Photo by Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey
Every six months or so, I set a new “self-optimization” goal. I refuse to use the loaded term “self-improvement”. To me, it triggers thoughts of self-proclaimed gurus, marketing gimmicks and psychobabble. Instead, self-optimization is my strategy for setting manageable health and wellness goals, realistically attained by following an evidence-based approach. It’s simple and effective; from improving deep sleep to reducing stress to packing on muscle, over the course of 24 months I’ve enhanced my health in a multitude of ways. Most recently, I decided to focus my efforts on improving immune function and removing toxins by way of an all-natural herbal detox.
Do Natural Detoxes and Herbal Cleanses Really Work?
Much like “self-improvement”, herbal cleansing and detoxing have become loaded terms. The health industry is constantly promoting new catch phrases and buzzwords. Despite a rich history of use in both traditional and modern medicine, terms like “herbal cleanse” and “natural detox” got swept up in the hype somewhere along the way. I wasn’t interested in a “miracle cleanse” of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. That may be a solid recipe for an upset stomach but there’s no evidence that it provides any positive health benefits. While there’s no shortage of snake oil out there, there are many natural ways to detox that are effective at removing toxins, boosting the immune system, losing weight, increasing energy, improving skin quality and restoring balance to the digestive, nervous, and hormonal systems. So when I began diving into the research, I made sure to focus only on proven strategies for detoxing the body naturally.
Despite living clean, everyone builds up toxins. When the CDC published their fourth national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals, they found an average of 212 chemical compounds considered to be toxic. The accumulation of these toxins can cause acute and chronic health problems, especially if liver or kidney function is not optimal. The kidney and liver play critical roles in detoxifying the body by filtering the blood, breaking down toxins and excreting waste. Detoxification is primarily about making sure that the liver and kidney are working optimally so they can do their jobs. To do this, I decided on an three-pronged approach to detoxification, including diet, activity, and herbal supplements.
How To Detox Naturally With Diet
To support kidney and liver function, it’s essential to have adequate amounts of specific nutrients. This means eating a diet with foods rich in vitamins. Carrots, oranges, and almonds contain fat-soluble vitamins like A, C, and E, while meat and dark, leafy greens are great sources of water-soluble B vitamins. Animal proteins also contain branched-chain amino acids critical for cellular repair, as well as phospholipids. Asparagus, walnuts, and fresh fruit like watermelon and avocado are excellent sources of glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant that helps to fight free radicals. Another powerful antioxidant called quinone reductase is ever present in cruciferous veggies. So do like your momma told you and eat your broccoli! Of course, when detoxing, it’s just as important to keep certain foods out of your diet. Don’t eat or drink anything that will stress the liver, such as processed foods, high-fructose corn syrup, seed oils, and—you knew it was coming—limit alcohol consumption. Finally, make sure to flush your system by staying hydrated with plenty of fresh water. Rule of thumb: you know you’re maintaining an adequate level of hydration when your pee looks like lemonade.
Sweat It Out: How Physical Activity Supports Detoxification
When it comes to physical activity, standard exercise goes a long way. Whether you choose to walk, swim, jog, lift weights, or play sports, by simply moving your body you are activating the lymphatic system, a “network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials.” There is, however, a way to amplify the body’s natural capacity to cleanse itself: turn up the heat. A recent study proved that the extensive sweating that takes place during a steam room or sauna session helps eliminate bioaccumulated toxic elements from the body. Added to which, time spent at elevated temperatures triggers the body to release heat-shock proteins which in turn activate antioxidant defenses.
What Are The Best Herbal Supplements For Detoxing?
By supplementing with a variety of herbs, you can optimize the body’s natural detoxification processes. This is where you have to be careful. Many labels sport bold claims alleging to have cleansing or detoxing properties but few actually do. After diving into the literature, I found four herbs with proven track records that I’d recommend for any herbal detox protocol.
