Detoxification (alternative medicine)

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This article is about the alternative medicine claim. For the removal of toxic substances from a living organism, see Detoxification.
Alternative medicine
Claims Removal of unspecified toxins from the body
Related fields Naturopathy
See also Detoxification (medical)

Detoxification (also sometimes called body cleansing) in the context of alternative medicine consists of an approach that aims to rid the body of "toxins" – accumulated harmful substances that allegedly exert undesirable effects on individual health in the short or long term. Detoxification usually includes one or more of the following: dieting, fasting, consuming exclusively or avoiding specific foods (such as fats, carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, juices, herbs, or water), colon cleansing, chelation therapy, or the removal of dental fillings.[1][2]

The British organisation Sense About Science has described some detox diets and commercial products as "a waste of time and money";[3][4] many researchers agree that there is no clinical evidence that such diets are effective.[5] The "toxins" usually remain undefined, with little to no evidence of toxic accumulation in the patient.[6]


Suspicions of the inefficacy of purging became widespread by the 1830s.[7] Biochemistry and microbiology appeared to support auto-intoxication theory in the 19th century, but by the early twentieth century detoxification-based approaches quickly fell out of favour.[8][need quotation to verify][9] Even though abandoned by mainstream medicine, the idea has persisted in the popular imagination and amongst alternative-medicine practitioners.[10][11][12] In recent years[when?], notions of body cleansing have undergone something of a resurgence, along with many other alternative medical approaches. Nonetheless, mainstream medicine continues to produce evidence that the field is unscientific and anachronistic.[10]


Detox diets[edit]

Detox diets are dietary plans that claim to have detoxifying effects. The general idea suggests that most food contains contaminants: ingredients deemed unnecessary for human life, such as flavor enhancers, food colorings, pesticides, and preservatives. Scientists, dietitians, and doctors, while generally viewing "detox diets" as harmless (unless nutritional deficiency results), often dispute the value and need of "detox diets", due to lack of supporting factual evidence or coherent rationale.[13] In cases where a person suffers from a disease, belief in the efficacy of a detox diet can result in delay or failure to seek effective treatment.[14]

Detox diets can involve consuming extremely limited sets of foods (only water or juice, for example, a form of fasting[15] known as juice fasting), eliminating certain foods (such as fats) from the diet,[16] or eliminating processed foods and alleged irritants.[17] Detox diets are often high in fiber. Proponents claim that this causes the body to burn accumulated stored fats, releasing fat-stored "toxins" into the blood, which can then be eliminated through the blood, skin, urine, feces and breath. Proponents claim that things such as an altered body-odor support the notion that detox diets have an effect. Opponents counter that the body rids itself of toxins naturally, and a healthy, balanced diet is best for the body.[2] Although a brief fast of a single day is unlikely to cause harm, prolonged fasting (as recommended by certain detox diets) can have dangerous health consequences or can even be fatal.[1][18]

Colon cleansing[edit]

Main article: colon cleansing

Colon cleansing involves giving an enema (colonic) containing some salt, and sometimes coffee or herbs to remove food that, according to proponents, remains in the colon, producing nonspecific symptoms and general ill-health. However, the colon usually does not require any help cleaning itself. The practice can be potentially dangerous if incorrectly practised.[1]

Heavy metals[edit]

Main article: chelation therapy

Practitioners may recommend detoxification as a treatment to address the notion that mercury poisoning arises from consumption of contaminated fish and from dental amalgam fillings – Quackwatch states: "Removing good fillings is not merely a waste of money. In some cases, it results in tooth loss because when fillings are drilled out, some of the surrounding tooth structure will be removed with it.".[1]

"Detoxification" devices[edit]

See also: Energy medicine

Certain devices are promoted[by whom?] to allegedly remove toxins from the body. One version involves a foot-bath using a mild electric current, while another involves small adhesive pads applied to the skin (usually the foot). In both cases, the production of an alleged brown "toxin" appears after a brief delay. In the case of the foot bath, the "toxin" is actually small amounts of rusted iron leaching from the electrodes.[19] The adhesive pads change color due to oxidation of the pads' ingredients in response to the skin's moisture. In both cases, the same color-changes occur irrespective of whether the water or patch even make contact with the skin (they merely require water—thus proving the color-change does not result from any body-detoxification process).[1]


Body cleansing and detoxification have been referred to as an elaborate hoax used by con artists to cure nonexistent illnesses.[20] Physicians contend that the "toxins" in question do not even exist.[1][21]

Medical experts state that body cleansing is unnecessary as the human body is naturally capable of maintaining itself, with several organs dedicated to cleansing the blood and the gut.[22] Alan Boobis OBE, a professor and toxicologist at Imperial College London, states:

The body’s own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile. They have to be, as the natural environment that we evolved in is hostile. It is remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven ‘detox’ diets, which could well do more harm than good.[13]

The apparently satisfied testimonial and anecdotal accounts by customers may arise through:[23]

