Detox: An introduction to a scam
My earliest personal encounter with detoxing was with a book called Clean by Alejandro Junger. It was recommended to me by a very close friend who swore it helped her fight autoimmune disease. I had just recovered from one myself, so I had to look into this. The book was incredibly compelling. And since I listened to the Audiobook, his Latin American accent made it even more charming.
Junger was a doctor of “functional medicine”, which warrants an article to itself. But he was trained as a doctor, so there seemed to be credibility there. He spoke about patients who he couldn’t help until he tried certain detoxification diets which transformed their health. Their symptoms all seemed familiar – weight gain, lethargy, depression, susceptibility to allergies and infections, brain fog and more. These are things I was experiencing too. He talked about how elimination diets, footpads and colonics could help me get my health and energy back.
He had made so many claims, it took me a while to get into them all. But I found most of them were quite solidly based in many detox tropes.
So to start, let’s break down the basics of the detox trend.
What is detoxification?
Alternative medicine quacks like Dr Oz and Junger, celebrities, and your lunch table buddies, have claimed that our bodies gather up toxins from our food, drinks and air we breathe. Nowadays, people have even started claiming you can get toxins from GMOs and vaccines! No one ever specifies what these so-called toxins really are, so there’s no way these claims can be tested explicitly for a particular chemical. It’s not just lay people who are not specific. Books written by detox gurus, like Clean, are also just as vague.
In short, these toxins are the root cause of pretty much any ailment you can think of, from brain fog, weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, cancer, allergies, autoimmune diseases and chronic conditions in general.
Detoxification, or detox for short, can allegedly get rid of these toxins and return us to better health.
The idea isn’t new. Humans have had cleansing and purification rituals for most of recorded history. Medicine regarded bloodletting, enemas and purging as valid therapies till early in the 20th century as a method of balancing the humours and getting rid of impurities. Alternative medical practices like Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and Unani are actually bringing such barbaric practices back!
However, keep one thing in mind. Bloodletting is actually a valid therapeutic technique for a couple of extremely rare diseases. The medical procedure is called therapeutic phlebotomy. It’s used for treating haemochromatosis, a disease where your body stores up too much iron, and polycythaemia, where your red blood cells increase to dangerous levels. These are the only diseases for which controlled bloodletting by a trained practitioner are warranted. Any other form of bloodletting can be extremely dangerous. Please don’t try it unless you have these conditions.
So are these toxins real? For that, we need to check out some actual toxins to compare them with.
What are the real toxins?
The word “toxins” most frequently refers to those produced by microbes or plants. But since we are going against claims that toxins are everywhere, let me spread that term out a little further to refer to poisons, venoms and other harmful chemicals.
Natural toxins: Next time someone tells you something’s natural and therefore safe, you can say to them that nature is filled with the most toxic substances known to humans. Here’s a quick list of some of them:
Botulism, cholera and other microbial poisons
Venoms from insects, sea creatures and other animals like snake venom, jellyfish stings and spider bites
Plant toxins from poisonous flora like poison ivy, bitter or raw almonds, apple seeds and apricot kernels.
Metals: Many metals like lead, mercury and asbestos can make you very sick if they get absorbed into your body. The medical term is heavy metal toxicity. (Did System of a Down name their album after this? Hmmm)
Particulate pollutants: Industries, traffic and fires release small particulate matter that can cause a lot of damage to our lungs and other internal organs.
So we know about a variety of toxins. So which ones are the detox proponents talking about? Sorry folks. They seem to be about as real as elves and fairies. Unless you believe in elves, in which case, we need to have a talk.
Do we need to detox?
Yes. We do indeed need to get pollutants, wastes and other materials we don’t need, out of our bodies. If we didn’t, we would all die.
Okay, storytime. Back in 2009, I got very sick. I wasn’t being able to keep anything down. I was puking so hard, my face and eyes went blotchy red because of all the busted blood vessels. It hurt even to look around. I just lay in bed and watched Star Trek: The Original Series and House MD on a marathon. I had ultrasounds, blood tests by the dozen and everything else the doc could think of. I felt like House’s patient and kept wishing he wasn’t fictional so he could figure out what the hell was wrong with me.
Finally, after 4 days of this insanity, my doctor found my creatinine was elevated in my blood samples. This meant my kidneys weren’t working correctly, and this natural waste product from my muscles, and other metabolic waste, was building up in my system to dangerous levels and making me incredibly sick.
