Commitments to improve one’s health are common at this time of year. Marketers know this – your social media is likely filled with gym advertisements and health product marketing. Health trends come and go. Here are some that I’ve seen this year, with some comments about the science behind these claims:
1. “Homeopathic” detox
Homeopathy is often misunderstood as a natural remedy, like a form of herbalism. The marketing and labeling of these “remedies” encourages this perception, often describing homeopathy as a “gentle” and “natural” system of healing, and putting cryptic terms like “30C” beside long Latin names of what appears to be the active ingredients. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively and sometimes literally sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is no convincing evidence to show that homeopathy has any medical value. So while there may be hundreds of homeopathic remedies for sale, they are chemically indistinguishable, usually containing just sugar, water, and/or alcohol. The best that can be said for these products is that homeopathic “detox” is usually safe — with no active ingredients, homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system. It won’t remove toxins any faster than doing nothing at all.
2. The dopamine detox
Popularized on the creator of all trends, TikTok, the dopamine detox (or digital detox) basically involves not visiting TikTok (or using digital devices at all) for an extended period, based on the belief that constant digital stimulation is giving us dopamine “hits” in our brain that are ultimately harmful. (The effect of our devices on our brains is also the topic of a book I’m currently reading, Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari, which looks at the dwindling willpower we seem to have over our devices, and what can be done about it). Power users takings some time away from our devices is probably beneficial. However the idea that we can “detox” from a naturally-occurring chemical is bad science. I have no doubt that taking an extended break from technology can be invigorating and plausibly even make us feel much better. But there’s no toxins actually being removed.
3. The papaya parasite cleanse
Another trend that either got its start (or boost) from Tiktok, is the idea is that papaya seeds will help the body expel parasites from the gastrointestinal tract. While the idea that we can be infected with roundworms is certainly true, infections in developed countries are uncommon, especially past childhood. There is limited data that looks at the effectiveness of papaya seeds, and nothing that shows that seeds are more effective than medication. Papaya seeds are edible and they contain trace amounts of naturally-occurring cyanide. More obvious may be their high fibre content which can cause stomach upset – and may be why consumption is felt to help “expel” the parasites. If you feel you have a parasite infection – see a medical professional for evaluation and, if necessary, medical treatment.
It’s also worth noting that there are social media posts about the consumption of the aquarium antiparasite product Paraguard. It goes without saying that you are not a fish, and consuming a product intended for aquatic life is not advisable. There is also a herbal concoction also called Paraguard which is glorified snake oil and has no demonstrated efficacy. There are no natural remedies that have been proven to eliminate parasites.
4. The activated charcoal cleanse
Activated charcoal is a medicine and drug sponge – it’s used routinely for poisonings. So will it work if you’ve overindulged in tequila and tacos? Compared to real detoxification protocols, the amount of charcoal in detox products is tiny. And despite the marketing hype, activated charcoal has no ability to suck out the toxic chemicals from the rest of your body once they’re absorbed. Its effects are limited to the gastrointestinal tract only, and it’s been studied in poisoning situations only. While ingesting charcoal is probably going to be well tolerated, taking it with a healthy diet is exactly what you want to avoid. Activated charcoal appears to bond vitamins like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine (vitamin B1) and biotin, so it has the potential to make food and drinks you consume actually less nutritious, not more. The only reason you should be taking activated charcoal is when the emergency room physician is telling you it’s going to save your life. Otherwise, consider anything with activated charcoal to be a warning flag.
5. The Candida cleanse
This detox has been around for decades, and anecdotally its popularity seems have dropped over the past several years. It is based on the unproven idea that we are all infected with Candida – yeast. Candida albicans is a fungus that most of us carry in or on our bodies. However, it is rarely a cause of serious or prolonged illness – the more common infections are thrush (an infection of the mouth) or vaginitis (commonly called a yeast infection), both of which are easily treatable with anti-fungal medication. Serious Candida infections are quite rare, and usually only seen in those with very compromised immune systems – think cancer chemotherapy, or advanced AIDS.
Candida became a made-up cause of disease and illness in the 1980s, and alternative-medicine practitioners have never let this go, despite the lack of any evidence. That doesn’t stop people from selling “kits” and diets that are claimed to eliminate yeast in the body. These aren’t antifungal drugs: Most are combinations of laxatives and purgatives, all promising to sponge up toxins and Candida and restore you to an Enhanced State of Wellness. Advertisements may argue that some sort of toxic sludge (sometimes called a mucoid plaque) is accumulating in the colon, making it a breeding ground for parasites, and yeast. Fortunately, science tells us otherwise: mucoid plaques and toxic sludge simply do not exist. It’s a made-up idea to sell detoxification treatments. There isn’t a single case of mucoid plaque that’s been documented in the medical literature. If you have a widespread candida infection, you’re seriously ill and need to be under the care of a medical professional and not purchasing or attempting your own detox.
