Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Myth of the Herbal Detox

Its the most common question herbalists get, especially in the days between Christmas and New Year's: "What herbs will help my body detox?"

And my answer is always the same:

Drink water. Eat good, healthy, local, food -- organic or wild if possible, mainly meat, fish, and vegetables. Move in ways that feel good to your body. And most of the time your body will take care of itself -- we are designed to clean out whatever doesn't belong inside us and a little holiday indulgence doesn't make you "toxic."

But, you might ask, what's the harm in giving your body a push? Well it turns out you can do a lot of damage.

Forcing your colon to clear itself with stimulating laxatives -- be they herbal or pharmaceutical -- in the best of circumstances will put a lot of stress on your gut lining, and in many cases can create a dangerous dependency. When laxatives are used regularly, the body's ability to set into motion its own process of elimination atrophies, and a person can begin to need higher and higher doses of laxatives to make any bowel movement at all.

Taking in a lot of fiber in a short period of time can damage the lining of the gut. Oh and those "herbal cleanses" that tell you they are clearing out "mucoid plaque"? They are made of Psyllium husks and clay. The strange substance they cause you to excrete is the combination of the two.

If your digestion is a bit sluggish (marked by slow transit time for food, a thick white coating down the middle of the tongue, bloating and constipation) warming herbs like Ginger, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Fennel and Cardamom can help give it a gentle nudge. Best before meals. Add more bitter foods to your diet as well, and consider taking some old fashioned digestive bitters before you eat.

If you are experiencing abdominal bloating, there is a significant chance that the problem is in the lymph that surrounds the gut. Much of the lymph in your body exists there. When the gut lining becomes damaged by inflammation from food allergens, stress, repeated antibiotic use, laxatives, and so on, it can become permeable and food particles can leak from the gut into the lymph. This triggers an immune response. And in many cases this can lead to autoimmune disorders when your body develops a heightened immune response to proteins that resemble those of our own tissues -- ie. Gluten which is structured like our connective tissues and Soy which is structured like our thyroid tissues.

This kind of condition usually requires the help of an herbalist. A combination of demulcent herbs like Marshmallow and Slippery Elm with wound healing herbs like Calendula and Plantain can help heal the gut lining. Gentle lymphatics like Cleavers and Red Clover can get the lymph moving again. Immune modulating mushrooms and herbs can bring the immune system back into balance. Probiotics can restore the gut flora. And dietary and lifestyle changes are necessary to prevent future damage.

If you are experiencing chronic constipation, the problem may be with your liver failing to produce enough bile to stimulate digestion.

The answer here is to support the liver, and possibly gently stimulate it, not to do a "liver flush."

The popular liver and gallbladder flushes involving Lemon juice and Olive oil that cause people to excrete round green objects they think are gallstones are actually just creating balls of soap made in the intestine from the oil and juice with bile. They are causing more stress to the system.

Milk Thistle seeds help to protect and support the liver. They don't in and of themselves "cleanse" the liver but they can increase liver clearance of toxins by improving liver function.

Bitter herbs like Dandelion, Burdock, Turmeric, and Oregon Grape Root do increase liver clearance by stimulating bile production. But they need to be used with some degree of caution. If the liver tissues are already compromised, further stimulation can cause further damage. And if you are going to stimulate the liver the herbs need to be gauged to the person's constitution and condition. If you can't gauge whether your liver function is being compromised by heat and inflammation or cold and stagnation, seek out an herbalist who can.

Some herbs like St. John's Wort directly increase the liver's clearance of toxins. But its important to understand what you are trying to eliminate and make sure it has a clear channel to leave your body. And its also important to pay attention to interactions with pharmaceuticals -- the body treats synthetic chemicals as toxins, and if you are dependent on a particular synthetic compound to maintain your health, increasing your liver's clearance of it can do serious harm.

And its important always to look at what is stressing your liver -- food allergens, excess alcohol, excess fructose, environmental toxins, and viral infection are all possibilities, and any of these need to be addressed thoroughly and carefully.

So my answer in the end is be good to your body. Nourish it and exercise it well. If that's not sufficient, investigate the specific problem. There is no one size fits all "herbal detox." Any product or protocol that makes such a claim is likely to do more harm than good.

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