All organs of the body must purge toxic components in order to operate properly, although several organs have waste removal as their primary function: the liver, the lymphatic system and the kidneys. Other organs operate secondarily as waste removal machines: the gastrointestinal tract, the lungs and the skin. We call these organs that remove waste from the body “emunctories.”
Keeping your emunctories clean and increasing their waste removal capabilities ensures that toxicity isn’t building up in the body and is a critical method to keep our immune systems operating properly. You cannot stop a viral signal from occurring if your organs are full of toxins. Herbs are a great way to do this.
Here are the important plants for each region of the body or organ system that can easily complement a detoxification program and that tend to be most prominent in Western herbology, easy to grow and cultivate, and readily available from commercial suppliers.
The liver is easily the most well known of the organs of detoxification, but the symptoms of liver toxicity are less well known. Easily recognizable signs throughout the body can point to liver dysfunction and a need for herbal cleansing of this organ.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is an all-around gentle purifier for both the liver and the kidneys. It clears congestion in these organs and “toxic heat” resulting from impurities in both our diets and the environment. When taken over long periods of time, dandelion can improve digestion and skin eruptions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, which are often an expression of organ congestion.
Some detoxifying plants are best used before a toxic offense, but dandelion is so adaptable that it can be used before, during, or after a toxic insult, and it is safe for long-term consumption in adults and children.
Toxic livers and gallbladders will often present as pain under the right shoulder blade or tight and contracted muscles in the shoulder, particularly on the right side and up into the neck and the back of the head—often resulting in a temporal or dull frontal headache. Dandelion can help correct these referred musculoskeletal pains from the liver.
A slightly swollen and painful liver, which has a slight ache after drinking too much alcohol or eating too rich a meal, can also be a good indication for the use of dandelion.
Because of its broad and gentle applications, I often use dandelion as a base for many of my detox formulas, as well as recommend it as a tea that people can sip in the spring and summer, either hot or over ice.
Although the root is the primary portion of the dandelion used in tinctures, the leafy dandelion greens make an excellent addition to salads and are rich in vitamins B and C, minerals and antioxidants. Be sure to harvest them from a place far from roads, golf courses, and non-organic farms, which often have toxins, or buy organic ones at a market.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Milk thistle is powerful for protecting or regenerating liver tissue. Its indications are congestion and inflammation of the liver, including hepatitis, jaundice, cirrhosis, cholangitis and cholestasis, as it increases the flow of bile and improves blood stasis in this blood-rich organ.
It is also a great herb for detoxifying the brain and spleen, exemplifying how most plants, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, benefit multiple organ systems.
Silybum has a wide-reaching effect against a broad variety of chemicals and toxins, such as dry-cleaning solutions, acrylamides, cadmium, ethanol, thallium, chemotherapy and organophosphates. I think of milk thistle when I know someone is going to be exposed to something toxic, like a night out on the town or a round of chemotherapy.
Good evidence exists that milk thistle protects the liver through a variety of mechanisms: it lowers oxidative stress, modulates immunity, lowers total toxin uptake, increases glutathione production and lowers inflammation. There are few plants that have such wide-reaching effects on such an important organ of detoxification.
Several studies have also shown that Silybum improves the classic liver laboratory blood serum markers AST and ALT, making milk thistle very useful in alcoholic and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (fatty liver), which is unfortunately rampant in our times.1
Milk thistle also works well to reverse the damage of acetaminophen (Tylenol or paracetamol) toxicity or overdose, the leading cause of calls to poison control centers.
Silymarin, or milk thistle extract, also has the ability to upregulate the cytochrome P450 enzyme in the liver and thereby affects the metabolism of many drugs, helping the body clear medications more quickly.
Because of this, if you take prescription medications, check to see if they are affected by the powerful plant as it may reduce your drug’s efficacy.
The leaves and seeds are the medicinal part of the plant, the crushed seeds being much more powerful for a powder, a tea or a tincture.
