Spring cleansing. Grandma talked about it. Infomercials praise it. “Ridding the body of toxins” sounds like a great idea. But what does that term really mean, and why is it so important to put our bodies through an occasional detox program?
Out with the Wastes
Practitioners of practically every holistic healing system place great emphasis on making sure the body eliminates all its metabolic wastes and preventing new, harmful substances from entering the body. These byproducts of our metabolic processes are highly acidic and can wreak multiple layers of havoc when they overload our systems.
At its most basic level, health maintenance is relatively simple: give the body what it needs, don’t let it have too much of what it doesn’t need, and it will run itself. When this simple equation gets out of whack, imbalances occur and the toxins we’re exposed to may not be eliminated quickly or efficiently enough. Just like the gerbil cage or the kitty litter box, our bodies need to be rid of debris every now and then so they’re not saturated with their own wastes. Cleaning out these unhealthy materials — gently, safely and naturally — can result in renewed strength and vitality. When the body is polluted with harmful materials, normal physiological mechanisms become impaired or dangerously disrupted, eventually resulting in chronic illness. The capacity of the body to absorb and distribute nutrients becomes limited and the body’s ability to heal itself is severely degraded.
Of course, prevention and clean living are the first choices, but what if the damage is done and your body is littered with noxious molecules? There’s a practical, uncomplicated answer — just detoxify.
Detoxification is not a specific process of physiology, which can make it somewhat difficult to define. However, the indications of a need to detoxify are well known, the practical techniques are well understood, and we know when the process has been accomplished because the symptoms go away, people feel better, and clinical and laboratory signs of disease improve.
First, let’s clarify a couple of terms.
Toxin: A poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism. A toxin usually is chemically unstable, notably noxious when introduced into the tissues and typically capable of inducing antibody formation (for example, in the case of bee venom). Toxins are just about anything that shouldn’t have been there in the first place or else they’re an accumulation of normal body byproducts that haven’t been eliminated.
Toxicity: From the natural healing point of view, this means the body is overloaded with harmful substances that will impair its natural ability to heal itself.
Toxins — Within and Without
We can divide toxins into two broad categories. Endogenous toxins are normal waste products our bodies create in the process of normal functions. If the body does not eliminate them adequately, they will remain in the body. Uric acid, a byproduct of muscular effort, is an example. One way or another, these substances must be neutralized or eliminated for a person to remain healthy. If not, the result is irritation and inflammation of our tissues. A properly functioning body is able to handle some waste backup, but many of us have overwhelmed this capacity with our poor habits and overexposure to a variety of nasty substances.
Exogenous toxins are those that are not normally found in the human body, for example, environmental pollutants such as lead from gasoline or mercury from fish. Body fat tends to be a storage depot of fat-soluble poisons, such as pesticides like DDT: the more fat, the more storage.
When this occurs, fluids can accumulate where they don’t belong. Edema, under-eye “luggage” and fluid-filled cysts often contain high concentrations of waste molecules. Blood can collect in stagnant areas, where it impedes the smooth movement of normal body fluids. Bruises, blood clots and blood accumulated in the endometrium are examples of congested blood. Minerals, even normal ones, can build up to a harmful level; for example, a bone spur.
Xenoestrogens are chemicals that mimic the body’s estrogen. They are often found in plastics or insecticides; they act like hormones and affect fundamental body systems, such as disrupting fertility and sexual development.
In the 21st century we may have more cause for concern than at any time in the past. As recently as a few years ago, most of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to did not even exist. Now they saturate our air, soil and water. Our exposure to this chemical stew, along with the use of pharmaceutical drugs, a diet of refined foods, lack of exercise and failure to drink enough water, has made our many of our bodies into toxic storehouses. Not a pretty thought, but one we’d do well to heed.
Do You Need to Detox?
Frequently the first phase of natural therapeutic work, detoxification often is seen as central in the treatment of chronic, degenerative diseases. A detoxification program can involve the use of homeopathic medicines, targeted dietary changes, nutritional supplements and lymph-stimulation therapies that focus on the elimination of toxins and waste products from the body at the cellular level.
