Research suggests that an herbal cleanse may facilitate the body's own ability to rid itself of toxins, and certain herbs have shown promise in purifying select organs. Today's highlight will be on milk thistle and dandelion root for the liver, juniper berries and nettle for the kidneys, and psyllium for the colon.

Over time, toxins can accumulate in the body for a variety of reasons. Culprits include environmental pollution, stress, medications, and even herbs. Moreover, an unhealthy diet that frequently incorporates caffeine, refined sugar, and alcohol is to blame for providing a route for these toxins to enter the body. Toxin accumulation may also deplete our energy and leave us feeling sluggish and unfocussed. It can also disrupt digestion and change our appetite.

Many people have tried using routine cleanses to enhance the body's natural ability to self-clean and get rid of pollutants that accumulate in the liver, kidney, and colon. Supporters of herbal cleanses claim that herbs promote the flushing of toxins out of the body and protect our organs, allowing the organs to function better and for the body to more efficiently handle increasing amounts of waste.

For the liver

The primary organ for detoxification is the liver. The liver serves many functions in the body, such as producing bile, which helps with digestion. One of its essential roles is to process, store, and eliminate millions of diverse compounds including nutrients, chemicals and medications, and toxins. The herbal products milk thistle and dandelion root have been used to clean and strengthen the liver.

Milk thistle contains a mixture of compounds collectively known as silymarin, which may protect against liver toxicity. Studies have shown that milk thistle works to protect and unclog the liver by stimulating the flow of bile through the liver and gallbladder. Recent findings have yielded encouraging results that support long-term treatment using milk thistle for those with liver damage - especially if the damage is caused by alcohol.

Additionally, milk thistle may be taken as a preventative measure, particularly by those who have a known liver disease, have a family history of liver disease, or have a diet composed largely of processed foods.

Dandelion root has also been used to help remove waste from the liver and gallbladder. It has been used in many traditional medicinal systems, such as the Native American medicinal system. It may increase bile production and reduce cholesterol and uric acid levels in the blood. The leaves are a mild diuretic and also help to clean the kidneys.

For the kidneys

Maintaining excellent kidney health is also vital during any cleanse. Not only do the kidneys filter waste from the body, they also regulate blood pressure and monitor blood sugar levels.

Juniper berries may strengthen and detoxify the kidneys as well as the urinary tract. The diuretic action of juniper increases the filtration rate of the kidneys. However, long-term use is not recommended because it causes local irritation of the kidneys, and frequent use of juniper may be harmful and should be avoided by those suffering from kidney disease or diabetes, and also by pregnant mothers.

Another diuretic that people use to help with kidney function is nettle. By promoting frequent urination, nettle allows water to continuously flow through the kidneys and bladder - ensuring bacteria is flushed out and crystals do not form or develop into kidney stones. However, nettle is not recommended for use by people with chronic kidney disease.

For the colon

Toxins will also accumulate in the colon when undigested food matter ferments and interferes with nutrient absorption. These toxins can then enter the bloodstream, pollute the cells, and further prevent other waste matter from exiting the body.

One way to cleanse the colon is to use psyllium husks and seeds. They are full of fibre and act as a natural laxative. As an added bonus, the gel that forms when psyllium is taken with ample amounts of water actually attracts and absorbs toxins as it passes through the bowels on the way out of the body. Psyllium may also be useful in treating conditions from diarrhea to high cholesterol.

While the body does function to clean itself naturally, there are ways in which we can minimize the amount of buildup, including eating an organic, natural foods diet that includes fibres, vegetables, and fruits; getting regular exercise; and drinking plenty of water.

As a consumer, however, you should be aware that additional and more conclusive research is needed to better understand the exact therapeutic effects of certain herbs, the appropriate or optimal dosing, and the potential side effects.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you begin any type of herbal detox or natural cleanse program.

Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)