The term ‘detox’ is often surrounded by controversy and confusion. It is important to realise that detoxification is a natural process in the body that occurs all the time. It is our body’s way of ensuring that our inner environment remains consistent. Predominately it is the liver that breaks down anything toxic to the body, and it eliminates these toxins alongside our other waste products through the intestines, kidneys, lungs and skin. So does this mean that there should be no need for detoxing if the body has the ability to do it constantly? Unfortunately we live in a dirty, stressful world with excessive alcohol and drug use, artificial food ingredients, and environmental pollutants – all these affect the body’s natural ability to detoxify and eliminate.
I understand the process of ‘detox’ to mean improving and optimizing the function of the body’s own detoxification systems and ensuring that we are eliminating our waste efficiently. This can be done by decreasing the amount of toxins we put into our bodies, while at the same time supporting the body’s detoxification and elimination systems through a change in diet, lifestyle and use of herbs.
Typically ‘detox’ programmes are done in the spring as the body and mind are coming out of hibernation. Many of the spring herbs are perfect for supporting elimination and can be picked fresh and used in teas and decoctions. Most often though it is after Christmas with the overindulgence of rich foods and alcohol that people feel the need to ‘detox’, so the herbs are available as teas, tinctures and capsules.
My recommendation is not necessarily a ‘detox’, but to have a period of eating simply, increasing vegetable intake, limiting intake of alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks and smoking, drinking approximately 1.5 litres of water daily, daily exercise and getting at least 8 hours of sleep a day. Alongside the lifestyle changes, herbs can make sure the liver is working efficiently and encourage elimination. Symptoms of inefficient elimination could include diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, excessive wind, smelly and dark urine, spots, acne, and general malaise.
One of the most important ways of helping the liver’s natural regeneration is to stop drinking alcohol for a period of time. Herbs like Milk Thistle, Artichoke and Dandelion Root can be used to improve liver function and regeneration, especially after times of excess. Stimulating digestion and therefore elimination through the intestines can be done with bitter herbs like Centaury, Artichoke and Dandelion Root; to be effective they need to be taken before meals, and the bitter taste cannot be disguised. It is, after all, the stimulation of the bitter receptors that triggers the increased release of digestive acid and enzymes which helps with elimination. Eating more fruit and vegetables can add fibre to the diet, but herbs like linseeds and psyllium seeds, drunk with lots of water can add bulk and help with sluggish digestion.
Herbs that help with elimination through the kidneys are usually drunk as teas, and include Dandelion Leaf, Nettle and Golden Rod. Dry skin brushing can support elimination through the skin, as well as traditional ‘blood cleansers’ called ‘alteratives’. Blood cleansing herbs include Red Clover, Nettle, Heartsease and Cleavers. Epsom salt baths can also support elimination from the skin.
You can choose a few of those herbs and use them as a combination. After a few weeks of this simple living, supported by herbs, you should feel start to see an improvement in how you feel.
The question is whether ‘detoxing’ can have an effect on the base amount of those toxins in the body, especially if the toxins are fat soluble, meaning that they are stored in our body fat. Pesticides, like those used in non-organic farming, are examples of such fat soluble toxins. While exposure to some toxins is simply unavoidable because of the nature of the times in which we live, what we can do is support our body in efficiently flushing out what it is naturally in a process of trying to remove itself. In this way, we can optimise our general health and well-being.
Article by Becs Griffiths, herbalist and Wild Oats adviser, January 2014