A fairly sophisticated colleague just completed a five-day water fast, something he does two-three times a year to “purge his body of toxins.” A Harvard-educated client of mine keeps going on fruit-juice-based fasts–again to purge the toxins. And an old friend from grad school is now engaged in a very expensive round of “chelation” to push the toxins out of her body. Me? I’ve always thought that this is what we have a liver and two kidneys for. So, here are my questions: (1) What the heck are these toxins anyway? (2) Can they be measured? (3) Where do they come from? (4) How do we get rid of them? –Thomas B. Siegman, New York, New York
Oh, there are lots of toxins. Ethanol, now. Toss back a shooter or six at your brother’s bachelor party and chances are next morning you won’t be saying, Whoa, it’s great to be alive. Nicotine’s another. Ozone, carbon monoxide, and other compounds derived from auto exhaust. Fat in foods isn’t a toxin in the strict sense, but consume it in excess and from the standpoint of long-term health effects you’re slowly poisoning yourself.
As soon as you begin to list toxins, however, it’s obvious the detox regimens you describe aren’t apt to be much good at getting rid of them. Better you should stop smoking, eat and drink less (and exercise more), and quit driving that SUV. But how much fun is that? It’s more entertaining to spend a few days and sometimes a pile of money on a water fast, an herbal diet, chelation or “ayurvedic” therapy, or some other form of new-agey hokum, after which you can resume your wicked ways.
Some will object: It’s not the known toxins I’m worried about, it’s the ones that sneak up on you. You know the rap–thousands of chemicals have been introduced into the environment in the past century with little or no testing; it isn’t so much any one poison as the accumulation of poisons that will kill you; etc. Never mind that the question of low-level effects remains controversial, that we haven’t seen any big die-offs locally (in contrast, Russia and many eastern European countries have seen marked declines in life expectancy due to environmental factors in a much broader sense, e.g., alcoholism), and that the experts, to the extent they’re willing to guess, generally attribute red-flag indicators of ill health such as cancer to obvious causes like smoking.
The thing is, even if we concede for the sake of argument that obscure toxins are a threat, there’s no reason to think that detox therapies offer any protection. Examples:
In short, you’re quite right–the human body has its own highly evolved mechanisms for eliminating toxins that, under normal circumstances, you don’t need to enhance with anything more elaborate than indoor plumbing and a good magazine. By the same token, if you’re overtaxing your liver and kidneys, you don’t need a water diet, you need to rethink your life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.