Your Neighborhood Healthfood Store, October 2014
When I was in my early twenties and learning about Chinese medicine, I went for regular acupuncture treatments with a very lovable and charming practitioner named Dr. Wang on the Upper West Side. Dr. Wang barely spoke a word of English, save a few words of instruction on how to position my body on his treatment table, and maybe some metaphorical words of advice – at which I would smile politely, but really had no clue what he was talking about.
Without fail, when I went for tune-ups for symptoms like headaches, frequent colds, low energy, trouble rising in the morning, and irritability prior to menses, Dr. Wang’s diagnosis after looking at my tongue and feeling my pulse was always, “liver qi stagnation.”
I would usually nod, expecting this answer. In between his needle insertions, I would probe as to what this meant and how to fix it. He would then say, “Eat greens. Look at green things. Take herbs. Don’t be so angry. If you’re holding it in, yell. Loud yells, Erin.” With Chinese medical philosophy in mind, these are all sound recommendations. However, I always wondered how this had anything to do with my liver and how to relate these Eastern puzzles to my Western-leaning comprehension. I also wondered if he was a little out of his mind at times, but that’s beside the (acupuncture) point.
A couple of years later when I started to delve into the science of Nutrition, the etiology of my Chinese diagnosis became very clear when I started to learn the role the liver plays in our bodies. The liver alone handles up to 500 separate functions, which impact every system in our body and, reciprocally, every system in our body affects the liver. According to the Huang Di Nei Jing, the liver is like the General of an army. Liver qi stagnation loosely translates to a liver that is overburdened, backed up, and not able to freely take care of these functions so that the body (and army) can operate smoothly.
As one of its major functions, the liver breaks down and detoxifies substances so they can be eliminated from the body via the kidneys and bowels. Complementarily, the liver is also a major storage unit, housing glucose for energy and vitamins and minerals for biochemical mechanisms of the cells as needed.
Eliminate, store, eliminate, store. Do you see how this delicate balance can be thrown off if we’re not careful?
In this post, I’ll be primarily focusing on the detoxification function of the liver. Before we dive in, though, I just want to mention that the detoxification mechanisms of the body are extremely complex. There are specialists out there who study this for years and new facts and protocols are readily established all of the time. I’m just here to brush the surface and set the record straight on a few misconceptions you might have, and shed some light on yet another potential ceiling that blocks us from reaching an elevated state of health.
Now, disclaimers out of the way, let’s look at detoxification:
Detoxification, simply put, is the way the body heals and repairs itself, which it has always done for as long as we have been roaming the planet. It is an internal cleansing process that takes place continuously and naturally. A true minimalist, the body prefers to not keep anything around for a long time – even good things. For instance, our very own hormones are constantly broken down and reconstructed in preparation for recycling or elimination. Enzymes in the liver break down most of these unwanted molecules using Phase I and Phase II detoxification pathways.
Pictured above is a general overview of these pathways. Phase I uses enzymes (such as Cytochrome P450) to break down toxins into intermediate and, oftentimes, more toxic metabolites. At this point, some toxins (like caffeine) are ready for immediate elimination, but most require a second cycle (Phase II) before they are neutralized enough for eradication.
To confuse you a little more, there are six different pathways within Phase II that complete the breakdown of chemicals outside the body (such as heavy metals, xenobiotics, drugs) and also those found inside the body (dietary, produced by the gut, endogenous in nature).
These channels further deconstruct the toxins from Phase I and bind them to specific protein molecules that escort them out via the kidneys or bile, and later through the bowels. Now, what do all of these channels have in common? They’re amino acid driven – remember this for later.
So, great … all of this happens in the liver and the liver takes all of the credit. But, how does all this stuff get to the liver in the first place? One major way is through the lymph.
Our lymphatic system is a branch of the circulatory system and a major component of the immune system. It is a network of organs (tonsils, thymus, spleen), lymph nodes, ducts, and vessels that make and move lymph from the tissues to the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, it gets circulated around the body and eventually makes its way to the liver.
Lymph plays a vital role in detoxification. Essentially, as interstitial fluid, the lymph flows through cells and lymph nodes where bacteria, viruses, organic materials, and toxins are filtered out via immunomodulatory mechanisms. In this sense, you can call it the pre-filter to the liver’s master filtration, as to not overburden the liver’s job since it has so many responsibilities already. It’s like its own personal assistant.
