As we prepare to welcome 2018, it’s time to start thinking about your New Year’s resolutions. And what better way to start fresh in 2018 than by literally purging yourself of 2017, inside and out? You may already been seeing advertisements for all forms of detox products and services: Your local pharmacy likely has a shelf of supplements and kits that promise a svelte, glowing you within a few days. A Facebook post is promoting lemon juice, cayenne and maple syrup as a cure-all. Or there’s your local naturopathic clinic promoting IV vitamin infusions – not only will a detox make you feel better, you’ll look better too.
Unfortunately, most of the hype around detox is useless at best, and expensive and potentially harmful, at worst. Most detoxes are only successful at cleaning you of your savings, not your toxins. Here are the top ten signs that you may be getting scammed, or risking your health, with a detox.
1. Watch for the word “homeopathic”
Homeopathic “remedies” look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on store shelves. 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 likely safe — with no active ingredients, homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system. It won’t remove toxins any faster than doing nothing at all. It’s notable that the FDA seems to be finally willing to take action against “potentially harmful” and “unproven” homeopathic products. Homeopathic detox, like homeopathic anything, is a scam.
2. The detox claims to treat or remove Candida
If you read alternative-health magazines, books or websites, you’ll eventually see the idea promoted that we are all apparently filled 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 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” 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. Ask any gastroenterologist (who look inside colons for a living) if they’ve ever seen one. There isn’t a single case of mucoid plaque that’s been documented in the medical literature. Not one. If you have a widespread candida infection, you’re seriously ill and need to be under the care of a medical professional – not anyone telling you that Candida is what you need to eliminate in your detox.
3. Intravenous vitamin infusions
Forget getting your vitamins from food, or even from a vitamin pill. For the real detox, you apparently need to bypass your digestive system entirely. Roll up your sleeve, find a vein, insert a needle and watch that colourful concoction flow directly into the bloodstream. It may sound somewhat illicit, but that person infusing it is wearing a white coat, and you’re sitting in a chic clinic. There must be something to it, right? Sadly, despite the hype and all 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. With so many purveyors of vitamin infusions, one would hope the practice was grounded in good science. But despite the lack of good evidence, there is a near-obsessive devotion to touting the benefits of intravenous vitamins while railing against the mysterious entities (like me, and this post) which are blocking The Truth. 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 is only trying to get you to buy something? If you need hydration, drink some water. And if your body needs vitamins, eat some food.
4. It’s coffee, but not the kind you drink
I wrote a few weeks ago about the potential health benefits of coffee consumption. Consuming coffee for the vast majority of people is safe and possibly even beneficial. However, there is the widespread alternative health belief that the only real 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.
5. It contains activated charcoal
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 for something promoted without credible evidence.
6. The detox is promoted by a naturopath
Britt Marie Hermes is an ex-naturopath who described how she set up and promoted her own detox program:
It is surprisingly easy to sell snake-oil. I know, because I’ve done it. In 2014, I helped create and sell The Right Detox. This was a bogus detoxification program that purported to improve anyone’s well-being and perhaps, cure disease. I was the face of the scam. I launched The Right Detox at a spring-time women’s health expo in Tucson, Arizona.
Detox programs are created with one goal: make money. I am not generalizing here. I’ve helped create detox programs at more than one clinic. In each instance, the decisions to include specific detox supplements, protein powder shakes, or therapies were based on profit margins.
We pretended that patients could save money by buying supplements in bulk or by starting the detox program with a group of friends. We were hoping to increase business by luring customers into becoming long-term patients. It worked. They would come to the practice ready to invest more time, energy, and money into their healthcare regimen. We were ready to sell them false promises and false hope in the form of supplements and naturopathic therapies like intravenous vitamin drips, enemas, and far-infrared saunas. The detox program did not help patients achieve their health goals.
7. Alkali Anything
The idea that our body’s acidity needs monitoring and adjusting is regularly promoted by “alternative” health providers. 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. 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.
8. “Recommended by Goop”
Gwyneth Paltrow’s website was in the news repeatedly in 2017 – not all of it positively. Goop promotes the most absurd pseudoscience, so much so that it must be making Dr. Oz blush. A search for “detox” on the Goop website is a pretty good reflection of the lack of sensible health advice. Goop promotes a “heavy metal detox” from the “Medical Medium” Anthony William whose apparent source of knowledge is ghosts that give medical advice. Yes, ghosts. Goop also has an “anger detox” which at least isn’t trying to sell you anything. Goop’s diet detoxes offer some reasonable-looking recipes and advice (cutting back on caffeine, alcohol and added sugar) with highly restrictive and unnecessary food restrictions, like rice, soy, corn, red meat, gluten, shellfish, nightshades and dairy. Pass the kale smoothie? As David Gorski wrote earlier this year:
Now, a shruggie might say that this is all harmless nonsense. Beauty products have always featured a healthy helping of woo, after all. But that’s not all Goop promotes. It also promotes The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy, plus other quackery like detox cleanses, naturopathy, colon cleanses, functional medicine, and a whole lot of dubious fad diets. This dubious medical advice is then coupled with fear mongering about “mold toxicity,” the Epstein-Barr Virus as the root of all chronic illness, and the long-debunked claim that bras predispose to breast cancer. So, yes, it might be amusing that Paltrow has claimed that there are all sorts of “toxins” in shampoo (which is, of course, why she says you should buy her shampoos) or that goat’s milk is the cure for what ails you, but she’s fused the usually relatively minor woo associated with beauty and “wellness” with some serious quackery. She’s basically taken beauty woo and weaponized it into something that is no longer just a relatively harmless bit of nonsense for customers with, as comedians Mitchell and Webb once put it, a “vague sense of unease, a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense.” It’s gotten serious.
There is every reason to be suspicious of anything that Goop recommends you do or buy. Its detox advice is no exception.
9. The detox doesn’t name the specific toxins that are removed
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.) Which toxins cause which disease is left out, and how the toxins cause the symptoms is never actually explained. Despite the variety of toxins that are claimed to be causing your illness, marketing claims for bogus detox treatments will never list the toxins that are removed – that’s because these detox kits have never been proven to actually remove toxins at all. They always fail to link specific toxins to specific symptoms or illnesses. There is no credible evidence to demonstrate that detox kits/plans/diets remove toxins that are the cause of health problems.
10. The detox is said to clean your organs
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. 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 should be fine. Just leave them alone.
So what’s 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.