Cleansing and Herbal Medicine

Cleansing and Herbal Medicine

An Herbalists’ Philosophical and Practical Approach

December 15, 2006

    I must admit, when I was first approached by Greenstar staff to write this article, I thought I may be the wrong person for the job.  Cleansing is a common health concern that as an herbalist I often get asked about. But the reason I was hesitant to write about it, is my view of cleansing is often in disagreement with some prevailing attitudes and goes against the grain of the current crop of cleansing/fasting books. I do not feel that human beings harbor an infestation of ‘parasites’ that cause all our health woes, and so I do not feel that every health concern can be addressed by fasting and cleansing.   I feel cleansing is an important aspect of health, but I also feel that the typical notion of cleansing may be overused and over-rated. Please bear with me as I go thru some of what I consider are good questions to consider before you go on a cleanse and then discuss some useful practicalities.  

     People generally want to feel healthier, and there are many worthy ways to achieve this goal. Good lifestyle habits, high-quality food that agrees with our individual needs, exercise and an informed use of herbs and other medicines. But often people want to “cleanse’ themselves without taking these other important aspects into consideration. Popular alternative medicine culture often foists the cleansing apparition ever deeper into our psyches (and the more cynical part of me sees it as opportunistic for many companies, just look at all the cleansing products). One of the first questions is; what is cleansing?  While the answer seems apparent, questions arise, such as, what are you trying to cleanse, and why? Many people want to cleanse and there are a number of excellent reasons for doing so. There are spiritual reasons which are a very different aspect and not addressed here. And there are physical reasons. Some common reasons include; our environment and food contains many elements we want to rid from our bodies, after an illness there is often a feeling to detoxify. Many people have parts of themselves that just seem ‘toxic’.  And of course there are many pathogens (i.e., Shigella, Giardia and numerous bacteria) that make the human body their home. While all these are excellent reasons to cleanse, sometimes other forms of treatment may do the job better. If you feel the need to make a change, a good question to ask is; Do I need to cleanse or do I need to build up? This can be an important basic question in which knowing your body type is helpful. The Ayurvedic model with a triad of body types (called doshas) can help sort this out. The details are too complex to delve into here, but there are many good resources out there that can help you figure out your body type. Two important and useful terms correlated with the upcoming body types, are anabolic and catabolic. These two words are associated with metabolism (the way we break down and absorb our food). Catabolic types loose weight easily and need to eat constantly to keep their weight up. Anabolic types gain weight easily and usually throughout their body.

Back to Ayurveda.  The 3 body types (doshas) are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

To put these ideas into simplistic terms, Vata types are catabolic and often do better with nourishing (anabolic) regimens rather than fasting (catabolic) ones. Pitta types can often go either way. Kapha types are anabolic in nature and so for them, cleansing and fasts are often useful tools in keeping their body functions moving properly.

   The reason I am spending so much time here with these ideas, is that in practice I often see thinner people who find it easy to not eat and move into the ‘fasting high’, which may feel good, but eating a good proper nourishing diet may be more helpful. And larger folks (‘big-boned’, folks who when gain weight, gain it all over), often have a hard time abstaining from food, but it may be important to occasionally cleanse and to at least avoid a lot of the heavier foods such as dairy and starches. So the big question to address is, is cleansing really what you need or would some other protocol be more helpful?


Okay, now to the herbs. A good approach to using herbs for cleansing is to consider two important aspects. The first is which part of you do you feel needs cleansing. The second regard is which category of herbs which may be helpful (i.e., demulcents or laxatives). So when considering a cleanse, you may feel that your digestive system has been challenged from a recent trip abroad or your respiratory system has been taxed from being in a polluted environment, and these are the issues that need to be addressed.  This makes it a bit easier to which herbs to use to help cleanse.

   Here’s a catch, when books and other resources discuss cleansing, they often lump it under one physiological umbrella. So popular cleansing blends have many different herbs to purge many parts of the body. But are you getting enough of the herbs to really address the part of you that needs the most attention? Another consideration is the common form of cleanses called blood cleansers. They are popular in herbal medicine. And while the concept is a good one, it can be helpful to think about which organs functionally clean the blood. It may be helpful to work on one or two of these body systems to help focus the healing front. And again we have the dichotomy of do you want to nourish these organs, or do you want cleanse them?  Arguably the most active organ systems to help remove bloodstream impurities are the liver, the kidneys and the lymphatic system. For those inclined I would suggest learning a little about how each of these organ systems differs in how it handles the internal body waste products. It may be intimidating initially, but there are some excellent on-line resources (often written for young folks) that do a good job of explaining their functions. It may be very helpful in deciding which part of your body you want to focus the cleanse. I also want to note that the terms used in acupuncture, (such as liver or spleen), denote meridians and may or may not relate to the organ or organ systems.


Now to the specific systems and useful herbs

The Liver. There are generally two types of liver cleanses, those directed at liver detoxification cells (hepatocytes) and those that work on the livers’ relationship with digestion which includes the gall bladder, bile and the breakdown of fats in your intestinal tract.   

The liver is the largest organ of detoxification as well as performing a number of other vital functions. And it is one of the organs that continually takes the largest ‘hit’ from all the cumulative waste products in out bloodstream (including the breakdown of drugs), and its health is vital. Fortunately, it is a very regenerative organ. A liver cleanse of this sort may be an occasionally good idea for most folks.

