Very recently, I was exposed to the harsh reality of modern pseudomedicine (i.e., medicine that has no scientific/evolutionary basis). What happened is that a client I just recently started working with sent me a list of the supplements he’s currently taking to “detoxify his body”. I was shocked to see what he’s doing to himself. A therapist had told him to go on a several month-long detox throughout which he is supposed to bombard his gut and body with a myriad of different vitamin and mineral pills, probiotics, gut cleansing supplements, herbs, and so forth. It made me upset to see that my dedicated, goal-seeking client had been “tricked into” using his hard-earned dollars on dozens of pills, powders, and herbs.
If this was an isolated, unique case, I wouldn’t have been particularly concerned. Unfortunately though, it’s not an isolated case. Far from it. My impression is that a lot of people are either thinking about going on a detox, or are already on some kind of detox program. This is not just true for sick people; it also to some extent extends to healthy folks. Many people seem to think that the human body needs to be cleansed or detoxed on a regular basis via the use of supplements, herbs, and/or hydrotherapy to stay in peak shape, and that sick people should go on an intense detox regimen in order to rid their bodies of noxious substances
My purpose with this article is not to attack or try to discredit any one medical clinic, therapist, or procedure, but rather to highlight the fact that the above ideas have no biological, scientific, or evolutionary basis. Ultimately, my objective is to put people on their guard and get you to think twice before you go on a potentially dangerous detox.
The human body has detoxification apparatus built into it
Up until very recently, no humans on this planet regularly detoxed their bodies. Our ancestors didn’t rely on supplements or modern medical inventions to keep their bodies from filling up with toxins; rather, they relied on the powerful detoxification/defense system that Darwinian selection has provided the human body with. The three major components of this system are arguably the liver and immune system, as well as the microbiota, which is not a part of the body per se, but that is very important nonetheless, as it plays a critical role in regulating how the body works.
These apparatus tend to be compromised in states of chronic illness. Many chronically sick people harbor a species-depleted, pathogen-rich microbiota, are immunocompromised, and have a somewhat damaged liver. Hence, their bodies accumulate and have trouble getting rid of various problematic compounds, such as lipopolysaccharides and candidial toxins, and become inflamed.
It makes sense that these people would benefit from going on a detox, right? Well… The problem with simply putting these people on a stereotypical detox regimen is that it doesn’t really address the underlying issues that caused the toxins and proinflammatory compounds to accumulate in the first place.
As I see it, the main problem isn’t the “toxins” per se, but rather that the immune and detoxification systems of the sick people in question are compromised. For some reason, they aren’t doing their jobs, at least not very well. It makes little sense to me to tell these individuals to go on a detox. What does make sense to me, however, is to try to rebuild the built-in detoxification/defense apparatus of their bodies and reduce their exposure to noxious substances, which may be done by modifying their diet and lifestyle and diversifying the microbial communities they harbor.
Detox supplements typically do more harm than good
My impression is that it’s not uncommon for people who go on a detox to feel that they are getting better and that the detox is working. Unfortunately though, this feeling is usually short-lived. Pseudomedicine doesn’t really work in the long run.
I think there are two primary reasons why some people feel good when they go on a detox. The first one is simply that they are experiencing a placebo effect. If you believe that something, such as a medical treatment or drug, is going to work for you, then chances are it will make you feel better. Not necessarily because it’s actually making you healthier or changing your physiology in a positive way though. It could be that the effect is merely psychological.
The second reason why I think some people have experienced that detox regimens “work” is that it’s common for detoxers to use various probiotics, prebiotics, and antimicrobial supplements and/or drugs. These products affect the body’s built-in detoxification and immune systems in various ways. Probiotic supplements, for example, suppress the growth of or kill various gut pathogens and stimulate the body’s immune system. There’s a problem though. A damaged microbiota can’t be fixed by probiotic supplements; at least not by the ones that are one the market today.
Probiotic supplements are a crutch. They exert an effect as they pass through the digestive system, but they don’t bring order, diversity, and balance to the gut. Actually, in many instances, they do the opposite. If you bombard your gut with probiotics, you’ll block the development of a diverse, healthy microbiota, as opposed to supporting it.
That brings us over to the main problem with detoxes. If you infuse large quantities of probiotics, prebiotics, antifungals, vitamin pills, and the like into your body, you may temporarily feel better, because you’re “artificially” stimulating your body’s immune system and/or transiently suppressing some of your health problems; however, chances are you are actually making things worse in the long run by damaging your microbiota, intestinal barrier, and immune system (which were probably already somewhat damaged in the first place) and changing your gene expression pattern. This is something I’ve talked extensively about here on Darwinian-Medicine.com in the past, for example in this, this, and this article.
Instead of greatly expanding your dietary supplement arsenal, you would probably be much better off focusing on altering your your body’s environment in such a way that it matches better with your genetics. In some instances, I think it can be fruitful for sick people to try to decrease the pathogen load of their guts by taking in quite a bit of “probiotics” in the form of fermented foods for a couple of weeks; however, I very much question the idea that sick people should go on a several month-long detox as they attempt to recover their health.
Detoxes: The most arbitrary form of “medicine” there is?
The thing that stands out to me about the detox programs and protocols I’ve seen is that they seem very random with respect to their composition and structure. I get the impression that they aren’t created with a deliberate purpose in mind. Rather, it appears that somebody has just put together a bunch of different stuff that’s supposed to be beneficial. Different vitamins, herbs, minerals, and so forth are mixed together, forming strange concoctions. It all seems so random.
I’m sure many therapists who frequently put their patients on detox programs don’t just haphazardly prescribe different stuff. Some undoubtedly have a purpose to what they are doing; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their approach is scientifically sound.
I don’t claim to have a good overview of all detox protocols that are popular at the moment or how every detox supplement that man has ever created works; however, I do know that the basic premise that stereotypical detox regimens are rooted in doesn’t conform to established scientific or biological principles.
The bottom line
If you go on Google and search for “detox”, you’ll find thousands of different websites and articles that contain information about ways you can eliminate “noxious substances” from your body. A number of these websites sell a variety of supplements and herbs that are supposedly capable of cleansing, detoxifying, and/or rejuvenating the human body. Some internet scammers and quacks recommend that people spend hundreds of dollars on these supplements and then proceed to go on a lengthy detox throughout which they use a myriad of different supplements and/or drugs.
There is no scientific rationale behind such a recommendation. The idea that the human body needs to be cleansed or detoxified in this manner to work optimally conflicts with well-established facts regarding to how the body is put together and functions. It’s certainly true that many sick people are chronically inflamed and have elevated levels of various pathogens and toxins in their gut and bloodstream; however, that doesn’t mean that they should necessarily go on a lengthy detox. Instead of bombarding their guts and bodies with antimicrobials, insoluble fiber supplements, vitamin pills, medicinal herbs, and so forth, these people would probably be much better off focusing on restoring the health and functionality of their bodies’ built-in detoxification and immune systems.