Contemplating a Liver Detox? Read This First
Is it Detox You're After? Or Depth?
Only you know the answer to the question posed above. But don't rush into answering it without letting the relevant organ systems of your body have a say. Culturally, we are in a moment where it is often easier to reach for a heroic seven-day cleansing program of elimination and pleasure denial than it is to peer into the root cause of an issue as something deeper, many-pronged, and not necessarily detox-able. Are those types of cleanses ever necessary? Sure. Sometimes. But what are they avoiding?
Socially, we have gathered around the now greenwashed ideas of 'clean' eating and 'whole' living as the ultimate good. Are these ideologies bad? No. But they can chip away at the picture of the self as an entity of fully embodied wisdom and paint a picture of the detoxing body pitted against the dirty, chemical-ridden world as bad, unworthy, unclean, or not enough. Which is an idea just as dangerous and demanding as untempered detox itself can be.
Detox has become something of a dirty word in the wise woman tradition, which prefers nourishment over cleansing and supportive sustenance and toning over deprivation and purging (for more on this, see my article Nutritious Nourishment vs. Dirty Detox). This thought follows the model of the body as a sort of self-cleaning oven. And let's be honest, no metaphor for the body (other than perhaps a garden! says the herbalist) is complex or nuanced enough to capture the full reality of the thousands of physiological processes that occur while we sleep and breathe, flow and flounder, consume and excrete.
We contain multitudes. The levels of environmental stressors and the ways in which we experience trauma and stress as inflammation are...dare we say it - unprecedented? And even though we are not (thankfully) entirely responsible for regularly cleaning the gunk of environmental, stress-induced, and food-based toxins out of our system since our body in its wisdom does that largely on its own with appropriate support, there are ways that we can ease and contribute to this process. While it might seem a bit counterintuitive if you've adhered to the model of consistent cleansing, perhaps the best effort we can make towards supporting the body's own detox processes is providing it with richly saturated nutrition so that it has the resources it needs to perform phase I and II detox as effortlessly and beautifully as it was designed to.
Our biological imperative towards cleansing and purifying the body follows a cyclical, seasonal path. Early spring is traditionally a time for consuming the newly sprouted growth of slightly bitter, chlorophyll-laden herbs which serve to purify and thin the blood and kickstart the sluggish digestion of winter into a new era: clover, cress, chickweed, and wild mustard. Throughout the growing season, these plants become more bitter, chewy, and fibrous, losing their appeal somewhat as other food sources come into fruition. "In the spring, impurities the body has been harboring over the winter can rise. Pathogens dormant within the body during the winter can also rise, causing illness. Spring cleansing of the body forms an important aspect of Southern Folk Medicine, helping thin the blood and ready it for the travails of summer," notes my mentor herbalist Phyllis D. Light.
She speaks of the relationship between herbal medicine and the blood, which is one element we often think of as needing regular cleansing or detoxification. "Blood flows in tune with nature, ebbing and flowing with the seasons. There is a direct correlation between the flow of blood in the body and the flow of sap in trees. In the fall, blood begins to sweeten and get thicker (increase in viscosity) as the weather grows cooler. It sinks downward and pulls inward. Hands and feet endure reduced circulation as the weather chills and blood moves increasingly to the internal organs to keep them warm and nourished. In the spring, blood thins (becomes sour) and begins to rise, moving upward and outward in order to keep the internal organs cooler."
Although new year's day or midwinter is generally a time when many of us with resolutions find ourselves purging all sugar for 30 days or eliminating certain 'cheat' foods that we indulged in over the holidays, midwinter would be a very nontraditional time for cleansing the body as the slow elimination system of the cold season requires deep nourishment and has little access to those new spring greens or warming roots like sassafras and burdock which are considered post-winter purifiers.
Fasting, heroic cleanses, and detox programs may have their place in certain situations where there is severe environmental toxin exposure, the presence of autoimmunity, or certain food sensitivities or allergies (in which case Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's bone broth-heavy GAPS protocol is my go-to). But often what is needed is less a 'hard reset' and more of a solidification of the nutrient and mineral platform the body has to draw from in the first place.
Phase I and Phase II Detox
The dual phases of liver detox are multi-faceted. Everything we eat, drink, breathe, or put on our bodies is either water or fat soluble. If it's water soluble, it is excreted by kidneys in phase I detox. If it's fat soluble, it is excreted by feces or kidneys in phase II detox. The goal of the healthy liver is to slow down phase I and speed up phase II and there are many ways to boost the body's ability to do this.
