Monday, June 17, 2013

The lost art of the “depurative cure”

Red Clover growing in the French Alps

The lost art of the “depurative cure”
By Christophe Bernard

In this article, I would like to share with you a subject that has become a pillar of my practice : the depurative cure.

I first got interested in this concept because it is anchored in the French tradition. But then, I quickly realized that it is still very much of actuality. It sure needs to be tailored to modern times. But well done, it is one of the best measures of disease prevention in my opinion.

This is a slightly modified version of an article published in the Plant Healer magazine of fall 2012 (volume II, issue IV). 

A concept grounded in tradition
When I was a kid, my grandma was the family herbalist. I remember the square metallic boxes piled up in her cupboards. And the smells ! I loved looking into those boxes. They were full of promises. Promises of simple pleasures: a homemade almond cookie, washed down with a nice cup of infusion lightly sweetened with lavender honey.

Except… they were not always “nice”, those infusions. Not to a 12 year old kid anyway.

“Why in the world would you drink something as bitter as this grandma?

“Because what’s bitter cleanses your blood. It cleanse your liver”

Why would you cleanse your liver grandma?”. At age twelve, I am already influenced by the scientific skepticism of the 80’s. I love math and sciences. And I am not about to gobble-up everything at face value, even if it comes from my much beloved grandma.

« Well you see, during winter, people get lazy and they eat too much pork and sausage. They get slow with the cold weather. Too much going in, not enough going out. So the garbage accumulates around the liver, the liver gets big and dirty. The blood gets dirty. »

« The blood cannot get dirty grandma. Its inside our body. Dirt cannot get into our veins like that ».

She laughs. « Oh yes it can kiddo. If you have a tired liver, you get dirty blood. Now I cannot tell you why. I did not go to school like you do and I don’t know much about how things work. I am not a doctor. But I know that spring calls for a clean liver and clean blood ».

Dirty liver, dirty blood
As a clinical herbalist, I can finally explain why an overworked liver leads to dirty blood. Yep, she was right. Any doctor at that time, or even today, would dismiss that notion with a snort. But she knew better. We know better.

Old folks got dirty blood at the end of winter. Too much pork as she said, her way to express the overconsumption of preserved, salted meats. The under-consumption of locally grown fresh produce. The over-reliance on cereals and grains. 

The spring awakening called for a cleansing. New energy could not be built on dirty foundations. The blood held the waste, the liver provided the spout into the outside world. Assuming that it got the appropriate stimulation to do so, the liver would open up that spout and evacuate as needed. The spring depurative cure provided that stimulation. 

Spring cleansing
Around March or April, country folks would take a depurative plant for a duration of 2 to 3 weeks. All plants were taken as infusions or decoctions, two to three times a day. A batch of infusion was often prepared in the morning for the whole day and the whole household.

The plants
I will not present to you the usual picks, because you know a lot about them already. Dandelion and burdock roots were much used and much beloved. 

Instead, I am going to talk about horehound (Marrubium vulgare), not known for its depurative capabilities in the US, and dandelion greens, something often dismissed as too simplistic or just “food” and not “medicine”.

Horehound growing wild in the Luberon near Robion France

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Horehound was a popular bitter-depurative plant. 

I speculate that Horehound’s bitterness and harsh taste may have provided too much of a digestive stimulation for some folks. And I also speculate that things like over-acidity and a little cramping during the cure in the “gut-liver excess” people were ignored or discarded as part of the cleansing process. 

F.J. Cazin, French countryside doctor of the 19th century, writes in his famous 1850’s herbal that “marrubium shall be used in all atonic states of the mucous membranes, particularly of the digestive and pulmonary tract, for the weakened, the old, and the enfeebled by long term diseases”. 

Further, he sais “its strong taste is a warning of its significant power, not to be used in any case of irritation or inflammation”. 

I will add to that “not to be used in cases of gut mucous membrane excess” (over-production of digestive juices leading to true stomach acidity, as opposed to today’s hypo-acidity/deficiency leading to acid reflux). You won’t find a lot of those cases though. Most clients you will see in your practice are likely gut-deficient (lack of secretions and smooth muscle tone). But still something to watch for.