The kidneys can take an awful punch in chronic multisystem degenerative disease (CMSDD), and many toxins we are exposed to must pass through the kidneys to be excreted. Therefore, if these paired organs aren’t working properly, they will be damaged in the process.
I have watched so many chronically ill people speeding toward dialysis who have no idea that simple measures can bring their kidneys back from late-stage (3 and 4) kidney failure.
The addition of just a moderate amount of vitamin B6 (50 mg), magnesium (300–400 mg) and L-glutamine (1 g) to a person’s supplement routine can turn around a failing kidney in a few months. You can further speed the process along with the addition of one or more of the following herbs.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Horsetail is an excellent plant to help remove impurities from the genitourinary tract. As all the blood in our body must pass through the kidneys, this is the last stop for many toxins.
One of the most common and dangerous toxicants for the kidneys is lead. The slow, almost inevitable buildup of this heavy metal is one of the main reasons I find people developing failing kidney function over the course of their lives.
A tincture or tea of horsetail over time will help remove this impurity from our kidneys.2 Horsetail is also a gentle diuretic; it mildly increases the flow of urine. And in the wisdom that only plants have, it completes its diuretic action without stripping the body of minerals and electrolytes.
The kidneys are also damaged in uncontrolled blood sugar and diabetes; horsetail can help reverse that process.3
In addition, it is a useful plant for treating bladder and kidney infections and the toxic accumulations that can occur when this system is congested.
You can make a tea or a tincture out of this herb by finely crushing the hard, fibrous stalks. A cup or two a day of tea will do the trick to have a good effect on your kidneys.
Equisetum is also a rich source of natural, organic silica. At least 25 percent of its dry weight is silica, while it’s also rich in calcium, potassium, sulfur, zinc, magnesium and manganese—it is an excellent herbal mineral supplement.
As a connective tissue tonic, tea made from this plant helps to rebuild cartilage and bones. It is also useful when someone is complaining of hair loss or brittle, fragile nails.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
I’m not sure there’s anything this plant can’t do for the human body. It has amazing alkalizing, detoxifying, cardioprotective, anticancer and antidiabetic properties. It is mostly known for its ability to bind sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and help reduce the size of the prostate gland in benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
However, its cytotoxic, antimetastatic and antitumor effects are coming to light as research into its usefulness in prostate, breast, colorectal and gastrointestinal cancers is conducted. I suspect we will eventually see that nettles are helpful in treating most, if not all, cancers.
Urtica’s first power of detoxification comes from its ability to gently change the pH of our blood, helping bring us back into balance.
Acidity of the blood is a root cause of many diseases. It allows our inborn endobiotic bacteria, the ones that live inside our bodies, to grow out of balance and creates an environment hospitable for exogenous organisms. It also creates a toxic environment where viruses continue to loop a symptom signal. Nettles can reduce this acidity.
Nettles also pack a punch as an antioxidant. A 2015 study showed that rats pretreated with nettle extract avoided kidney damage when dosed with the common chemotherapeutic agent gentamicin.4 In another study, rats were exposed to mercury. Researchers found the rats that were given a solution of nettle leaves had enhanced liver, kidney and testicular glutathione levels when being exposed to this toxic heavy metal.5
Not only can nettles change our pH but they also have a protective effect on our most important organs of detoxification.
Nettle works well as a powder. You can add it to just about anything you drink, make it into a tea or add it to a bit of warm water, as I do. It also does its job dutifully in a tincture taken at 30 drops once or twice a day.
Almost all tissues of the body have lymphatic channels that drain large waste proteins away from our interstitial spaces and into our blood. We’d perish in less than 24 hours without this essential function. A clean and well-functioning lymphatic system is critical to good health, and there are many plants that can aid in this process.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Galium is a fantastic remedy when someone has swollen lymph nodes around the ears or in the neck. This is the sort of situation that often follows an ear or throat infection in children.
