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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Killingbeck CH, CN, FEP

It’s Spring! Detox like a Vitalist: Nourish not Purge

Updated: Feb 6

What exactly is a detox? The goal of a detox, sometimes referred to as a cleanse, is to flush and clear out toxins that our bodies come into contact with every day. The types most popular tend to fall into three categories—those that restrict or replace food with liquids or intake altogether like fasting, those that claim to support your body’s natural detoxification processes, and those that cleanse your digestive tract, also called purging which was usually done in the past in combination with bloodletting. The idea expressed here would have you believe you’re dirty or your body is somehow unclean, that your blood is frequently toxic from your environment, lifestyle, and general living. This idea isn’t any more rational to believe in the modern era than the old idea that bloodletting would eliminate disease, it was practiced in the middle ages even up to to the late 19th century when it was finally discredited. Just like bloodletting “detox” diets or protocols can be harmful to the body because they are typically depleting, not nourishing. To be clear you are not ‘dirty’. Our body has its own processes for naturally detoxing through the liver and other systems. As a Clinical Herbalist trained in the Western Vitalist Tradition I believe in using herbs to support the vitality of the body and all its systems; following the cycles of the seasons with our mind, body, and spirit in connection with nature; gently building up nutrition through diet to gradually heal and sustain our own body’s ability to eliminate natural toxins.

So what are natural toxins? Our body’s natural metabolic processes create wastes or ‘toxins’, some of these are hormones (like thyroid), prostaglandins, cytokines (secreted by the immune system) , neurotransmitters, vitamins, oxidized lipids, bile acids, ammonia (eliminated in urine), proteins, dead cells, and bacterial products. The very process of cellular respiration in our mitochondria, (KREBS cycle), which creates the energy we have has molecular by products or wastes that our body naturally eliminates. All of these require elimination from the body all the time. Our liver, kidneys, lymph, and bowel remove these from our bodies. It is when we experience poor clearance by the organs of elimination (liver, kidney, bowel), or poor clearance of metabolic toxins in the blood from the lymphatic system that we begin to notice external symptoms. These symptoms can be wide ranging from mild to severe disease states; These symptoms can be expressed as energetic or physical symptoms like sluggishness, feeling stagnant, bloated, fatigued, edema, acne, eczema, depression, cold hands and cold feet, or just a lack of vitality, etc. The symptoms most people ascribe to “toxins” are usually deficiency symptoms, in traditional systems of medicine, requiring nourishment and building up nutritionally so they can eliminate wastes normally.

The cycles and seasons of the year have always been a part of our cyclical lifestyles and influence our body systems. The seasonal availability of foods and the prevalence of certain foods meant that we ate those. If we look at our ancestors and the agricultural cycle they lived by, the winter was the time of low nutrition, lack of access to fresh vegetables, and fruits. Mostly root vegetables and salted, dried or smoked meats were able to be kept throughout the winter, but the main staple was meat and any surplus grains to keep you alive. In the spring came new opportunities for nourishment; sheep began to birth lambs and milk became available; the days became longer and more light was available, even today when there is 12 to 14 hours of sunlight the birds begin to lay eggs, it is about more light not warmth, early greens were important for vital nutrients missing from the previous months and the ones to come until the first harvests.

You may think that this was all in the past and in our modern highly mechanized age we have access to vegetables all year long, and you’d be right to a certain extent. But even today we feel the seasons, we eat more cooked vegetables and make soups in the winter because they are warm and feel good, while a big cold salad in 30˚ weather just sounds COLD! It is harder to eat raw vegetables in the winter because it is cooling energetically. Our bodies and psyches are more in tune with the cycles of the earth than we think. Cycles become very important the more you learn about your body and your vitality. We need the cycles of the sun and moon for good pituitary health to enable us to sleep properly. The pituitary controls the release of melatonin, a natural hormone that promotes sleep. Sleeping and eating cycles are very important to supporting a healthy body. Lack of sleep can lead to all kinds of health issues from mood changes to memory issues, lowered immune system, and weight gain etc. Every time I tap into and learn about a body system it has cycles. In the spring we crave the sunlight, we go out and sit in the sun, garden, or go for walks. This isn’t just because the cold has kept us locked in all winter. We have been deprived of the natural vitamin D absorption that comes from the sun. In Colorado we can only absorb vitamin D from the sun when it is at a 45˚angle, this is only possible March through September due to our high altitude. Supplementing is crucial to keeping up our levels up, but it also isn’t the same as absorbing it naturally. On a cellular level we crave the natural processes. Vitamin D is important for immune health, muscle and connective tissue health, mood health, reduction of inflammation, absorption of magnesium which is also important to mood and muscular health, and the ability to metabolize calcium. Vitamin D is also known to be anti-cancer. So get out there and enjoy your 20-30 min a day in the sun. In the spring when we experience poor clearance by the organs of elimination (liver, kidney, bowel), or poor clearance of metabolic toxins in the blood from the lymphatic system eating with the seasons can help bring more balance and an alignment with your body’s health. You become more connected to your body, the food you eat, and where it comes from. As an herbalist I try to be as close to the cycles of nature as possible and I get my hands dirty literally in the earth, growing plants and herbs for the health of myself, my family, and my friends. Getting your hands in the dirt is also supportive to a healthy microbiome and gut health. So garden away my friend…

