Demystifying : Can yoga really cleanse the liver?

If there’s one word that seems ubiquitous every January, it’s “detox”. Anyone hoping to wash away the excesses of the holiday season will look for ways to be better and healthier, at least than they were the year before. The fact is, detoxing isn’t a thing. It is well dressed (and well marketed) pseudoscience. It is hard a single culprit responsible for this piece of bad physiology that persists. Who knows where the origins of this misnomer lay, but recently it’s been seen more and more in the ever-growing yoga industry. 

Madonna’s triceps and Sting’s bedroom habits aside, yoga has been steadily increasing in popularity since the 1990s. A 2008 study  in Yoga Journal reported the worth of the yoga industry to be $5.7bn, and today there are approximately 4,500 yoga  in the UK alone.

One benefit of yoga’s visibility and popularity is the variety of styles and methods available for one to get a stretch on. Classes offered nowadays can range from more traditional yoga styles that honour its cultural or spiritual origins, to ones that cater to a more fitness-orientated crowd. It’s possible to find “hot” yoga, where the studio is warmed to 40C, there’s even yoga for heaven. For the ultra-warrior, there is a fusion of  Boxing Yoga , and the latest addition to the myriad of ways to stretch is disco yoga ! Regardless of whether you’re seeking the reverent or the physical, one thing still abounds in many yoga studios: bad science.

Type “yoga” and “detox” into any search engine and the claims you’ll find will be quite staggering. One yoga posture (or asana in Sanskrit) that seems to bear the brunt of being super magical and “detoxifying” is the spinal twist, performed in poses like Adha. Some claims associated with this particular pose are reasonable, such as releasing muscles around the spine and lower back to ease pain or increase flexibility, for which there is some evidence.

But other claims are ridiculous, such as claims it can “rinse the spine”. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy with my cerebrospinal fluid un-rinsed, thanks. One of the more frequently made claims is that spinal twists detox the spine and subsequently massage the liver in order to increase its ability to detoxify (ie do its job). The sources of this myth are so numerous that a quick internet search will bring back hundreds, if not thousands, of hits. But it’s simply not true.

The liver is astounding, and after the skin, it’s the body’s largest organ. It has evolved to put up with a great deal of biological abuse, and the way it works is nothing short of incredible. Because of its size and connection to two very large blood vessels, the liver is well situated to receive whatever comes through your intestinal tract, the good, bad or ugly. It takes on a bouncer-like job and keeps unwanted items, or toxins (such as byproducts from pharmaceuticals, or environmental carcinogens) from getting into the bloodstream; basically the liver has got your blood’s back.

The blood that comes into the liver from the spleen and gastrointestinal tract is greeted by Kupffer cells, a kind of macrophage (quite literally, “big eater”). They’re not picky and will, in plain English, eat the flotsam and jetsam right out of your blood by digesting these undesirable particles. They do the first pass of “toxin flushing”, after which anything not caught here gets further broken down by enzymes produced by Hepatocytes, which are sensitive to blood sugar levels.

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