It’s a safe bet that if you live in an industrialized society, you need to cleanse. Because toxicity is at the root of nearly all chronic conditions, the symptoms are so common as to seem vague.
Consider the possibility of toxicity if you experience fatigue; swelling (under-eye bags, swollen prostate gland, etc.); masses (cysts, fibrosis, stones, clots); edema; skin disorders, especially inflammation such as eczema or acne; headache; joint pain (and much other chronic pain); foul odor (stool, breath, perspiration); constipation; tissue discolorations (yellow skin, purple lips, brown mucus, etc.); tongue coating; sclera color (yellow or brown in the “white” of the eye); excess mucus (lung/sinus congestion or in the stool); concentrated urine; or conditions caused by natural chemical accumulations (gout, etc.).
Our Bodies’ Waste Treatment Plant
After food is broken down in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed into the bloodstream, nutrients travel to the liver. First and foremost, the liver’s job is to modify toxic substances, either by making them water soluble so they can pass easily through the kidneys, or by dissolving them in bile to be eliminated in the feces. If the liver is impaired, these substances can accumulate in the central nervous system or in fatty tissues. According to natural healing practitioners, these toxins may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, food and chemical allergies, headaches, hepatitis and premenstrual syndrome. A main focus of naturopathic detoxification routines is improving liver function with targeted food and herbal medicines. These techniques are aimed at increasing blood flow through the liver, increasing the speed of chemical reactions there and increasing the production of critical liver enzymes (see “Herbs to Cleanse the Liver” on Page 26).
Next in importance is the large intestine. There is a saying in naturopathy that “all disease begins and ends in the colon.” While this isn’t the literal truth, it is fairly accurate. The large intestine is the sewer for the body. Yet when it is burdened by excess waste content, toxins can be reabsorbed, only to be recycled yet again. Detoxification regimes often concentrate largely on enhancing colon function.
The kidney is the outlet for water-soluble wastes and for acid produced by normal body processes. While the kidneys usually work pretty well for a lifetime, it’s important to keep them in good repair. Commercially available detoxification programs typically use diuretic herbs to hasten removal of water-soluble wastes through the kidneys. Drinking plenty of water is an inexpensive and highly effective method for keeping the kidneys clean.
A number of methods make it possible to get all the body’s eliminative channels cleaned out. Aerobic exercise increases circulation, increases metabolic rate and stimulates the expulsion of toxins. We also can eject these materials by using the body’s other expulsion mechanisms — purging, using diuretics, sweating, expectorating — all of which propel wastes out quickly. These methods tend to be less popular with Americans, as you can imagine, though they’re popular in both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Sulfur, zinc, copper, niacin and antioxidants, including vitamins E and C, have detoxification action.
Dietary adjustments also can be very effective. Because food is less concentrated than supplements, it takes a more diligent approach to use food for cleansing. Although dietary changes work well and are popular in many older systems, particularly Ayurveda, contemporary Americans often find the changes tiresome and end up falling off the detox wagon before finishing the job. Detoxification diets feature food that is highly digestible and low in calories.
The body goes through regular cycles of food processing (usually during the day) and detoxification (usually during the night). When the body does not get food for a while, it goes into detoxifying mode, which is the theory behind fasting. Increasing water intake promotes fluid exchange and urination, so many experts recommend substantial water consumption while detoxifying. Heat will increase circulation and urination, so crank up the sauna, providing your heart is in good condition and your health-care professional doesn’t discourage it.
A Gradual Approach to Fasting
Widely promoted for detoxification, fasting offers a variety of options, from water-only regimes to limited-intake strategies, such as juice diets. Although fasting is generally effective, to work properly the eliminative mechanisms have to be working properly to begin with.
For most Americans, this is not the case. If they attempt even a single-day water fast, the discomfort by evening time will make them question the wisdom of such an undertaking. And their blood sugar mood swings may make everyone else around them ask the same question.
Most people do better to work into fasting gradually by starting with slightly more digestible food — say, steamed vegetables — for one day only. Next week, try it again. Over time, one can slowly increase the interval of the fast and increase the restriction, progressing from vegetables and fruits to juice, tea and water.
