HERBS FOR DETOXIFICATION: A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO A WHOLE-BODY CLEANSE
Why take a holistic approach?
The human body has a complex and elaborate system for cleansing and detoxification. The skin, lungs, kidneys, lymphatic system, the gut, including the bowels, and liver all play a part in neutralizing toxins and eliminating waste. However, during a cleanse many people make the mistake of focusing only on the bowels. Indeed, the bowels need to work well for the body to eliminate waste, but a holistic approach will promote all the body’s pathways of detoxification. Along with other holistic practices, herbs for detoxification help to ensure that all the body’s natural systems are optimized to support a thorough, balanced cleanse.
But First, Do I Even Need to Do a Cleanse?
Even people who do their best to eat clean, use clean body care products and maintain a toxin-free home are exposed to harmful chemicals that persist in our soil, water and air. Almost everyone carries some level of toxic body burden. The Center for Disease Control has systematically tested people living in the United States to see which environmental chemicals are present in their blood and urine. The CDC first published results in 2009, with an update in 2017; the study showed widespread exposure to environmental chemicals. Most people tested had been exposed to chemicals commonly found in consumer products including personal care products, plastics, flame retardants and non-stick cookware. A chemical known as perchlorate, used to manufacture things like explosives and rocket fuel and to release static in food packaging was found in every person tested! The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that perchlorate is common now in public drinking systems with a frequency and at levels that present a public health concern. A study by the Environmental Working Group found the same chemicals (an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants) in the cord blood of newborn babies in the United States.
Many of the toxins we are exposed to are transformed or neutralized by the body or safely eliminated. However, when the body is overwhelmed with environmental chemicals or its detoxification systems are under performing, toxins accumulate in fat and other body tissue. Physical signs and symptoms of this bioaccumulation may include body odor, constipation, fatigue, weight gain and chronic inflammation. More harmful effects include suppressed immune function, endocrine and reproductive system dysfunction, including decreased male fertility, increased risk for cardiovascular and liver disease, and diabetes. Parabens found in most personal care products (deodorants, moisturizers, shampoos, etc.) mimic estrogen, interfere with other hormones, accumulate in breast tissue and can stimulate proliferation of human breast cancer cells.
So, do I need to do a cleanse? In short, yes, probably. If you are on medication or being treated for a specific condition, be sure to discuss detoxification with your healthcare practitioner first. Also, if you have reason to believe that you may be carrying a high level of accumulated toxins, obtaining the support and guidance of a skilled practitioner is best and safest for you.
When is the Best Time to Cleanse?
While you may choose to cleanse or detox any time of year, the science of Ayurveda (which translates as “the knowledge of life”), emphasizes a life in harmony with nature which includes cleansing in the spring and fall. In nature, spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. If we live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, spring is an auspicious time to awaken new energy and vitality with a whole-body cleanse. A spring cleanse will help your body release the heaviness of winter and attune to the fertile energies of spring. A fall cleanse helps reduce heat and the effects of over-stimulation that tend to accumulate in the body during the summer months. It also helps us slow down and restore balance as we head into cold, blustery weather.
The herbs for detoxification discussed below will help to ensure that all the body’s natural systems for cleansing are working well.
Herbs for Detoxification
Milk Thistle Seed | Silybum marianum
I believe Milk Thistle seed is in THE most important herb to support a cleanse. Though considered a weed in many parts of the world, Milk Thistle’s little brown seeds pack big benefits and have been used medicinally for liver conditions for over 2,000 years. With an estimated 50 clinical trials, modern research has confirmed Milk Thistle’s role in promoting liver function and restoration, assimilation, and detoxification.
When it comes to a cleanse, Milk Thistle could not be more perfect for its support of the liver’s role in whole-body detoxification. Specifically, Milk Thistle increases and helps maintain liver activity critical to the neutralization of metabolic waste coming from the digestive system, including unwanted chemical compounds from drugs, pesticides and herbicides, toxins produced in the gut (enterotoxins), and exogenous microbial compounds. A natural side effect of your liver’s neutralization of these toxins is the production of free-radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can cause cell damage. Here too, Milk Thistle plays a role by stimulating the liver’s production of glutathione, a potent anti-oxidant that neutralizes these free-radicals. Glutathione is also necessary to convert fat-soluble toxins to water soluble compounds which are more easily excreted from the body. In addition to increasing glutathione levels, Milk Thistle itself contains powerful anti-oxidant compounds (ten times more effective than Vitamin E) that help protect the body from free-radical damage.
