Herbal Allies for Spring Liver CleansingMichael Vertolli, RH April 1, 2010
One of the most important factors that contribute to the many health problems which we suffer from is toxicity. Our body produces its own toxins in the form of metabolic waste products. Our long term survival has required the evolution of physiological mechanisms that enable us to remove those waste products from our bodies before they build up to toxic levels. These same mechanisms are also responsible for removing any toxins that enter our bodies from the external environment.
In the past, except under unusual circumstances, our capacity to remove waste products and toxins from our body tissues was usually able to meet our needs. However, today we live in an increasingly toxic environment. As a result, the amount of toxicity that we absorb typically exceeds our capacity to eliminate it. This results in a more or less constant increase in the level of toxicity in our body tissues throughout our lives, as well as a cumulative increase in toxicity from generation to generation. The consequences of this are reduced or abnormal immune function and the full gamut of chronic conditions such as allergies, cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammatory conditions and cancer.
Much of the toxicity in our tissues comes from our immediate environment: the food we eat; the water we drink and bathe in; the kinds of cosmetics and cleaning products we use; and off-gassing of carpets, furniture, building materials, and other sources. The rest of it comes from the general environment. All of these sources are direct consequences of the choices that we make every day, individually and collectively as a society.
By eating and using products that are more in harmony with our body and the world we live in, we can reduce the toxic stress load on our tissues and our environment, and improve our overall health and well-being. Even things that do not have a direct negative effect on our health will indirectly affect us if they are destructive to the environment. The more toxic and unhealthy the ecosystem that we live in, the more difficult it becomes to be healthy. This is why any discussion of cleansing and detoxification is almost meaningless without also addressing environmental issues. We need to be able to see both the forest and the trees.
These days we all have some level of toxicity in our tissues – enough that we aren’t going to see an immediate change in our health simply by reducing our exposure. Usually, our bodies need help with the cleansing process. When we follow our natural rhythms, spring is the most important time for cleansing. During the fall and winter months, we tend to stay indoors and be less active. The body’s natural tendency during this time is to build up layers of insulating fatty tissue. When spring arrives, a new cycle begins and the body tends to burn off the excess fat and lighten up.
When we accumulate fat, we are more likely to accumulate toxicity. It is very difficult for the body to process and eliminate toxins in our fatty tissues without eliminating the fat itself. Increasing our activity level and burning off fat in the spring provides us with an opportunity to eliminate some of that toxicity. This natural cleansing process that occurs every spring is essential to the maintenance of our long-term health.
THE LIVER’S IMPORTANT ROLE
When toxins accumulate in the body tissues and fluids, they are removed via the circulatory (blood and lymph) and eliminatory organs and systems of our bodies (kidneys, colon, skin and lungs). However, before they can be eliminated, many toxins must first be processed by the liver.
The liver is one of the most complex and diverse organs in the body. It is directly or indirectly involved in virtually every physiological process. This organ is so important that it gets first choice of the use of many nutrients in the blood flowing from our digestive tract, even before our brain. Some of the processes performed by the liver include:
· digestion and metabolism of fats;
· conversion of some nutrients into forms that can be utilized by the rest of our body;
· manufacturing proteins that transport nutrients in our body fluids;
· metabolism of carbohydrates and maintenance of blood sugar levels;
· manufacturing cholesterol, which is an essential component of all membranes and necessary for making steroids, including vitamin D;
· maintenance of blood fluid volume;
· removing excess hormones from our blood;
· destroying worn out red blood cells;
· manufacturing proteins necessary for blood clotting;
· and filtering our blood.
The liver also contains a large population of immune cells and is a major site of immune activity.
When it comes to detoxification, the liver has many important functions:
· it manufactures lipoproteins which help to transport fat-soluble toxins that don’t dissolve well in our blood and lymph;
· breaks many toxins down into less toxic components;
· converts some fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble molecules that can more easily be eliminated in our urine, and to some degree in our sweat;
· dissolves fat-soluble toxins that cannot be converted into a water-soluble form in bile and then secretes them into the digestive tract so they can be eliminated in our feces.
