Detoxification: free your mind of nonsense, and you’ll feel better

Here are the money quotes from today’s New York Times article on detox programs that supposedly flush toxins out of your body:

“It is the opinion of mainstream and state-of-the-art medicine and physiology that these claims are not only ludicrous but tantamount to fraud,” said Dr. Peter Pressman, an internist with the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., and a critic of detoxification. “The contents of what ends up being consumed during a ‘detox’ are essentially stimulants, laxatives and diuretics…

“There is absolutely no scientific basis for the assertion that the regimens popularly defined as ‘detox’ will augment the body’s own capacity for identifying and eliminating your own metabolic wastes or doing the same for environmental toxins,” Dr. Pressman said. “I advise patients that these detox programs amount to a large quantity of excrement, both literally and figuratively.”

Dr. Frank Lipman, a specialist in integrative medicine in New York and the author of the book “Spent,” puts it a little more delicately: “People are selling a product. There’s a difference between selling a product and practicing good medicine.”

One of the curious rhetorical features of detox is the idea that the body is overburdened with toxins from the environment, that it’s “constipated” with chemical gunge that shouldn’t be there. And yet, the body would still be exposed to chemicals, good and bad, even if the last pollutant disappeared into a wormhole and we instantly became vegans.  In short, chemicals are chemicals, whether they come from carrots or laundry detergent and the body either does a good or bad job of metabolizing them, and the result is either that they are harmful or not. Detox simply lacks scientific credibility by making a linguistic distinction that the body, does not and cannot recognize.

And if you’re going to make yourself feel so bad in order to feel so good, there is also the possibility that you’ve just given yourself a painful and expensive placebo.

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