Detoxing is a bit of a loaded word these days, it pops up all over the place, but what does it mean and how can we used herbs to do it?

A recent news report suggests that the idea of being able to ‘detox’ the body is a waste of time as our bodies are perfectly capable of managing it without intervention. On one had this is true as the natural mechanisms of waste elimination (liver, gut, kidneys, lungs, skin, mucous membranes) will do their jobs in a healthy body, however as we know, bodily mechanisms can often become compromised and need some support. So the idea of detoxing is supporting the body’s natural processes of elimination.

The idea of detoxing after Christmas is based on the notion that we have loaded the body with excess food which puts a strain on the liver that both processes and/or eliminates all that we eat. In a healthy resilient system the body is perfectly capable of dealing with excesses and really doesn’t need any additional help in addition to a healthy diet, however a wide range of symptoms can suggest that elimination and processing is not optimal, such as headache, fatigue, aches and pains, excess mucous production or skin symptoms.

 Herbs to aid detox functions can act via several major mechanisms:


Diuretics aid elimination via the kidneys producing urine. Herbs can act as diuretics in several ways:

  • They can relax blood vessels and bring more blood to the kidneys (like yarrow which dilates peripheral blood vessels, hawthorn that can improve compromised heart function)
  • They can irritate the kidney tissue and increase loss of urine (like celery seed, juniper, parsley which contain irritating volatile oils – care must therefore be taken with these if kidney tissue is damaged)
  • Osmotic diuretics tend to cause increase in elimination of sugar complexes which pull more water into the urine by osmosis and tend to be soothing ‘demulcent’ herbs (eg. Couch grass, corn silk, marshmallow and dandelion)
  • Some herbs that are classed as diuretics may not actually increase urine flow but may aid elimination of waste chemicals from the tissues, such as nettle which aids elimination of uric acid in gout.

Digestive herbs and hepatics

Good digestion is crucial for good elimination from the body. A healthy digestive system prevents unwanted chemicals from being absorbed into the blood stream, putting more pressure on eliminatory functions and also aids effective elimination of waste chemicals that enter the gut in bile from the liver.  Healthy liver function is crucial for effective processing and elimination of chemicals. Herbs that aid elimination via the liver and gut are:

  • Bitters – these herbs are used to support the general digestive process, encourage digestive secretions (acid, enzymes, bile) and efficient motility, therefore effectively moving waste out of the body and preventing absorption of toxins. They include herbs like artichoke leaf, angelica, peppermint and chamomile and to be effective they must be tasted on the tongue.
  • Hepatics – these herbs act on the liver and encourage processing and elimination of damaging chemicals such as toxins from the gut, products of metabolism and hormones. Herbs such as artichoke leaf, milk thistle, turmeric are used to support liver function. Hepatics are also generally powerful antioxidants, which are crucial in supporting liver function as the detox process produces high levels of damaging oxidants.

Other herbs are also be used to support healthy digestion by promoting good bacterial balance (e.g. garlic, bitters, slippery elm), reducing any inflammation (e.g. chamomile, marigold, liquorice), reducing spasm and relaxing muscle (e.g. angelica, fennel seed, chamomile), addressing constipation (liquorice and bitters) and healing gut tissue (chamomile, marigold)


The lymphatic system, consisting of lymph vessels and lymph nodes containing white blood cells, drains fluid and waste from around the tissues, filtering it in the lymph nodes and emptying into the blood. Lymphatic herbs are considered those that support this process and many are also classed as immune herbs. Examples are Echinacea, marigold, cleavers, burdock, red clover.


Diaphoretics are herbs that help elimination via the skin and mucous membranes by increasing sweating and blood flow to the surface. They are typically used when there is additional strain on the other eliminative organs due to infection, typically in colds and fevers. Diaphoretic herbs are yarrow, peppermint, lemon balm and lime blossom

Some major ‘detox’ herbs are:


Dandelion root and the leaf are both used to aid elimination via the kidneys and liver. The leaf is a potent diuretic and as such is used to eliminate waste via the kidneys; the root has similar properties but has a stronger effect on liver function to aid elimination via the liver and digestive system via the production of bile.


Burdock root is a widely used to support elimination from tissues via the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys – an all-round supporter of detox. However it should be used with caution as it can cause a build-up of unwanted chemicals in the blood stream if the liver can’t process them quickly enough – a ‘healing crisis’.


English marigold flowers are great healers and offer immune support which is linked to their action as a ‘lymphatic’ herb that aids elimination of waste from tissues via the lymph vessels and processing of waste by immune cells. They also support digestion by stimulating bile flow from the liver and promote good microcirculation, particularly to the pelvic region.


Echinacea is similar to marigold in its lymphatic action, immune balancing and healing properties.

Artichoke leaf

Artichoke leaf is also a liver herb that stimulates liver function but it is also very protective of the liver and reduces any damage that may occur to the organ if it has increased toxic load to deal with

Milk thistle

Milk thistle is mainly a liver protector as well as a stimulator of liver function and helps to prevent damage and/or repair damaged cells partly through encouraging the production of potent antioxidant


Examples of eliminative herbs used in different conditions

Most conditions of ill health require some attention to eliminatory processes and different herbs are used for different conditions. For example in eczema, cleavers and red clover offer diuretic and lymphatic support and in acne hepatics such as artichoke leaf are important for encouraging hormone balancing via the liver. In psoriasis, healthy gut elimination is crucial and herbs that address gut health and bacterial health are crucial. In joint conditions, celery seed and nettle are used as diuretics to eliminate inflammatory chemicals via the kidneys. Menstrual problems are often helped by supporting liver function which processes hormones. In conditions of the upper respiratory tract such as sinusitis lymphatic herbs such as Echinacea help to drain congested tissues.