Phase I detox is supported by many nutritive herbs and foods, particularly those which are good sources of B vitamins, antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and E, and trace mineral selenium (ACES). These constituents help combat free radicals which are generated when the liver breaks down toxic substances. Foods from the brassicaceae plant family - think dark leafy greens like kale and chard as well as broccoli and brussels sprouts - support this transformative process. The herbs that catalyze and support the liver's phase I breakdown process are garlic, onions, turmeric with black pepper, St. John's wort (it does this so well, in fact, that it is this quality of St. John's wort which makes it contraindicated with some pharmaceutical drugs because it clears them out of the liver too quickly), and power-hub ginseng (root/whole plant or leaf).
Looking to support your liver's take-out-the-trash/recycling-day one? Look to formulas like fire cider or a tonic like Garlic Elixir or Ginseng Elixir. St John's wort or blends which include it, like Sunny Days or Viral Spiral, would also be in this family.
Phase II detox takes care of any leftovers from the first phase and also processes through most hormones. If there is matter that the liver was unable to breakdown in phase I, it moves it onto phase II. Foods which support phase II detox are rich in healthy proteins, such as beans, lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, and milk. Sulfur-rich herbs like garlic and onions play a big part in phase II processing, as does turmeric (with bioavailability enhanced by black pepper). Conversely, the elements and states which slow down phase II processing which we want to avoid include chemical dyes (think red 40 and yellow no. 5), aspirin, mineral deficiencies, and constant exposure to environmental hazards or long-term medication use.
The herbs that are classically considered blood cleansers actually do improve phase II liver detox by cleaning or purifying the blood: burdock, yellow dock, dandelion, and red clover dried blossom (or extract, available by special request), for example. Beneficial to the liver's second phase of detox are formulas like Deep Roots, an absorbable turmeric and black pepper blend, and blood-detoxifiers like red clover or a formula like Lymph Love (including red clover).
Both phases of liver detox are deeply supported with minerals like zinc, selenium, and manganese and greatly hindered by mineral deficiency. The primary mineral-rich herbs are one of the most recognizable and immediate ways to support the detox phases. Think nourishing herbal infusions of nettles, oatstraw, red clover, and linden, plus fire cider or mineral-dense vinegars like Three Sisters Vinegar or Zesty Three Sisters Vinegar (which adds garlic to further assist with phase I and II detox).
Connecting With Your Roots: Herbs and the Liver
If we take a step back and look at the human body and the plant body as two sides of the same holograph, we can find elements of the human digestion and elimination pathways that sync up with the plant's root system. In traditional Chinese medicine, there is a principle of consuming the organ with which one is challenged. For example, those with a troubled heart would eat the heart of an animal in order to strengthen their physical and emotional heart chakra or qi. In southern folk medicine,
This holy trinity of roots is what we chose to formulate our Deep Roots liver phase I and II elimination support blend: burdock, dandelion, and yellow dock. There is something beyond synergy in the way these three plants (which happen to often grow in the same landscape and sometimes right next to each other) complement each other.
Burdock is specific for aiding the body in digesting those fat soluble elements which are broken down in phase II as well as acting as a prebiotic which enhances beneficial bacteria activity and spurs the whole nutrient assimilation process. Dandelion root is quite possibly the most abundant and full-spectrum liver nourisher on earth. And if we look into its presence on the planet as an indication of its potential use, we can see a relationship between the dandelions furrowing through the grass of almost every country on every continent and the pervasive presence of liver stagnation which has become so unfortunately universal. Yellow dock not only beefs up iron absorption but smooths and benefits intestinal and colon health; its bitter components also act as the liver's greatest catalyst and asset.
The roots of these cherished field herbs go a long way in helping us humans forge a relationship with our tangled mass of roots, from the stomach to the intestine and the kidneys to the liver and throughout all the phases of our digestion and elimination process. Coming into relationship with roots which have such a pulse on the heart of the earth as they do - quite literally reaching their tendrils down into the depths in search of minerals and nutrients and pulling them up to the surface where we humans can enjoy their benefits when we consume them - can be profound. Love and appreciation for the liver goes a long way in the healing and care for this tireless organ. Listen to the needs of your liver: is it detox that it needs? Or support of its depth, from the depth of the earth?