This can also apply to lymph nodes in the groin or the armpit, which can be affected by Bartonella, mold or other chronic infections.
Like most plants, Galium has an affinity for more than one system of the body. It is also a diuretic and a kidney medicine. In people who have kidneys that are ailing from toxins and a boggy lymphatic system, this can be a great remedy.
A few drops to a dropperful of the tincture, taken daily, can gently clean out the lymphatic system. The white blood cells that inhabit that area can be prepared for whatever cancer, bacteria or viral signal comes along next.
This simple garden plant also has the ability to help clear up old debris and congestion in the kidneys and urinary tract.
Galium works best in a fresh infusion or made into a tincture. This plant can’t sit around for very long, so use it or turn it into a tincture soon after picking.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
In the broadest sense, Trifolium is a clearer of impurities—a blood cleanser and purifier. It helps transform and remove junk from places where it’s causing problems.
When I see a patient who has a buildup of toxins accompanied by salivary gland congestion or single swollen, hard nodes with a stiff neck, I think of adding red clover to their protocol. It also stimulates the liver and gallbladder and can improve arthritis by lowering the pH of the body and stimulating lymph flow.
This tiny little friend also packs a punch as an anticancer agent and shows up in most of the old, eclectic cancer formulas as a supportive herb to help detoxify the lymph and blood as other herbs are breaking up cancer cells.
Red clover is also high in isoflavones, which help balance and regulate hormonal function. One of the isoflavones found in red clover is irilone, which naturally potentiates progesterone. In ovarian and endometrial cancer cell lines, it can help decrease tumor size and balance estrogen and progesterone naturally.
Formononetin is another isoflavone found in red clover; it induces cancer cell apoptosis and slows metastasis in hormonal cancers.6
Red clover is naturally high in vitamins and minerals, including molybdenum. This is a common essential mineral deficiency that I find when someone is having a difficult time clearing toxins.
Molybdenum helps to clear nitrogenous waste from the body. Many times, when people have difficulty with sulfur compounds like garlic, onions, NAC and glutathione, they may just need a little supplemental molybdenum. We can give a little molybdenum or just prescribe a few weeks of red clover tea to help clear out these clogged detox pathways.
Due to its hormonal effects, we tend to steer away from red clover during pregnancy, but otherwise it is safe for consumption. Teas or tinctures work great.
All metropolitan areas around the world have some degree of toxins floating in the air, which can get lodged in and damage our lung epithelium.
I have found over the years that adding some lung detoxifiers to my patients’ health routine after toxic exposures lowers their chances of developing an upper respiratory infection the following winter.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Mullein leaves are good for detoxification of both the lungs and the kidneys as well as a useful remedy for earaches in children.
I think of mullein when someone has an old, dry, irritating cough, either the remnants of an unhealed bronchial infection or after a toxic lung exposure to harsh chemicals, cigarette smoke, Covid or wildfires.
In the western United States, we often have smoke in the summers, and mullein comes to the rescue for my patients in the fall, when people’s lungs are congested after breathing wildfire smoke all summer.
Verbascum, by its nature, is also a wound healer. Presumably, this is one of the ways it also does its work in the lungs: it breaks down old scars and fibrinogen in lung tissue and allows the alveolar tissue to return to its previous state of health. This hardy and prolific plant also induces apoptosis in lung cancer cells.7
Mullein has the ability to lower inflammation in the lungs, lymphatics and kidneys, therefore opening up the pathway of removal of toxic gunk for its soothing expectorant qualities to then take over and allow the lungs or kidneys to expel unwanted materials.
It is a good, safe herb for long-term consumption and should always be considered in a lung detoxification program, particularly when the tissues seem dry and irritated.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Not to be confused with the tropical plant, plantain soothes, calms and coats the lungs, bowels and urinary tract. It can bind to and expel toxins from any of these areas. In a sense, it rids the body of poisons and mucus. In addition to everyone’s favorite herb Echinacea, plantain is a favorite to treat blood poisoning and should be thought of anytime the blood is in a weakened state.
