In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), springtime corresponds to the element of Wood, which in turn is represented by the function of the Liver and Gallbladder. It is commonly noted in TCM that digestive conditions tend to worsen in the Spring as Wood begins to ‘overact’, disturbing the balance between the digestive organs.
This theory ties in nicely with our Western herbal tendencies to advocate a spring ‘detox’ - a period of cleansing that kick-starts digestion after the cold, damp winter months. We typically turn to the first herbs available to us in nature - bitter, draining herbs that stimulate liver detoxification, increase bile flow and encourage elimination via the bowel and kidneys.
I always advocate a common sense approach to detoxing and generally steer my patients clear of lengthy fasts or harsh liver flushes. I’ll be diving into the subject of detoxing over the next few weeks on my blog, so keep an eye out for that. For now, here are my top 3 abundant wild spring herbs for liver cleansing & general detoxing.
Wild artichoke leaf - Cynara algarbiensis
I’ve been making use of our garden artichokes this year in every way possible. During my detox week I was drinking artichoke leaf tea every day and loving its lush green bitterness. I’ve made a tincture of the leaves for use in my practice, and we’ve just enjoyed our first globe artichokes from last year’s plants.
The wild Algarvian artichokes are very similar in taste and action, and hugely abundant. You’ll see them everywhere on forest walks, along pathways and roadsides, with their pale grey leaves and, later, their beautiful bright purple-blue thistle heads. Artichoke leaf is choleretic (it stimulates bile flow) and hepatoprotective (protects the liver) as well as being a hepatic trophorestorative (it helps the liver regenerate).
Artichoke also lowers blood lipid and cholesterol levels, improves insulin sensitivity and glycaemic control - an abundant, easy-to-grow plant that could help to alleviate two of the major burdens on public health care services: cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The wild Algarvian artichokes are a bit tougher and spikier than the velvety-soft garden variety, but the spikes are gentle enough to handle without gloves.
Artichoke leaf stimulates bile production, helps the liver regenerate and protects it from damage.
To make tea from the fresh leaves, simply break up a leaf or two, pop it in a teapot, pour over boiling water and infuse for 10-15 minutes, and drink 2-3 cups a day. I tossed in a bit of tangerine peel too - apart from adding another dimension of flavour to the drink, tangerine peel is used in TCM to clear dampness from the digestion, due to its fragrant carminative qualities.
Centaury - Centaurium erthyraea
Centaury, with its tiny pink flowers and even tinier, immensely bitter leaves, is another abundant spring plant that is really easy to work with.
In traditional medicine, the health of the skin is a direct reflection of digestive health - particularly the state of the liver. As centaury’s scientific name suggests, it is commonly used by herbalists for treating ‘erythematous’ (red), itchy, inflamed skin via its cleansing effect on the liver and digestive organs.
It’s bitterness is clear, clean and intensely cooling, so this plant - along with most other bitters - should not be taken long term or by those with a tendency towards cold and/or dryness. However, if you generally run warm, have a lot of excess energy and hot red itchy skin, centaury is your herb.
The flowers range from pale pink to bright fuschia, and it’s the whole plant you want. Make sure to harvest no more than 10% of the plant in a given area, moving onto another area as necessary. A general tip is that when practising sustainable harvesting, it should look like you were never there to begin with.
If you generally run warm, have a lot of excess energy and hot red itchy skin, centaury is your herb.
Infuse the whole plant, chopped, in boiling water for 10-15 minutes. One or two cups a day is enough in combination with a simple elimination diet or your go-to holistic detox regime.
Centaury can also be made into a tincture by packing the chopped fresh herb into a jar and covering with vodka, medronho or bagasso. Leave to sit for 4 weeks in a cool, dark spot, then strain, bottle and label. Take 5mls (1 teaspoon) three times a day before meals for no more than a few weeks at a time. A few drops on the tongue 15-20 mins before meals is also useful for promoting stomach acid production, helping you to absorb more of the nutrients from your food.
Dandelion leaf & root - Taraxacum spp.
There are too many species of dandelion in Portugal to know for certain which species we’re picking - my general rule is if it looks and tastes like dandelion, it’s dandelion.
The leaves have a clear ‘dentate’ or serrated appearance, resembling lion’s teeth - ‘dent de leon’ - and have no hairs or fuzz on them. You’ll see many neighbouring species with fuzzy leaves or a leaf margin which is only slightly serrated - these aren’t what you want.
Dandelion leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked as a highly nutritious green - they tend to be even bitterer than the roots, which are more commonly used as medicine for the liver and gallbladder. The leaves are also salty and mineral rich - they act as a diuretic, removing excess or stagnant fluids from the body and eliminating these via urination, whilst increasing potassium levels. This is the mechanism behind dandelion’s use for treating gout, high blood pressure and swollen arthritic joints.
The root can be either bitter or quite sweet, depending on when it is harvested and how it’s prepared. Harvested in the spring it’s likely to be sweeter, and makes an excellent nourishing tonic to a depleted system. Autumn harvests tend to produce more bitter roots, which are more cleansing and stimulating to the liver and gallbladder.
Dandelion root can be decocted (simmered) to make an earthy, sweet, slightly bitter tea, or dried and tinctured using the method above to make a traditional spring tonic for digestive health.
My favourite way of working with dandelion root is to dry it, roast it gently in the oven for 10 minutes, and then grind it fresh each morning to drink as ‘coffee’. I use an Italian percolator which really brings out the flavour - it tastes exactly like the real thing! If you’re a coffee addict like I was, making the transition to dandelion root is a win-win situation - not only are you giving your liver (and whole system) a break from all that stimulation, you’re substituting coffee for a cleansing and detoxifying beverage that leaves you feeling lighter, calmer and more energetic.
If you’re a coffee addict, making the transition to dandelion root is a win-win situation
I use dandelion root in my practice for all things liver related - skin problems, PMS, menstrual pain, menopausal symptoms, and of course digestive conditions of all kinds. For more info on how to look after your liver, as well as dandelion itself, check out those previous blog articles.
And stay tuned for the upcoming series all about detox - the science behind the buzzword, why it's important and how to go about it.
Until then, happy detoxing! 💚