In the past two weeks, I wrote about what I consider to be the basic principles of a cleanse. This week I’ll discuss a few additional practices that can further promote clean spaciousness of the body and mind.
We usually focus on the digestive tract, but there are several organ systems involved in the processing and removal of toxins. Besides the intestines, the liver, kidneys, lymphatic vessels, skin, and lungs all play important roles. You can support these systems to make a cleanse more thorough or to promote detoxification even when you’re eating your normal diet.
The liver and kidneys are the powerhouses of detox. While the liver actually has around 500 functions, the most well-known is breaking down toxins and things that could become harmful to us if they were to build up – like hormones, drugs, and metabolic waste products. Nutrients and toxins from the digestive tract go directly to the liver (via the portal vein). Our kidneys are a bit simpler, acting primarily as filters that clean our blood, removing toxins and hormones, and balancing fluid and salt levels.
There’s a lot of hype around liver and kidney cleanses, and in some cases a fundamental misunderstanding as to how these systems work. Generally speaking, the liver and kidneys themselves don’t need to be “cleaned out.” They don’t become “dirty” when we’re exposed to environmental toxins, though it is possible for them to become injured by such exposure. In these cases, blood tests will sometimes show elevated levels of liver enzymes or creatinine, which indicate impairment of the liver or kidneys, respectively. But most people who do a cleanse don’t have any testing done, nor would testing likely show anything abnormal. Therefore, it’s best to proceed with an aim of protecting and supporting – rather than “cleaning” – these organs.
The best way to protect the liver and kidneys is to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals in the first place. Some of the most common liver1 and kidney2 toxins include pesticides, cleaners, air fresheners, paints and solvents, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, certain herbs and essential oils3, and alcoholic beverages. It’s important to state that (1) not all of these substances are intrinsically toxic, and (2) many of these substances can be readily metabolized by the liver and/or kidneys with zero harm. They become toxic – i.e., damaging – to these organs when our exposure level exceeds the capacity of the organs, and that’s a factor of the health of the individual and the sum total of all such substances a person is exposed to. Thus, a single dose of acetaminophen in an individual with a healthy liver is completely safe. But the maximum daily dose, taken over a course of weeks, and combined with alcohol or other environmental toxins could be a recipe for liver failure.
Keep toxins moving through your body by staying well hydrated (this is especially important for healthy kidneys) and exercising regularly. Consider supplementing with herbs that have an established tradition (ideally supported by scientific research) of protecting and supporting healthy liver and kidney function, if you know you’re going to be exposed to toxins. According to Portland-based naturopathic physician, Tori Hudson, ND, the five most important liver-protecting herbs are: milk thistle, turmeric, licorice, schizandra, and Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis).
All of these are very safe herbs, though it’s worth reading her article for information on potential interactions. Also, licorice can cause a small increase in blood pressure, which goes away when it’s discontinued. Of these five, milk thistle is the most remarkable, as it has been shown to restore function in damaged livers.
For kidney support, again, hydration is crucial. Also, diets that are very high in protein can be taxing to the kidneys, so it’s probably advisable to be moderate with protein consumption especially when you’re dehydrated, doing a cleanse, or managing exposure to toxic substances. The mushroom Ganoderma lucidum, AKA Reishi or Ling Zhi, has been shown to help protect the kidneys from chemical damage. Also, tea of stinging nettle (it doesn’t sting after it’s been dried or cooked) is nourishing and supportive to the kidneys.
The lymphatic vessels run throughout the body and carry immune cells, help maintain fluid balance, and facilitate the removal of debris, such as damaged cells, germs, and the waste products of injury and infection. These vessels move fluid from the extremities and trunk toward the heart, though they have no central pump the way the heart pumps blood. Therefore, lymph flow can sometimes become sluggish, especially after injury, during an infection, when lymph nodes are swollen, and when lymphatic tissue has been damaged by surgery. When sluggish lymph causes an area of the body to swell, it’s called lymphedema, and infections on limbs with lymphedema can be slow to heal.
Before I get into what you can do to support your lymphatic system, let’s discuss the roles of the skin and lungs, since there’s a lot of overlap. In comparison to the kidneys and liver, these three aren’t major detoxifiers, but their roles aren’t insignificant, so they’re worth enlisting in the cause of internal cleanness.
The lungs keep us clean primarily by bringing in fresh oxygen and releasing the waste product carbon dioxide, though they are also capable of expelling certain other toxins through exhalation. The one you know best is alcohol – this is how we can use a breathalyzer (or our nose) to determine how intoxicated a person is – but the lungs also release other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).4
The skin is sometimes spoken of as the “third lung” since it “breathes” through its pores. With more and more drugs being delivered through the skin as a cream or patch, it’s indisputable that the skin is highly permeable. A wide range of substances can pass into the body through it. Likewise, our sweat is able to carry toxins out of the body through the skin. Studies have shown that heavy metals and the plastic additive bisphenol-A (BPA) are present in sweat.
