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Top Herbs for Detoxification

Enlightened medicine acknowledges that almost all people, including you and me, will fail to always maintain proper dietary regimens. Now and then, the liver, our great detoxifier, will need a lot of extra help. Single herbs and combination formulas can help compensate for our nutritional falls from grace.  

Prime Liver Herb

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been used for centuries to help protect the body’s primary detoxifying organ, the liver. In fact, this herb was used as far back as ancient Rome. Today, milk thistle is used extensively throughout Europe and much of the world to treat liver toxicity and liver disease. Although a recent meta-analysis of 13 clinical trials concluded that milk thistle is ineffective for various liver disorders, a wealth of evidence proves otherwise. After reviewing the report, experts find discrepancies in the study and point to the history of clinical evidence supporting milk thistle.

“ABC [the American Botanical Council] and some of its scientific colleagues and medical advisors have reviewed the paper and have found anomalies in its contents,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC and remedies editorial advisor. He adds, “There are an impressive number of experimental and animal pharmacology research studies—plus the body of clinical trial data—that suggest a positive benefit of milk thistle extract on liver function.”

The major active plant compound responsible for milk thistle’s remarkable effects is silymarin. This compound has been tested in numerous animal studies against damage to the liver from disease, alcohol, medications, and toxic organic solvents. In clinical medicine, silymarin is recognized as a treatment alone or in combination with other medications for the following:

  • Liver fibrosis: Xenobiotic (a toxin or other foreign substance harmful to the body) poisoning and certain diseases such as acute and chronic hepatitis can cause adverse changes to the liver. Milk thistle can help regenerate damaged cells and also has a protective effect.
  • Fatty liver, cirrhosis, and alcoholic liver disease: Silymarin can treat alcoholic liver disease, fatty liver, and cirrhosis by normalizing liver enzymes and regenerating damaged liver cells.
  • Hepatitis: Silymarin preserves liver function, reduces elevated liver enzymes, and can help repair liver damage. Modern-day research has proven that, in addition to marvelous milk thistle, there are other excellent toxin-defying, health-promoting botanicals, including garlic and a trio of Ayurvedic herbal supplements.

Garlic’s Promise

In ancient Assyria, certain plant medicines were held in especially high regard, including garlic (Allium sativum). This herb was used against poisoning from toxic mushrooms and plants and as a liver-supporting detoxifier.

Over the last decade, some important studies have borne this out. Researchers from Michigan’s Wayne State University School of Medicine set out to see what would happen when mice fed acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), known to cause liver damage when used in excess, were either given garlic compounds (diallyl disulfide and/or N-acetyl L-cysteine) or no treatment. Treatment with both of these compounds “effectively protected the liver.” 

A Japanese Journal of Pharmacology study examining how compounds from aged garlic extract (AGE) protect the liver found that pretreating mice with a compound specific to AGE, S-allyl mercaptocysteine (SAMC), prevented liver damage from the aceta-minophen that the animals received.

Another study out of India looked at the effects of feeding fresh garlic or garlic oil to rats that had been given the cancer-causing chemical azomymethane (AOM). Study authors wanted to see what would happen with the detox enzymes, in particular. Researchers concluded that long-term feeding of garlic reduces the toxic effects of chemicals, including cancer causers like AOM.

Research appearing in Nutrition and Cancer also looked at the effects of diallyl disulfide on different organs in rats. The levels of important detoxification enzymes were significantly increased in the animals given the garlic compounds, leading the authors to conclude that garlic’s activation of these enzymes may help with detoxification, even possibly shielding humans from cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Ayurvedic Herbs

In Ayurvedic tradition, the psychosomatic view of the human being sees the body’s organs and systems as a unit, with the digestive tract and its functions ranked at highest importance to health.

Ayurveda recognizes that seasonal weather variations call for alterations of our daily routines and that our bodies also undergo seasonal changes that require a modification of optimal nutritional support. When the winter chill arrives, the digestive and absorptive functions are well balanced and ready for the taxing seasonal demands of obtaining energy from the caloric value of food.

In winter, the key is to eat a variety of foods frequently and in small quantities to continuously support the digestive processes and the body’s nutritional requirements. This is part of what might be called Ayurvedic “untoxification.”

Enter three Ayurvedic herbs that are more than up to the job:

  1. Picrorhiza kurroa We might not have guessed that a small perennial herb that modestly grows in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 meters would be such a powerful player in the international medicinal botanical scene. But extracts from Picrorhiza kurroa appear to be super-potent liver protectors and immune modulators. The bitter roots and rhizome of Picrorhiza kurroa have been used traditionally for asthma, bronchitis, malaria, chronic dysentery, viral hepatitis, and upset stomach, as well as a bitter tonic (stimulating the appetite and improving digestion) and as a liver protectant. A number of studies also show significant liver protection when the extract is given before administration of acetaminophen, which, if overdosed, can injure the liver. While no one knows for sure how it works, one researcher suggests that the extract’s primary components are excellent free-radical scavengers, and this activity contributes to liver protection by reducing lipid peroxidation (a source of free radicals) and free-radical damage. The extract also stimulates nucleic-acid and protein production in the liver, which is another possible explanation for its benefits.
  2. Phyllanthus amarus This Ayurvedic herb has been used, in recent years, most successfully in such conditions as jaundice and hepatitis B. How does it work? One possibility is that Phyllanthus amarus may block the spread of the virus by directly preventing replication of its genetic material.
  3. Triphala A powdered formulation from Terminalia chebula, Terminalia bellerica, and Emblica officinalis, Triphala is often referred to by traditional Ayurvedic practitioners as a “good manager of the house,” one which successfully attends to digestion, nutrient absorption, and body metabolism. With a mild laxative effect that may be balanced by diet, this combination has been used for indigestion and constipation and as an adjunct in ulcer healing, in addition to other uses.  

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