Image of my garden

If you eat organic you’ll notice that some items are not available all year, because it isn’t their natural season. Even if you don’t you’ll still notice some items show up in huge amounts and are fresher when they are in their natural season at the market. Like berries, cherries, and squashes. I like to stay in touch with the earth by eating what is available from my yard, the farmers market or watch the organic foods as they become available. As I discover more about how things grow and how natural life cycles progress I feel more connected to myself and the earth. It inspires me with creativity as I eat foods I never have before forcing me to figure out how to cook new and interesting dishes.

One large class of herbs that help with the body’s natural elimination processes are Alteratives. Alterative therapy is anything that improves nutrition and increases waste excretion gently and gradually. Alterative is an approach to healing, not just a category of herbs. Lifestyle factors such as exercise, rest, diet, and alterative herbs of various sorts all contribute. I practice the Alterative Path in my vitalistic approach to healing.

According to a Physiomedicalist from the late 19th and early 20th centaury alteratives are, …‘herbs which normalize the metabolism by supporting nutrition or improving the body’s natural mechanisms of detoxification and which act “slowly, steadily, and moderately in improving the circulating fluids”. William Cook MD (Physiomedicalist) 1869

Alternative Herbs and Foods Images-- From Left Top: Burdock (note root is used), Dandelion Greens, Dandelion Flowers ( note all parts of the dandelion are used)-- From Left Bottom: Mugwort Greens, Garlic Bulbs, and Beets)

Due to winter diets that were frequently deficient in fruits and vegetables (vitamins and minerals), many cultures had ‘spring tonics’ these usually took the form of the plants, food, or herbs that are beginning to emerge in the spring. They were alteratives designed to clean and build the blood. They frequently contained wild mustards or brassicas that contain sulfur, nettle, and wild greens like Creasy Greens. In Appalachia they used a sulfur and molasses tonic. Today our winter diets tend to be more processed, lacking whole foods, and relying on comfort foods, carbs, and less nutrient dense foods. Spring is still our time to refresh, nourish, and revitalize our diets. Sulfur containing foods like broccoli, kale, cabbage, arugula, and collard greens are very important for liver detoxification. In my garden I grow many herbs that are alterative, supportive to our body’s natural detoxification processes like nettle, mugwort, dandelion, burdock, etc. Fall and spring are the normal times to dig roots like burdock and dandelion. But the spring is also a time to begin eating the tender dandelion greens in salads and even the flowers are loaded with nutritional phytochemicals, like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals needed to support detoxification pathways of the liver and kidneys. Fiber is also important in the detoxification process. Soluble fiber feeds healthy gut bacteria, (beans, peas, avocados, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, apples, some nuts, and seeds etc.), and are also important because they bind to carcinogens, bile acids, and toxins, while insoluble fiber (celery, dark leafy greens, cauliflower, blackberries, etc.), promotes a faster transit time (less opportunity for toxin interaction and absorption/re-absorption). Constipation provides an opportunity for reabsorption of the wastes that our body is trying to remove. I can always tell when I am constipated that I am reabsorbing things I shouldn’t because I feel terrible. Fiber also helps positively balance the microflora and encourages healthy intestinal flora, discouraging pathogenic bacteria.

Here are some recipes designed to help build nourishment and nutritional repletion while supporting our body’s natural elimination processes they include organic fruits and vegetables that contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids, sulfurs, fiber, etc.

Detoxification “Juice” Blender

Detoxification “Juice” Blender

Goal: Provide the body with rich sources of micronutrients and phytochemicals needed for optimal functioning of detox enzyme systems; antioxidants; sulfur; phase 2 liver inducers.

Ingredients: A variety of brightly colored ORGANIC vegetables and sulfur containing plants in a low-sugar medium.

  • Beets (betalain alkaloids are powerful antioxidants, immunostimulant, and anti-inflammatory) 2-3 peeled cut small to make blending easier

  • Carrots orange and purple (carotenoids= vitamin A) 2-3 cut to make blending easier

  • Parsley (flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, anti-cancer, great for the brain) 1 cup chopped

  • Purple cabbage (flavonoids, glucosinolates= sulfur) 1/8 head (2 cups)

  • Arugula, or collard, or kale (brassica greens, glucosinolates= sulfur) 2 cups chopped

  • Ginger and Turmeric (Detoxification enzyme inducers) Thumb size pieces fresh, peeled

  • Grapefruit or orange (Vitamin C, flavonoids, limonene) with skins adds more punch to the nutrients ½ -1 I like a whole Cara Cara orange chopped

  • Burdock and/or Dandelion root (source of inulin, liver supportive, alterative, blood builder, nutritive, alterative skin, liver, immune, lymph, bowl, kidney) 3 inches fresh, (*if dry decoct for 45 min. with ¼ cup dried pieces in 16 oz water, strain and use 16 oz. in place of some of the water below. Add some water if too much boiled off. Cool before adding to juice blend.)

