The concept of detox and cleansing isn’t new. In fact, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years in one form or another in the quest to get rid of “toxins” in our body. Here are some of the common herbal detox products used to “cleanse” different parts of the body.

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, 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. It is thought that milk thistle works to protect and unclog the liver by stimulating the flow of bile through the liver and gallbladder. Silymarin also seems to stabilize outer liver cells and prevent toxins from entering the cells. Recent findings yield conflicting results regarding long-term treatment using milk thistle for those people with liver damage.

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. However, the studies on the prevention and treatment of liver disease are small and don't have comparative control groups, making it difficult to determine if there is indeed any benefit; further research is needed.

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

Not only do the kidneys filter waste from the body, they also regulate blood pressure and monitor blood sugar levels. It is therefore no surprise that many people may be looking for ways to keep their kidneys healthy.

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. The clinical significance of diuretic effects of nettle in humans is unknown. Also, nettle is not recommended for use by people with chronic kidney disease.

For the colon

It is thought that toxins 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.

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 and the appropriate or optimal dosing. Although they are "natural," herbs can also cause side effects and may interact with your medication.

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

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