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An Ayurvedic Perspective


Ingrid Naiman


"I need to pick your brains on the liver. What, of all that I have here, is a good liver detoxifier. We were working on the issue of detoxification some time ago in class (an herb course) and the question came up about whether a detoxification  program should address the liver, kidneys, blood, or bowels first. We went with liver because of its role as the toxic dump but the question and answer remained uncertain. Where will the liver dump if the bowel and kidney is congested as well?"

This question was posted by one of my students but refers to a discussion in a class taught by someone else. The answer is based on traditional Ayurvedic medicine and other natural systems of healing. It is posted in case there are others trying to develop health maintenance strategies for themselves. Obviously, serious issues should be addressed by a health care practitioner.


It's important to distinguish "detoxification" from "tonification." Western natural medicine is obsessed with detoxification and its elusive goal of purification. In contrast, in the East, where many people are malnourished, there tends to be more emphasis on tonification even though purification is also a highly regarded religious and philosophical goal.

The short distinction is that detoxification generally involves the removal of surplus as well as toxicity whereas tonification is aimed at weaker systems of the body that need nourishment in order to repair. Each strategy has its place, and it is important to point out that people who are debilitated often cannot tolerate rigorously detoxifying protocols whereas stronger persons often thrive on precisely the same diets and herbs.

Logic leads to the deduction that if the cause of less than optimal health is surfeit or some kind of poisoning, detoxification will relieve some, if not all symptoms—whereas if malnourishment undermines the capacity to regenerate, then tonification is needed. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the herbs that are effective detoxifiers tend to be energetically opposite those that are tonifying so they are seldom used simultaneously.

Years ago, when I was first discovering natural medicine, I read that most people have clogged livers. The average person is trying to enjoy health with use of only 40% of the liver's capacity. Given that this is an average, it is easy to imagine that some people are more congested with fat and sugar than others but the average is clearly not the ideal and 80% surfeit is a serious problem.

People on the standard American diet consume an average of a pound of inorganic toxins per year, this in the form of food additives, drug residues, and indigestible foods. Environmental and work hazards merely add to the toll on the liver so I would consider the liver to be a more critical focus for detoxification than the kidneys, but obviously nothing works as one would hope if digestion, elimination, circulation, and respiration are less than necessary for health.


The most touted liver herb is milk thistle, but studies indicate that it is much more protective when administered before exposure to a toxin than when given after the fact. Nevertheless, there is nothing known to be more effective in helping the liver to regenerate than milk thistle. It is also detoxifying, but not as detoxifying as stronger herbs such as bupleurum, an herb that will trigger the liver in such a way as to dislodge toxins.

Ayurveda teaches that toxicity is acidic so detoxification is achieved through the use of alkalizing herbs and the spectrum of such ranges everywhere from leafy green vegetables to serious herbal formulas. Thus, while some people will thrive on artichokes, others will want to add dandelions and herbs. If the herbs cause the liver to dump toxins, the toxins begin circulating and give rise to symptoms such as irritability and itchiness. When these symptoms occur, it indicates that the eliminatory systems are not carrying off the toxins so the odds favor reabsorption of the toxins, i.e., little or no gain for the pain.

To avoid this return to square one, most practitioners suggest combining something that aids digestion—less pressure on the liver—with something that aids elimination. Depending on individual symptoms and needs, a simple intestinal formula or both an intestinal and kidney formula might be considered. So, the answer to the question is clean the liver (and blood) and make sure the eliminatory channels are efficient.


There are probably a host of definitions of "toxicity." There are inorganic toxins such as mercury from dental materials and vaccines; aluminum from food additives and cooking utensils; and cobalt in beer. There are toxins from venoms such as insect bites; toxins from foods that are preserved or not digested properly; and the very serious toxins from environmental pollutants: air, water, herbicides, and pesticides. There is also simple surfeit, food consumed in excess of what was needed, food that is held in reserve for future use and stored in the liver as fat and sugar, not perhaps "toxic" but nevertheless congesting.

