AFTER the overindulgence of the festive season come the regrets, the resolutions and — for some in search of absolution — an arcane ritual called the detox.
Eating healthily and getting a bit of exercise might be a more productive response, but why settle for an extra serve of leafy green vegetables when you could join a detox program in which a fully qualified something or other will oversee the elimination of the pariah foods of the moment from your diet?
With the added benefit of various expensive nutritional supplements, of course.
The Dietitians Association of Australia has been valiantly arguing against such fads in recent weeks, saying there’s little evidence detox diets actually remove so-called toxins, and people should abandon the “magic powders, awful tasting drinks and starvation diets” and instead … well, you know the rest.
Diets are, sadly, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shamanistic rituals designed to remove the unnamed toxins that supposedly blight our modern lives.
An aqua detox, for example, will detoxify and rebalance your body by soaking your feet in salty water that has an electric current running through it. (Yes, the water turns a rather icky shade of brown but, as the wonderful author and doctor Ben Goldacre has pointed out in his book Bad science, you don’t even need to put your feet in the water for electrolysis to produce that effect.)
Another way to suck all the toxins out of your feet (apparently gravity makes them accumulate there) is through an adhesive patch containing a whole swag of miracle-working substances that wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts: tourmaline, chitosan and pearl stones are among the promised ingredients in one product.
If you don’t have a foot fetish — and are not too concerned about the risk of rectal perforation — another detoxifying option is to get somebody to stick water up your bottom. This has many benefits including, apparently, helping with migraine, arthritis and diabetes. (I’m not making this up.)
The specific “toxins” being eliminated by any of these rigmaroles never seem to be identified by the commercial providers, though there’s a lot of worried talk about “chemicals” and “our modern lifestyles”.
The businesses are careful too about the promises they make. They may preface the eulogy for their product with something like, “Suffering from irritable bowel, depression, stomach ulcers?”, but they’re too savvy to make actual undertakings about effects on any of these conditions.
Instead, they promise improved wellbeing, relaxation, lower stress levels — essentially unmeasurable outcomes that many customers probably will experience. After all, if we know anything about the placebo effect, it’s that it works a whole lot better when there’s a bit of theatrical enhancement and money changing hands.
Evidence-based practitioners, like the dietitians, will no doubt continue to argue against such hocus pocus but it’s always likely to be an uphill battle.
The ceremonial detox seems to speak to some ancient desire for purification after excess, one that perhaps resists the imposition of a more scientific view.
As Dr Goldacre puts it: “… we fill our faces with drugs, drink, bad food, and other indulgences, we know it’s wrong, and we crave ritualistic protection from the consequences, a public ‘transitional ritual’ commemorating our return to behavioural norms”.
Detox pseudoscience, he goes on, “isn’t something done to us, by venal and exploitative outsiders: it is a cultural product, a recurring theme, and we do it to ourselves”.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 16 January 2012