Anyway, the lymph flows verrryyyyy slowly. It moves around at a rate of three liters per day. Blood circulates at a rate of five liters per minute. Why is the lymph so slow? Well, there’s no pump! As the heart is in charge of circulating the blood, WE (yes, you!) are responsible for voluntarily pumping the lymph around. If not adequately circulated, toxins of any kind will store themselves in any number of places for which they have an affinity (for instance, heavy metals love nerve tissue) … and then they start to strain the immune system.
Lymph that is not flowing enough doesn’t look so great, either. I’m sure most people who are reading this have a little bit of cellulite or at least know what it looks like. If you don’t, you should probably go buy a lottery ticket because you are living a pretty nice life. These dimples are due to a lack of blood and lymph fluid circulating to the subcutaneous layer of skin, causing the septa (fibrous tissue) to become stiff. Lymph then gets trapped and the surrounding tissue hardens, causing those lumps and bumps Kim Kardashian has learned how to disguise so well in her selfies. Say (cottage) cheese, Kimmy!
The vessels that move our lymph around open and close via skeletal muscle movement. Naturally then, physical movement or exercise is one surefire way to get it pumping. Want to know a really effective method???
Rebounding! Or, better known as jumping on a trampoline.
Looks fun, right?
The combination of gravity, muscle contractions, and pressure really forces the lymph fluid to move all over your body, collecting toxins and wastes in its bouncing glory. During exercise, the blood also brings more oxygen and nutrients to the liver so it is primed to get down to business with the lymph escorting the waste right there, ripe for the picking.
Aside from rebounding, here are some other great and fun ways to improve lymph circulation:
Yoga Inversions: Turning upside down helps to circulate the lymph from your legs and lower body.
Massage, particularly lymph massage: This one doesn’t require any effort and it’s super relaxing. Massage therapists, with their pressure, help to open and close these vessels to get things flowing.
Qi gong exercises: Particularly, beating the area of your chest over your thymus gland, like Tarzan. You might feel a little awkward doing this, but you should try it. It feels so good! Beat it like a drum, hard, about 20 times. You’ll feel a nice vibration. This thumping helps to stimulate an increase in the maturation and release of white blood cells.
The skin is another huge detoxification organ; it is responsible for a quarter of the body’s detoxing each day. It can excrete up to half a liter of fluid, mostly via the sweat glands through perspiration, but also by diffusion.
One way to enhance detoxification through the skin is by using an infrared sauna. Infrared rays penetrate deeply into the skin, warming the body instead of heating the surrounding air like steam saunas do. It requires a much lower temperature to trigger twice the amount of release, and the rays penetrate deeper into the skin, targeting toxins that reside in the fat cells. If you’re interested in visiting one, I know of a great place in the city, so please message me. This is not something you should try on your own! It should be under the guidance of a licensed practitioner, such as a naturopathic doctor.
Another great technique to target the skin to assist detoxing is through dry brushing. Dry brushing is a way to stimulate the organs of detoxification by providing a gentle internal massage. It also moves lymph back into the circulatory system, which as we already know, helps bring it to the liver.
One thing to keep in mind, too, is what you put on your skin. You want to make sure that any heavy products do not block your pores, and also be careful not to apply anything too toxic that will be absorbed. You can read more about this in my previous post.
Last week, I was down in Maryland visiting for a few days. On a neighborhood walk, my boyfriend and I walked along a stream that spanned a long portion of the main road by his family’s home. In looking and listening at the dark green water flow from one small pond to the next, down small waterfalls, and around various bends, I was in awe of how effortlessly everything was running steadily through these small obstacles without a hiccup.
Your body’s detoxification system works in a similar fashion.
Each obstacle the water nimbly surpassed represents different foundational components of health of which you must be mindful. You can’t just work on the getting the lymph rushing to the liver; the stream will back up and overflow at one of the bends. You can’t just work on speedily filtering out the liver; the stream’s water level would get too low. You can’t just do an extreme detoxing protocol to take care of your body; sure, the stream would flow smoothly if done correctly, but the water would not be clear and vibrant. You get the picture, right?
Everything in our body and in this stream is interconnected. One system affects the next, affects the next, affects the first one. You should think of and approach everything slowly, gently, and completely… versus a shock-to-your-system Master cleanse, or Blueprint cleanse, or any extreme fasting as a quick-fix to give your conscience an excuse to go back to your binge-drinking, no sleep, work-a-holic, coffee chugging norm.
