Detoxification (alternative medicine)

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Detoxification in the context of alternative medicine consists of an approach that claims 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: 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 body cleansing 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]


The premise of body cleansing is based on the Ancient Egyptian and Greek idea of autointoxication, in which foods consumed can putrefy and produce toxins that harm the body; or in the humoral theory of health whereby the four humours themselves can putrefy and produce toxins that harm the body. Biochemistry and microbiology appeared to support the theory in the 19th century, but by the early twentieth century detoxification-based approaches quickly fell out of favour.[7][8] Even though abandoned by mainstream medicine, the idea has persisted in the popular imagination and amongst alternative-medicine practitioners.[9][10][11] 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.[9]


Detox diets

Detox diets are dietary plans that claim to have detoxifying effects. The general idea suggests that most food contains contaminants: various 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.[12] In cases where a person actually suffers from a disease, belief in the efficacy of a detox diet can result in delay or failure to seek effective treatment.[13] Detox diets can involve consuming extremely limited sets of foods (only water or juice. for example - a form of fasting[14] known as juice fasting), eliminating certain foods (such as fats) from the diet,[15] or eliminating processed foods and alleged irritants from the diet.[16] 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; James Dillard of Columbia University explains such phenomena as indicating the body undergoing ketosis.[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][17]

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 large amount of water with large surface-contact to the bloodstream through the intestines will however remove toxins from the blood/body tissues through diffusion,[citation needed] as well as removing helpful molecules.[citation needed] The practice can be potentially dangerous if incorrectly practised.[1]

Heavy metals

Quacks may recommend detoxification as a treatment to address the notion that mercury poisoning arises 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

Certain devices are promotedTemplate:By whom to allegedly remove toxins from the body. One version involves a foot-bath using a mild electrical 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.[18] 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.[19] Some doctors contend that the "toxins" in question do not even exist.[1][20]

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.[21] 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.[12]

The apparently satisfied testimonial and anecdotal accounts by customers may arise through:[22]

  • 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. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Barrett, S (8 May 2009). ""Detoxification" Schemes and Scams". Quackwatch. Retrieved 10 June 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Detox Diets: Cleansing the Body". WebMD. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  3. "Scientists dismiss 'detox myth'". BBC News. 5 January 2009.
  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. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  6. Zeratsky, K (22 April 2010). "Do detox diets offer any health benefits?". Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  7. Alvarez, WC (1919). "Origin of the so-called auto-intoxication symptom". JAMA.
  8. Wanjek, C (8 August 2006). "Colon Cleansing: Money Down the Toilet". LiveScience. Retrieved 10 November 2008.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ernst E (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.
  10. Chen TS, Chen PS (1989). "Intestinal autointoxication: a medical leitmotif". J. Clin. Gastroenterol. 11 (4): 434–41. doi:10.1097/00004836-198908000-00017. PMID 2668399.
  11. Adams, C. "Does colonic irrigation do you any good?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2 September 2008.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Detox press release". Sense About Science. Retrieved 10 April 2013.
  13. "Man dies after favoring detox and forgoing dialysis". Retrieved 22 March 2012.
  14. 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.
  15. "Change Your Life For The Bet­ter With A Detox Diet!". Probiotic Cleansing Diet. Retrieved 9 November 2012. soft hyphen character in |title= at position 29 (help)
  16. Eisenbraun, Karen (14 June 2011). "A Detox Diet That Works". LiveStrong. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  17. Moores, Susan (18 May 2007). "Experts warn of detox diet dangers". MSNBC. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  18. "Rusty results". Ben Goldacre. 2 September 2004. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  19. Berg, Francis. ""Detoxification" with Pills and Fasting". Quackwatch. Retrieved 12 February 2007.
  20. Mitchell, B (4 January 2006). "Scientists warn detox fads are a 'waste of money'". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  21. Stamos, J (8 February 2007). "Colon Cleansers: Are They Safe? Experts discuss the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansers". WebMd. Retrieved 23 June 2010.
  22. Carroll, RT (24 April 2010). "Detoxification therapies". Retrieved 23 June 2010.

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