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Functional Medicine and TCM Liver Detox

You may have heard the terms liver detox, liver cleanse, or detoxification. The liver detox system is a core part of many wellness and longevity approaches. In functional medicine, TCM,  and other holistic medicine approaches, the liver is at the center of detoxification in your body – almost like a filter. Throughout the day, we are exposed to toxins and other substances in the environment we live in and the food, drinks, and medicines we consume. While a cleanse often refers to a short-lived practice, functional medicine approaches detoxification of the body in year-round liver support with healthier habits and lifestyle adjustments that support liver health. 

The functional medicine and TCM approach to the liver

Both TCM and functional medicine look for the root cause of symptoms rather than using the conventional elimination approach. In the liver system, the root cause of the body’s inability to eliminate toxins is looked at deeply. Too many toxins in the body at one time can result in a toxic burden due to several factors, including an overloaded detoxification pathway, immune function imbalance, and endocrine disruptions. 

In traditional Chinese medicine or TCM – the liver is the body’s main organ of detoxification.  Its primary function is to regulate the smooth flow of Qi (energy) and blood throughout the body. When there is an imbalance and liver qi is stagnant, a person may experience breast distension, menstrual pain, headache, irritability, inappropriate anger, dizziness, dry, red eyes, other eye conditions, and tendonitis. 

In functional medicine – it is a similar approach; however, it takes an additional step of focusing on daily lifestyle and nutritional changes that will help rid the body of the toxins it is exposed to on a daily basis. Detoxification programs should be tailored to your specific needs, looking at their daily habits and switching them out for healthier habits that support the overall wellness of the liver detox system. 

What is the liver detox system?

Our liver system’s primary responsibility is to filter the blood sent from the large and small intestines. Liver cells contain enzymes that detox any substances in the blood coming from the intestines.   The body has two phases of detoxification, Phase 1 & 2.

Phase 1 Detoxification

We have trouble dissolving and excreting the fat-soluble toxic chemicals entering our bodies. It is good that humans developed livers to break down these toxins!

Enzyme pathways exist inside our liver cells that will metabolize all the stuff that enters our bodies from our environments, including:

  • Microorganisms
  • Food additives
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Insecticides and pesticides
  • Pollutants, contaminants, and metabolic end products

Our liver is there to protect us, and the liver detox system as a whole works to keep our bodies free from toxins the best they can. Toxins are fat-soluble, which means that when they enter fat tissues and cell membranes, they may be stored as fat for years. These toxins may only be released while fasting, exercising, or during stressful periods in life. This sudden release can cause stomach pain, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and more. 

During Phase 1 Detoxification, our body converts these toxins into less harmful chemicals to our bodies. The process involves a few chemical reactions, including oxidation, reduction, and hydrolysis. Your liver cells create a chemical reaction that helps release toxins in your body and filter your blood. 

Phase 2 Detoxification

Phase 2 detoxification involves the liver cells adding a substance to a toxin to make it less harmful for our body. These substances include cysteine, glycine, or sulfur molecules that help convert the fat-soluble toxin into water-soluble waste that can be excreted from the body through our bile in the gallbladder or urine in our bladder. 

An imbalanced liver detox system function has been linked to:

  • Gut flora imbalances
  • Issues with mitochondrial function
  • Changes in genetic health
  • Increased risk of diabetes, cancer, and neurological dysfunction

Detoxification practices for liver health

Gently detox the body

Many products tout that they are liver detox programs but tend to be very harsh on the body, especially the liver and gallbladder organs. The detox program often doesn’t do the vital job of lowering the toxic load in the body. It is better to approach it with ongoing, gentler methods, including holistic changes to support overall liver function. 

