Detoxification: Medical or Mystical?

Prompted by a science blog entry and an episode of Diet Doctors, I thought I would share a notion that has been slowly germinating in my head. I’m sure that we are all familiar with the idea of ‘detoxification’. It is an idea that has a lot of popular currency: from the liver cleansing diet, to chelation, to many other fad diets and so-called “alternative” treatments. Well, first let the denialism blog set the scene: there is no such thing. Basically to sum up the article (go read it – it’s excellent): our body has a number of natural detoxification systems, if they break down you get very seriously ill. The alternative therapies and liver diets don’t remove toxins that are harming you. Don’t believe me? Name one toxin that they are removing! So if this isn’t a medical notion, what is it? Some sort of mystical notion. In fact it strikes me that the idea of detoxification has more to do with spiritual notions of pollution than it does with medical notions of toxins. These are notions such as corruption or contamination, where merely coming into contact with a substance transfers some of its characteristics to the subject.

All that the talk of “detoxification” does is dress up these old, pre-scientific, mystical, ideas in modern pseudo-scientific jargon, thus giving them the air of authority and legitimacy. There is a particular “detoxification” strategy that makes me very suspicious: the reliance on fasting as a means of cleansing one of “toxins”. This is very close to the spiritual notion of purifying oneself (of sin) through fasting. Why fasting would rid one of toxins is not explained – except by use of vague spiritual metaphors (such as burning). Further these toxins are discussed in terms very similar to the terms used to discuss sin or uncleanliness from various religious traditions. The use of various “purgatives” and suspiciously punitive regimens is another symptom of this kind of thinking.

So, the next time some one suggests that you need cleansing of “toxins”, think about the language they are using and the evidence they provide.

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~ by Doug Newdick on April 1, 2008.

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