Dandelion greens growing on a volcano in central France (yep, they grow there too!)
Dandelion greens
My grandma taught me this: when you pick your dandelion greens, you cut the whole rosette along with a tiny piece of the top root. This enables you to (1) get the liver benefits from the roots and (2) allow the plant to regrow from the mostly intact root. I love it because it gives a nice crunchy feel to the salad. 

Eating dandelion greens in the early months of the year is an integral part of the depurative cure. I personally crave it. But I am a Pita guy, always hot, always on the move. And definitely liver-hot, with my occasional outbursts of anger. Dandelion, with its liver-cooling effect, is perfect for me. Just preparing the salad makes my mouth water. My wife, who has more of a vata tendency, eats it in small quantity.

We know the leaves can be very diuretic and drying. So how can we counter-balance that effect? Let us see the type of salad dressing Provence folks use for their dandelion greens:
  • lots of olive oil (warming, nourishing)
  • mustard (warming)
  • several crushed garlic cloves (warming)
  • lots of crushed anchovies

Olive oil, garlic, mustard - all interesting. But the most interesting part to me is the anchovies. This just dawned upon me very recently, and I thought: how brilliant! 

Anchovies are very salty. And water follows salt. Anchovies create a water retention effect at the kidney-level, countering the salt-leaching diuretic effect of dandelion.

Fumitory, a commonly used "liver" herb in France

Good habits : light meals and sleep
The liver gets two major inflows of blood. One from general circulation, one from the portal vein. Both mix before entering the liver lobules. The load from the portal vein, with its charge of unprocessed nutrients, takes energy away from the blood-filtering function. Reducing the amount of food ingested during the depurative cure ensures you give the liver most of its processing power to filter the blood.

The liver filters the blood best during “rest and repair” periods, the night being a significant one. Lots of sleep and an early light dinner means lots of opportunity for the liver to cleanse the blood.

This simple lifestyle advice is of course very much ignored today. Some working people eat dinner late, often around 8pm or 9pm. They go to bed late too, and wake up early to go to work. They wake up toxic already, and they haven’t even started the day. 

Application in today’s world
The notion of “seasons” have changed. In this fast-moving world of office jobs and “everything accessible all the time”, depurative cures need to be tailored to the individual’s lifestyle. Yes, the body, at a very deep animal level, still goes through the rhythms of the seasons, influenced by the sun and temperatures. So spring cleansing still makes sense.

But the body is also flogged into new patterns of abuse, and goes through new “micro-seasons”, be it summer vacation with copious eating and drinking, long-term chronic pathologies that create tremendous recycling loads on the liver, or trying to make it through a world where what constitutes “healthy eating” is as controversial as a pre-election political debate.

So depurative cures are still very much of actuality. They just need to be tailored to the person, lifestyle and constitution :
  • A teacher may need a depurative cure to get ready for the September school-start season ;
  • A traveling business woman may need one after being on the road for 2 weeks meeting with potential customers ;
  • The long-distance runner preparing for an important marathon may need one a couple of months before the race to make sure the “engine” runs cleanly ; 
  • Etc.

More and more kids can benefit from gentle depurative cures. They, too, get stuck into their own vicious and destructive circles: living in a sunless cave (bedroom with computer), eating dead food (cookies, chips and coke), and being sleep deprived. And the liver gets hit hard. Asthma, eczema, allergies, pimples are all accepted as common children conditions now.

That being said, depurative plants need to be used with care. In today’s world of mostly cold, dry and deficient people, a depurative cure may aggravate the deficiency. They sometimes need to be used in low doses, or be combined with the appropriate warming and moistening plant.

A dandelion meadow in the Alps of France
I tell my clients to stick to a 10 to 15 days duration for the cure. Some of our old French doctors of the 19th and 20th century observed that indeed, during the first 10 days, depurative plants act as builders and strengtheners. But then, they slowly become a drain on the system. You kick the organs for a few days and you let them do their work. Kick them too long, and you will exhaust them.