The toxins around you

Some of the toxins in our lives are unavoidable, they are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. However, there are ways to reduce the number of toxins in your life. Identifying where you can do this is the first step. Looking at the products you eat, drink, clean, or wash with can be an excellent first step for achieving this.  Personal care products and cosmetics often contain:

  • Triclosan: Typically found in body wash and toothpaste.
  • Phthalates: Found in nail polish, fragrances, and hairspray.
  • Parabens: Commonly found in moisturizers and soaps.
  • Toluene: Often found in nail polish.
  • Carbon Black: Often found in mascara, lipstick, and eyeliner

Reading labels will help you get started when finding cleaner products. Also, visit EWG’s Skin Deep website to research the products you are currently using or to find new ones.

Gut health and your liver

Gut health is an essential part of our wellness and health – imbalances of your gut (between beneficial and harmful bacteria) will contribute to not only digestive symptoms but to other illnesses or diseases. The human gut microbiome is a complex mix of microorganisms, genomes, and other substances. Add toxins to the mix, and it is bound to be affected; studies show that it is linked to increased disease risk. 

Liver detox foods

Liver detox with foods

  • Water – many of us already know the importance of hydration and health. Still, our liver detox system relies on water in both phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification processes to help break down toxins and assist in excreting them from our bodies. Consuming approximately half of your body weight in ounces is often suggested to keep your body well-hydrated.
  • Prebiotic foods – these foods help feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut; prebiotic foods include apples, dandelions, and Jerusalem artichoke.
  • Probiotic foods – these foods can help restore microbial balance in your gut. Probiotic rich foods include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
  • Fiber-rich foods – helps keep your bowel movements regular. An essential part of the detoxification process is excreting toxins through our waste.
  • Cruciferous vegetables – Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and kale are all cruciferous vegetables. These vegetables transform phase 1 enzymes and increase phase 2 liver enzymes because they contain phytonutrients and antioxidants.
  • Pungent foods –used in TCM to remove qi stagnation from the liver. Some of our favorites include mint, spring onions, ginger, horseradish, chamomile, and black pepper.
  • Green foods – eating green foods will help decongest your liver, promote qi movement and restore balance. 
  • Organic foods – reduce the number of foods you eat that contain pesticides. By omitting these toxins, you reduce your risk of toxin overload. A great way to start is to follow the “dirty dozen” of fruits and vegetables found to have the most pesticides.
  • Lemon water – lemon juice contains citric acid, an antioxidant, and has been shown to help protect the body from liver damage and support detoxification processes. Many people start the day with a glass of warm water and lemon juice to rid their bodies of toxins. 
  • Apple Cider Vinegar – can also be used to detoxify the liver because of its sour taste.

Supplements supporting the liver detox system

  • Dandelion – this bitter plant has been shown to help boost enzymes needed in phase 2 detoxification
  • Milk thistle – This herb contains silymarin and has been long known for its antioxidant properties and liver support
  • Glutathione – an antioxidant that supports cellular detoxification
  • Alpha-lipoic acid – another antioxidant that can help support liver function
  • Turmeric – also known as curcumin, decreases inflammation and rids the body of free radicals

Other ways to support liver health


Sweating out toxins through perspiration can help reduce the toxic burden on the body and remove toxic trace metals. Saunas are a great way to do this. Far infrared saunas are effective in moving toxins through the skin. Because an infrared sauna heats your body directly and raises your core body temperature, it is said to promote a deeper level of detox and can rid the body of excess toxins.


The benefits of fasting are widespread in the west but have been used since ancient times in many Eastern cultures and spiritualities, including traditional Chinese medicine. In functional medicine, intermittent fasting can be beneficial to giving your liver a break from having to detoxify the toxins coming from your gut.   

Everything in moderation

In TCM, the belief is too much or too little isn’t best. Food, toxins, excess sugar, alcohol, and stress can cause liver stagnation, which prevents your life energy or Qi from circulating throughout your body – including your liver qi. 

Spring detox

Spring cleaning isn’t just important for your home, it’s also important for your body. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Spring is a time of cleansing, renewal, and rebirth. It’s also the season of the liver and gallbladder. A cleanse can help reset your metabolism, boost your energy, improve your sleep and so much more.  To learn more about how to detox in the spring – click here.