  • ‘Just juice’ no sugar added Cranberry juice (flavonoids, low sugar) 16 oz.

  • *Filtered water 32 oz. (If the ratio of liquid to vegetable matter is off, like too thick add a little more water or juice.)

Makes about 8-9 cups juice. Cut in half if you have a small blender. My blender is 8 cup and it just fits.

All of the above contain minerals and vitamins. All of the above can be adjusted however you like as well. You could add dandelion greens, plantain (wound healing, nutritive), nettle, or mugwort (liver and gallbladder supportive, anti-inflammatory, nutritive, flavonoids, carotenoids) . You could change up the juice to any dark berry filled with antioxidants. ‘Just Juice’ makes many unsweetened options like cherry, pomegranate and blueberry.

Blend in a Vitamix or blender that can create smoothies until well pureed and thin like pulpy juice. Drink like a thin smoothie, the fiber is important to the detoxification process as well as gut health. Keep refrigerated, will last 3-5 days, you could add some organic apple cider vinegar then it might keep longer. (Do this to taste, I did 1-2 tsp. per cup).

Nettle Juice

Nettle Juice

Another option in early spring is to make a nutritive Nettle Juice. This recipe is simple as long as you can obtain fresh young nettle leaves. Nettle is an alterative for the skin and kidneys and is nutritive, filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Nettle is anti-inflammatory, immune-stimulating, and antihistamine.

Wearing gloves put 4 cups of young nettle leaves in a blender with a 50% mix of juice to water and blend. Just enough to make a watery smoothie. It isn’t supposed to be thick you’re drinking this not eating it.

Nettle Asparagus Soup

Nettle Asparagus Soup


5 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion diced (Instead of fresh onion I use celery 3-4 stalks and then powdered onion 1 ½ Tablespoons. You can also use a leek it is a nice substitute)

3 Celery stalks chopped (I add this even if I substituted it for the onion)

7 garlic cloves minced (I use dried equivalent ¼ tsp per clove and cut the amount in half ¾ tsp.)

2 tablespoons curry powder (I make my own nightshade free curry)

2 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 ½ teaspoon salt (this can be reduced, do it to taste I do ½ tsp.)

1 fennel bulb chopped and some tops

1 bunch of asparagus (approximately 300 grams), cut into 1-inch pieces (if out of season I have used broccoli or baby broccoli)

1 (13.5 ounce) can of full fat coconut milk

5 cups broth (bone broth, vegetable broth or even water) increase if needed

180-200 grams of young fresh nettle leaves chopped; use gloves to handle (I have substituted kale and collard greens)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

more salt and pepper to taste (optional) dash of cream (optional)


In a large saucepan heat olive oil on medium heat. Once hot, add the onion, celery, fennel, asparagus, and sauté until translucent (asparagus until it becomes bright green in color) about 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder, cumin powder, black pepper and salt. Sauté for one minute or until aromatic.

Add the coconut milk and broth (or water) and bring to a boil. Add the fresh nettle leaves. Stir well. Simmer for 20 min.

Once the asparagus is soft, turn off the heat on the soup. Add the lemon juice. Using an immersion blender (or a high-speed heat safe blender, Vitamix) blend on high until thoroughly creamed.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve asparagus and nettle soup in bowls with a dash of sour cream (regular or dairy free optional) and a couple spoonsful of mushrooms (optional). I also like a topping of coconut cream instead of the sour cream. Be creative its your soup!

Yield: Makes approximately 3 quarts, which serves 6-8 people.

Optional topping:

Handful of mushrooms (morels, shiitakes, maitake, pomodoro, etc.) minced

1 tablespoon butter (or olive oil)

1 garlic clove minced (I omit the garlic since it is in the soup already but people who like garlic feel free. Garlic is also an alterative for the lymph and immune systems. I usually substitute onion powder)

Instructions: While the soup is cooking you can make the optional mushroom topping. Heat the butter or olive oil in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the minced mushrooms and cook until thoroughly done and tender. Set aside.

Chopped roasted nuts or pine nuts are nice to have as a topping too.


For individual symptom formulation please contact me through my website or email for a consultation (done remotely). The individual herbal formulations like teas, tinctures and/or capsules would be delivered to you and are separate from the consultation fee.

Resources: Herbal Vade Mecum, Energetics of Western Herbs Vol 1 and 2, Integrative Herbalism Course Notes Vital Energetic Actions, Cell and its environment, Herbal Actions Database Pg. 119, Advanced Herbalism Class Notes Toxins and Detoxification, Advanced Acute Conditions Alteratives, Personal class notes

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