In addition, bile produced by the liver has a natural laxative effect that facilitates general elimination of toxins and waste products via the colon.
NUTRITIONAL MEDICINE FOR SPRING CLEANSING
Maintaining low levels of tissue toxicity is essential to our health. This is not possible without a healthy liver and other organs and systems of circulation and elimination. It is therefore necessary that our diet and lifestyle support the health of these organs. It is important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Lemons and limes are very detoxifying. I recommend drinking lemon or lime water on a regular basis. Squeeze a wedge of one of these citrus fruits into a large glass of water and then leave it to soak in the water, as there are important constituents in the skin of the fruit as well. (The dangers associated with drinking water from plastic are finally beginning to be recognized, but it is also not recommended to drink lemon or lime water from stainless steel drinking containers as the acids in fruits tend to increase the degree to which metals dissolve in water. Glass is preferred.)
Green leafy vegetables are also detoxifying, especially those that are on the bitter side such as rapini, mustard greens, Belgian endive, escarole, dandelion leaves and chicory leaves. North Americans often have an aversion to bitter flavours and these foods are lacking in our diet. It’s good to eat a variety of both raw and cooked greens. Juicing them is also excellent. You can also add a small amount of freshly juiced grasses such as wheat, barley, kamut or oat. Green juice powders and algae such as spirulina and chlorella are also good, but live, freshly juiced greens are the best. Overall, it is important that we eat certified organically grown food as much as possible to reduce our exposure to agricultural chemicals, hormones, and so on.
Certain vegetable oils are also very good for our liver – in particular flax seed, olive and coconut oil are recommended.
Exercise is also essential to support circulation and detoxification. It is best if we try to be as active as possible in general, and include time for regular aerobic exercise (at least 30 minutes, three times per week).
In terms of nutrients, ensuring adequate intake of all nutrients is important to support the cleansing process. Of particular importance are vitamins A, C, D and E, and the minerals selenium, zinc, copper and manganese. Other important plant antioxidants include carotenoids and polyphenols such as flavonoids, catechins and anthocyanins.
On the negative side, we need to reduce as much as possible consumption of:
· bad fats and oils (trans fats/oils, rancid fats/oils and saturated fats of animal origin);
· high glycemic load foods (sweets, white flour products, whole grain flours that are not stone ground, polished grains, puffed grains, sweet fruit and vegetable juices, and dried fruits);
· hormone disruptors (water and food stored in plastic, commercially raised livestock, pesticides and herbicides, steroid drugs, oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapies);
· medicinal and social drugs;
· agricultural chemicals and all other sources of toxins in our water, food, cosmetic products, cleaning products, home furnishings, building materials and chemicals used in our workplace.
Also harmful are the high protein, low carbohydrate diets that have been popular since the early ‘90s, as these diets increase our overall toxicity and put a lot of stress on our liver and kidneys.
In general, it is best to focus on eating fresh, whole, natural foods that are minimally processed – and minimize consumption of heavily processed, denatured food products. The general rule of thumb is that the less a product looks like the foods from which it was made, the more processed and less healthy it is.
It is up to each of us to decide how committed we are to living a healthy lifestyle. I don’t recommend becoming neurotic about food choices. This only creates more stress, which is counter-productive to our health and well-being. We all need to lighten up now and then, and sometimes that may involve eating or doing things that aren’t exactly healthy, but if we are doing our best most of the time, it’s OK to consciously “cheat” periodically, as long as we don’t go to extremes. Enjoying life is also important for our overall well-being. However, it is possible to find healthier ways to enjoy ourselves most of the time. For example, taking a walk in the woods is much healthier than sitting around and watching television. It is also more enjoyable if we allow ourselves to get into it.
HERBS FOR LIVER CLEANSING
When it comes to cleansing, herbs are among our greatest allies. By following some very basic principles, we can create a simple formulation that will increase and accelerate our natural capacity to process and eliminate toxins from the body. In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to use those herbs that have therapeutic actions that support the functioning of our liver and other circulatory and eliminatory organs.
