There's a lot of talk these days about detoxification. There are detoxing diets, detoxing therapies and supplements to help you "cleanse" your liver, the body's main organ of detoxification. Promoters claim these programs can help you lose weight, gain more energy, boost mental clarity, clarify your skin and purify every organ in your body. Sounds great, but is detoxing just a fad or is it actually important for your health?
"Our livers control so much of our health and risk for disease that it's critical to detoxify," says Linda Page, ND, PhD, who practices in Carmel, Calif., and is the author of Detoxification (Healthy Healing Publications). Liver health becomes compromised through diseases such as hepatitis A as well as smoking and drinking alcohol and coffee, which deplete the body of important antioxidants and other nutrients. We are also exposed to more environmental toxins than ever, which Page says contributes to the fact that liver disorders are a direct cause of 50,000 deaths in the United States each year. Fortunately, the liver is highly regenerative, especially when we give it some help.
It's been said that the liver is called the live-r because it keeps us living. In fact, every minute almost two quarts of blood pass through the liver which, when functioning normally, clears 99 percent of the bacteria and other toxins from our blood before it re-enters the general circulation. However, when the liver is impaired this filtration system operates less efficiently.
You might be a candidate for a liver cleanse if you experience unexplained fatigue, accompanied by allergies or low-grade infections; a distended stomach, even if the rest of your body is thin; or mental confusion. Other symptoms that may point to a tired liver include sluggish elimination, menstrual difficulties, bags under the eyes, liver spots, jaundice and irritated skin.
"A liver detox can take care of health issues such as gland problems, poor digestion, migraines and cold hands and feet. New research shows that breast lumps, uterine fibroids, impotence, infertility and shingles can also be improved by a liver detox. With a liver detox, even many skin conditions clear," says Page.
A good way to begin an herbal liver detox program is by taking bitter herbs. Bitters stimulate bile flow, flush out toxins, boost the lymphatic system and energize your metabolism. "You get almost immediate results with bitter herbs," says Page.
Bitter herbs include turmeric, cardamom, cascara sagrada, goldenseal, gentian, yellow dock, angelica and green tea. Although these herbs have been used medicinally for years, a few have recently been scientifically documented as liver boosters. One study showed that turmeric and green tea were effective for the treatment of various liver diseases (Alternative Medicine Review, 1999, vol . 4). Other research indicates that cardamom exerts significant antioxidant effects in the liver (Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, 1999, vol. 37).
Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is a "small miracle for your liver," says Page. Long cultivated as a popular vegetable and prescribed medicinally in both Eastern and Western medicine as a blood purifier, burdock contains iron, calcium and vitamin C. Burdock stimulates bile flow and protects, tonifies and detoxifies the liver, according to Christopher Hobbs, LAc, author of Natural Liver Therapy (Botanica Press). A study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine (2000, vol. 28) found that burdock has liver-protective effects against the toxins carbon tetrachloride caused by industrial contamination and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
"You can take burdock in a capsule," says Page. "You can also get enormous results with tea."
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is another herb that enjoys a long history as a liver detoxifier. "Dandelion root heads the list of excellent foods for the liver," writes Daniel B. Mowrey, PhD, author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine (Keats) and Herbal Tonic Therapies (Random House).
Dandelion is high in vitamins A, C, D and B-complex, as well as iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. A study published in Alternative Medicine Review (1999, vol. 4) reported that dandelion is effective for increasing bile flow, which is necessary for proper liver function. James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale), recommends steaming dandelion leaves and flowers or adding them to salads. Dandelion flowers are high in lecithin, a nutrient that's been proven useful for the liver.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been used as a liver remedy for at least 2,000 years. Silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, helps detoxify, protect and regenerate the liver through its potent antioxidant activity. It enhances detoxification by increasing levels of glutathione, a naturally occurring protein in the body critical to the liver's detoxifying ability. "Silymarin prevents the depletion of glutathione induced by alcohol and other toxic chemicals [and also] has been shown to increase the level of glutathione of the liver by up to 35 percent," write Michael Murray, ND, and Joseph Pizzorno, ND, in The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Prima).
Several studies, including one published in Alternative Medicine Review (1999, vol. 4), have documented that milk thistle is effective for treating hepatitis, alcoholic fatty liver and cirrhosis.
"Milk thistle can regenerate damaged liver cells," says Page. She advises taking a course of bitters for a month before adding milk thistle to your detoxifying program. "Bitters act as an effective immediate cleanser. Milk thistle provides long-term liver support."
Other Detox Decisions
There are many ways to detox, including a recent trend of taking supplemental copper. While copper is a key mineral for liver health, Page doesn't recommend this program, especially for women, since estrogen increases copper retention and may encourage estrogen-related diseases such as breast lumps and uterine fibroids. Excess copper can also cause side effects including fatigue, mood swings, anxiety and panic attacks. Instead, Page prescribes nutritional and lifestyle adjustments along with herbal therapies:
Eat beets, daikon radishes, artichokes, seaweed, green foods such as chlorella and spirulina, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage—all of which are good for the liver.
Keep saturated fat intake low. Instead, beef up on the good fats found in cold-water fish, nuts, flaxseed and hemp oils.
Eat plenty of fiber, including fresh fruits and vegetables and brown rice, which helps the body eliminate toxins through the intestines.
Take alpha-lipoic acid, a powerful liver detoxifier. Research shows it can even reverse severe liver damage.
Add supplemental vitamin C to your diet to help your body manufacture glutathione, a liver-friendly protein.
Breathe deeply to assist the liver in detoxifying, as the liver is dependent on the amount of oxygen coming in through the lungs. For the same reason, get plenty of aerobic exercise. "If you can, take a good walk by the ocean," says Page.
Deborahann Smith is the author of several books, including Work with What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood(Shambhala).