We Live In a Toxic World – Part VI: Detoxification Herbs to Protect Against Environmental Pollutants and Other Toxins
Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition
“All people, not just those working in or living near major pollution sources, carry a ‘body burden’ of synthetic chemicals in their blood, fat, mother’s milk, semen, urine, and breath” (Thornton, et al., 2002, p. 315). While most people would not be surprised to learn that synthetic chemicals from the environment end-up in humans, some might be surprised to learn that they are carrying a body burden of toxic chemicals that puts their health and wellbeing at risk. It is now established in the scientific literature that toxic chemicals accumulate in the body throughout the lifecycle creating a body burden that puts the health of people in serious jeopardy.
Depth and Breadth of Chemical Contamination
The following statistics provide evidence as to the extent to which synthetic chemicals contaminate the environment and humans, increasing the chances of ill health and premature death:
• Approximately 75,000 chemical substances are used currently for commercial, industrial purposes
• United States federal government registers an average of 2,000 newly synthesized chemicals ever year.
• Industry releases annually billion of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, contaminating the land, air, water and ultimately our bodies.
• More than 3,200 chemicals are added to food
• 5,000 chemical ingredients are used in making cosmetics
• 1,010 chemicals are used in 11,700 consumer products
• 500 chemicals are used as active ingredients in pesticides
• United States federal government has identified 228 chemicals as either known to cause cancer or “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans
• International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified 419 agents as being carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic or probably carcinogenic to humans (see Houlihan et al., 2003)
Health Consequences of Chemical Contamination
In addition to cancer, there is a host of other major health consequences linked to toxic chemicals contaminating our land, water, air, food supply and consumer products:
• Premature death
• Premature birth
• Cardiovascular disease
• Respiratory tract infection
• Chronic bronchitis
• Nervous system disorders (e.g., autism, attention deficit disorder/ADD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder/ADHD, Parkinson’s disease)
• Permanent decrements in IQ and declines in other measures of brain function
• Permanent decrements in lung capacity
• Defects in the reproductive system (e.g., decreased sperm counts, early onset of puberty in girls, hypospadias/birth defect of the penis, cryptochidism/undescended testicles, testicular cancer), among other ill effects (see Houlihan et al., 2003)
Given the depth and breadth of chemical contamination and the health consequences associated with the exposure of humans to synthetic chemicals, it is beyond evident that we live in a toxic world, which leaves a significant portion of unsuspecting members of the population at risk for carrying a body burden of synthetic chemicals.
The concept of body burden is a useful way for to think and talk about the extent to which humans are contaminated with synthetic chemicals found in the air, water, land and food, upon which they rely for survival and good health.
Definition of Body Burden
Body burden is “the quantity of an exogenous substance or its metabolites that accumulates in an individual or population (Thornton et al., 2002, p. 315). In less technical terms, body burden is the result of lifelong exposure to toxic industrial chemicals used in the manufacture of thousands of consumer products (e.g., detergents, insulation, fabric treatments, cosmetics, paints, upholstery, computers and televisions) and found as lingering contaminants in food and the environment (i.e., air, water & soil) (see Houlihan et al., 2003). These toxic chemicals can accumulate in fat tissue, blood and organs of the body and can be passed through the body in breast milk, urine, feces, semen, hair and nails (see Houlihan, et al., 2003).
Although it is effective in eliminating by-products from natural metabolic processes, the detoxification system of the human body is often rendered ineffective in coping with the chemical pollution in people. Contributing to that ineffectiveness is the body burden created from the regular and too frequently excessive consumption of processed carbohydrates, saturated and trans-fats, stimulants (e.g., caffeine & tobacco), suppressants (e.g., alcohol) and pharmaceuticals.
Haas (1992) provides a useful definition of detoxification. According to him, “detoxification is the process of clearing toxins from the body or neutralizing or transforming them, and clearing excess mucus and congestion” (Haas, 1992, p. 910)
One of the key principles emerging from this particular definition is that of clearing the body of mucus and congestion. Nutritionally speaking, some foods are more congesting and contribute to a person’s body burden, while others are less congesting and support the structure and function of the body’s channels of elimination.
For example, allergenic foods, organ meats, hydrogenated fats, fats, fried foods, refined flour and sugar, meats, sweets, milk, eggs and baked goods tend to congest/block the channels of elimination, while nuts, seeds, beans, oats, wheat, rice, millet, buckwheat, pasta, potatoes, roots, squashes, other vegetables, fruits, greens, herbs and water tend to be less congesting and mucous building (see Haas, 1992).
Detoxification Systems of the Human Body
Humans evolved as a species with an elegant and effective detoxification system. One of the more popular ways to conceptualize the structure and function of the human detoxification system is to classify it into seven sub-systems or channels of elimination. They are in alphabetical order the 1. blood, 2. colon, 3. kidneys, 4. liver, 5. lungs, 6. lymph and 7. skin.