As for its role in liver conditions, Milk Thistle is used for hepatitis, particularly as a liver protectant and for liver damage (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) including abnormal liver function and fatty liver. People who have been exposed to chemical pollutants and pharmaceutical drugs have been shown to benefit from the use of Milk Thistle as do people with skin conditions related to liver dysfunction. Milk Thistle is also helpful for occasional indigestion (dyspepsia) with gas, bloating or heartburn and for gall bladder complaints including the prevention of gall stones.
To incorporate Milk Thistle seeds into a cleanse, I recommend using the powdered seeds (12 - 15 g per day) mixed with soft foods or a good quality capsule. It is important to note that most of the therapeutic compounds in Milk Thistle seeds are not readily soluble water in water; as such, I do not recommend making a tea with Milk Thistle seeds.
Burdock Root | Arctium lappa
This dark fleshy root can sometimes be found in the produce section of your local market and is often used in Japanese cooking, where it is known as Gobo. Burdock root offers a wide range of properties that promote multiple pathways of elimination making it especially useful for herbal detoxification. Many people undertake a cleanse to improve digestive function and promote gut health, areas in which Burdock root excels. Burdock root promotes digestive function, improving the breakdown of food, assimilation of nutrients and elimination through the bowels. It can even have a mild laxative effect due to its ability to stimulate digestive function. During a cleanse, at least one effortless bowel movement per day is required to reduce the potential for toxins to be reabsorbed back into circulation. Burdock root is also rich in a compound called inulin, which is considered a “prebiotic,” that feeds and helps healthy gut flora thrive. Burdock acts on the liver to produce more bile and promotes the flow of bile from the gall bladder, which helps your body digest fats. Burdock also promotes kidney function, an important route for the elimination of water-soluble toxins as well as lymphatic function, which is necessary for the removal of cellular waste. Like Milk Thistle, Burdock root is also an anti-oxidant and helps prevent abnormal cell mutations that can lead to cancer. Even if you’re not doing a cleanse, this nourishing, well rounded bitter root is an excellent choice for chronic gas and bloating caused by weakened digestive fire. Energetically, Burdock Root is cooling, slightly sweet, and of course, bitter. Hot tempered, irritable people tend to benefit from this cooling root.
If you’re using Burdock root to support a cleanse, I recommend preparing it as a decoction (a simmered tea). Use one tablespoon per cup and drink 2-3 cups per day throughout your cleanse.
Nettle Leaf | Urtica spp.
Nettle leaf, also known as Stinging Nettles is a nourishing spring tonic that supports detoxification and benefits the entire body. It helps improve elimination of metabolic waste and is rich in vitamins (A, C, E, K) and minerals (calcium, magnesium, silica, and iron). Nettle leaf promotes detoxification by improving kidney function and urine output and is considered a urinary tract tonic. It is also alkalizing, meaning it helps promote balanced pH in the body. Balanced pH is important because the opposite, heightened acidity, places excess stress on the body, may negatively impact bone health and is associated with an increased cancer risk.
Nettle leaf is especially helpful for toxicity that manifests as rheumatic conditions like arthritis and gout, helping to eliminate uric acid build-up in the joints. It is also used for skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis that can be aggravated by poor liver function and heightened levels of toxicity within.
Nettle leaf is best prepared as a cold infusion to extract more vitamins and minerals. To prepare a cold infusion, cover the loose herb with cold water and allow to soak overnight at room temperature. In the morning strain and enjoy. Use one heaping tablespoon per cup and drink up to four cups per day during your cleanse.
Ashwagandha Root | Withania somnifera
Some might be surprised to find a plant like Ashwagandha that supports the nervous system on a list of herbs for detoxification. While it’s true that Ashwagandha Root is not specific to the body’s various pathways of elimination, when you undertake a whole-body cleanse, I believe it is also an opportunity to reset the nervous system, reduce the effects of stress on the body, and release negative emotional patterns. This is where Ashwagandha root fits in. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which is a shorthand way of describing an herb that helps the body adapt to and respond to stress more favorably. Unlike most other adaptogens that are stimulating, Ashwagandha calms the mind and relieves anxiety. It helps to nourish and rebuild a nervous system depleted by long-term stress or illness and reduces cortisol levels elevated by chronic stress. It promotes thyroid function and is beneficial for people with hypothyroidism or a low functioning thyroid. When it comes to insomnia or restlessness, ashwagandha promotes more restful sleep. Ashwagandha is also used to reduce cravings, especially sugar cravings, which can be aggravated in the early stages of a cleanse.
