“”...these detox programs amount to a large quantity of excrement, both literally and figuratively.
|—Peter Pressman, M.D.|
To cleanse means to clean, wash, or purify something.[note 1]
In alternative medicine and some fad diets, however, it has a more specific meaning: removal of alleged "toxins" stored in the body. In this context, it is also commonly referred to as detox. This usage is completely made-up rubbish, and anyone using the terms "detox" or "cleanse" in this manner is selling you woo.
The concept of cleansing also occurs commonly in most major religions, sometimes in a symbolic sense, but also in specific ceremonies and customs.
“”If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
Possibly the best known example of ritual cleansing in the West is the Christian baptism. Christians originally practiced the custom of washing the feet of another person. This conveyed symbolic meaning, as well as having the more practical benefit of ensuring that guests have nice-smelling feet. The Bible contains many references to cleansing, in some cases with fire.
In the Japanese animistic religion, Shinto, all visitors to shrines are expected to ritually rinse their hands and mouths. The notion of spiritual filth, i.e. kegare, is a rather big deal in Shinto, with much of the religion's rituals being devoted to removing and managing it. Interestingly, kegare is not exclusively produced by sin; it is also produced by normal biological functions such as menstruation and childbirth, as well as by being around dead things.
Importantly, "ritually clean" is not the same "clean" as in the modern definition of cleanness: microbiologically clean, chemically pure or aseptic. Instead, ritual cleanness is brought about by following certain rituals or abiding to ritual rules, regardless of whether they result in any actual cleanness. For example, in Hinduism, the water of the river Ganges is sacred, and a bath in the Ganges is considered one of highest forms of ritual cleansing, capable of washing away sins and freeing the believer from the cycle of life and death. Objectively speaking, the waters are at least perfectly capable of freeing the believer from life: Ganges water contains an uncomfortably high percentage of raw sewage and is an acute infection hazard with respect to diseases such as amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. Besides sewage, other forms of pollution, such as garbage, industrial waste, human and animal remains, ashes from cremations, or even whole dead bodies are thrown into the Ganges. Yet, ritually, this is the cleanest water there is.
“”Real detoxification of foreign substances takes place in the liver, which modifies their chemical structure so they can be excreted by the kidneys which filter them from the blood into the urine.
|—Stephen Barrett, M.D.|
"Cleanses" are part of a belief that the colon, liver, and kidneys have years of built up "toxins" (like arsenic) in them which are the cause of many or all diseases; the cure for all illnesses then is to cleanse all the "toxins" (like cyanide) from one's body. Hence the existence of "detox" diets and potions. First of all, it is not true that toxins are the cause of most diseases. Diseases have a variety of causes: bacterial, viral, nutritional, genetic, and many others. Secondly, the kidneys and liver are already hard at work cleansing toxins, which are excreted every day. The idea that toxins somehow build up in these organs is just woo, except kidney stones and other buildups in these organs — which, as it happens, are not affected by cleansing.
Cleanses include liver and kidney cleanses, often using herbal tea concoctions containing herbs which are purported to flush out toxins, or more esoteric practices such as coffee enemas and the use of homeopathy, in which tiny amounts of toxins (usually heavy metals in this case) are taken on the mistaken assumption that this will cause the organs to flush out larger amounts of the same substances.[note 2] Other purported cleanses include lymphatic cleanses (which the Lemonade Diet claims to do), juicing, candida yeast cleanses, liver flushes,[note 3] bloodletting, and lead oxide (yes, lead). Perhaps the the most popular target organ for detoxing and cleansing is the colon. This is unsurprising, as the colon is essentially the sewage system of the body, and at any one time is likely to be filled with foul, stinking crap (literally!). Thus, by cleansing the colon, by colonic or otherwise, the practitioner can happily say "look at all the bad stuff we pulled out of your body!" while ignoring the fact that this bad stuff was A) supposed to be there and B) would have been removed in the next few hours anyway. In a less active sense, fasting — going without food or drinks rather than replacing them with woo — is sometimes attempted as an all-purpose cleanse of the entire body.
None of these practices are really necessary, nor effective. Well-functioning bodily organs already perform this function. However, for those who have had their brains cleansed of toxins by alties, health food stores are eager to sell you packets of pills containing herbal mixtures claiming to totally cleanse all your other organs. The effect on your wallet is similar — but also, guaranteed.
A well-known "detoxer" in the UK is Carol Vorderman[note 4] — the former math person on the game show "Countdown". After leaving the show, she wrote books about the subject and endorsed several "supplements" that claimed to "detox" or otherwise improve the health of consumers.
Delusional infestation (or delusional parasitosis) is a rare mental disorder, where a person has a "fixed, false belief (delusion) that they are infected by 'bugs': parasites, worms, mites, bacteria, fungus, living 'threads', or other living organisms." The disorder can be treated with antipsychotic medication, but people with the disorder may self-medicate with potentially dangerous cleanses. These cleanses invariably fail to treat the actual cause of the disease (i.e. the delusional belief in their existence), which means that they may escalate until the sufferer is doing things like yanking their nerve endings out of their skin after mistaking them for worms.
The Real Stuff
Actual medicine does make use of colonic cleansing, usually in preparation for abdominal surgery or colonoscopy to reduce the risks of peritonitis as a surgical complication. As might be expected, it has developed a much more safe and effective cleansing method than coffee enemas or anything else alternative medicine has conceived: GoLytely. Strangely, this genuine method of colonic cleansing — so intensely effective that its name is a running joke — has never been embraced by alt-med believers who place a high value on a clean colon.
- Appeal to nature
- Chelation therapy
- Ethnic cleansing
- Stainless steel soap
- Colon “cleanses”: A load of you know what… (Science-based medicine)
- Pulp Fiction, an anti-cleanse article on a weightlifting site.
- Note that with the -se suffix, the word acquires an elevated spiritual dimension, as occurs in the term goatse.
- Really, the premises of this version of homeopathy are deeply flawed on a fundamental level (yes, even more so than homeopathy as a full "discipline" already is on its own). If toxins really were accumulating over time within the body and the body's own filters couldn't handle them, administering tiny amounts of those toxins wouldn't help the situation at all; it'd just contribute to the buildup and make the problem worse.
- An amusing process involving large amounts of olive oil which causes you to crap blobs of green soap.
- Search "Carol Vorderman detox" on Google. Just make sure to have some aspirin on hand in case the sheer stupidity causes you to develop a migraine.
- The Sceptic's Dictionary: Detoxification therapies
- Islamic ablution before prayer. The smell of burning oxen is pleasing to the lord, but not the stench of stinky worshippers.
- Quackwatch: The Aqua Detox Scam
- Galena, Acupuncture Today.
- DrNatura, The global leader in cleansing and detoxification
- Carol's book on Amazon
- Delusional infestation: Epidemiology, clinical presentation, assessment and diagnosis by Kathryn N Suh (Jun 07, 2018) Wolters Kluwer.
- See the Wikipedia article on Delusional parasitosis.
- Delusional Infestation by Roland W. Freudenmann & Peter Lepping (2009) Clinical Microbiology Reviews 22(4):690–732. doi:10.1128/CMR.00018-09.