Many people with chronic diseases are saturated with waste materials, which makes them cold, sluggish and constipated. Traditional healing systems do not advocate fasting for these people, at least not until they have developed some stamina and have succeeded in clearing out the eliminative organs. Although detoxification is a laudable long-term goal, it is better for these people to begin by doing significant rebuilding. After a year or so of improvement, they can begin to experiment cautiously with a lighter diet, working into juice fasts and more aggressive cleansing diets.
Many authorities advise individuals with chronic diseases to drink six to eight glasses of water per day, followed by a five-minute walk, for mild detoxification.
Cleansing is not a magic bullet, however, just as no one herb or vitamin can clear up all problems. You can rid your body of toxins that are causing irritation, inflammation, overload or exhaustion, but if you do not make changes that eliminate the source of the toxin from your life, you will wind up having to cleanse yourself again and again — which is neither natural nor desirable.
Some people become fanatical about cleansing and keep the body in a constant eliminative mode instead of restoring and rebuilding. Ongoing cleansing forever is not necessary. Once you’re clean, you’re clean; you don’t need to keep scouring yourself raw. “Extra” cleansing can be harmful and “more is better” does not apply.
Herbal detoxifiers are called “alteratives,” e.g., remedies that normalize metabolism to assist the body in elimination through the kidneys, liver or lungs. Many traditional, ancient “blood purifiers,” are now being found to be potent antioxidants.
Bowel cleansing also is an important part of detoxification. Thirty million Americans suffer from constipation. Americans spend more than half a billion dollars each year on over-the-counter laxatives. Lack of fiber is a key cause, and it’s not surprising that constipation is an epidemic because the standard American diet is low in fiber.
In a gentle cleansing program, it’s critical to have at least one bowel movement, or up to several, per day, so use a light laxative herb if necessary.
There are several ways to gently handle constipation. One is through bowel-stimulating herbs. These include:
Slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra) or marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). These are similar in action and can be used together or by themselves. Both are mucilaginous agents (demulcents). They create a slick, gelatinous substance that is nourishing and healing to mucous membranes, including those of the digestive tract. Two to 4 heaping tablespoons of powder a day, mixed with water (or yogurt, oatmeal, applesauce or maple syrup) to make a paste will increase stool motility.
Senna leaf (Senna alexandrina). This herb from India is widely used as a laxative; in Switzerland, it is sold commercially as Swiss Kriss, mixed with other herbs. It makes a decent-tasting tea but can be used in capsules, 1 or 2 a day.
Cascara bark (Cascara sagrada). Found in the Pacific Northwest, this bark must be cured for one to two years to reduce the potency. It tastes bitter and is generally only practical in capsules, 1 or 2 a day. It’s about equal in strength to senna.
Senna and cascara contain anthaquinones, which cause contractions of the bowels. In higher doses or stronger preparations, they can cause severe cramping. For this reason, they are often mixed with carminative herbs (those that prevent gas or soothe the digestive tract). Don’t take senna or cascara on a regular basis; occasional use, such as during a cleansing program, usually doesn’t present a problem, but check with your health-care provider, just to be on the safe side.
Herbs to Cleanse the Liver
Burdock root (Arctium lappa). When it comes to detoxifying the liver, few herbs are more widely used than burdock root. Scientists in Taiwan confirmed the powerful liver-protective effect of burdock in a series of animal studies published in the Journal of Biomedical Science in 2002. British herbalists, in particular, value burdock in treating just about any condition resulting from liver toxicity, including eczema, psoriasis and boils.
The root is served as a food in Japan, where it is known as gobo. Resembling a long, brown carrot, it can be prepared in any way you might enjoy a carrot, such as fresh juice or in a stir-fry. If you prefer, use burdock root in capsules.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Although most of us fight this bright yellow flower as an unwanted pest, herbalists the world over have held dandelion in high regard for centuries. In fact, dandelion is a major herb in at least three ancient herbal traditions — Western herbalism, Oriental Medicine and Ayurveda.
