Plant Pharm: Balanced Detoxification with Neem

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Photo by Adobe Stock/vishnu

The idea of detoxification has taken on a harsh light in our culture. It often comes with slick ads selling some sort of potion that promises to renew us after a harsh purge and a few days of fasting. I’ve struggled against this point of view for several years, and I suggest detoxification methods that are more balanced, even though it can be difficult to find a middle ground.

Of course, the need for detoxification is underscored by the fact that our bodies have a sophisticated system in place to do the job. One of the most important pathways through which we move the toxic byproducts of our world out of our bodies is through the liver.

I like to think of the liver as a wetland. As rivers of blood pass through it, the liver filters out the silt so that our waters will run clean as they pass through our other organs. However, the wetland can become so clogged with dirt and muck that it eventually ceases to perform this essential function. When we’ve overtaxed our own systems of detoxification, it becomes important to have the tools to help out.

A Dedicated Detoxifier

Neem (Azadirachta indica) was declared the “Tree of the 21st Century” by the United Nations, and the designation is well-deserved. I encountered the neem tree while working through my conflicting feelings about the Western fascination with harsh detox. Neem is native to India and well-known in the Ayurvedic system of healing. In India, these trees are depended upon for so much of people’s daily health that they’ve become an expected part of the landscape, and they contain so many beneficial qualities that they’re referred to as “the village pharmacy.” I’d heard of neem primarily as a natural insecticide, but I wasn’t aware of its use internally, as the oil in its commercial form — primarily used as a pest repellent — shouldn’t be ingested.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Engdao

Neem does well in dry soils and is a popular street tree in urban settings because of its hardiness, so it’s been naturalized in many countries around the world. The tree is known to neutralize the acidity of soil and encourage reforestation wherever it’s planted. With so many benefits to the ecosystems where it makes its home, it’s not surprising to find that this tree has much to offer human health, with a strong affinity for our livers, digestion, and skin.

Neem is a balanced detoxifier whose use has been recorded in Indian medicinal wisdom as early as the 4th century B.C. The Ayurvedic system of healing leads us to understand that detoxification isn’t about harsh solutions or wild variations from our normal day-to-day routines. Instead, Ayurvedic practices focus on balance within the body’s systems. This multifaceted approach suggests that the liver isn’t working alone when it comes to removing toxins. In an interconnected body system, other organs will be affected by loosing chemicals, hormones, metals, and other problem substances from any major body filter. Taking care to approach detox holistically — rather than just one organ at a time — ensures we don’t create a new problem elsewhere. 

This is where neem shines. With its free-radical-scavenging activity, antibacterial properties, and antiviral actions, it aids the entire body in the elimination of toxins and harmful bacteria, while also strengthening the immune system. Similar to its actions neutralizing soil acidity, neem has been shown to reduce stomach acid levels and assist in the treatment of ulcers and gastrointestinal discomfort. Plus, studies reveal that A. indica extracts help reduce intestinal glucosidase activity and help regenerate insulin-producing cells, promising news diabetes treatment. Also anti-inflammatory, neem is often used alongside other herbs in cooling formulas. (Learn the difference between “warming” and “cooling” Ayurvedic herbs below.)

Photo by Adobe Stock/Unclesam

In neem’s long history, there are few contraindications to mention beyond the need to avoid excessive use. Seek consultation for use during pregnancy and nursing, however, or if taking allopathic blood sugar control medications. Always consult a medical professional before using neem as a treatment for children.

While you can easily order neem leaves or powder from an online supplier, it’s said that living near the tree itself purifies the air around it. In the U.S., only a few states, including Florida, California, and Arizona, have climates that will support neem, and few places are currently growing any measurable number of the trees. While the rest of the country can’t support the tree in an outdoor planting, that doesn’t mean you can’t plant your own in a pot and keep it for family use. If you decide to give growing one a try, keep in mind that this tree likes hot, dry climates and hates wet soil.

We could all benefit from a tree like neem in our Western communities to help us remember that the craze of detoxification has a foundation in good folkloric medicine, and must be viewed in a balanced manner. Including neem in your home apothecary connects you to a global village that’s harvesting from this highly sustainable tree on a daily basis. It’s a plant providing us solid ground in an increasingly toxic world.

Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author, co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows, and formulator of Soda Pharm syrups. Visit Mockingbird Meadows to learn more.

Energetics and Herbal Medicine

Why do we talk about herbs being “warming” or “cooling”?  

Nearly all systems of traditional herbalism use a system of energetics for describing both health conditions and herbal medicines. It isn’t hard to imagine some herbs as warm (think ginger, cayenne, and cinnamon) or cool (mint, lemon balm, and nettles). The same concepts apply to health conditions. Think of a respiratory issue and how it can feel hot and dry, such as a spastic cough, which is worse in dry air and produces thin, clear mucus, if any. Or, how it might feel cool and wet, such as a rattling, damp, less productive cough with lots of phlegm.

While more complicated health issues can have a lot more nuance, a trained practitioner would still consider the energetics of the individual and their imbalance carefully before matching them with the most appropriate herbs. It’s one of the ways herbal medicine considers the whole person, as well as the imbalance.

— Bevin Clare

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