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Exercises to help detox the body

Reading time: 7 minutes

If you are making changes to your nutritional habits for the new year, it’s vital that you include specific movements to maximize your ability to fully rid yourself of the waste that builds up.

Every day our bodies are bombarded with toxins from both outside the body (exotoxins) – the polluted environment, medications, alcohol, cigarette smoke, car exhaust emissions and so on – as well as from toxins within it (endotoxins) – the byproducts of nutrient breakdown, hormones and bacterial waste products from the intestines.

The liver is not the only organ of detoxification. Quite the contrary, every cell in your body is cleaning its own house every nanosecond that you’re alive. However, all of the body’s systems depend to some extent on the detoxifying function of the liver. In fact, one of the greatest common misunderstandings about the liver is that we only need to support it when we drink alcohol.

We live in an industrialized, polluted society, so liver support is a good insurance policy to support complete health. When we’re stressed, we run all systems at a higher rate, and it’s the liver that must deal with the breakdown products of increased energy production.

Cellular waste products will make their way to the liver to be processed and finally ejected, so all parts of the journey need support, including the circulation, skin and lymph glands. Eventually, toxins are chemically broken down in the liver, and their waste products are eliminated through the kidneys and colon.

The lungs also play their part, filtering the air we breathe before the oxygen is absorbed and directed to cells, organs and muscles. Skin is our largest organ and the second most important for detoxification after the liver, which is why when the liver is struggling, we may see skin issues or dullness, as well as possible bloating, digestive issues, food intolerances or headaches.

Sweating is one of the processes involved in detoxifying waste products, so the increased breathing rate and sweating achieved with exercise help to promote efficient detoxification.

Research has shown that exercise supports detoxification by increasing stores of the body’s major antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase. This is produced in the liver, where it’s involved in liver detox pathways and protects cells from damage, as well as other physiological processes including fat transport and metabolism.

Glutathione is also known to play a role in DNA synthesis and repair, the synthesis of proteins and chemical signaling molecules, amino acid transport and enzyme activation, so it can indirectly influence every system in the body, especially the immune, nervous, gastrointestinal and respiratory systems.

In one study, exercise training was shown to increase glutathione peroxidase by 50-70 percent to protect cells.1 In fact, all liver functions besides detoxification – metabolism and signaling for fat storage and efficient energy usage in the body – have been shown to increase with exercise (as reflected by gene expression changes) as a defensive response to this ‘good’ stress.2

When making nutritional or other changes for a detox, it’s vital to support liver function.

This allows it to process any backlog coming through via the bloodstream.

When the liver is overloaded by too much, too soon, whether through stress or compromised function, it’s usually a sign that the detoxification processes need support. When toxins can’t move through these pathways to be broken down and excreted via the bile, they can back up into the portal vein, the main source of blood to the liver.

From there, they can return to the bloodstream, often more toxic than when they went in, as they are now partially broken down and potentially more reactive.

This is when the negative symptoms of a ‘detox’ are experienced, such as fatigue, headaches, irritability, skin breakouts or other inflammatory flare-ups. It used to be believed that such a ‘healing crisis’ was a good sign of increased detoxification, but we now recognize that overloading the system in such a way is potentially harmful, as toxic metabolites come into contact with tissues and cells. Helping the process with mindful movement, hydration, nutritional and herbal liver support, and rest can ease the burden on the body.

We are designed for continual movement, and without a certain level of spontaneous activity, many bodily functions struggle to come to their full capacity. Movement manipulates our lymphatic system, the network of lymphatic fluid, and delivers foreign and toxic agents to lymph nodes in the groin, chest, neck and other sites, where they are killed and destroyed.

Unlike the blood, for which the heart acts as a pump, lymph can’t move unless we do – sedentary habits mean stagnation of lymphatic fluid, with compromised detoxification and immunity. That’s why a sedentary lifestyle can leave us feeling sluggish, stagnant and as though we’re ‘stewing in our own juices.’ Here are some movements that can help.

Meditation on movement

This is an example of a kriya (meaning action, effort) – a cleansing practice used in the kundalini yoga system to move energy through the body, detoxify and clarify, including out through the skin. The continual movement through the arms and shoulders while lifting upright helps lymphatic drainage at the collarbones. You can gradually build up to continuing the motion for three minutes, so you don’t add tension to your shoulders. This is a helpful practice for detox programs as it provides an alternate deep sensation when cravings for foods or substances arise.

