We’ve been covering cleansing over the past few weeks. Our discussion started with guidelines for when cleansing is and isn’t appropriate, and from there we moved on to stronger and milder ways to encourage detoxification and decongestion of the body (There are links to the previous installments at the bottom of the article.) Last week I mentioned five main organs involved in detoxification – the liver, lungs, kidneys, gut, and skin – and we looked at ways to promote cleansing of the liver and lungs. Today we’ll look at the kidneys and skin.
As I explained previously, the skin is instrumental in the removal of heavy metals and petrochemicals from the body, and this occurs through sweating and the shedding of skin cells. A daily sweat is a good thing for most people. If you’re debilitated, this is better accomplished through a mild sauna than intense exercise, though. Interestingly, the composition of sweat differs slightly, based on whether it’s heat-induced, exercise-induced, or stress-induced, though I haven’t seen research that indicates if one method is most effective for detoxification. I’ve noticed that my stress-sweat stinks, but the other forms don’t.
It’s possible that enhancing circulation to the skin and exfoliating dead cells may facilitate detoxification. Besides dry skin brushing, which I discussed in part three, many people enjoy exfoliating with a nice scrub in the shower or bath, like the Dragontree Scrubs that Briana and I formulated.
Speaking of baths, there’s a long tradition of using baths to stimulate detoxification. The most common methods are: Epsom salt and natural mineral baths; spicy herbs that warm the skin and enhance circulation – like mustard seed, peppermint, and ginger; and mud or clay. I don’t know of any scientific studies showing that baths enhance detoxification, but it can’t hurt, and they do enhance blood flow to the skin and help clean off any grime that might be impeding the excretion of sweat.
Incidentally, many chronic skin rashes respond well to internal cleansing methods, such as a class of herbs called “alterative” herbs, known historically as “blood purifiers.” There are many herbs in this category. Some of the best for skin disorders include sarsaparilla, immature honeysuckle flowers, burdock root and seed, yellow dock root, Oregon grape root, echinacea, dandelion, and the Chinese herbs dictamnus, oldenlandia, and isatis. My favorite alterative for the skin is red clover blossoms. A conservative dose would be a tablespoon of any of these herbs (dried), simmered in a pint of water for 30 minutes, then strained and drunk in two or three portions over the course of a day.
I sometimes get asked about the merits of detox patches that go on the soles of the feet, or detox machines that you take a foot bath in. The short answer is: don’t waste your money.
Onto the kidneys. Your kidneys clean your blood, balance blood pressure, and maintain proper electrolyte levels and pH of the blood. Each of your two kidneys contains about a million nephrons – the basic functional unit of the kidney. Nephrons are networks of tubes that filter the blood, retaining useful stuff and dumping what’s not needed. What’s filtered out becomes urine.
Many drugs, heavy metals, and chemical solvents possess some degree of “nephrotoxicity,” meaning they are poisonous to the kidneys. The kidneys can handle a certain burden of nephrotoxins, but long term exposure (or intense short-term exposure) can result in irreparable damage, which can be deadly. Dehydration and high blood pressure are also hard on the kidneys.
Some nephrotoxic drugs include: many antibiotics (streptomycin, gentamycin, neomycin, vancomycin, penicillin, others), acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin, Benadryl, Unisom, Prozac, ACE-inhibitors, many cancer and HIV drugs, Prevacid, Prilosec, Protonix, Zantac, Xanax, Ativan, Plavix, and statins. Your best bet for healthy kidneys is to avoid using these drugs long term, if possible; protect yourself from solvent and heavy metal exposure; and don’t let yourself get dehydrated. Another common cause of kidney damage is diabetes, which is mostly preventable by maintaining a healthy weight.
If you have a known kidney challenge, there are a handful of herbs that are supportive to the kidneys (please discuss with your healthcare provider, because kidney disease is serious). Two of the mildest are parsley and corn silk. You can eat parsley as a kidney cleanser, and make a tea from a large handful of dried corn silk. These stimulate clearance through the kidneys, and cornsilk is soothing and perhaps has some reparative effect.
Goldenrod, the common yellow flower (more a weed than a cultivated plant), is another useful cleanser of the kidneys and urinary tract, and is very common in European herbalism. Dandelion, which I wrote about last week as a liver cleanser, is also cleansing to the kidneys. Whereas the root is best for the liver, the leaves and flowers are better for the kidneys. It effectively flushes out the kidneys and supplies potassium (which is usually depleted by pharmaceutical diuretics). Two other valuable herbs for kidney health are juniper berries and uva ursi, which cleanse the kidneys and urinary tract. Any of these can be combined with either of two herbs I mentioned last week – mullein and marshmallow – which are also gentle kidney-supportive herbs. However, while the leaves and flowers of mullein are best for the lungs, the root is best for the kidneys and urinary tract.
As a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine, the first formula that comes to mind in the treatment of kidney disorders, especially chronic kidney disease, is called Liu Wei Di Huang Wan (Six Flavor Pill with Rehmannia). It’s quite useful in improving kidney function and treating diabetes, and I have even seen it extend the lives of people end-stage renal disease (kidney failure).
Finally, although it’s not specifically a toxicity issue, kidney stones are a common and excruciatingly painful kidney disorder, and I want people to know that they are often highly treatable with herbal pills, like chanca piedra. The first thing that comes to mind is a Chinese blend made by the company Plum Flower, called Stone Formula. I’ve had patients experience such rapid and complete relief with it that they were able to avoid surgery. Another herb with a strong reputation is a Peruvian plant called chanca piedra (literally, “stone crusher”). Of course, anyone passing a kidney stone should consult with a healthcare practitioner.
This week, I encourage you to support the cleanliness of your body by taking a day to eat very simply – such as the green Bieler Broth I shared in the second article in this series.
Dr. Peter Borten