6. Intravenous vitamin infusions
Despite the pretty pictures, the hype and the endorsements from pro athletes and celebrities, there is no credible evidence to suggest that routine vitamin infusions are necessary or offer any meaningful health benefit. Vitamin infusions are a marketing creation, giving the illusion you’re doing something for your health, but lacking any demonstrable efficacy. Yes, there is an established medical role for injectable vitamins, though it’s no energy-boosting cure-all – they’re used to replace what we should obtain in our diet, when we cannot eat. But the reality is more mundane. In the absence of a deficiency, vitamin infusions don’t do much of anything. And they’re not free of risk – anytime you allow your skin to be punctured, there’s a small but non-zero risk of an infection. Do you trust getting an injection of chemicals from someone that isn’t a health professional, and has no evidence for what they’re promoting? If you need hydration, drink some water. And if your body needs vitamins, eat some food.
7. Coffee, but not the kind you drink
Consuming coffee for the vast majority of people is safe and possibly even beneficial. It’s delicious. However, there is the widespread alternative health belief that the true benefits of coffee are delivered when you flush it into your rectum. Despite the hype, coffee enemas are considered unsafe and should be avoided. Rare but serious adverse events like septicemia (bacteria in the bloodstream), rectal perforation, and electrolyte abnormalities have been caused by coffee enemas. Deaths from the administration of coffee enemas have been reported.
Coffee enemas have their roots as part of the “Gerson Treatment” for cancer, developed by physician Max Gerson in the 1940s. His regimen included coffee enemas, supplements, juice, and injections of calves’ liver. The approach has been investigated and been shown to be useless for the treatment of cancer. Some proponents of coffee enemas believe that the chemical components of coffee stimulate liver and gall bladder function. There is no credible evidence to suggest this occurs, or that it is necessary. Your liver and gallbladder don’t need a coffee enema in order to work effectively. They will work just fine on their own.
8. The alkaline cleanse
The idea that our body’s acidity needs monitoring and adjusting is another persistent bit of pseudoscience that continues to be promoted as an alternative-to-medicine. There is the widespread belief that anything that makes the body “acidic” is bad and anything basic or “alkali” is good. But all of this is nonsense, designed to confuse you about basic biochemistry. The pH scale is a measure of the acidity of a liquid. A pH of 7 is neutral. Anything lower is called acidic, anything higher is basic, or alkaline. The pH is a logarithmic scale – that is, a difference of 1 pH is a 10x difference.
Our blood’s pH is 7.4 – slightly alkaline or basic. Enzymes that facilitate chemical reactions in the cells work only in a narrow range of pH. Any significant change means almost certain death. A series of buffers and compensation mechanisms keep the pH in our blood from moving far from 7.4. Because the blood circulates throughout the body constantly, it can compensate any changes in pH in any of our organs (e.g., our muscles during intense exercise). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent acid in our body, and is a product of cellular activity. The blood carries CO2 away and eliminates it in the lungs. The lungs actually provide the biggest source of acid elimination in our body.
Everything we eat is broken down by stomach acid. The pH in our stomach is about 3 – very acidic, due to production of hydrochloric acid. Everything that is ejected from our stomach, into our intestines, is then immediately neutralized by digestive liquids and enzymes. The net effect is that everything we eat or drink and digest will eventually be at the pH in our intestines. Yes, diet can influence our urine’s pH, but that says nothing about health – it’s just a sign that your kidneys are working to eliminate waste properly. Any detox that claims to change your body’s pH is either useless or, if it actually worked, might kill you.
9. The blood detox
Marketing materials for detox treatments will usually list symptoms and even diseases that are claimed to be the result of “toxins”: Several that are general enough to apply to anyone (e.g., headache, fatigue, insomnia, hunger) with a few specific enough to frighten you into buying (cancer, etc.)
One of the widely promoted ideas about “detox” is that is acts like some sort of cleaner for your organs. Detox advertising describe your liver and kidney as acting like filters, where toxins are physically captured and retained. It’s argued that these organs to be cleaned out periodically, like you’d rinse out a sponge, or change the air filter in your car. The kidney and liver don’t work this way. The liver performs a series of chemical reactions, using enzymes, to convert toxic substances into ones that can be eliminated through the bile or the kidneys. The liver is self-cleansing – toxins don’t accumulate in it, and unless you have documented liver disease, it generally functions fine. The kidney excretes waste products into the urine – otherwise the substance stays in the blood. Your organs should be fine. Just leave them alone. If your kidneys or liver are not working properly, no detox diet, kit or plan is going to make any difference.
Is there a “good” detox?
There’s a reason we fall for the marketing of detoxification — we seem hardwired to believe we need it. Purification rituals date back to the earliest reaches of recorded history. The idea that we’re somehow poisoning ourselves and we need to atone for our sins seems to be a part of human nature. Popular ideas of detoxification and cleansing have no basis in reality. There’s no published evidence to suggest that detox treatments, kits or rituals have any effect on our body’s ability to eliminate waste products effectively. “Detox” focuses attention on irrelevant issues, giving the impression that you can undo lifestyle decisions with quick fixes. Improved health isn’t found in a box of herbs, a bottle of homeopathy, or a bag of coffee flushed into your rectum. The lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. Our kidneys and liver don’t need a detox treatment. If anyone suggests a detox or cleanse to you, remember that you’re hearing a marketing pitch for an imaginary condition.