There are other experts who conceptualize the human detoxification system into broader categories. Hass (1992) for example offers a detoxification typology consisting of five categories. They are:
Respiratory – lungs, bronchial tubes, throat, sinuses, and nose
Gastrointestinal – liver, gallbladder, colon, and whole GI tract
Urinary – kidneys, bladder, and urethra
Skin and dermal – sweat and sebaceous glands and tears
Lymphatic – lymph channels and lymph nodes (Hass, 1992, p. 906).
No matter how one chooses to conceptualize the human detoxification system, these channels or systems of elimination individually and collectively are designed to neutralize, transform and eliminate toxins in the body.
In strict medical terms, a toxin is anything considered to be a “poisonous substance,” which of course is assumed to be harmful to the body and wellbeing of a person. In broader terms, “a toxin is basically any substance that creates irritating and/or harmful effects in the body, undermining our health or stressing our biochemical or organ functions” (Haas, 1992, p. 906). Toxins come to exist in the body from external/environmental sources and from internal, metabolic processes involved in the breakdown and utilization of and waste/by-products produced from macronutrients (i.e., proteins, fats & carbohydrates) and micronutrients (i.e., vitamins & minerals).
Toxicity results when the body is unable to eliminate chemical contaminants, resulting in an upsetting of the homeostasis/balance in the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the body. According to Hass (1992), toxicity is related to the dosage, frequency, or potency of the toxin. The greater the amount, occurrence and power of the toxin(s) is/are, the greater the level of toxicity and the greater the congestion/blocking and stagnation/weakening of the body’s systems of detoxification caused by the build-up of toxicity overtime.
Signs and Symptoms of Toxicity
There are a host of signs and symptoms of toxicity including but not limited to headaches, joint pain, fatigue, allergies, environmental sensitivity, mucous buildup, fever, constipation, indigestion, anxiety, depression, mood swings, nervousness, sleepiness, insomnia, sinus congestion, runny nose, coughing, wheezing, sore throat, poor circulation, cognitive deficits, immune weakness and being prone to disease and sickness, among various other signs and symptoms (see Haas, 1992).
Health Benefits of Detoxification
The depth and breadth to which the land, water, air, human food supply and day-to-day consumer products are contaminated with synthetic chemicals make it clear that we live in a toxic world and the general population is at risk for carrying a body burden of synthetic chemicals. Generally speaking, detoxifying the body can help reduce the body burden people are carrying by eliminating dangerous toxins and restoring the structural and functional health of the body’s natural detoxification systems to assist in neutralizing, transforming and eliminating those toxins and cleansing the body of mucous and congestion.
Purification of the Blood
One general herbal therapy that can serve as a key strategy in detoxifying the cells, tissues and organs of the body is blood purification using alteratives (i.e., blood purifying herbs). Blood is frequently referred to as the “river of life” because of the vital life-sustaining functions it performs.
Functions of Blood
Basically, blood performs the three main functions of transportation, regulation and protection, all of which are responsible for sustaining life and preserving good health. As part of its transportation function, blood transports oxygen, nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, amino-acids, fatty-acids, glucose, etc.), metabolic waste products (e.g., carbon dioxide, urea, lactic acid, etc.), enzymes, hormones, and white and red blood cells. In terms of its regulation function, blood regulates body temperature, fluid and electrolyte balance and pH balance. With respect to its protection function, blood protects the body from disease and infection through coagulation and white blood cells and antibodies.
While it delivers oxygen and vital nutrients to cells and carries waste products away from cells, blood can also end-up transporting toxic synthetic chemicals to cells, if the body’s systems of elimination fail to remove those chemicals. Therefore, in light of its intended functions of regulation and protection and ability to transport vital elements to and waste products from cells, as well as its unintended ability to carry toxic chemicals to cells, it makes imminently good sense to purify the blood so as to assist the body in detoxifying itself.
Methods of Blood Purification
Guidance in selecting and using herbs as alteratives to detoxify the body can be found in some of the following recognized ways to purify the blood:
1. Neutralize acids with herbs such as dandelion and slippery elm, which possess a strong alkalinizing effect
2. Stimulate the functioning of the body’s vital organs, especially the liver, kidneys, lungs and colon with such herbs as Oregon grape root and goldenseal
3. Dry excess moisture and remove excess fat where toxins reside with such herbs as plantain, mullein, chickweed and gota kola
4. Eliminate excess “heat” from the organs of elimination, especially the small intestine with such herbs as rhubarb root (see Tierra, 1998)
In addition to the herbs mentioned in the four blood purification methods, alfalfa, aloe vera, angelica, burdock root, chrysanthemum, comfrey, burdock root, dong quai, echinacea, ginseng, ho shou wu, kelp, licorice, lycil, marshmallow, nettles, peony, plantain, red clover, rehmannia sarsaparilla, sassafras, uva ursi, and yellow dock are other alteratives used for blood purification (see Tierra, 1998).
