassium to help you replace potassium lost from increased urination.
The lymphatic system drains fluid and toxins from the body’s connective tissues into the lymph nodes and the reticuloendothelial system, which includes a network of cells in the bone marrow, liver, and spleen. Placing toxins into the lymphatic system allows the immune system to isolate and deal with them. If the lymphatic system is obstructed or left sluggish by toxic overload, the immune system is less efficient at breaking down toxins, so they stay in the body.
For patients with toxic overload, I recommend lymphatic massage and exercise. Massaging or stroking the lymphatic vessels helps move fluid, with its load of toxins, toward the lymph nodes for detoxification; in their neutralized state, they can harmlessly re-enter the general circulation of the body. Proper massage requires knowledge of lymphatic anatomy and I don’t recommend that you try this yourself. But you can take some action on your own. Sedentary lifestyles contribute to lymphatic sluggishness, and exercise helps counter this state of affairs. Jumping on a trampoline appears to be especially helpful in stimulating the entire lymphatic system, as well as the bone marrow—it’s also fun for the inner child! Small, easy-to-carry trampolines can be purchased at discount stores for less than thirty dollars. And avoid tight clothing, which can obstruct the lymphatic system.
The most efficient herbs for lymph cleansing are known as alteratives, which tone and stimulate the entire lymphatic system. They include redroot (Ceanothus spp.), red clover (Trifolium pratense), cleavers (Galium spp.), mullein (Verbascum thaspus), figwort (Scrophularia spp.), prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, E. purpurea), and calendula (Calendula officinalis).
The skin is the largest organ in the body and plays an essential role in detoxification, releasing toxins through perspiration. Our cultural obsession with preventing sweating, a normal physiological function, may contribute significantly to toxicity. But you can support the skin’s cleansing work by using hydrotherapy and heat therapy; by exercising regularly; by brushing your skin with a rough towel, loofa, or special skin brush; and by taking in fresh air and moderate amounts of sunlight.
Herbs that increase the body’s ability to sweat are known as diaphoretics and include boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), yarrow, and elder flowers (Sambucus nigra). They’re most effective when taken as a hot tea (use 1 tablespoon of a single herb or combination of herbs per cup of boiled water and steep 10 minutes before drinking) and are often used in conjunction with hydrotherapy, heat therapy, or exercise.
Hydrotherapy and heat therapy—using special baths and saunas—stimulate the immune system and generally revitalize the whole body. (People who have a risk of hemorrhaging or impaired sensation in their legs or elsewhere should avoid this therapy.) Several studies show that saunas help the body eliminate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic chemicals, and drugs.
Hydrotherapy is simple. Before you bathe, use a skin brush and drink a cup of hot diaphoretic tea to stimulate circulation and encourage sweating. Run a tub full of bath water as hot as you can tolerate and add 2 to 4 pounds of Epsom or sea salts. Soak in the tub for ten to thirty minutes. The salts help fluids and toxins move out of the body and into the water. For more intense detoxifying, don’t rinse or dry off after the bath. Instead, step from the water and immediately wrap yourself in an old sheet, cover yourself with blankets, and lie still until you stop sweating. Then take a warm shower.
My approach to cleansing is based on my training and experience as a medical doctor who has studied and used medicinal herbs with success for many years. But my philosophy is essentially holistic. In caring for my patients, I often see instances of easily avoidable illness. So, if you feel toxic, remember that you can help yourself by avoiding exposure to chemicals, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and working to keep the planet clean. 8
Lois Johnson, M.D., has a busy primary-care holistic practice in Sebastopol, California, where she integrates the best of Western medicine with herbalism, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling. She graduated from the University of Nevada Medical School in 1984 and is board certified in internal medicine.
Hobbs, Christopher. Foundations of Health. Loveland, Colorado: Botanica, 1992.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal. Rockport, Maryland: Element, 1991.
Murray, Michael. The Healing Power of Herbs. Rocklin, California: Prima, 1995.
Tierra, Leslie. The Herbs of Life. Freedom, California: Crossing Press, 1992.