Happy New Year! Today’s post updates some old – but still relevant – material.
New Year, New You, right? It’s 2022. We’re entering the third year of the pandemic. You’re resolving to finally get serious about your health. That’s great.
But first, you apparently need to cleanse yourself, eliminating last year’s lifestyle and dietary sins. Some even think you need to detox from all those COVID vaccine injections. Supplements, tea, homeopathy, coffee enemas, ear candles, and footbaths all seem to promise better health. Amazon has entire detox and cleansing categories in supplements and books. The descriptions all suggest detoxing will deliver a cleaner, healthier body. Goop publishes an annual detox guide ($58 lip balm, anyone?). Senate candidate Dr. Oz has endorsed several detox plans over the years, but you may find them harder to find these days. Your local naturopath may offer detoxification protocols, including vitamin drips and chelation. Even your pharmacy probably has a wall of products for sale. Wouldn’t a purification from 2021 be a good way to start the year? Before you buy anything, there’s something very important that detox promoters aren’t telling you.
Detox is a scam
“Detox” is a case of a legitimate medical term being turned into a marketing strategy – all designed to treat a nonexistent condition. In the setting of real medicine, detoxification means treatments for dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons, like heavy metals. Detoxification treatments are medical procedures that are not casually selected from a menu of alternative health treatments, or pulled off the shelf in the pharmacy. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals when there are life-threatening circumstances. But then there are the “toxins” that alternative health providers claim to eliminate. This form of detoxification is simply the co-opting of a real term to give legitimacy to useless products and services, while confusing consumers into thinking they’re science-based.
One of the widely promoted ideas about “detox” is that it acts like some sort of cleaner for your organs. Detox marketing 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. But the reality is, 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. To argue that either organ need a “cleanse” simply demonstrates a lack of understanding in biochemistry. Your organs will be fine without that supplement, smoothie, or fad diet. Just leave them alone.
There’s a reason we can be sucked in by the marketing of detoxification — we seem hardwired to believe we need it, perhaps related to our susceptibility to ideas of sympathetic magic. 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, which may explain why it’s still a part of most of the world’s religions. It’s not miasmas or sin that we’re as worried about today, however. As our knowledge of biology grew, these fears manifested as “autointoxication“, to be treated with colonics and purgatives. Clean out the bowels, went the theory, and you could cure any illness. Science discarded autointoxication by the 1900s as we gained a better understanding of anatomy, physiology, and the true cause of disease. Yet the term persists today – but now it’s a marketing slogan. Today’s version of autointoxication argues that our environment is increasingly toxic, and it’s making us ill. Man-made chemicals are absolutely in our environment, so the reasoning goes that it must be making use sick. Depending on who you ask, some combination of food additives, salt, meat, fluoride, prescription drugs, smog, vaccine ingredients, GMOs, not “eating clean”, or perhaps not “eating paleo” are causing a buildup of “toxins” in the body. So what is the actual “toxin” that is causing you vague but apparently real harm? Detox kits and treatments never name the toxins that they remove, because they’ve never been shown to actually remove toxins.
Alkali anything is a scam
The idea that our body’s acidity needs monitoring and adjusting is regularly promoted by “alternative” health providers. There is the persistent 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. Nothing you eat or drink will have a significant effect on the pH of food once it reaches your intestine to be absorbed. And claims that “acidity is the root of all disease” are without basis – and reflects a lack of understanding of basic physiology and biochemistry. If your detox claims to “restore” your acid-base balance, or is supposed to make you more “alkali” – it’s a sure sign of a scam.
What about coffee, but not the kind you drink?
Consuming coffee for the vast majority of people is safe and possibly even beneficial. However, there is the widespread alternative health belief that the real benefits of coffee are realized 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.
There are no quick fixes
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.