The most common herb for this type of liver cleanse is Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum). A good way to use these seeds, is to take about 1 teaspoon (buy in bulk) and put them in a coffee grinder, powder them up, and stir into water and drink. Some people get loose stools from this, so cut down the amount if this happens. Other useful liver cleanses include Turmeric (Curcuma sp.), Artichoke leaves (Cynara scolymus), Burdock root (Arctium spp) and Oregon graperoot (Berberis spp). These are all relatively safe and can be taken as teas, tinctures or added to one’s diet.  

Many liver cleanses are focused on flushing out gall bladder stones, since it is an appendage to the liver.  This relates to the formation of bile in the liver which is then stored and concentrated in the gall bladder, released into the small intestine which helps break down fats. Generally many bitter tasting (important to differentiate between bitter, sour, astringent, and just plain nasty tastes) herbs can be helpful here. They range from very safe to stronger herbs that should be approached with caution. Cholagogues is the name for this category of herbs, safer ones include, Gentian (Gentiana sp.), Dandelion plant (Taraxacum officinale), Chicory plant (Cichorium intybus), Yellow dock root (Rumex sp.) Bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), as well as the plants mentioned under liver detoxification.


The Digestive System. This is probably the most common type of cleanse, often in the form of fasting. As the digestive system has to process all the material we eat, for many people it makes sense to occasionally fast and allow some restful repair time. But fasting is not for everyone. Many people with a Vata constitution need constant nourishment (small frequent meals and snacks) as their bodies tend to metabolize food quickly, therefore leaving little left for energy use. The short of this is that it may be more important to monitor what is eaten rather than cleanse. Kapha types, on the other hand, often have sluggish metabolisms meaning food moving slowly thru their gastro-intestinal tract and hence cleansing herbs and occasional fasts may be useful. Pitta folks can be prone to stress-related digestive problems (i.e., irritable bowel system) and so cleansing may go either way.

When it comes to fasting, how one breaks the fast is important, and consider eating nourishing easily digestible foods such as well-cooked soups.

Laxatives are herbs that help move food stuffs thru the bowels. There are a range of them, some safe and some that may cause severe cramping. Please read up on these potentially harsher herbs before using them. In general, it is useful to take laxative herbs, whether teas, tinctures or other preparations, before going to bed. It gives them a chance to work while your body is in a more relaxed state. Safer laxatives include Yellow dock root, Psyllium seed (Plantago psyllium), Aloe vera juice and Castor oil. More aggressive ones comprise; Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus cathartica), Buckthorn (Rhamnus spp), Rhubarb root (Rheum sp.), and Senna (Cassia sp.)


Kidney and Urinary Tract. Diuretics are the general category of herbs that encourage urination (obviously not for everyone). These are often coupled with demulcents, plants that have a soothing effect on the mucous membranes, which lines the urinary tract.  Herbs used to expel kidney stones (antilithics), will not be covered here and I would strongly suggest working with knowledgeable people before trying this.

The kidneys are one of the most important organs to monitor blood and separate what should stay in the body from what should be excreted as urine. So one of the reasons to increase urination would be to filter the blood more rapidly, but practically, unless there is kidney damage, they are usually efficient at this task. But if have edema (soft tissue swelling due to accumulation of water), or urinary tract infections, then you may want to help move more fluids from your body. As mentioned, demulcents help with urinary tract sensitivity, and are useful combined with diuretics. Useful diuretics include; Dandelion leaf, Chickweed (Stellaria media), Nettles leaf (Urtica sp.), Cleavers/Bedstraw (Galium sp.), Stoneroot (Collinsonia canadensis), Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and Goldenrod leaf (Solidago sp). Helpful demulcents:; Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza sp), Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), Mallow root (Malva sp.), Comfrey (Symphytum sp.) and Slippery elm powder (Ulmus rubra).


Respiratory System. This includes the lungs, bronchi (windpipe), bronchioles (the tubes running from your bronchi into the lungs), and the sinuses (nasal passages). These can use get gunked-up after being exposed to a number of airborne particles and pollutants. These irritants can cause coughing or breathing difficulties. First, it is important to rule out other problems (such as pneumonia and asthma). The therapeutic category for helping clear stuff from the lungs is called expectorants. And like the diuretics for the urinary tract, they are often more useful combined with demulcent herbs, as the lungs also have a mucosal membrane and expectorant herbs are often drying. Expectorant herbs include; Yerba santa (Eriodictyon sp.), Grindelia (Grindelia sp.), Wild cherry (Prunus serotina), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). For a list of demulcents, see the urinary tract section. A useful tool to help cleanse the sinuses is the netti pot. This device (that looks like an long tea pot) is useful for helping put fluids into the sinuses which in turn helps them drain. Directions for use are easy to find. Herbs can be added into the water in the netti pot (there are other ways to pour water in your nose as well), help clear the sinuses. These include; Bayberry (Myrica sp.), Osha (Ligusticum sp.), Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.), and Pine needle (Pinus sp.) tea. Demulcents can be used for irritated sinuses.  Horseradish and Wasabi can also be eaten to clear the sinuses.


The Lymphatic System. One of its main jobs is to filter out substances that cannot be effectively filtered out by the vascular system (veins and arteries), and to present this material to the immune system to decide what it is and what to do about it. Chronic swollen glands can be a sign of sluggish lymph, as well as susceptibility to illness. Lymphagogues are the category of herbs that help ‘move’ the lymph. These include; Cleavers (Galium aparine), Astragalus (Astragalus sp.), Redroot (Ceanothus americanus), Poke (Phytolacca americana), and Iris root (Iris sp.). Please use these last two with caution, they are strong plants.


End piece. There is still a lot that can be covered, but I hope this inspires people to consider their options when they are thinking about doing a cleanse, and helps people see  the value of herbs for cleanses as well.