Do yoga twists really detoxify the liver? Maybe not directly. Here’s why.
There is a lot of confusion around the popular term “detox.” After reading several books on detoxifying lifestyles and cleansing foods, I’ve been caught between thinking that “detox” is a beautiful myth supported by clever marketing, and acting on the premise that one can lead a lifestyle that supports the body’s cleansing process, fancy products aside.
At present, I believe both to be true: “detox” is a glamorous word that can fit a variety of marketing goals; at the same time, the body, particularly the liver and the lymphatic system, is tasked with cleansing (i.e. detoxifying) the system of unwanted substances (like alcohol or chemicals we ingest with our food), and adopting a lifestyle that supports the body’s overall health (including the liver and lymphatic system) allows the body to do the job it was designed to do—breathing, sleeping, yawning, laughing, and yes, cleansing.
The definition of “detox” that I’ve come to embrace is more accurately described as healthy living—eating whole, plant-based foods, exercising frequently, relying mainly on more naturally sourced body care products, and making the effort to focus my mental energy on positive, productive ideas. Despite my mixed feelings about the term “detox,” I admit that it’s more fun to say “detoxifying” than “healthy.” The problem is that “detox” can be a misleading term that perpetuates a pseudoscientific idea that the average person needs to take certain detoxifying measures to become/stay healthy or achieve a new level of physical beauty.
The yoga world is not immune to detox myths, unfortunately. For some years of my practice, I believed that spinal twists, particularly Ardha Matsyendrasna (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose, pictured above), improved the body’s detoxification process. Articles on yoga’s healing powers and enthusiastic advice from yoga instructors continued to drive home this idea. And I’m sure I’ve repeated it!
The belief that twisting is particularly detoxifying stems from the notion that twists act as a “wringing out” of the internal organs that massages the liver, allowing it to do its job better. I had even heard from one instructor that twisting in a certain order (to the left, then to the right) will push solid waste closer to its, uh, point of departure.
As most yogis have experienced, the pose certainly has observable merits. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that Ardha Matsyendrasna can help relax the muscles around the spine, increase flexibility in the rhomboids, hamstrings, spinal extensors, and obliques, and even ease lower back pain. Plus, it just feels good to move the body in such a non-linear way!
Alas, there are no scientific studies to confirm that spinal twists are more detoxifying than other yoga poses, however. Nicole Slavin of The Guardian explains, “one thing it’s not doing is directly affecting the cellular or biochemical workings of the liver, which are the primary mechanisms of ‘detoxification,’” a statement echoed by Yoga Journal. Indeed, spinal twists do not directly enhance the work of Kupffer or Hepatocyte cells, who we really have to thank for detoxification. Kupffer cells are macrophage (cells that eat junk) that process unwanted substances traveling from the spleen and GI tract to the liver while Hepatocytes make up 70-85% of the liver’s mass and help excrete unneeded substances. Thus, saying that Ardha Matsyendrasna is a liver-detox pose is, to put it mildly, a stretch and an oversimplification of the body’s complex cleansing tools that are always on duty.
In keeping with my own “detox philosophy,” it would be hard to argue that yoga—and exercise in general—doesn’t support the body’s ongoing cleansing process in at least an indirect way. By conditioning the heart and boosting circulation, yoga can holistically improve health, extending benefits to every organ. After all, improved circulation more effectively delivers nutrients to the the nooks and crannies of the body. More good news, if your style of yoga makes you sweat, then you’re detoxifying excess salt, cholesterol, alcohol from your body.
And one other thing—I did look into claims about Ardha Matsyendrasana’s ability to encourage going to the bathroom. The pose appeared in severals hits related to easing constipation, including a pdf tutorial, “Poopasana: Taking Care of Business.” (Who says that yoga can’t have a sense of humor?) So perhaps there’s something to it. I’ll leave this one up to you.
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Photo: Mary Hood Luttrell