"The liver is ruler over the spring. It is the root of life's ultimate action. Its condition is revealed in every part of the body."

--Traditional folk medicine saying.

Open any conventional health book and it is unlikely that you will find the word "detoxification" in the index. Ask your doctor about detoxification and chances are that he will stare at you. And yet detox may be one of the most important pathways to better health.

Considering how central detoxification has been in traditional medicine, it really seems we may have lost something along the way to becoming a "developed" society for which detoxification has become absent from a too narrow definition of health care? Detox, indeed, has no place or role in our modern "sick care" system that focuses on symptomatic diseases. For centuries though, traditional concepts of natural health have always put emphasis on detox. Conduct an investigation of traditional remedies and detoxification is all over the map.

Well, the good news is that detox is back, increasingly and rightly viewed as one critical function that must be carefully supported and enhanced. It is a cornerstone of the recent drive to expand the definition of health care to include prevention and addressing the nuisances of life before they degenerate and turn into illness.

In traditional systems of medicine the concept of detoxification stemmed from the common view that many ailments and diseases are associated with impurities in the bloodstream. The blood is not only vital but it needs to stay pure. Herbalists over centuries have spoken of "alterative" herbs, herbs that alter for the better, the quality of the blood supply. Ayurvedic doctors would design treatments to get rid of excess "ama", an ancient terminology that today would translate into toxins, waste and poisons.

It is difficult to overestimate the consequences of not maintaining an acceptably healthy and pure blood flow. Not only does the blood supply need to provide oxygen to each of the body's 60 trillions cells, it also transports nutrients, hormones and waste. This vital function sometimes becomes overtaxed due to the accumulation of bacteria and toxic waste products that result from acute and chronic cellular disease.

Central to the detox function is the liver, one of the largest organs in the body and a true metabolic engine that performs more than 500 identified functions. Among the key ones:

It produces substances like bile (a fluid composed of many constituents) and proteins (such as albumin or prothrombin). It stores lipids as triglycerides and regulates the body's energy supply by producing glycogen (stored glucose) from amino acids and lipids through a complex process catalyzed by a series of enzymes. Above all, the liver acts as the blood "garbage disposal," eliminating all unwanted hormones, chemicals and toxins. This detoxification is also performed by several enzymes that catalyze the transformation and elimination of such substances.

In today's often badly polluted environment people increasingly ingest processed foods with all kinds of additives and use too many chemical drugs that are foreign to the body. Often they reach the limits of their liver's ability to handle the load. After all, the liver may have been designed to handle a much smaller load of all these toxins than they now encounter. Imperfect elimination of these increasing amounts of poisons inevitably leads to unacceptable toxin levels in the bloodstream.

Whether the liver is unhealthy and unable to serve adequately or is healthy but overloaded and sluggish, toxins that should be eliminated are not. Insufficient elimination and accumulation of toxins in turn can cause a broad range of derived problems. It is therefore easy to understand the passion of old systems of medicine for supporting the liver functions and thus promote detoxification.

In their drive to have detoxification practiced by everyone, our ancestors had it right. Detoxification indeed was at the forefront of daily regimen designed to cope as well as possible with a liver overload situation that if repeatedly unchecked, would turn into many different diseases, including liver dysfunctions.

There are numerous examples of specific needs for detoxification, well-identified situations in which serious harm can be done by toxic substances unless they are disposed of appropriately. By far the most common is alcohol hangover. Hangover is simply nothing else than unsatisfactory detoxification. High quantities of alcohol just generate quantities of toxic, substances beyond the ability of the liver to process. Additionally, in turn, repeated aggressions on the liver will cause permanent liver damage that may turn into hepatitis or cirrhosis. It is therefore imperative for both occasional drinkers and heavy drinkers to prevent this.

Detoxification is the best approach. Rapid elimination of toxic alcohol metabolites not only will prevent hangovers but it will also prevent long-term risk of liver damage. Impressive clinical data have been generated on the effectiveness of herbal remedies.

With the increasing consumption of cholesterol-lowering drugs, a lot of publicity has been given--including TV ads--to the issue of undesirable side effects and the risk of liver dysfunctions appearing as elevated liver enzymes. Doctors stress the relation between cutting cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease, (an example of more systematic preventative medicine.) The allopathic solution now widely stressed is based on influencing the liver's ability to produce or process cholesterol. Unfortunately the flip side of any drug interfering with the cholesterol metabolism is the potential to create direct toxins and/or impair the liver in its role of cleaning unrelated toxins.

There are several types of cholesterol-lowering drugs. One class of drugs is the bile-acid sequestrants that help remove bile acids from the body and draw cholesterol from the blood to rebuild them. Today most commonly prescribed cholesterol lowering drugs are part of a family of drugs called "statins." There are at least five or six different statins on the market under such brand names as Zocor, Mevacor, etc. All statins slow the liver's production of cholesterol and increase its ability to remove the LDL cholesterol already in the bloodstream. It is now well known that taking any of these cholesterol-lowering drugs requires careful monitoring of the liver function. Statins are especially hepatotoxic, to the degree that one brand has been pulled off the market recently.

While the controversy about the benefits and dangers of these drugs continues, perhaps it is time for doctors who are considering a broader use of these "preventative" cholesterol lowering therapies to also become more familiar with the concept of detoxification and the various ways to achieve it.

One could go on with other examples of the value of detoxification. Just think of your friendly Tylenol. Too little is known by the consumer about the risks of acetaminophen, its active ingredient. Too little is known about its narrow range of safety and the severe liver poisoning that can occur outside the "safe" range.

There is indeed need for concern considering the poisoned world in which we live and the sad fact is that all of this is part of a way of life that we overall accept. In such circumstances, the good news is that we can accept the trade-offs involved because our liver is designed to clean the mess. We just need to always remember to make sure it can do its job. Welcome to detoxification.

Detox Equals Herbs
Broadly defined, detox encompasses everything that can be done to prevent or alleviate the overload of a healthy liver, such as:

Direct cleansing action on toxins in the blood so that the liver has less to handle.
Support of the liver function to operate at a higher level of efficiency so it can handle the overload.
Optimum detoxification will be reached through a combination of both approaches and herbs have been traditionally used to do exactly that. There are indeed many herbs with undisputed hepatoprotective and hepatostimulating activities. Here are just a few:

Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) has a long history of use as a bitter digestive tonic
Schizandra (Scizandra sinensis) has been shown in clinical trials to cause rapid decrease in liver enzymes
Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) is an immunomodulator
Phyllanthus (Phyllanthus amarus) has been shown clinically effective for HVB
Boldo (Peumus boldus) is an effective antioxidant
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) has been shown to prevent DNA oxidative damage
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) is antiviral and anti-inflammatory
King of bitters (Andrographis paniculata)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has been shown in a Chinese study to be an effective HVB antiviral
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Picrorhiza (Picrorhiza kurroa) is a bitter tonic effective in lowering liver enzymes
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has cholagogue properties
Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) has cholesterol-lowering value
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is probably the most studied hepatoprotective herb.
These herbs have a broad range of mechanisms of action ranging from antioxidant activity protecting the liver cells from damage to broad support of the immune function to fight off viruses or bacteria. These empirical benefits are increasingly well documented to be associated with specific phytoconstituents such as phyllantin in Phyllantus amarus, capparin in Capparis spinosa (capers) or silybinin in Silybum marianum (milk thistle).

It is interesting also to note that traditional healers seldom used these herbs alone. Most often several different herbs would be blended into a multi-benefit formulation. A modern example of such combination is the famous Liv.52, a blend of seven synergistic herbs.


By Philip Duterme, Ph.D.

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