Studies have shown that plantain reduces thickness and microscopic bleeding in the alveolar epithelium after lung damage from toxic insults resulting in asthmatic situations.8
Like any good detoxifier, plantain also lowers inflammatory mediators in those tissues. We can apply this logic across any kind of toxic lung damage, whether it be from smoke, mold or other chemical exposure. A tea or tincture of plantain can help set these issues right.
In the kidneys, plantain reduces damage from chemotherapy agents like cisplatin.9 I suspect, based on plantain’s wide-reaching effects in multiple body systems, that over time we will discover there are few areas where this plant can’t assist us in healing from toxic damage.
Fresh or dried plantain leaves can make a tea, or a tincture can be made from the leaves and stored for future use.
All neurodegenerative disorders are associated with a level of neurotoxicity, so cleaning up the brain is one of the ways to prevent disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis.
Our brains have a blood-brain barrier, a unique system of vasculature that surrounds the nervous system and acts as a filter. The blood-brain barrier lets in small particles of glucose and neurotransmitters while keeping larger and more harmful particles out.
Factors like hypertension, electromagnetic frequencies, chronic infections and uncontrolled blood sugar can all damage the blood-brain barrier. When it is damaged, larger toxins like mycotoxins, aluminum, mercury and lead can pass through the barrier and accumulate in our brains and spinal cords.10
Pervasive neurotoxins like PCBs, toluene, DDT, fluoride and polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) can also get into the brain and cause damage. Once these chemicals are inside the nervous system, our bodies deposit substances like tau protein and amyloid plaques in response. These deposits are the hallmark of the neurodegenerative diseases and signal the damage.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Also known as Indian pennywort, gotu kola has many neuroprotective properties, but this plant’s prowess in brain detoxification likely comes from its properties as an antioxidant.
Through the dampening of oxidative stress, it can help mitigate Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.11 Recent studies have shown that Centella encourages dendrite growth and protects the nervous system tissue from early programmed cell death.
Like many powerful herbs, gotu kola should be taken in spurts, or “pulsed.” Some of its compounds may build up and have deleterious effects on human tissues if taken unabated for long periods.
My recommendation is to take it for six weeks and then take two to four weeks off before resuming.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary is now commercially distributed around the world for its use in fragrances, medicine and cooking. Rosemary is antimicrobial, antioxidant, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, circulatory-enhancing and neuroprotectant. It also prevents cell death.
Memory loss is common as people age, but it’s not normal. This loss in the ability to recollect is due in part to inflammation and poor neuron health.
Ordinary garden-variety rosemary can help. Two of rosemary’s components, rosmarinic acid and ursolic acid, aid in reversing the deficits associated with both spatial and recognition memory by lowering inflammation and healing neurons.12
The pungent essential oils in Rosmarinus provide its distinct aroma. Two components of these diterpenes—carnosic and romarinic acid—both studied in detail, inhibit neuronal cell death both in the petri dish and in human subjects and increase the density and expression of neuron growth as well as the health of the synapses, the space between the neurons where the action happens.
As a circulatory tonic, rosemary improves blood flow not only in the brain but also in the extremities. It also improves the intake of glucose in neurons, feeding these sugar-hungry cells in a more effective way. I often recommend this herb to patients who suffer from brain fog and memory lapses when their blood sugar drops.13 And, like all good detoxifiers, it must lower inflammation. This simple garden herb is important for the prevention of a process leading to lipopolysaccharides that can damage brain and gut membranes.14
Don’t use this one in big doses during pregnancy because of its strong circulatory effects and ability to stimulate menstrual flow. Teas and tinctures are great ways to take rosemary. Dry it and tincture it for use throughout the year.
This is an adapted excerpt from The Virus and the Host by Dr Chris Chlebowski (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022).