While most of us probably know cilantro as a staple of Mexican cuisine, if you run an online search for cilantro detox, you’ll find numerous sites touting cilantro as a powerful chelating agent and multiple products promising to help you rid your body of toxic heavy metals. But is there any truth to these claims? Come with us as we dig into the evidence and find out everything you need to know about cilantro for detoxification.
Getting to Know Cilantro
Cilantro is a member of the parsley family and has been in use for at least 7,000 years. Even though the plant is native to Iran, the name cilantro is actually Spanish for coriander (Coriandrum sativum) and is the term used widely in North America to refer to fresh coriander leaves. By contrast, coriander is used in place of cilantro to describe the plant’s seeds, which are used as a spice. However, other parts of the world refer to all parts of the plant as simply coriander.
If all this sounds a little confusing, that’s because it is—and it probably makes for some interesting conversation among international chefs.
Although coriander seeds are known for their spicy citrus flavor, the fresh leaves of cilantro are more reminiscent of an aromatic citrus-parsley hybrid—unless, that is, you have a particular gene that makes cilantro taste more like dish soap.
But whether you love it or hate it—and cilantro is one of those polarizing herbs that has plenty of people in both camps—cilantro is a popular ingredient in a variety of cuisines.
Health Benefits of Cilantro
Cilantro is a great source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, potassium, and manganese, and an array of phytochemicals. These beneficial plant chemicals act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and have been linked to a number of important benefits, from improved immune system function to a decreased risk of chronic health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s just a sampling of what the science has to say about the health benefits of cilantro.
Fungal and Bacterial Infections
A study published in the journal PLoS One found that cilantro essential oil displayed significant antifungal activity against yeasts belonging to the genus Candida, including Candida albicans—the most common cause of fungal infections worldwide.
Another study in the International Journal of Food Microbiology found that cilantro essential oil was particularly effective against Listeria monocytogenes—a bacterium commonly implicated in cases of food poisoning. And a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that cilantro exerted an antibacterial effect against Salmonella enterica, another common culprit in food-borne illnesses.
A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that an extract of cilantro blocked the harmful effects of UVB radiation and stimulated collagen production, leading to a reduction in signs of photoaging, including wrinkles. Another study from the same journal found that skin application of coriander prevented contact dermatitis in treated mice.
Endocrine and Heart Health
Multiple studies have documented the antioxidant properties of cilantro and the potential they may hold in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Food Science found that diabetic rats supplemented with extracts of coriander experienced reduced blood sugar and cholesterol as well as increased liver levels of antioxidant enzymes and decreased lipid peroxidation—a process in which lipids interact with free radicals, degrade, and cause cell damage—all of which have implications not only for the prevention and treatment of diabetes and heart disease but also for liver health.
But what about the role of cilantro in heavy metal detox?
Heavy Metals: Origins and Risks
If you’re alive, chances are you’ve got at least a few heavy metals floating around in your body. And when we say heavy metals, we’re talking about substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.
Why are heavy metals a problem, you ask?
Although heavy metals occur naturally in nature, industrial and agricultural pollution has led to increased levels of toxic metals in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.
In fact, excessive exposure can lead to heavy metal poisoning, which can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system and cause infertility, developmental delay, and chronic health problems.
Perhaps the most well-known case of heavy metal toxicity involves the lead poisoning that occurred in tens of thousands of people in 2014 in Flint, Michigan, after the city’s drinking water supply became contaminated.
Considering the pervasiveness of heavy metal toxins—especially in industrial and agricultural centers—it may seem fanciful to think something as simple as a frilly green herb could provide any type of protection.
But you might be surprised.
Cilantro Detox for Heavy Metal Chelation
Chelation therapy is a procedure that involves the administration of chelating agents—compounds that have the ability to bind to metal ions so they can be excreted by the body.
There are a number of chelators on the market, many of them pharmaceuticals. But these types of agents can have serious side effects. Thankfully, there are natural chelating agents, too, including ascorbic acid, turmeric, and, yes, cilantro.
In fact, a study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that cilantro was a very effective chelator of lead. And a study in the journal Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research found that cilantro accelerated the excretion of both lead and mercury.
But cilantro works best as a chelating agent when used in conjunction with a type of green algae called chlorella. This is because cilantro has the ability to pull out more toxins than the body can excrete at one time, which means the toxins can end up being reabsorbed. And this can cause what’s known as a Herxheimer reaction—a reaction to detoxification that can lead to a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including nausea, bloating, skin rashes, and joint pain.
However, when chlorella is added to the mix, its toxin-binding properties work synergistically with cilantro to prevent this reabsorption and speed elimination. In fact, some studies have demonstrated that the simultaneous use of cilantro and chlorella can reduce mercury levels by 91%, lead levels by 87%, and aluminum levels by 74% over a period of just a month and a half.
Detoxing with Cilantro and Chlorella
If you’re concerned about heavy metal exposure and interested in detoxing with cilantro and chlorella, the good news is that there are a variety of options that can be customized to fit your personal needs and lifestyle. For example, you can opt for fresh cilantro and chlorella or choose a product that combines the two into one easy-to-take formula.
Whatever route you choose, when it comes to detoxifying from heavy metals—or any toxins, for that matter—it’s important to remember to pay attention to your body. So if you’re unsure if detoxing is right for you, or if you choose to detox and find yourself running into any untoward reactions, don’t hesitate to speak with a qualified health care professional.