While the quantity of toxins in sweat and exhaled air is very low, these processes are occurring throughout the day, so some researchers have proposed that over time they actually constitute a significant mechanism for detoxification. Overall, I believe that the fad of “detox through the skin” has been over-hyped, but I have known many people (myself included) who simply feel good from doing these practices. And, in any case, we might as well optimize skin, lung, and lymphatic function, regardless of the actual impact on internal toxins.
Practicing self massage with light strokes, moving from the extremities toward the heart, can help move stagnant lymph. It can also be performed with a dry skin brush: using small circular motions or long strokes, always directed toward the heart, work your way from the ends of your extremities to your trunk, and then from the belly and back toward the heart. Dry skin brushing is exfoliating and invigorating to the circulation, which may help with detoxification through the skin.
We can facilitate sweating through exercise and use of sauna. Exercise, as you know, has many health benefits beyond whatever detoxification value sweating may offer. However, if you’re depleted or weak, such that vigorous exercise makes you feel exhausted or worsens your condition, the use of a sauna can be preferable. With a sauna, I believe it’s best not to strive for an intense, profuse sweat, but rather, a mild glistening sweat for a longer period of time (say, half an hour). Always remember to re-hydrate.
Bathing seems to offer modest support for detoxification through the skin. Some bath additives that are used for this purpose include Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), apple cider vinegar, and clay. It’s questionable just how deep the cleansing through these agents might be, or what exactly the mechanism is, but if nothing else, baths clean the skin and might therefore facilitate better clearance through sweating. Also, the heat helps open our blood vessels, and baths are just plain relaxing – and metabolism and elimination work better when we’re relaxed.
To support lymph movement, be sure to avoid clothing that’s overly tight (unless you need compression stockings) – especially around the underarm and groin areas. Sleep always in loose fitting pajamas. In addition, shaking the body – as in Qigong Shaking, using a trampoline, or standing on a vibration plate – appears to facilitate lymphatic circulation.
Breathing deeply as a regular practice is supportive to the lungs. We can train ourselves to inhale more deeply and to exhale more fully. Try making the exhale as long as possible, and then, when you feel there’s nothing more to exhale, push out a little bit more, and a little bit more, until your lungs are absolutely empty. If you feel your breathing is weak, you can buy a cheap spirometer which will let you see clearly the strength and duration of your breaths. Using it over time, you’ll see and feel a difference. Also, there are many specific breathing practices that are meant to cleanse and oxygenate the body, such as Rebirthing or Conscious Breathing, and pranayama exercises such as “breath of fire” and Kapalabhati.
Finally, forgiveness, as I see it, is the most valuable psychological instrument for cleansing. I’m talking both about everyday forgiveness and radical forgiveness. By everyday forgiveness, I mean forgiving and releasing the various grievances you have with others and yourself that are relatively easy to perceive. For example, this means forgiving others for: not letting you in when you wanted to change lanes in your car; saying something unkind to you; showing up late; sleeping with the milkman/milkwoman; etc. And it means forgiving yourself when you have a pimple; when you botch a presentation; because you’re overweight; when you accidentally slap your boss three times in a row; when you yell at your kids; and really, even when you do something that’s severely hurtful to yourself or others.
By radical forgiveness, I mean large-scale forgiveness of the world and life for not always being the way you’d prefer them to be. Forgiving the world for the presence of violence and greed; forgiving humans for damaging the environment; forgiving God or the Universe for allowing you to suffer; and so on.
When we harbor these grievances instead of accepting, forgiving, and releasing them, it’s like holding onto toxins. I believe that the impact of all of our hundreds and thousands of mini- and mega-grievances often amounts to a “toxic burden” that more significantly degrades our lives than any physical toxins do.
As usual, I love to hear about your personal experiences. Please share below.
Dr. Peter Borten
 The National Institutes of Health’s LiverTox site allows you to search for drugs and herbs for data on potential liver toxicity.
 The most common causes of serious kidney damage, it should be noted, are not environmental toxins, but dehydration, high blood sugar (diabetes) and high blood pressure.
 There are a small number of herbs and essential oils containing compounds that are toxic to the liver or kidneys. There have also been some cases of poisoning from herbal supplements in which the toxicity was due to a chemical adulterant rather than the herb itself. On the one hand, these relative outliers are sometimes used to make sweeping claims against the safety of natural medicine. On the other hand, it’s naïve to assume that herbs and essential oils are universally safe. Caution is important with essential oils (see this study) and especially whenever ingesting any essential oil. That said, there are also herbs and essential oils which have been shown to protect the liver or kidneys from damage.