Ashwagandha can be prepared as a decoction, (1 -2 teaspoons per cup, up to 4 cups per day) or used as a powder (1/2 – 1 tsp, up to 4 times per day).
Beyond the Herbs: Cleansing Holistically
In addition to these herbs for detoxification, adequate hydration, sweating, exercise, deep breathing practices, meditation, journaling and rest are other important components of a holistic approach to a whole-body cleanse. Water—about eight, 8 ounce glasses per day helps both the liver and kidneys flush toxins from the body. Sweating, whether from exercise or a sauna, helps release toxins through the skin. The skin is the body’s largest organ of elimination and aids detoxification through the release of sweat and oil, including the release of fat-soluble toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. Exercise is a good choice to make you sweat, but the movement will also stimulate lymphatic uptake of waste.
Deep breathing (known as diaphragmatic breathing) promotes balanced pH and the elimination of waste through the lungs. So, during your cleanse, breathe and breathe deeply! Plan to take brisk walks or other exercise that promotes deep breathing or learn a deep breathing practice you can do at home. Meditation can be helpful during a cleanse to calm the nervous system and reduce the agitation and cravings some people experience in the first few days of a cleanse. Regular meditation is a good way to release toxic emotions and transform negative thought patterns. When you undertake a cleanse it is also helpful to slow down, do less and notice how your body feels. Journaling is a good tool to help you reflect on the changes you may be experiencing as well as cravings or other thoughts patterns you want to release. Your body needs plenty of good quality rest to repair and restore and especially during a detox. So, along with slowing down and doing less, plan on going to bed earlier during the duration of your cleanse.
What About Food?
Yes, what you eat (and don’t eat) during a cleanse will have a profound impact. There are many theories, books and programs about what to eat and not eat to help your body detoxify. Some approaches are primarily plant based and some allow organic chicken or turkey, some allow grains, while others are grain free. Choose a plan that seems right for you.
I have had the most success following an elimination diet for 2 - 3 weeks, but there are other approaches. By success, I mean my energy levels increased, my digestion felt balanced and there was greater equanimity in my thoughts and emotions. An elimination diet involves avoiding common food allergens or other foods suspected of causing digestive problems during the course of the cleanse. In general what’s left are simple, whole, unprocessed foods. You can find good “elimination diet” guides online. There is a simple printable guide here. You can also find more resources and downloads at the Whole30 website. In addition to these online resources, at Nectar we offer a handful of books that I trust to support you in a whole-body cleanse, including two of my favorites, Clean and Clean Gut, by Alejandro Junger, M.D. Another approach I like is the one discussed in The Prime, by integrative neurologist, Kulreet Chaudhary, M.D.
In evaluating and choosing a program, avoid any approach that sounds dramatic, extreme or promises results that seem unrealistic. Choose one that will allow you to feel balanced and in control. A good cleanse program will be reasonable and safe and will help you develop a healthier lifestyle.
While a cleanse may seem daunting, the rewards are worth the effort. Increased energy and vitality, healthier-more conscious eating habits, fewer cravings, improved digestion, fewer allergies and sensitivities and less swelling and inflammation are just some of the signs of a successful whole-body cleanse.
I’d love to hear about your approach to cleansing—what’s been most challenging, what herbs for detoxification have worked for you, and how has cleansing improved your health? If you’re considering your first-ever detox, please let us know if you have questions. Come chat with us in the shop or leave us a message in the comments section below.
To your health,
Chaudhary, Kulreet , The Prime, Harmony Books, 2012, New York , New York.
Junger, Alejandro, Clean, Harper Collins, 2012, New York, New York.
Junger, Alejandro, Clean Gut, Harper Collins, 2013, New York, New York.
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National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/index.html, accessed February 6, 2018.
Perchlorate in Drinking Water, US Environmental; Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/dwstandardsregulations/perchlorate-drinking-water, accessed February 6, 2018.
Tilgner, Sharol, Herbal Medcine From the Heart of the Earth, 2d Ed., 2009, Wise Acres, LLC, Pleasant Hill, Oregon.
Vargas-Mendoza N, Madrigal-Santillan E, et al., Hepatoprotective effect of silymarin, World J Hepatol, Published online 2014 Mar 27, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3959115/.
Winston, David, Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, 2007, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.