Dandelion root has an extremely high nutrient content. For example, dandelion root contains 14,000 I.U. of vitamin A (a necessary liver nutrient) per 100 grams compared to carrot, which contains 11,000 I.U. Human and animal studies show that dandelion increases bile flow, improving liver congestion, bile duct inflammation and gallstones. Dandelion root can be taken as tea, tincture or capsules; 3,000 mg daily is a good dose. Roasted dandelion root can be brewed as a delicious coffee substitute.
Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus). Used mainly as a vegetable, artichoke is a thistlelike plant in the daisy family. This plant is an excellent detoxifier of the liver and gallbladder. Artichoke promotes liver regeneration and brings blood to the liver. It also reduces blood fats, like cholesterol, by a mechanism similar to niacin, and effectively treats gallstones.
Artichoke leaf is normally consumed as a vegetable, but the raw globe also can be juiced. Artichoke extract, made from the whole plant, is available as a dietary supplement.
Triphala is the most widely used herbal blend in Ayurveda. The formula contains the fruits of amla (Phyllanthus emblica), bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica) and haritaki (Terminalia chebula). The uses for triphala fill volumes in the Ayurvedic literature. Besides being a general tonic, it is a light laxative, skin, eye and liver nourisher, and a general detoxifier.
To keep the bowels open during a gentle cleanse, start triphala at 3 grams a day, and increase by 1 gram daily until the bowels are comfortably regular. As a general lifelong tonic, take 1,000 mg triphala daily.
Radish (Raphanus sativus). This member of the cabbage family is known the world over for liver and gallbladder treatment. The black radish is regarded as a stronger remedy, but the common red radish also works. Other radishes, including daikon, are used in their respective cultures. Enjoy radishes raw, cooked or juiced.
Fasting with Water and Juice
Most of the world’s ancient, holistic healing systems don’t recommend fasting on water alone, except occasionally for very short periods. These approaches are much more inclined to recommend monodiets of short duration. In a monodiet, the diet is limited to specifically therapeutic foods for a short period of time to reduce the stress on the digestive system while keeping fuel coming in for the person’s health and comfort. Monodiets should be individualized to the person and/or condition and are best undertaken with the advice and supervision of a trusted, experienced natural health practitioner.
Most Americans don’t do well with fruit juice fasts. Many of us have eaten a lot of sugar in the past, and our blood sugar control might be a bit unstable. We tend to get fatigued and grouchy on fruit diets. For most people, sticking with vegetable juice diets for detoxification is advisable.
Root vegetables are unparalleled for liver support and detox. Beets, carrots and radishes are the best for this job — raw, cooked or juiced. Their properties in this regard have not been studied, but they have a long history of traditional use in other cultures for this purpose.
Beet juice is the king of liver detoxifiers — so powerful, in fact, that it must be used carefully. It detoxifies the liver very quickly, so it must be mixed with other juices to prevent all the toxins from getting blasted out into the bloodstream at once.
Green vegetables are widely regarded in natural medicine as the most cooling, anti-inflammatory treatments. They also happen to be detoxifying so they work for healing and to treat symptoms. Wheatgrass is especially good, but broccoli, cucumber and dark leafy greens will do the trick. Juice is the best way to get enough green vegetables in you — after all, how many cucumbers or celery stalks can you eat? If you can drink a quart of vegetable juice a day for a few days, you will rapidly detoxify.
Melon is considered the most powerful of detoxifying juice for the kidneys. But because it has essentially no calories, a melon juice cleanse can leave you a little hungry. Use watermelon, cantaloupe and similar melons for a kidney cleansing plan. Start with one day, recover and evaluate. If all is OK, go for a couple of days the next round. Work up in successive programs.
Cherry juice is a potent antioxidant. It’s quite detoxifying, but tends to be stool loosening, so use it sparingly unless that’s the effect you’re looking for.
Papaya and pineapple juices contain protein digesting enzymes, unusual constituents to be found in fruits. Add them to your program for a deep cleanse of accumulated protein toxins. Because protein wastes often are considered difficult to dislodge, these juices have a place in an advanced fast. They are especially good for reducing chronic inflammation. Remember, they are high in sugar, so be sparing until you know how you react to them.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health, is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. Khalsa’s book Body Balance is available on our Bookshelf, Page 58.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Cleansing” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@HerbsForHealth.com.