The Herbal Detox Myth

Detoxification

“Detoxification” is a term that gets used a lot in alternative medicine. Perhaps it’s become a bit of a fad to cleanse or detox, trying to purge the body of toxins that shouldn’t be there by using specific herbal medicines to assist the process. While this intention is really great, what people don’t realize is that there can also be issues around what those herbs will actually cleanse out of the body and how might your body handle it.

Additionally, from traditional perspectives when we look at the concept of detoxification or purifying the blood and tissues of the body, it is different from the way people are looking at it here in the modern world. It can potentially lead to misuse of what we in Western herbalism refer to as the alterative category of medicinal plants. There’s appropriate usage of alteratives, but inappropriate usage of those plants can lead to some adverse reactions and can lead to constitutional harm.

I find this topic important to talk about because we see the term “detoxification” thrown around a lot. If we look at the supplement industry for instance—which is a whole industry built around detoxification-based products, that are available over the counter, which could potentially be detrimental to people’s health.

Traditionally, herbal remedies that were considered detoxifying agents—what in traditional Western herbalism would usually be referred to as alteratives or blood purifiers—were used for a specific constellation of symptoms, a specific pattern that we might refer to generally as damp heat patterns, where we see people with fluid congestion; stagnation in the joints and the tissues; skin conditions—inflamed, damp, wet skin conditions like eczema; oily acne; joint pain; arthritis; headaches; digestive stagnation; sluggishness; heaviness; and liver stagnation—things that are indicating that this person’s metabolism is such that it’s not able to tolerate their basic metabolic waste products. Meaning that they eat food but their body, their cells, and their organs of elimination can’t effectively get the waste products out of their body. So this is where the channels and organs of elimination are blocked and congested, basically ineffectively removing wastes out of the body.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.)

So things accumulate within the body and lead to this constellation of symptoms that I just listed—a handful of standard ones—classically referred to as “bad blood” syndrome. And this is where our alterative plants come in and have been used for a long time. There are a lot of different types of alteratives. We’ve got diarrhetic alteratives, we’ve got diaphoretic alteratives, we’ve got bitter liver-based alteratives, we’ve got laxative alteratives, and we’ve got respiratory alteratives. There are all sorts of different types of alteratives, but essentially an alterative plant helps to open those channels of elimination and enhance the body’s natural innate detoxification processes.

So what’s this detoxification of waste products in metabolism? We consume foods, then our body has to get rid of the waste. While the term “detoxification” is used in a lot of alternative medicine, detoxifying plants are ingested outside of the traditional context. People say that these plants will detox the body of pesticides, herbicides, and environmental pollutants, or other genetically modified organisms, but oftentimes this concept hasn’t actually been studied from a scientific perspective. There isn’t clear proof that a herb can be taken in a certain quantity for a period and show that it removes all these environmental pollutants, pesticides, and herbicides.

This has led to detoxifying herbs being looked at differently and used to cleanse the body from pollutants and toxins that are outside of the sphere of metabolic waste products. Those herbs being used in sometimes high amounts for extended periods are taken without consideration of the constitutional effects that these plants have on a person’s body. This is one of the biggest mistakes that is made in more of the biomedical model of herbal medicine, or especially a cookie-cutter one for all types of formulations that we see in the supplement industry, which is an oversight of how those plants will affect someone’s constitution.

Alteratives

So taking a closer look, most of these “detoxifying” plants tend to be cooling, drying, and draining remedies from a humoral perspective. From the Ayurvedic humoral perspective with the doshas, most of these types of plants are aggravating to the vata dosha, or the air and ether elements of the body. They tend to cool you down and drain fluids. Their whole effect is to cleanse and purge fluid, it’s like removal therapy. Now if someone is already verging on the dryer side, or has a vata type constitution, it’s not going to be the ideal choice of remedy, because vata generally tends to be cold, dry, weak, emaciated, malnourished, and quite variable in their digestion. A person with a vata constitution oftentimes has a difficult time absorbing foods, and if we study alteratives, they are actually increasing the elimination of things. So it’s the reverse action you’d want to give someone with this type of constitution. 

For those of you who don’t know, I was really involved in the raw food world when raw foodism was a really popular thing and when the raw diet was similar to what keto is now, where everyone’s like, “Keto, keto, keto,” and before that it was “Paleo, paleo, paleo,” and before that it was “Raw, raw, raw.” There’s always some sort of dietary fad that everyone jumps on the bandwagon of, and then something else comes and replaces it. It’s almost humorous at this point.

But I was really on the raw food bandwagon, and that dietary protocol/fad was set on detoxification. What I saw in the raw food world was pretty much across the board a Vata imbalance, meaning thin, weak, emaciated looking people who were cold, dry, and constantly detoxifying themselves but becoming unhealthy from it. They had cold damage to the digestive system, constitutional weakness, and lowered energy. They would feel a lot of energy in the beginning, but over time they would become weak and deficient. This is because there was so much focus on detoxifying, and forgetting about rejuvenation and rebuilding with nourishing foods. 

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

So my point is that there is a big difference between the traditional understanding of a detoxifying alterative medicinal plant, how it is used, and what it is used for, vs the modern approach to people wanting to cleanse and detoxify because they’re paranoid about environmental pollutants and toxins. I’m not denying the fact that those things exist—those things do for sure exist, but it’s a bit of a leap for people to start saying that all alterative plants are detoxifying plants and therefore they will cleanse the body of heavy metals, environmental pollutants, and toxins.

As I mentioned above, alteratives are cold, draining, drying, eliminative plants and they have certain requirements for their usage, specifically damp-heat type patterns, patterns of excess that we see within people. We need to cleanse, lighten, open up and move these organs and channels of elimination. If these categories of plants are used outside of that context, they can lead to constitutional damage. Damage may be a hard word, but constitutional imbalance, especially in the digestive system, or in the mucosa will procure an overall aggravation of the Vata dosha. We can see people getting more nervous, tenser, more anxious, and tend to constrict and spasm. 

Different Protocols for Different People

So when it comes to detoxification, it’s good to turn to traditions and see how the process of cleansing and detoxification has been done traditionally. Ayurveda has quite a bit to offer in this regard. One thing that this system does well is they don’t have one set protocol for everyone. They fine-tune the herbs and the timing and the protocol for cleansing and detoxification, according to the needs of the individual. Their protocol is referred to as “panchakarma” which is their refined system of cleansing and detoxification. One of the things that to me is the most important factor of panchakarma—that I don’t think anyone looks at if we’re looking at it from more of a biomedical Western perspective—is the timing of it and the constitutional factors of it. We need to know who’s detoxing. Is it a vata person, a pitta person, or a kapha person? What season is it? A kapha person probably shouldn’t be doing a whole bunch of detoxification in the middle of winter, because winter is not the time to detox. Springtime is really the ideal timing to detox certain constitutions.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

So that’s what we’re all about as holistic herbalists: not just having a cookie-cutter, one-and-done model for everyone but having things be customized, having things be tailored to suit the unique and specific needs of each individual person. That is probably one of the most effective ways to consider and understand and approach detoxification.

It’s important to follow up detoxification as well with some form of rejuvenation and revitalization. One of the big mistakes that I saw in the raw food world was that people were just cleansing all the time and they never rebuilt themselves, which led to profound levels of weakness and what I saw as emaciation and malnourishment.

Detoxification is something that is good for folks to do every now and then. Especially in our modern world in regards to how most folks eat, and the way people’s activity levels are, and detoxification can be a good thing to do, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

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