By: Melissa Cugliari
“Should I be doing a liver cleanse?” -- this is a question I receive almost daily in my naturopathic practice. While I work with patients on supporting their liver function and the function of all other organs of detoxification, I am not at all keen on the popularized commercial “detox programs” involving a short course of herbal teas and/or supplements along with restrictive diets or fasting, and possibly other treatments like IV therapy, cold plunges, sauna, rigorous exercise, etc. -- usually all at once in a short period of time.
Our cultural obsession with liver detoxification is not necessarily a healthy one. We look to rigorous detox programs to balance out the unhealthy habits that are so common in our society. Binge drinking followed by periods of abstinence; excessive eating followed by fasting; indulgent vacations or quarantine stays followed by militant exercise routines and restrictive diets. And so on, and on, and on.
In some sense, life is all about balance and it is normal to oscillate. The key, in my opinion, is to avoid sharp peaks and valleys, and instead opt for consistent, steady patterns as much as possible. This is the ultimate way to support liver detoxification, as well as metabolism, hormone balance, and health overall.
Exploring liver function is important in understanding why consistent liver support instead of short course cleanses is the way to go. The liver is our master detoxifier -- it filters each and every particle that we take into the body; this includes foods, medications, alcohol, environmental particles, and emotions. While our culture has evolved to include more processed ingredients and industrialized chemicals, fewer nutrient dense foods, less time in nature and exercising, less quality rest, more emotional stressors, the burden on our bodies has increased dramatically over the last century. Our livers and other organs of detoxification simply have not evolved to meet the ever growing demand on them resulting from this modern lifestyle. This is one of the root causes of the rise of disease we are seeing in many countries worldwide.
That being said, the human system is incredibly resilient and well-designed. The body is self-healing and auto-regulating meaning that, when given the things it needs, the body will heal itself and remain balanced. When we consistently provide the body with adequate nutrients through whole foods and supplementation, adequate hydration, fresh air, movement, sleep, and moments of calm, our organs of detoxification (liver included) will function optimally to keep us happy, healthy and peaceful.
If you consume a diet that is relatively devoid in whole fruits and vegetables and/or you engage in lifestyle habits that are unfavorable to health including regular alcohol consumption or drug-use, lack of exercise, poor sleep habits, etc., or yo-yo between healthy and unhealthy habits, I would absolutely not recommend a liver detoxification program. Instead, when beginning on your healing journey, it is important to remember that slow and steady wins the race. Fast and furious liver cleansing or flushing programs can be equally as taxing and traumatic to the system as the poor lifestyle and dietary habits that were in place to begin with.
Many individuals feel worse on these cleanses before they feel better (if they feel better at all); common symptoms while on a commercial detox program includes breakouts, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, diarrhea, changes to sleep, night sweats, among other things. In a society that celebrates extremes, it is also common for people to feel as though the program is “working” when these violent symptoms occur. This is not necessarily true. This could mean that the system has gone into a healing crisis, which is exactly what it sounds like -- a crisis in the process of trying to heal. This usually occurs when the system is overwhelmed with too much at once, and does not always lead to long-lasting healing or health.
My clinical approach is much more gradual and gentle. It is one that harnesses the body’s own ability to detoxify itself. When we use a gradual approach, we are supporting the liver’s innate power to cleanse -- which it is already doing to keep us alive each day, regardless of whether or not we are doing a ‘detox’.
This approach to supporting liver function as well as the other organs of elimination involves the layering of treatments over time; this reminds the liver and other organs how to heal and balance on their own. This allows the system to adjust, and harsh symptoms will be avoided. This method involves first modifying diet and adjusting lifestyle habits; from here, supplements, herbs, saunas + cold exposure, massage, and acupuncture treatments are layered in as needed.
This idea of consistent, gradual work is ultimately the key to supporting health and longevity long-term. The individuals who appear to have the most radiant skin, calm disposition, and clear-mindedness are those that practice supporting the liver and other organs daily.
So next time, when you have had an indulgent few days or weeks and are tempted to ‘go on a detox’, instead consider starting with the basics - a clean diet including eight servings of vegetables daily (one serving = the size of a clenched fist), avoiding processed ingredients and sugar (including alcohol), consume at least 2L of filtered water daily, include a 30-minute walk each day, and institute an earlier bedtime (10PM is ideal). After 2-4 weeks of this, observe how you feel. These simple habits will alleviate burden from your liver and organs of detoxification, allowing them to use the energy that was previously being used to ‘clean up’ from unhealthy lifestyle habits towards healing and rebalancing the system naturally. If you already observe these habits and want to take this a step further, consider booking in with a health care provider like a registered naturopathic doctor, who can guide you in supporting liver function in a way that is appropriate to your unique physiology and needs, instead of using a one-size-fits-all detox program that may ultimately leave you in a situation worse than when you started.