See, we always have lots of ‘toxins’ in our system. We make many of them ourselves; we eat them, breathe them and drink them. But our body does an excellent job of getting rid of them:
The liver works around the clock to filter out anything we don’t need so we can poop them out. It also filters our blood coming from the digestive tract, metabolises the nutrition in it, filters out wastes and shoots it back into the intestines as bile.
Intestines screen parasites and harmful substances before they reach the bloodstream
Our lungs expel carbon dioxide through breathing and particulate pollutants through mucus.
Our kidneys filter out our blood and get rid of metabolic wastes and surpluses like water-soluble vitamins, and tons more through your pee.
Our immune system cleans out foreign substances, dead cells and germs continuously.
We have incredibly effective systems of keeping our bodies clean. We just have to make sure we keep them as healthy as we can.
Does the liver need to be detoxified to work better?
I’ve seen a lot of liver cleanses and detoxes around. They claim to help the liver do its job better, especially if you’ve been binge drinking over the weekend or eating crap. Wrong! We don’t need to detox our livers. That’s what the liver does.
All these detox cleanses and juices for the liver are just gimmicks and marketing. You don’t need any of it. You know what you do need to do?
1) Drink in moderation
2) Don’t smoke
3) Stay at a healthy weight
4) Eat a healthy diet with nutritious fruits and veggies
5) Drink enough water
6) Get exercise regularly
7) Stop believing anything or anyone that tells you to detox
Do these things, and your liver will be working in top form and keeping you super healthy and squeaky clean on the inside.
So juices are bad?
No, of course not! Juices can be a great nutritious addition to your diet. Just don’t get the ones loaded with extra sugar. You don’t need those calories anyway. Just make sure you get plenty of fibre and eat plenty of other stuff. Going on a juice fast isn’t always a good idea, though. But that’s for another article.
What about a colonic to get rid of all the gunk inside my intestines?
First, colonics should only be done under medical supervision and only when your doctor tells you to get one. Doing it yourself could damage your gut lining, microbiome and may even puncture it. You do NOT want to do that. There’s a reason why your poop goes out of the hole it’s meant to. You don’t want it to go anywhere else, or it will kill you.
Second, your intestines, when healthy, keep themselves quite clean. Nothing builds up and sticks to the sides. Just make sure you’re getting plenty of fibre in your diet to keep your gut microbiome healthy and happy. They’ll go a long way in keeping things moving down there.
There is a pill you can get you to poop out a mucoid plaque. This is basically a massive dump that’s supposed to clean out this so-called gunk from your piping. It’s another scam. All it does is form long polymer chains in your intestines that tie all your shit together and hauls it out. It has no benefits whatsoever. Instead, you should spend the money on psyllium husk like Sat Isabgol or Metamucil. Now that’s got very satisfying results.
So what about the stuff your body can’t detox by itself?
Then you go see a good doctor. If it’s heavy metals, you can get chelation therapy that’s meant to extract minerals from your blood. For natural toxins, there are usually anti-venoms and a host of other medication that can be used to save you from them. Some don’t have treatments, and you’re pretty much screwed. Want to find out more on this topic? Let me know in the comments.
The detoxing industry is massive and is showing no signs of going out of fashion. A vast majority of these supplements, juices, footpads and colonics, not to mention the books that are written on this subject, are outright scams and exist only to get your money. They will not do anything they advertise. The juices, though, can probably add a little more nutrition to your diet.
Coming back to the book I mentioned earlier, Clean, it talked a lot about the diets and the treatments, but it said nothing at all about which toxins affected the patients, what their blood work said, or any other specifics. No scientific research was cited. All he gives in the book are his own anecdotal experiences. As compelling as it is, there's no evidence presented. Therefore, there's no reason to take his claims seriously.
Don’t fall for this nonsense. If you’ve been drinking too much, just stop and let your body heal. If you’ve been eating crap, eat healthy for a bit. If you’re just feeling shitty like lethargy, brain fog, feeling bloated, getting allergies and stuff, I’d say try getting a right amount of sleep, eating well, getting exercise and minimising stress. If that doesn’t work…let me think. What else could you do? Hmmm…Oh yes! GO TO A FREAKING DOCTOR!
Just please, for the love of your liver, don’t give these scammers any more of your money.