By Catherine Guthrie, Natural Solutions
Few concepts are more ubiquitous in the lexicon of alternative medicine than detoxing. Peruse the shelves at any health food store and you’ll find detox teas, detox herbal blends, detox tinctures, and detox kits complete with all of the above–everything you need to purge your body of its chemical stockpile. Not sure you want to tackle your toxins alone? Just pick up the phone and dial an alternative-minded spa. Colonics and multiday juice fasts are nearly as commonplace as hot stone massages and reflexology.
Detoxing is a booming business, and why shouldn’t it be? What person in her right mind wouldn’t want to lighten her toxic load? (No thanks, I just topped off my mercury level at the dentist yesterday.) Besides, Americans are easy targets. With so many other things beyond our control–terrorists, snipers, cowboy economics–at least we can take comfort in being the masters of our own Superfund sites.
And according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)–informally known as the “body burden” study–our bodies are full to bursting. Between 1999 and 2000, CDC scientists tested the blood and urine of 2,500 people for 116 different chemicals. Not one man, woman, or child tested squeaky-clean.
“We’ve known that toxins in the environment could potentially wind up in humans, but this is the first time we’ve actually been able to see it,” says Jim Pirkle, director of the CDC’s environmental health lab and the study’s lead investigator. “This is not what might have gotten into you, this is what did get into you.”
Detox devotees are convinced environmental toxins are to blame for a range of ills–everything from fatigue to cancer–and that our number one priority should be to get rid of them. But is there any truth to the notion of humans as toxic waste disposals? And, if so, is detox really the answer?
The CDC’s report is one of the first scientific papers to spell out the sheer variety of toxic residues lurking in human bodies. But people have been ceremonially cleansing themselves long before the advent of dioxins and PCBs. Native Americans use sweat lodges for religious and purification rites; in India, an age-old system of healing, called ayurveda, is built around ridding the body of toxins. “Detoxing has been an integral part of traditional systems of healing for millennia,” says James Gordon, a physician who is founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Common sense would suggest that maybe it does some good.”
But is common sense enough? Scientific evidence that detoxing can prevent or treat disease is lacking. In fact, it’s not even easy to prove that a person’s average exposure to chemical cocktails is detrimental to his or her health. “Just because you can measure something in people doesn’t mean it’s dangerous,” says Pirkle. “Certainly lots of levels we’re measuring are perfectly safe.”
However, proponents cite circumstantial evidence, such as the parallel rise of environmental contaminants and rates of some diseases. Cancer rates, for example, have risen between 20 and 50 percent since 1970. Asthma diagnoses have jumped 75 percent since 1980. And the number of children diagnosed with autism leaps 17 percent each year.
Next: Can we successfully reduce our toxic load? (Click through to end for printable version.)