From this list, Tierra (1998) contends that echinacea is the best herb to purify the blood and lymph in that it supports these four blood purification methods. Mowery (1986) recommends strongly the use of kelp, especially brown kelp, as an alterative in enhancing the body’s ability to modulate the effects of environmental pollution and heavy metal toxins. Mowrey (1986) also recommends burdock root as an excellent blood purifier.
Based in part on the recommendations of Mowrey (1986) and Tierra (1998), what follows is a brief description of some important herbs for detoxifying or otherwise purifying the blood, while improving the function of the liver.
Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
Burdock root is long recognized as an overall blood purifier and blood building herb, with additional diuretic and diaphoretic activity, and, thereby, cleansing the body of toxins and wastes in three fundamental ways. It is considered to have a restorative effect on the liver.
Dandelion Root (Taraxacum offcinale)
Dandelion root serves as a primary blood purification herb because of its ability to filter toxic chemicals from the bloodstream. It possesses special medicinal properties to promote the health of the liver, one of the most important organs of elimination in the body, by stimulating liver activity and secretion of bile into the liver and remedying liver congestion. Increased bile production can help with a cleansing of the bile ducts.
Echinacea Root (Echinacea augustifolia)
An important function of echinacea root is to stimulate the lymphatic system so it can help clear and cleanse toxic substances from the body. Although recognized as an immune enhance, echinacea root is known to be an effective blood cleanser.
Kelp (Laminaria, Macrocytes & Ascophyllum).
Kelp, particularly brown kelp, is recognized as an overall nutritive and detoxification/cleansing tonic for the blood. It has the ability to bind in the gastrointestinal tract, for example, radioactive strontium, barium, cadmium and zinc. By binding toxic chemicals in the digestive tract, kelp can help reduce the absorption of toxic chemicals in the cells, tissues and organs of the body. Brown kelp is especially effective in binding toxic chemicals. Algin is a primary chemical constituent of brown kelp that plays a major role in helping to detoxify the body.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice root is recognized in across different cultures to possess detoxification properties. For example, in China licorice root is known as “The Great Detoxifier” (see Mowrey, 1986). Mowrey (1986) describes licorice root as protecting the body’s blood supply and enhancing its purity by protecting the liver, the body’s detoxification plant, from serious diseases such as cirrhosis and hepatitis.
Sarsaparilla Root (Smilax officinalis)
Herbalists recognize sarsaparilla root to be a blood purifier, with an ability to attack harmful microbes in the bloodstream and remove mercury. It also is an effective diuretic, helping to remove waste products such as uric acid and excess chloride.
Yellow Dock root (Rumex crispus)
Yellow dock root serves the liver function quite well by enhancing its ability to filter the blood and stimulating the production of bile. Yellow dock root is used widely in Europe, North America, China and India.
Herbal Detoxification Formulas
Unless you have the knowledge and ability to prepare your own herbs or know an herbalist who can create a detoxification formula, there are any number of herbal supplement formulas designed for cleansing and detoxifying the body, generally, and blood, specifically. It is recommended that the reader visit a health and nutrition store and inquire about particular supplement products created for detoxification purposes. Companies such as Natural Factors, Jarrow Formulas, New Chapter and Renew Life manufacture excellent detoxification/cleansing supplements. It will be discovered that different detoxification formulas will use different combinations of herbs, many of which were discussed above.
We live in toxic world. The air, water and land of the planet, the natural food supply, manufactured foods and numerous other consumer products are contaminated with dangerous synthetic chemicals. Because of the proliferation of synthetic chemicals, along with the over consumption of processed, de-natured foods, a sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress and inadequate rest and sleep, the various systems of elimination and detoxification in humans have become congested/blocked and stagnated/weakened, preventing the clearing, neutralizing or transforming of toxins and removing of excess mucus and congestion.
Although we live in a toxic world, this does not mean we are condemned to carry a body burden of unhealthy and life-threatening synthetic chemicals. Nature has provided humans with an array of herbs to help detoxify the body using the strategy of purifying the blood. It would be prudent to detoxify the body at least twice a year using an herbal formula of choice constituted of a combination of herbs such as the ones mentioned and described earlier. It is also recommended that the reader take a look at my five other newsletters on living in a toxic world. Many of the topics (e.g., body burden, toxicity, detoxification, body’s systems of elimination, etc.) are discussed in greater depth.
Haas, E.M. (1992). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Houlihan, J., Wiles, R., Thayer, K. & Gray S. (2003). Body burden: The pollution in people. Retrieved June 15, 2008, at http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden1/pdf/BBreport_final.pdf
Mowrey, D.B (1986). The scientific validation of herbal medicine: How to prevent disease with herbs, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Los Angeles, CA: Keats Publishing.
Thornton, J.W., McCally, M. & Houlihan, J. (2002). Biomonitoring of industrial pollutants: Health and policy implications of the chemical body burden. Public Health Reports, 117, July-August, pp. 315-323.
Tierra, M. (1998). The ways of herbs. New York, NY: Pocket Books.