By Matthew Wood, Herbalist (AHG)
"Detoxification" is a widely accepted model used in holistic healing and herbal medicine at the present time. It is one of the few old ideas which survived the propaganda wars of modern medicine. It deserves a place in our box of healing tools, but it is too often used in a blind fashion when it is not appropriate. In this article we will try to illustrate how detoxification works.
Basically, a toxin is a substance which burdens the body in some fashion, requiring extra work (and therefore, energy expenditure) in order to be metabolized, stored, moved or eliminated.
A toxin can be a food substance which the cells did not happen to eat and which, becoming superfluous, becomes a burden on the body. A toxin can also be a normal waste product of cellular metabolism. This too needs elimination. A toxin can he a foreign material which the body could never have used, but which, having gotten inside, now must he detoxified (catabolized), moved, stored or eliminated. A toxin can also be a substance which was incompletely metabolized at some point, so that it could have been used, but now has become a burden.
What a toxin is not is a fast acting poison. At least this is true in the sense in which we are defining toxins. Snake venom does not just burden the internal mechanisms of the body, it actively destroys them. What we are calling toxins are generally slow acting. They poison the body over years and decades. They are, however, on a continuum with snake venom. They, too, are destructive.
The wall of the small intestine is the true boundary between the outside world and the inside of the body. Until a particle gets through this wall it has not truly been in the body and it will, eventually, be eliminated in the stool if it cannot get in. This wall is fortified with GALT (gut associated lymphoid tissue) which contains white blood cells and immunological factors that battle alien material.
The small intestine tries to keep out bacteria, toxic materials and useless fibers, but some of them come in. Indeed, even the best food particles are still in a toxic state and need to be worked over in the liver before they become useful for the body to use. What we take in from the small intestine ought, therefore, to be thought of as "food/toxins."
Some toxins, are absorbed from the large intestine along with the water being taken back into the body for reuse. This is especially a problem if there are unhealthy bacteria living in the colon, because these critters generate toxins. Bacteria do this in order to depress the-life of the host, so that they can live unmolested in an environment which is innately unfriendly to them. So the colon with bad flora or parasites is partly poisoned.
Some of these food/toxins (sugars and proteins) are taken up by the blood supply, channeled through the portal vein and into the liver. Another group (mostly lipids) are taken up by the lymph fluid supply around the small intestine, filtered through lymphatic ducts, policed by white blood cells, drained into the bloodstream and finally brought to the liver.
The white cells in the GALT and lymphatic ducts and nodes kill bacteria that try to sneak in with the food/toxins, and these provide a source of additional food/toxins (mostly protein) for the body. Thus, every time we eat there is a temporary increase in white blood cell levels.
The liver receives all these food/toxins and starts breaking them down into smaller pieces, so that they will not be as poisonous or toxic, and also so that they can be used to make food for the cells. Building up food stuff is the opposite side of breaking down toxins. These two activities are called catabolism and anabolism breaking down and building up.
The liver is in charge of "preparatory metabolism," or preparing materials for the cells to use.
After the liver has finished processing these materials it dumps them back into the bloodstream. These food stuffs are circulated to the smallest vessels, the capillaries, where they are squeezed through into the great internal ocean of interstitial fluids which surround the cells. The foodstuff floats around until it finds a cell that needs that particular substance and takes it within. Meanwhile, the cells are unloading waste products into the great internal ocean.
In order to keep the internal ocean clean, we have lymphatic ducts which pick up waste products and channel them back to the bloodstream. If there is anything of use, the liver gets to pick over the material again, but the waste products of protein breakdown - urates - are extracted in the kidneys and sent off as urine to cleanse the blood and fluids.
Now then, let us review the organs of the body which are particularly subject to invasion or stress from these toxins.
If the pores in the cell walls of the intestines are too enlarged they may be letting in toxins. This is particularly a problem if the bacterial flora in the large intestine is off - the bacteria generate toxins which are absorbed through the wall of the colon. It is also a problem if the GALT is weak in the small intestine. This occurs if the immune system is stressed.
The health of the lymphatics and the immune system are intimately intertwined because stress on one will create stress on the other. If the lymphatics are congested or blocked, white blood cells will not be able to get through. If the white blood cells (manufactured in the bone marrow and lymphatic nodes) are required in larger than normal amounts, to fight bacteria and toxins, the lymphatic ducts and nodes may become overactive, inflamed and blocked. The lymphatic ducts and immune cells are challenged by incoming food/toxins from the intestines. They are also challenged by waste materials coming out of the great internal ocean. So we see that toxins can congest, inflame and weaken the lymphatics and immune system.
If too many toxins are coming into the body for the liver to handle, they will back up in the portal vein until the liver can get at them. An enormous amount of blood will be required by the liver and portal vein, drawing blood away from the arterial (oxygenated) side of the circulation. This results in the typical short-term effects of toxicity- hang-over. The mind and senses are groggy, while the abdomen, digestive organs, portal vein and liver are full of blood.
If the liver is continually bombarded by excess toxins, it will eventually become over worked, too hot or too full. At first the body tries to protect the liver by filling up the portal vein, but after a while this does not work and eventually, as the liver is less and less able to process toxins, more and more will get by it, resulting in the appearance of not just toxins but real poisons in the bloodstream. These cause blood diseases and neurological damage. These are the sorts of things that will happen when toxins have been allowed to run rampant for many years, and by this time it is often too late to do anything.
The kidneys are given the job of excreting the waste products of protein breakdown, any toxic materials that the body does not need. (The toxins flow into the kidneys with the blood and since the body does not need them, no effort is made to reclaim them or reabsorb them back into the bloodstream with other valuable components of the blood). If there is too much for them, the kidneys will be overwhelmed.
The kidneys and the skin signal back and forth to each other to keep water and electrolyte levels balanced in the body. If there is too much water or waste products for the kidneys to remove, some will go through the skin. If the skin is too tight and dry, more water and waste products will go through the kidneys.
These are pretty much the organs which will be stressed by the accumulation of toxins, or which will cause toxins to accumulate. The body compensates for weaknesses in one area and often it is another organ which must pay the price.
Matthew Wood is a professional clinical herbalist and author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Book of Herbal Wisdom and Seven Herbs. Plants as Teachers.
A professional member of the American Herbalist Guild, Matthew Lives on the Sunnybrook Herbal Farm in Minnesota.