Maybe Dr. Wang was right. Looking at green things, such as this stream in Maryland, did help me understand what I need to do to fix my liver qi stagnation.
Now, before you run out and start a detoxification program or do any of the beneficial rebounding and sauna-ing tactics mentioned above, please note that this can be a dangerous shock to the body if it’s not primed and prepared. Elimination pathways need to be open and functioning well. Once these toxins are released from their storage sites, our body must have the capability to flush them out. If you’re not flushing them out, they will just be released to other parts of the body and could make you feel even worse.
Here’s how to ensure these elimination pathways are clear:
MANAGE STRESS: First, detoxification is a parasympathetic process. This means that our body must be in “rest mode” for us to fully and properly detoxify. If you are constantly stressed and worried, under the gun at work etc., you are in “fight or flight” mode, and your body does not prioritize detoxing by any means.
Stress also triggers your adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol due to ongoing, chronic stress has been shown to directly contribute to fatty liver, which clogs this metabolic organ.
The body also sees constant stress as a toxin itself. So don’t stress about detoxing either, that would be counterproductive 😉
DON’T EAT LATE: Since detoxification is a parasympathetic process, one guaranteed way for our body to be in this state is when we’re asleep. If you eat late at night right before you go to bed, your body prioritizes digestion over detoxification, so you miss out on this integral time of reparation and healing.
SLEEP. A LOT!: The best medicine.
MAINTAIN A CLEAN DIET: Processed, lifeless food is toxic. Too much volume of food is seen as a burden to the digestive system, too. Wholesome, natural foods provide the proper macro and micronutrient balance and enzymes needed for all detox pathways.
I asked you to remember that the six channels in Phase II are amino acid driven, right? It’s important to get all of the essential amino acids through your food – high quality animal protein is best.
BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE: Steep fluctuations in blood sugar levels as a result of eating too much sugar and carbohydrates in relation to proteins and fats cause your adrenal glands to, once again, fire large amounts of cortisol.
Chronically high blood sugar levels create a buildup of free radicals and a general catabolic state, which robs nutrients necessary for proper detoxification.
Blood sugar handling also depletes the B vitamins necessary for liver enzyme function and neurotransmitter synthesis.
HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE: Drink purified water as a staple beverage. Diuretic drinks like soda, alcohol, and caffeine will deplete water from your body. You also want to be properly hydrated so that the kidneys are functioning well, as they are the major excretory organ for toxins. If you’re dehydrated, your body will want to retain water and, with that, retain toxins.
Sweating also requires proper hydration, as does the circulatory system in order to keep the blood nice and fluid so that toxins are delivered to the lymph and liver.
ENHANCE DIGESTIVE FUNCTION: Someone could have the most pristine diet out there, but if you’re not digesting the food well, this will clog detox pathways, harm your gut lining, and set off an immune reaction from food allergies that will stress your body so that it will slow down all detoxification.
More specifically, poor fat digestion clogs the lymph and the liver, preventing proper bile production. The bile is built from healthy fats and is the “river” by which toxins are removed from the body via the intestinal tract. I’ll be writing more about the importance of healthy fats in an upcoming post.
One of the best ways to start working on your digestion other than eating healthy foods is to make a commitment to be in a relaxed state during mealtimes.Turn off the television, put away your cell phone, and have a conversation with your dinner date. If solo, try eating your food with your legs crossed in Indian-style on the floor (I’m serious). This triggers the brain to be in a more parasympathetic state, with enzymes and stomach acid abound.
- Address the foundational approaches listed above for 2-3 months, at least.
- Start with supportive therapies (rebounding, dry brushing, sauna, etc.) after 2 months of foundational work.
- If you’re still not noticing any improvement after six months of foundational work and supportive therapies, consult with a Naturopath, Chiropractor, Functional Doctor, or Clinical Nutritionist to assist you with high quality supplements and a more intense and monitored protocol.
As for the title of this post, sure, juice cleanses can help. A little. But they’re not the answer.
I know it was lengthy one (thanks for reading the whole thing!), but I hope this post opened your eyes to how things really work and how intimately tied everything in our body is to one another. Most importantly, I hope you understand what we can do to help it function as it should.
Although he may be a little unconventional, it may pay off to heed Dr. Wang’s words of advice: eat greens, yell a little bit, and look at green things, too – grass ceiling being one of them. Have a great weekend, everybody!