1) Sit in a supported upright position, on a chair is good for many, or at least on one block (two is best) to raise the hips easily above the knees and lift up through the pelvis. Spend a few moments settling into your breath and releasing your shoulders, moving into them if you need.

2) Bring your fingertips onto your shoulders and lift your elbows in toward your ears on an inhalation.

3) Open your elbows out and extend your arms (just above shoulder height) on the exhalation. Feel the motion supported by your belly and side ribs rather than lifting the shoulders. Keep this motion following the breath, allowing the exhale to reach its endpoint and stopping to rest if you feel agitation.

4) Breathe fully into long, releasing outbreaths to ensure a relaxed face and jaw throughout the movement – the exhalation naturally releases toxins and waste products such as carbon dioxide, but can be shortened by the stress response or habits of shallow breathing.

Sequence for fascial fluidity

Keeping fluidity and hydration through the connecting tissues of the fascia – the web that holds the whole body in suspension – allows proper removal of what are often termed ‘toxins,’ but are really the byproducts of energy production within each cell.

This sequence adds pulsing micro-movements within larger held positions to nourish fascia and optimize flow through points where interruptions prevent full detoxification.

It also incorporates twisting motions; twists are often said to ‘wring out toxins,’ as they pull and compress onto opposite sides of spiral fascial lines (connective tissue) across the torso as we move each way.

This stimulates organs, glands and tissues that all play roles within detoxification, repair and exchange of nutrients, as well as rerouting the flow of bodily fluids.

1) Start on all fours to simply explore movement through the shoulders and hips, pelvis and abdomen. Move in any way that feels right, and let yourself fully breathe to respond to areas where tension may be held.

2) With open palms, tuck your toes under and lift the knees to raise up your bottom. As you press back and up from the hands, bend the knees to move into the lower back and hips, creating ‘figure eight’ movements through the hips and shoulders.

3) Bring the knees back down, exhale the left knee in toward the chest, and bring the head in to meet it, fully rounding the back to curl in.

4) As you inhale, lengthen the left leg out behind you, flexing the foot. Lengthen all the way from the crown of the head to that foot, gathering in the lower ribs to support where the top and bottom body meet. Follow these motions for 10-20 repetitions, guided by the rhythm of your breath.

5) Come to a downward-facing dog, with hips lifted high – staying open in the chest and rooting down to the ground through the base of the index fingers. Drop the knees and move the right leg in the previous motion.

6) From downward-facing dog, step the left foot between the hands (or come through all fours) so that the foot is parallel to the outside of your mat, feet hip-width apart. Raise the torso and arms to come into a low lunge, opening the arms as wide as you need to soften the shoulders and lift the chest.

7) Place the right hand on the ground (or raised on blocks) underneath that shoulder. From here you have the option to tuck under the toes of the left foot and lift that knee off the ground. You can then rotate your belly to come into a twist to either raise the left arm or bring the left hand onto the back of the pelvis.

8) You then have the option to come into a deeper twist, bringing the right elbow over the inside of the left knee with hands together at the heart. Open the chest so the elbows and shoulders can drop.

9) Come back to downward-facing dog before moving to the other side.

10) Step your feet in toward your hands to curl up slowly to standing. Holding your gaze on one spot, raise your left knee in toward your chest as you raise the right arm to the ceiling.

11) Step the left leg back into a high lunge and move between lifting the leg and stepping back 10 times.

12) Then, after stepping back into the lunge, when you bring up the left knee, rotate at the belly to twist and hold the left knee with the right hand as you swing the left arm out behind you. Release the arms back and rotate back to the center and step back, moving between these two motions 10 times. Move to the other side and then stand quietly to let your breath relax.


Turning our whole world upside-down not only gives us a new perspective, but also increases lymphatic flow from the lower body up through gravity, for easier movement of toxins for elimination.

Supported inversions add an extra calming dimension, as they allow the heart and nervous system to come to rest and strengthen the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system, where repair, healing and detoxification can occur. Any tension held in the diaphragm can also be released, helping breath patterns and the downward motion that allows full elimination of toxins via bowel movements.

The version shown here – a bridge pose over a bolster or stack of folded towels, with legs on a chair – fully inverts the body and is a helpful respite if you are feeling the effects of detoxification, particularly headaches, insomnia or agitation. Stay in this position for 5-10 minutes at the end of a physical practice or simply when you need to.

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Article Topics: Lymphatic system
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