The detoxification mystification

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
A Kiwi blogger is campaigning against "scientifically absurd" detox treatments.

One might have thought, given how well it has been satirised over the years, that “detoxification” would have gone the way of the nasal douche, and yet the concept hangs on in there. It’s worth noting that detoxification in conventional medicine refers to a programme of weaning drug-dependent people off an addiction. The general scientific consensus is also that when it comes to breaking down toxins, there’s nothing quite like the liver. In the alternative health market, however, the concept of detoxification trades on the theory that our bodies are loaded with all these undefined toxins that, if left to “overwhelm the immune system”, will lead to incurable diseases. It’s never clear exactly what these toxins are – there are vague references to everything from undigested meat to the chemicals in home cleaning products – or where they actually lurk.

Detoxification treatments come in all sorts of guises, such as seven-day diet programmes with added supplements, footbaths, foot-pads, mud-wraps and so on. They might have some psychological benefit (“I think, therefore I am, feeling better”), but that’s about the end of the matter. As Edzard Ernst, co-author of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, has noted, people offering such treatments never seem to be able to produce any scientific evidence of their efficacy, only anecdotal testimonies from former clients. “Yet such studies would be very simple to conduct: name the toxin, measure its level before and after the treatment and compare the readings. Why do such studies not exist?”

Detoxification treatments, in the best pseudoscientific tradition, tend to come with promotional material loaded with scientific – or scientific-sounding – terms and they may be advocated by people with titles such as quantum physics researcher. Users might be pointed to the visual evidence: look at how the water in that footbath you’ve been soaking in has turned brown! This isn’t because toxins have been extracted from your organs and now lie in a puddle around your feet. The more likely cause is that the footbath has a rusty iron electrode. Two New Zealand specialists published an article in the Lancet some years ago after examining the green semi-solid “stones” that a patient had passed after following a “liver cleansing” regime on the advice of a herbalist. The regime involved a day of no food, but drinking apple and vege­table juice, followed by 600ml of olive oil and 300ml of lemon juice. As the scientists revealed, the green “stones” were not little bundles of toxins, but the result of gastric acids working on the oleic acid in olive oil and the potassium in lemon juice – producing “soap stones”.

SciBlogs contributor Michael Edmonds has been so appalled by the pseudo­science used to promote detox treatments online that he has begun a campaign against them. It started last year when he came across a footbath, or more precisely “a special field enhancer unit [that] ionises the water, charging your cells as the blood passes through your feet … stimulating the body’s natural cleaning processes”. This, he complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), was scientifically absurd. “Ionised water cannot ‘charge cells’.”

Those promoting the footbath said in their response to the ASA: Like any scientific matter, this poses problems for people to understand … People with chemistry degrees will understand the process and know how the energy from ionisation can impart energy to the cell, therefore helping cellular function to improve.” No they won’t, and the complainant had a PhD in chemistry. The ASA upheld Edmonds’s complaint. Encouraged, he has since filed four more about other websites promoting detoxification treatments. “I hope to knock them off one by one. And let them know that there are people out there watching.”

He agrees that much has been written exposing the lack of scientific credibility of “detox” treatments, and that it seems some will always swallow what they want to believe in. “But the way I look at it is there are people who know science who know that this is rubbish. You have people who are so hard-core into pseudoscience they are not going to change their mind. But there’s this huge number of people in between, and if scientists don’t get out there and get their side across, there’s more chance people who are undecided will move towards the pseudoscience. Yeah, sometimes when we [science bloggers] talk among ourselves, we wonder why bother. But when it comes down to it, without scientists pushing the science, you have a one-sided argument, which is not what we want.”


Boston University researchers have decoded the complete genome sequence of a man and a woman both aged over 114, and shown that the two supercentenarians carried as many disease-associated genes as the general population. Their longevity, however, could be put down to genetic disposition that includes both common and rare variants, which cancelled out the disease genes.


Using a nicotine patch may improve memory loss, according to a study published in Neurology. The study involved 74 people who had mild cognitive impairment and were not smokers, half of whom received a nicotine patch for six months and half a placebo. After six months, the nicotine-treated group regained 46% of normal performance for age on long-term memory, whereas the placebo group worsened by 26%. Researchers say this doesn't mean people should start smoking or using nicotine patches, only that the study justifies more research into the use of nicotine for memory loss.


Researchers from India have developed an alarm clock that triggers the alarm within a set range of times, but when the brain is in a more easily roused state. As they write in the International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, the theory is we will wake more refreshed if woken then, rather than during a heavy slumber. The clock requires EEG electrodes to be attached to the head, which are hooked up to a modified alarm clock. But the team envisages a headband with wireless electrodes.


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