Spring is often associated with new beginnings and the common practice of spring cleaning as we move out of winter and into warmer weather. Our natural inclination to spring clean can also be applied to our health, using naturopathic and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) principles. Interestingly, ancient healing systems recognised uses for natural medicine in alignment with the seasons and rhythms of the body, and emerging scientific research validates many aspects of this ancient knowledge.
Arguably, the most important long-term strategy for optimising liver function and detoxification is to adopt a healthy diet consisting of antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh and local fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, i.e. fish, olive oil, avocado, walnuts, flaxseed, and high-quality protein sources, i.e. grass-fed beef, wild fish, and eggs, nuts, seeds, tempeh, legumes, buckwheat and quinoa. Other holistic strategies include optimising digestive function, minimising exposure to environmental toxins and supporting mental, emotional and spiritual health to minimise the impacts of stress and negative emotional states.
In TCM, spring is a time to support liver and gall bladder function (which both play a role in detoxification), address negative emotions and emotional obstructions. It is an opportunity to consider whether we might benefit from releasing any emotional blockages. Emotional signs of liver imbalance include anger, frustration, impatience, impulsiveness, irritability, negativity, nervousness and resentment.
Why should I do a spring cleanse?
Every day we are exposed to an onslaught of toxins from household cleaning products, cosmetics, pesticides, pollutants, plastics, and pharmaceutical drugs. The liver plays a crucial role in removing these toxins, which, if liver function is compromised, can be stored in fat cells for long periods. Compromised liver function affects the metabolism of macronutrients, the transformation of amino acids, toxins, and pharmaceutical drugs, the storage of fat-soluble vitamins, blood sugar regulation, and the activation of vitamin D and pharmaceutical drugs.
From a naturopathic perspective, symptoms and conditions traditionally associated with liver imbalance include:
· Autoimmune disorders
· Chronic fatigue syndrome
· Dark circles under the eyes
· Fat intolerance
· Immune dysfunction
· Premenstrual syndrome
· Skin conditions, i.e. acne, boils, eczema, psoriasis
· Yellow tongue
In an optimal environment, the liver performs without additional support and intensive detox protocols. However, the reality for many of us is that suboptimal dietary and lifestyle habits and daily toxin exposures can burden the liver over time. For this reason, I’ve compiled ten tips to support a gentle spring cleanse using principles from naturopathic and Chinese medicine:
1. Increase hydration and fibre intake to support the elimination of waste, encourage healthy bowel motility and prevent the reabsorption of toxins through the gastrointestinal tract. The average-sized adult should aim to consume 2-3 litres of filtered water per day.
2. Grow your own vegetables and buy organic when possible to avoid toxins in conventional produce. Conventionally grown produce also lacks nutrients and trace minerals due to depleted soils and fertilisers that increase the growth of foods while reducing their nutritional content. Still, eating conventional produce is much better than skipping fruits and vegetables altogether.
3. TCM recommends light foods that emphasise expansive and rising qualities of spring, i.e. fresh, young greens, microgreens, sprouts and sweet and pungent foods. Sweet yet refreshing foods include young beetroot, carrots, and other starchy vegetables. Pungent foods include basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill and bay leaf.
4. Increase vegetables from the Brassica family, i.e. broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and bok choy, which support phases I and II of liver detoxification. Broccoli sprouts contain vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids, and several glucosinolates (components of pungent plants with nutritional benefits). They have been shown to enhance detoxification, reduce viral replication, and exhibit anti-inflammatory actions.
5. Chlorella (algae) is an excellent source of nutrients and supports detoxification by directly preventing the absorption of toxins and increasing the excretion of toxic metal substances.
6. In addition to antioxidant-rich foods, supplements can further protect the liver from damage, support detoxification processes and counteract oxidative stress. Antioxidants including co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10), curcumin (a chemical compound present in turmeric) and green tea have all been shown to reduce oxidative damage. Vitamin C has been shown to protect the gastrointestinal system and help the liver detoxify compounds that may cause intestinal issues
7. Silybum marianum (milk thistle) and the extract silymarin enhances detoxification, protects against liver damage and increases the rate of liver tissue regeneration.
8. Exercise stimulates the circulatory and lymphatic systems, enhances the removal of stored toxins and mobilises stored fat and fat-soluble toxins. If exercise is not a part of your daily routine, start slow and incorporate forms of movement you enjoy, i.e. dancing, walking, weight training or other cardiovascular exercises. Decrease exposure to air pollutants by exercising in the early morning, on windy days, or in less busy areas.
9. Massage and dry-brushing may support detoxification by mobilising the lymphatic system, which removes cellular waste. Dry-brushing the skin from the bottoms of the feet and palms of the hands towards the heart can increase lymphatic circulation.
10. Chinese medicine recommends lighter, moderate-sized meals and avoiding meals late in the evening to allow the liver and gall bladder to regenerate between 11 pm and 3 am. We know that our cells repair and regenerate overnight with adequate sleep, further supporting detoxification and overall wellbeing.
Traditional Chinese medicine encourages us to embrace the qualities of spring, support liver and gallbladder function and resolve any emotional obstructions. Naturopathy offers holistic cleansing strategies that prevent liver imbalance by working on multiple body systems, starting with a healthy diet. These healing systems provide very different approaches to health that often crossover and remind us that we have a lot in common even with our differences.
In closing, if you do decide to commit to a spring cleanse and implement the above recommendations, you’ll notice that the benefits go far beyond optimising liver function and detoxification. On the other hand, if the idea of a cleanse is not for you, what matters most are the small choices you make everyday. With consistency, healthy choices will become good habits that move you towards your ultimate health potential.
Note that the above recommendations are for educational purposes and will not be suitable for all individuals. If you have serious health concerns, always seek advice from a natural health practitioner.
Written by Jessica Lloydd, Naturopath & Medical Herbalist