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Purge At Your Peril: Too Many Detox Treatments Come With Hidden Dangers

Teas, colon cleansing, and even ear candles… the market for alternative detox solutions has never been more lucrative. But as one expert explains, not only are their reported benefits unproven, the treatments can also be dangerous.

photo of a woman holding a green drink

Mix well?

Edzard Ernst


BERLIN — In medicine, the word “detox” means a course of treatment to remove all traces of a drug from an addict’s body. In alternative medicine, however, it refers to any process that is supposed to rid the body of poisons or toxins. Not only is it often ineffective, but it can also even be dangerous.

This definition naturally raises the question: what poisons does a detox target? The answer, ostensibly, is all kinds of toxins that are produced by our own metabolism, or come from the environment, prescription medicines or our diets.

And what kinds of treatments are touted as detoxes? Again, the list is equally expansive: homeopathy and acupuncture, of course, but also various diets, homotoxicology, colon cleansing, ear candles, phytotherapy, cupping, shiatsu, gua sha and tui na.

In practice, it is hard to find any alternative therapy whose proponents don’t believe it rids the body of toxins. The detox myth is now so firmly rooted that even mainstream companies that otherwise have nothing to do with alternative medicine are offering products such as detox teas.

What’s more, detox devotees claim all kinds of health benefits – that these treatments boost energy and wellness, slow down the aging process, strengthen the immune system, allow them to burn fat faster, reduce allergies and other illnesses, as well as making skin, hair and nails healthier.

A little fear-mongering will bring them into the detox fold.

So, who exactly needs a detox treatment? That’s easy: according to those who offer them, the answer is everyone. Vaguely defined symptoms such as tiredness, lethargy, sleep problems, lack of concentration and anxiety, which we all suffer from at some point in our lives, are all presented as proof that detoxes are urgently needed.

For those still harboring any doubts, a little fear-mongering should bring them into the detox fold: the rise of ready meals, fast food and preservatives has introduced more chemicals into our diets than ever before. According to data from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the levels of xenobiotics, such as metals or synthetic chemicals, have risen exponentially over the last century, with the unfortunate result being that we are exposed to many persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances (PBTs).

What was King Charles' detox product?

Even Britain's King Charles III was once in the alt detox treatment business. In 2009, his company Duchy Originals launched a “detox tincture” that contained a bizarre mixture of dandelion and artichokes and was marketed as a “dietary supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”. When the British press asked me for a comment, I called Charles a “snake oil salesman”. As expected, that caused some consternation, and the tincture was promptly taken off the market.

In Germany, detox treatments have long been the domain of non-medical practitioners and naturopaths, who also speak of “purging” or “cleansing”. Their promotional material often reads something like this: “The naturopathic detox treatment is an effective combination of measures that boost the metabolism, de-acidify, filter out dangerous toxins, support the body’s natural detoxification processes and protect cells from damage caused by toxins.”

Candle wax clearing

photo of a woman having her ear cleared with burning candle

Can you hear now?

Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA

The best way to truly detox

With such a wide range of supposed benefits, an array of different treatments and a confusing mixture of toxins that are supposedly targeted but never precisely named, you could be forgiven for assuming that there have now been a number of studies putting detox treatments to the test. However, that is far from the truth.

Around 10 years ago, I published a systematic overview of the evidence. My conclusion was that the benefits of detox treatments are not only implausible, they are also not supported by any robust clinical trials. Since then, almost nothing has changed.

But how is that possible? Surely it would be simple to set up a trial: you choose an important toxin, for example a heavy metal, select a detox treatment, such as Charles’s detox tincture, and agree on an appropriate way of measuring results, such as quality of life. Next you recruit a large enough number of patients, half of whom are given the "treatment", while the other half are given placebos. Then the results are compared. I find it difficult to believe that no such studies have ever been carried out.

So why have no results been published? One plausible explanation would be that the results were damning, and the companies that produce detox treatments therefore prevented them from being published because detoxes are a highly lucrative industry.

Major side effects

However, the principle of detoxing seems to make a lot of sense to many consumers. It’s true that all kinds of potentially damaging substances build up in our bodies, and who wouldn’t want to get rid of them? Luckily, we already have a very effective system for doing so: our liver, lungs, kidneys and skin are all constantly working to remove toxins from our bodies. The best way to support these organs is not through a detox treatment: it is by stopping or reducing our intake of toxins.

Many people think, well, at least these treatments don’t cause any harm. But that assumption is not entirely true. Firstly, it is clear that they damage our bank balance. Secondly, every single treatment has side effects, some of which are significant. One example is the detox program promoted by Scientology, which relies on high doses of vitamins and minerals and has even been linked to deaths.

In the US, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has issued multiple warnings about detox therapies, including that detox juices could be contaminated with harmful bacteria or that the high oxalate content in some detox products could damage the kidneys.

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