  • astroturfing companies or individuals creating false anecdotes
  • legitimate customers who are experiencing the placebo effect after using the products
  • natural recovery from an actual illness that would have occurred without the use of the product
  • psychological improvements on illnesses that are psychosomatic or the result of neurosis
  • the lack of a larger number of dissatisfied customers not posting equally applicable anecdotes about their poorer experiences.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Barrett, Stephen (2011-06-08). "'Detoxification' Schemes and Scams". Quackwatch. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  2. ^ a b "Detox Diets: Cleansing the Body". WebMD. Retrieved 23 June 2010. 
  3. ^ Compare: "Scientists dismiss 'detox myth'". BBC News. 5 January 2009. The researchers warned that, at worst, some detox diets could have dangerous consequences and, at best, they were a waste of money. 
  4. ^ Kirby, Jane (5 January 2009). "Products offering an easy detox 'are a waste of time'". The Independent (London). 
  5. ^ "Scientists dismiss detox schemes". BBC News. 3 January 2006. Retrieved May 2013. 
  6. ^ Compare: Zeratsky, Katherine (2012-04-21). "Do detox diets offer any health benefits?". Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 2015-05-09. [...T]here's little evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from the body. Indeed, the kidneys and liver are generally quite effective at filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins. 
  7. ^ Cook, Harold (2001). "From the Scientific Revolution to the Germ Theory". In Loudon, Irvine. Western Medicine: An Illustrated History (reprint ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 94. ISBN 9780199248131. Retrieved 2015-08-21. By the 1830s, the increasingly widespread view that many well-established remedies, such as bleeding and purging, were actually useless or worse, made it easier to poke fun at old-fashioned doctoring. 
  8. ^ Alvarez, Walter C. (1919-01-04). "Origin of the so-called auto-intoxication symptoms". JAMA 72 (1): 8–13. doi:10.1001/jama.1919.02610010014002. 
  9. ^ Compare: Wanjek, Christopher (8 August 2006). "Colon Cleansing: Money Down the Toilet". LiveScience. Retrieved 10 November 2008. Colon cleansing refers to a more invasive procedure of water and hoses stuck you-know-where. It's not clear when this practice started. [...] The golden age of the colon in America was in the late 19th century when—perhaps influenced by a new emphasis on hygiene and proper sewage removal—serious-minded doctors developed the theory of colonic autointoxication. [...] The idea was that the intestines were a sewage system and that constipation, although never specifically defined, resulted in a cesspool within the body where food wastes would putrefy, become toxic, and get reabsorbed through the intestines. Some scientists also claimed that constipation caused fecal matter to harden onto the intestinal walls for months or years, blocking the absorption of nutrients (yet somehow not blocking toxins). [...] The beginning of the end of the (first) era of autointoxication came with a 1919 article in Journal of the American Medical Association by W.C. Alvarez, "Origin of the so-called auto-intoxication symptom." Soon after, and still to this day, direct observations of the colon through surgery and autopsy find no hardening of fecal matter along the intestinal walls. There's no cesspool either. Cesspools form from copious amounts of feces from entire neighborhoods, which is why crowded cities with inadequate sewage systems smelled so awful and why autointoxication made sense. [...] By the 1920s, colon cleansing was relegated to the realm of quackery.  line feed character in |quote= at position 1021 (help)
  10. ^ a b Ernst, Edzard (June 1997). "Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science". Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 24 (4): 196–8. doi:10.1097/00004836-199706000-00002. PMID 9252839. 
  11. ^ Chen, Thomas S. N.; Chen, Peter S. Y. (1989). "Intestinal autointoxication: a medical leitmotif". Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 11 (4): 434–41. doi:10.1097/00004836-198908000-00017. PMID 2668399. 
  12. ^ Adams, Cecil (1990-05-25). "Does colonic irrigation do you any good?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2 September 2008. 
  13. ^ a b "Detox press release". Sense About Science. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  14. ^ "Man dies after favoring detox and forgoing dialysis". Retrieved 22 March 2012. 
  15. ^ BBC Staff (23 July 2008). "Woman left brain damaged by detox". BBC News. Retrieved 23 July 2008. A woman has been awarded more than £800,000 after she suffered permanent brain damage while on a detox diet. 
  16. ^ "Change Your Life For The Better With A Detox Diet!". Probiotic Cleansing Diet. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  17. ^ Eisenbraun, Karen (14 June 2011). "A Detox Diet That Works". LiveStrong. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  18. ^ Moores, Susan (18 May 2007). "Experts warn of detox diet dangers". MSNBC. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  19. ^ "Rusty results". Ben Goldacre. 2 September 2004. Retrieved 18 March 2013. 
  20. ^ Berg, Francis. ""Detoxification" with Pills and Fasting". Quackwatch. Retrieved 12 February 2007. 
  21. ^ Mitchell, B (4 January 2006). "Scientists warn detox fads are a ‘waste of money’". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 23 June 2010. 
  22. ^ Kovacs, Jenny Stamos (8 February 2007). "Colon Cleansers: Are They Safe? Experts discuss the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansers". WebMD. Retrieved 23 June 2010. 
  23. ^ Carroll, RT (24 April 2010). "Detoxification therapies". Retrieved 23 June 2010. 

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