By Sally Feltner, PhD, RDN
Before you dust off that juicer, you should take a long hard look at the latest fad – detoxing your body from alleged accumulated toxins from environmental chemicals that supposedly lead to illness. When searching Amazon, detox, natural, and hygiene is frequently mentioned in the titles of the latest diet books, not to mention the myriad of products from tablets, massages, tinctures and tea bags that promise to cleanse your body of these impurities and your hard earned money. You can go on two-day to seven-day detox diets which promise cleansing and weight loss. You may lose weight, but that is more than likely due to starvation rather than the diet itself. These toxins are never identified by the manufacturers of these products. When asked to provide some scientific evidence that support their claims, no one seems to be able to provide evidence that “detoxification” is not a bogus treatment. Despite this, the detox industry has become a huge business with a little help from some celebrities like Ann Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow. If toxins build up in the body with no way to excrete them, we would die or need serious medical intervention. However, we have kidneys, a liver, a colon, skin and lungs that physiologically are designed to rid our bodies of any unnecessary substances we don’t need.
Detox is actually not a new concept – its beginnings start centuries ago based on ignorance and misunderstanding of the physiology of the human body. Health reform began in earnest in the 19th century in America. During that time, there had to be a great deal of food anxiety; food often was adulterated with chemicals in order to make it palatable. As Upton Sinclair in 1909 writes of the meatpacking industry in his famous book, The Jungle: “And then there was “potted game” and ‘potted grouse’ and ‘potted ham’ made out of the waste ends of smoked beef… and also tripe, dyed with chemicals so that it would not show white… and potatoes, skins and all, and finally the hard, cartilaginous gullets of beef… All this was ground up and flavored with spices to make it taste like something.” Ronald Deutsch, The New Nuts Among the Berries: How Nutrition Nonsense Captured America, Bull Publishing, 1977.
Food preservation was crude and foodborne illnesses were rampant. People had little resources to turn to in dealing with even the common diseases of society. Whom did they have to rely on for medical advice on how to remain healthy in an age of so much misinformation and confusion? People were vulnerable to just about any ideas from anyone medical or nonmedical that would help them to maintain health and avoid disease.
In the 1848 edition of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine was listed the general causes of illness: “diseased parents, night air, sedentary habits, anger, wet feet and abrupt changes of temperature. The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold.” Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was caused by rancid or putrid food, by ‘cold fruits’ such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage.” William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 1848: A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases; Google eBook .
There are two major ideas that flourished and dominated the 19th century that led to the premise that toxins must be removed from the body by detoxification – auto-intoxication and the natural hygiene theory..
During the 19th century, people were told that constipation was at the root of most diseases and the term, autointoxication, became the mantra of the medical community. In 1852, a publication called The People’s Medical Lighthouse, a series of popular scientific essays on nature, uses and diseases of the lung, heart, liver, stomach, kidney, womb and blood had this to say about this common digestive problem: “daily evacuation of the bowels is of utmost importance to the maintenance of health”; without the daily movement, the entire system will become deranged and corrupted.” People’s Medicine Lighthouse, Lecture 71. Harmon Knox Root, A.M, M.D. 1852.
The term auto-intoxication was coined by Charles Bouchard, a French physician. Other physicians further defined the theory by describing the phenomenon as caused by the putrefaction or decay of proteins in the intestine generating offending toxins. This theory dominated a major part of the 19th century and has survived to this day
The obsession with the auto-intoxication theory led to the marketing and sales of a myriad of bowel cleansing products along with laxatives, enema and colonic irrigation equipment. These gimmicks are still available today. Although doctors prescribe colon cleansing as preparation for medical procedures such as colonoscopy, most do not recommend colon cleansing for detoxification. Their reasoning is simple: Your digestive system and bowel naturally eliminate waste material and bacteria; your body does not need colon cleansing to do so.
In fact, colon cleansing can sometimes be harmful. Colon cleansing can cause side effects, such as cramping, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. More serious concerns with colon cleansing are that it can increase your risk of dehydration, lead to bowel perforations, increase the risk of infection, and cause changes in electrolytes. Civilisation and the colon: constipation as the “disease of diseases. James Whorton BMJ 2000; 321: 1586-9
According to Quackwatch In 2009, “Dr. Edzard Ernst tabulated the therapeutic claims he found on the Web sites of six “professional organizations of colonic irrigations.” The themes he found included detoxification, normalization of intestinal function, treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, and weight loss. He also found claims elated to asthma, menstrual irregularities, circulatory disorders, skin problems, and improvements in energy levels. Searching Medline and Embase, he was unable to find a single controlled clinical trial that substantiated any of these claims. Quackwatch, Gastrointestinal Quackery: Colonics, Laxatives, and More, Stephen Barrett, MD. August 4, 2010 www.quackwatch.com
My own investigations of the online “yellow pages” in searching for “Colon Cleansing” revealed that there were about twelve establishments advertising this service in my city of Asheville, North Carolina as of this writing.
Isaac Jennings, MD put forth the original ideas of natural hygiene in 1822 and became known as “The Father of Natural Hygiene.” He helped to developed a healing system called “Orthopathy” that claimed that Nature knows better than the most learned physicians of the time. Among earliest promoter of natural remedies was Samuel Thompson, a New Hampshire farmer who prepared “botanics”, as they were called, made from native herbs. In 1835, Dr. William Alcott, a graduate of Yale Medical school mixed part time farming with his medical practice. Other professors from Dartmouth and Amherst followed. A popular health cure came in the form of water cures. In 1849, the Water Cure Journal, Physiology, Hydropathy and the Laws of Life, edited by Dr. Russell Trall entered the health reform movement. By 1850, the Journal had 20,000 subscribers. Dr. Trall is quoted as saying: Typhoid and pneumonia are neither more nor less than a cleansing process – a struggle of the vital powers to relieve the system of its accumulated impurities”. http://www.whale.to/v/trall2.html.
A vulnerable public eagerly received their proclamations due to limited information and confusion on the causes of disease. Other proponents among many included Arnold Ehret, a German author of several books on diet, detoxification, fruitarianism, fasting, food combining, naturopathy, physical culture and vitalism. There was also Herbert M. Shelton who opened schools in Natural Hygiene and founded the American Society of Natural Hygienists Universal Healing, wwwuniversalhealingbelize.com/Brief- history- of –naturalhygiene.
In a previous post, the misguided principles of detoxification were supported and practiced by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg . Detoxification still is alive and thriving in the form of a pseudo-medical concept.. The bottom line: Detoxification is primarily designed to “sell you something”. If you want to “detox”, do not smoke, do exercise and eat a healthy balanced diet.