Think of your liver like your body’s trash bucket. When you’re born, it’s empty (or at least it is for most of us). As you go through life, you encounter toxins, chemicals, organisms, and complex molecules that your body has to break down in order for them to be eliminated. These molecules get funneled into your “trash bucket”… and as long as it can keep up with the demand, you’re okay. But as soon as the trash bucket gets too full, suddenly anything you try to throw into it spills out onto the floor (which in this case is your bloodstream). Now, even the most minor encounter with a substance that your liver would ordinarily need to process in order for elimination to occur will lead to symptoms. Here are a few classic examples.

  1. You’re really sensitive to chemicals. These patients often say they have a major aversion to perfume, or cigarette smoke. Often they may have lived in a house under new construction (new materials tend to off-gas a lot), or worked in a building known to be toxic. Some will say they cannot handle using normal cleaning supplies, or even walking down the cleaning aisle at the store. Some have a hard time in big box stores (often cheaper clothing contains traces of formaldehyde). Some even swell up and develop itchy eyes or skin in the shower, as a reaction to the chlorine in tap water.
  2. Your allergies are out of control. Allergens are substances that are not inherently harmful to the body, but the body reacts as if they were harmful—the same way it might react to a pathogen. If the liver gets overwhelmed with toxins, either because of a massive exposure or because of cumulative exposures, it will store those excess toxins until it can get to them and produce histamine (signaling invasion to the body). This is the reason why we suddenly develop seasonal allergies when the concentration of pollen in the air spikes, and the reason why some of us, as we get more “toxic,” tend towards allergies all year round. Note that high tendency towards allergies, especially food allergies, almost guarantees adrenal fatigue as well.
  3. Your hormones are out of whack. Part of the liver’s job is to enable our own hormones to get broken down and eliminated. But if it’s too busy detoxing chemicals or dealing with allergens, hormones get backed up too. This leads to recycling sex hormones, which can severely exacerbate or even cause PMS and menopausal symptoms.
  4. You are really sensitive to mold. Mold exposure can really clog up the liver, leading to all of these symptoms. I often see cases of inexplicable chemical sensitivities, allergies, and a host of physical symptoms all beginning with acute or severe exposure to mold.
  5. You’re emotionally unbalanced. This can be a lot of things, of course. From a Chinese Medicine standpoint, though, the liver regulates and governs emotions. I will also say that low adrenal function is often also a culprit for uncharacteristic emotional instability.

Liver Cleansing Approaches

I tend to favor nutritional and (sometimes) mechanical approaches to liver cleansing over supplementation alone, as I often do not think supplements alone are strong enough to effect the quick change I’d like to see. Nutritional approaches include fasting in various forms, including water and juice fasts or guided medical food fasts. (Disclaimer: be smart about it and read the linked article!) I use fasting as a sort of “reset button,” decreasing overall inflammation in the body and allowing the liver and GI to flush out toxins. When the cleanse or fast is over, a clearer picture emerges of what still needs to be treated. Also, make sure you drink LOTS of water! This also helps your body to flush out toxins, much like rinsing out a bucket helps it get clean.

Mechanical approaches to detox include infrared sauna, hydrotherapy, castor oil packs, and enemas or colon hydrotherapy. This approach helps your body physically remove toxins from the fat cells (where many of them are stored if they don’t make it all the way to the liver), and helps flush them out of your body.

If you’ve been acutely exposed to mold, however, you will probably require pharmaceutical treatment for complete elimination.

If you have the ability to see a naturopathic doctor to coordinate your care, that is always best… and a nutritional cleanse may not be all you need. That said, this is one of my favorite nutritional cleanses. I prescribe a 10 day course, gradually increasing and then decreasing scoops per day, along with a light, hypoallergenic diet. Bonus: FREE shipping!

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