Milk Thistle, Photo by Tim Breeze
Known for boosting liver health, milk thistle is by and large the most well known supplement when it comes to herbal cleanses. It has been used in Europe to promote liver health since the early 17th century. The active compound within milk thistle is called silymarin, which has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. It also helps preserve glutathione, the aforementioned master antioxidant of the body. Milk thistle has been shown to improve function of livers previously damaged by free radicals produced when toxic substances are metabolized. In addition to regenerating damaged liver tissue, it provides nutrients that help the liver to expel metabolic waste and toxic compounds. Milk thistle is available in a variety forms including capsules, tablets, tinctures, or as a liquid extract. While you can keep milk thistle as part of your herbal supplement routine indefinitely, it isn’t recommended due to the possibility of developing an allergy. This is not likely, but to hedge my bets, I consume two capsules twice a day of a high-potency formulation called Ultra Thistle. By binding the silymarin with another compound called phosphatidylcholine, the absorption and delivery to the liver is dramatically increased. One bottle of Ultra Thistle usually lasts me 3-4 weeks, which is the perfect amount of time for a detox protocol. Like I mentioned before, the body already has powerful methods for detoxifying itself via the liver and kidney. Herbal supplements are just another way to optimize the function of these organs.
Discovered by the Aztecs, spirulina has been used as a powerfood and detoxifying agent for thousands of years. It actually isn’t an herb but a type of nutrient-dense microalgae. The chlorophyll in the plant has been shown to remove toxins and heavy metals from the blood. As long as it comes from a reputable source, spirulina is considered to be safe when taken even in high doses. In addition to supporting the elimination of pollutants, spirulina is alkalizing to the body, which boosts liver function. Because it is technically a food, I prefer to get my spirulina in powdered form opposed to in a capsule. Again, it’s all about the bioavailability. The slight taste of seaweed is enough to deter me from eating spirulina on top of food. Instead, my go-to is adding a spoonful to my post-workout smoothie. Mixing the spirulina with an avocado, half a banana, and some vanilla whey protein creates the perfect blend of macronutrients and flavor. Unlike milk thistle, I incorporate spirulina into my diet year-round, adding an extra half scoop when I’m really trying to ramp up my body’s detoxing pathways.
I first heard of ginseng being used as a cleansing agent by a friend who needed to pass a drug test. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have powerful detoxifying effects. Ginseng has been used for millennia in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. It was also used as an herbal remedy in Ancient Greece where it went by the name of Panax, which means “cure all.” An adaptogenic herb, it is mostly known for its antioxidant properties, responsible for ridding the body of free radicals that may cause metabolic damage. Ginseng also stimulates healthy blood flow which aids the digestive system and cardiovascular system. Ginseng further supports detoxification by facilitating liver regeneration. It is true that many herbs lose their effectiveness if you use them too frequently. However, since ginseng is classified as an adaptogenic herb it can be consumed regularly without worrying about overuse. Ginseng can be taken in powdered form, as an extract in capsules and is commonly consumed as a tea. However, the amount of ginseng needed for detoxification purposes would require drinking 3-5 cups of tea a day. For the sake of convenience, I go with 200 mg of ginseng twice a day in the form of a tincture as part of my detoxification protocol.
Dandelion, Photo by Lambert Yuri
Dandelion helps to stimulate the release of bile from the liver into the gallbladder, which prevents toxic build up. Metabolic waste is secreted into the bile to be excreted out of the body. Without adequate bile, toxins can easily accumulate. Dandelion extract not only increases bile production, but promotes digestion, and assists in the breakdown of steroid hormones. Finally, dandelion has a mild diuretic effect, which may aid in flushing out toxins. You can buy dandelion fresh, get the root in powdered form or as a dried extract in a supplement. To get the most out of the plant, I’d suggest making your own dandelion infused tea. It may sound like more work than just popping a couple capsules with the rest of your supplements but the recipe is simple. Just seap one tablespoon of chopped dandelion root mixed with 150 mL of hot water for 20 minutes. For a little added sweetness, top it off with a spoonful of organic honey and drink it about an hour before bed. You can drink your dandelion brew year-round, however, you’ll want to ramp up consumption in the fall to fully reap its detoxing benefits. This is because the root is traditionally harvested during fall months when concentrations of beneficial compound inulin are at their highest.
I haven’t taken blood tests to confirm improved liver function or a reduction of toxins but I can 100% feel the difference. I haven’t been sick, my energy levels are great and the dark circles that lived under my eyes for so long are now gone. Sure, there are other lifestyle factors that might contribute to these positive effects and its difficult to say which are responsible but if all it takes is a sauna session after the gym or adding a few herbal supplements to my nightly wind-down routine of kava and stretching, then count me in. The significant benefits of looking and feeling healthy far outweigh the little bit of effort it takes to implement these strategies on the road to self-optimization.