To create a simple but effective cleansing formulation we need to include herbs from three different groups. The first group consists of warming herbs that help to increase our overall circulation. Some of these herbs that are best suited for use in a detox formulation and the typical proportions in which they are used include:
– garlic bulb (Allium sativum) 10 to 15%,
– cayenne fruit (Capsicum annuum) 1 to 2%
– turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) 20 to 25%
– elecampane root (Inula helenium) 20 to 25%
– ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale) 10 to 15%
A good detox formulation should be just pungent (spicy) enough to notice its warmth when you take it. If we include too much of this kind of herb, the formulation will be too stimulating and may upset our digestive system. The proportions indicated above are based on the level of heat of each of these herbs. We only want to include one of them in any formulation.
The second group that we need to include in a cleansing formulation includes herbs such as: burdock root (Arctium spp.), chicory root (Cichorium intybus), elecampane root, yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum), and dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). It is best to include two herbs from this group at a proportion of 20 to 25% each. Since elecampane root is also a warming herb, if we include it as a member of this group it will not be necessary to include any other warming herbs.
The third group of detox herbs includes:
– horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense)
– cleavers herb (Galium aparine)
– yellow bedstraw herb (Galium verum),
– plantain herb (Plantago spp.)
– heal-all herb (Prunella vulgaris)
– goldenrod herb (Solidago spp.)
– red clover herb (Trifolium pratense)
– stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica)
As with group two, it is best to include two herbs from this group at a proportion of 20 to 25% each.
The ideal way to use these herbs is in the form of 1:5 fresh herb tinctures taken three to four times per day on an empty stomach, 10 to 15 minutes before meals or 20 to 30 minutes before bed. Add your tincture formulation to a small amount of water, 20 to 25 ml (0.5 to 1 ounce), and hold it in your mouth for about 30 seconds before swallowing. Begin at a relatively low dose of about two droppers (a dropper is the amount of tincture that you get in the glass tube of the dropper when you completely press the bulb once) of the formulation (not each individual herb).
As long as you don’t get any unusual symptoms, increase the unit dose by one dropper every week until you reach a maximum dose of five to six droppers per dose. If you use any tinctures that are stronger than 1:5, the proportion of those herbs and your overall dose should be lower.
It’s also a good idea to change a couple of the herbs in your formulation every couple of months if you take a detox formulation over a long period of time so that your body doesn’t get too accustomed to the formulation.
You can also make a tea from dried herbs. It is not as effective, but will still work. In this case, have a cup of tea three to four times per day as recommended above. You will need a total of 2 to 3 teaspoons of your premixed formulation per cup of tea. Steep it for 15 to 20 minutes in a covered container before you drink it.
Cleansing will sometimes be accompanied by a temporary aggravation of some symptoms. If this occurs, it is necessary to reduce the dosage of the detox formulation until the symptoms subside. Should any unusual symptoms persist, discontinue taking your formulation and consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural practitioner.
A relatively healthy person will get the best results from a detox formulation if it is taken for about two to three months. A longer period is required for anyone with chronic health conditions. An herbal cleanse is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women, or young children. In addition, seniors, or anyone with an inflammatory bowel condition, bowel obstruction or serious illness such as diabetes, heart conditions or cancer, or anyone on medications should consult with a qualified practitioner before attempting any kind of detox.
Since cleansing is so important for our overall health and well-being, and spring is the natural time of year to do it, I recommend some kind of spring detox as part of a healthy lifestyle. We mustn’t forget, however, that no matter how well we eat, how much we exercise and how often we engage in a cleansing program, the level of health that we can achieve will be limited if we are living in a toxic world. Our personal well-being can not be separated from the health of our environment. It’s empowering to realize that when we make choices that are healthy for ourselves, we will also be making choices that are healthy for the world we live in.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: <a href="www.livingearthschool.ca">www.livingearthschool.ca</a> Blog: <a href="michaelvertolli.blogspot.com">michaelvertolli.blogspot.com</a>