Spring Detox with Wild Herbs and WeedsSusan Elliotson, RH April 1, 2015
Weeds, despised by gardeners and ignored by commercial interests, grow unnoticed beneath our feet, in the flower bed, and through cracks in the concrete. We just can’t get rid of them. This is good because they provide us with very effective medicine, and the place to start good health is with herbal teas.
Spring is the traditional time to clear the body of accumulated stagnation from winter foods, low activity, and residual congestion from colds, although some form of cleansing can be done any time of the year.
A good detox should be balanced to support all the organs of elimination – liver, kidneys, bladder, skin, lymphatic system, and lungs. If all these organs are working in harmony, the waste metabolites that they clear will leave the body as intended – and will not come out through the skin as hives, pimples or boils, or produce headaches, nausea, and even diarrhea.
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
This entire plant – flowers, leaves and root – supports the body. The flowers with their bright yellow colour indicate flavonoid content and its resulting antioxidant activity. If the spring flowers are picked early in the morning before the bees collect the pollen, then covered with boiling water to make a tea, a pleasant, sweet tasting beverage results.
Dandelion leaves are an important part of a detox because of their diuretic action, and unique because they do not leach out potassium. The nutritious leaves are a good source of potassium, as well as vitamins A, B, C and zinc. The bitter taste of these leaves stimulates the liver and gallbladder, thereby improving digestion.
The taste of the dandelion root in spring is also bitter because the sweet-tasting carbohydrate, inulin, which the plant produces and stores all through the summer, has been used for the plant’s survival under the snow through the autumn, winter, and early spring. This bitterness has a tonic effect on all the digestive organs which works to stimulate enzymes, hormones, and hydrochloric acid needed for good digestion. For the liver, the bitter taste of dandelion root increases the production of bile to flush and restore liver cells.
One of the liver’s lesser known attributes is the ability to break down hormones. If the body is producing excessive amounts of any hormone, and the liver is too congested or exhausted to do its job, this hormonal excess can cause unpleasant symptoms (as seen in PMS or menopause).
Harvested in the spring, dried and ground into powder, dandelion root works to draw wastes from the cells. The effect is noticed in the lungs as it helps to clear congestion, and in the joints as it alleviates the inflammation of arthritis.
Because the action of dandelion root on the liver is gentle, it is the best herb with which to begin a detox. Caution should be taken not to over-stimulate the liver initially because, if waste metabolites and/or toxins stored there are dumped too quickly into the bloodstream, and can’t be cleared efficiently through the kidneys, the result is skin irritation and other unpleasant side effects mentioned earlier.
If the waste matter cleared out from the liver stays in the bloodstream, it will circulate all over the body until it can be removed, either through the skin, or by passing through the kidneys, or with red blood cells being broken down in the spleen. Two particular herbs make the removal of waste from the blood more efficient.
YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a plant traditionally thought of as a vulnerary because of its ability to heal wounds of any kind, but this plant also has many additional benefits. Important for the detox process is the ability of yarrow leaves and flowers to help clear waste from the bloodstream by carrying worn-out red blood cells to the spleen for recycling, as well as stimulating the production of mast cells in the bone marrow. Yarrow’s bitter taste works to stimulate the liver and general digestion, and the herb also has a tonic effect on the lungs and skin. Furthermore, its diuretic action assists with clearing metabolic waste from the body.
RED CLOVER (Trifolium pratense)
Red clover flowers share with yarrow the ability to carry waste out of the bloodstream, and so are a valuable part of a spring detoxification regime. Red clover is also considered a phytoestrogen for its ability to fill the same cellular receptor sites as natural estrogen. The phytoestrogenic effect is weaker than natural estrogen, making it a good choice when hormonal issues are caused by too much estrogen. Those who suffer from PMS can thus benefit from this phytoestrogenic effect of clover, as well as the liver’s ability to break down excessive hormones, as these two actions combined can lessen unpleasant symptoms. During menopause, the gentler phytoestrogenic effect also helps to fill empty receptors when estrogen is low.
Red clover also performs a tonic action on the lymphatic system, and its expectorant properties are useful for individuals needing a lung tonic.
STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
To assist the body in clearing waste, support for the kidneys is provided by stinging nettle leaves. This is another wild plant that tends to be unwelcome in any area, not just the garden. Yet herbalists consider nettles as essential components of kidney-supportive protocols that are part of a spring detox. If you encounter them in the wild, you can be sure of their identity by brushing your hand against them – the leaves and stalks will impart a nasty sting. So wear gloves when harvesting nettles. The leaves can be collected and steamed to be eaten as a vegetable, or chopped and added to a salad (blanch the leaves first). When the leaves are used in a detox combination (as part of a tea or tincture), their supportive action on the kidneys is concentrated to help clear waste from the blood that passes through them.
And nettles have other ways to help us feel better. The antihistamine content can relieve allergy symptoms. Anti- inflammatory action is also part of reducing allergies and can benefit anyone suffering from arthritis. Nettles are also considered to be nutritive because of the chlorophyll and micromineral (particularly boron) content, making them useful in a formula for strong bones, nails, and teeth.
GROUND IVY (Glechoma hederacea)
This weed has other names, including ‘Gill over the ground’ and ‘Creeping Charlie’– and is considered a menace by anyone who wants a perfect lawn of grass. A member of the mint family, ground ivy has a strong, earthy scent and taste, and can perform valuable medicinal actions.
As a choleretic supporting liver function, the aerial parts of ground ivy are a good choice in a detox formula. The plant’s ability to remove lead and other heavy metals is particularly valuable for spring cleansing. Its expectorant action can be helpful if sinuses and lungs need clearing. Ground ivy also has a stimulating effect on the thyroid, making it helpful for those who are hypothyroid, but contraindicated for anyone whose thyroid is overactive.
The diuretic action of ground ivy may not be noticed when the herb is used alone, but in a detox combination it will augment clearance through the urinary tract.
CLEAVERS (Galium aparine)
Cleavers is another plant with more than one name. Sometimes spelled ‘clivers,’ the fine prickles on the stems and seed heads inspire another name: ‘Sticky Willie.’
Regardless of what you choose to call it, the aerial parts of this plant work to stimulate the production and circulation of lymph fluid by clearing congestion in the lymph nodes and reducing lymphatic inflammation. At the same time, cleavers has a diuretic effect, which helps the detox process.
For those needing a longer detox with stronger herbs, the next step is to replace dandelion root with yellow dock.
YELLOW DOCK (Rumex crispus)
Named for the bright yellow-orange colour of the inner root, yellow dock root has a noticeable laxative action, which may be needed to aid the detoxification process. As well, the root and seeds of yellow dock are an easily absorbed source of iron.
If, after using yellow dock, congestion in the liver hasn’t cleared sufficiently, it is time to change from yellow dock to burdock root as the liver stimulant part of a detox plan.
BURDOCK (Arctium lappa)
It is never wise to begin a first detox using burdock root, particularly if the liver is extremely congested. Burdock acts so strongly on the liver that years of accumulated waste can be released into the bloodstream faster than the other eliminative organs can process it out of the body, resulting in the symptoms referred to earlier.
Once an individual has gone through a few months of detox with dandelion root and yellow dock to clear out accumulated toxins, the body is ready for burdock to complete the process, and will benefit from the many other beneficial actions this root offers. These include adrenal support, antimicrobial activity, and the ability to lower blood sugar.
I recommend that the herbs in a detox combination be taken as a tincture for a month (1 tsp. or 5 mls in a glass of water on empty stomach, 3 times per day). Depending on the individual’s state of health, a longer detox period may be required. Alternately, you may prefer to switch to a tea (one teaspoon of dry herb in one cup of boiling water; cover and steep until cool enough to drink) rather than continue taking an alcohol-based tincture long term. The action of a tea will be gentler, and so will take longer to complete, but it is still effective.
These are all safe herbs. However, they should be used with caution by anyone who is pregnant or taking prescription medications, and only if they are under the supervision of a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is experienced with the use of herbs.
By choosing the herbs mentioned, you can achieve a balanced detox with no unwanted symptoms, giving only the energy that results from a body working as it was meant to.
Susan Elliotson is a Registered Herbalist practising in Caledon (north of Brampton). She is a Board Member of the Ontario Herbalists Association. She leads herb walks, teaches herbal interest courses, and speaks to private groups. Susan is an instructor at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition and will speak at their Open House on May 2, 2015 on the topic, ‘Spring Detox: Medicine in the Weeds’. For more information on her May 2nd talk, or other upcoming herb walks and public appearances, visit Susan’s website at: www3.sympatico.ca/elliotsone. For more information on Institute of Holistic Nutrition, visit: http://tinyurl.com/olgjt45 or call: 905-615-9090.