As noted, most toxins are acidic, and they are neutralized by foods and herbs that are bitter. While significant improvement is often experienced in a few hours, real detoxification usually takes months or years. People should be realistic and also careful to choose products on the basis of their own need. If in doubt, consultation with an expert is always sound advice.

Levels of Toxicity

Toxicity varies. Some toxicity is serious and immediately life-threatening whereas some is subtle, almost undetectable and unlikely to pose any immediate risk. While I have seen people avoid amputation by swift and correct use of herbs, I have also seen people procrastinate and take a turn for the worse. Somewhere in between the extremes is common sense. If someone is hugely toxic, as evidenced by radiating purple and black lines, there is no time to waste. However, even in these situations, it is often worth trying some herbs to see if in the minutes or hours between symptoms and medical intervention, the symptoms can be reversed. When this occurs, intervention can be less drastic and healing afterwards is much cleaner.

My experience is that professional herbalists are confident about treating themselves but rarely as certain when offering advice to others. Likewise, patients who are less familiar with natural methods are less likely to try the same measures that a practitioner might use. My own experience with spider bites became quite famous in some circles. I absolutely refused antibiotics and surgery, but while I am better off today than others who were bitten at about the same time, my experience took fortitude and commitment. Ergo, people have to follow their own guidance in such matters.

However, when it comes to such things as minor visual problems, such as floaters, there is not much to lose by trying herbs. Find your own safe ground and proceed from there.

Psychological Symptoms of Toxicity

Ayurveda is very clear on the relationship between physiological and psychological conditions. Toxicity is characterized first by irritability and eventually by anger. The liver is regarded as the seat of anger, the place where fire goes amuck and either erupts outwardly or simmers within, the difference between aggressive and/or confrontational behavior and self-destructive suffering. The ultimate mission of fire is to defend itself and right injustices; therefore, it's important to differentiate reckless and noble use of fire.

Ayurveda further states that the fire element is related to light and the sense of sight so many (non-mechanical) visual problems are resolved by the same treatments that aid the liver. There is no clearer example of this logic than with diabetes, a disease characterized by excess blood sugar and a condition that often leads to gangrene and blindness. The main Ayurvedic herbs for regulating sugar metabolism are pungent and bitter. The pungent (spicy) foods and herbs promote better catabolism, i.e., more use and less surfeit, while the bitter herbs tend to reduce toxicity. Both improve circulation. Neither "cure" diabetes, but both categories of food and herbs promote "balance."

This is the basis of what is today called "energetic medicine," the system of healing that regards balance as the key to ease and imbalance as the harbinger of dis-ease. So, the formulas and protocols that stem from such philosophies are dynamic rather than treatment oriented. By this, I mean that the patient must be actively involved in the cure because no amount of herbs will correct for a terrible diet—and the wrong diet would sabotage the rationale of the herbal choices. Likewise, this approach does not lend itself to pathologies so when the pathologies are a prime concern, there is room for "integrative medicine," systems in which diseases are brought under control through "medicine" and the causes of imbalance are addressed through diet, herbs, life style, and perhaps such intangible factors as prayer and meditation.

This said, fire cannot be subdued through suppression. If anger is buried, dragons develop until they are strong enough to assert themselves in such a way as to express the truths that have been neglected. The Chinese discuss this wisely, for while fire loves action, wisdom often dictates waiting for more propitious moments so a person who waits is not a coward but rather someone who recognizes that success often depends on timing. While people are waiting for that moment, the subconscious is often busy with the issues giving rise to anger and resentment. In Chinese medicine, they suggest that at night, the blood retreats more deeply into the liver and when toxic, sleep is more disturbed. People may act out in their dreams what they dare not do by day. If they suffer from nightmares or inability to relax, a little bitter medicine does a lot more good than a cup of milk. Half a cup of aloe vera juice may mean the difference between violent dreams and rest.


Continued on next page


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