Consumer Reports Insights:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Place a Kinoki footpad on the sole of your foot before bed, "and by morning the pad will have collected toxins from your body," says one ad for this product. Problem is, there's no good evidence to back up that claim. And this ad is hardly the only one to make dubious promises about a product's ability to "detoxify" the body.

Although the idea that the body needs to detox is central to traditional medicine practiced in China, India and elsewhere, and although this thinking has been adopted by some alternative-medicine practitioners in the West, "there is no substantive evidence" that corroborates arguments put out by detoxification proponents, says Robert S. Baratz, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud.

Consumer Reports' medical consultants question whether the body even needs detoxification. "The notion that you can and should flush out your arteries or your intestines may seem plausible, but it's not," says Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England.

For example, many people think the liver and kidney are physical filters that trap potential toxins, such as alcohol and drugs. Hence, these organs can be detoxified or cleaned out by fasting or taking certain supplements. But science does not support the idea that those organs are lint traps for toxins. In fact, the liver converts toxins into compounds that are eliminated through bile and urine, and the kidneys separate substances the body needs from harmful or unnecessary ones, which the kidneys then eliminate.

Here's CR's take on three common forms of detoxification.

Detox Diets

Fasting for a day or so is generally not harmful and may shake you out of an unhealthy eating pattern. But detox diets often involve severe caloric restrictions lasting for a week or more. Such diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies, blood-sugar problems, severe diarrhea, nausea and fatigue.

Colon Cleansing

Some people regularly take laxatives or give themselves enemas to prevent supposedly harmful substances from building up in the gut. But those treatments are generally useful only in treating occasional constipation. When administered frequently, laxatives and enemas may prevent normal bowel movements and lead to a potentially deadly depletion of vital electrolytes. For instance, coffee enemas are linked to several deaths due to extreme electrolyte imbalance and infection.

Even riskier is colonic irrigation, a procedure in which a machine pumps water into the rectum through a sterile tube, flushing out the entire colon. CR found no study to support its use to enhance general health. Moreover, in addition to sharing all the dangerous side effects of laxatives and enemas, contaminated equipment used during colonic irrigation may cause bacterial infections or perforate the rectum, which can result in death.

Chelation Therapy

This treatment introduces chemicals into the body that bind with toxic metals so these toxins can be excreted. This has been practiced since the 1950s to treat acute lead and iron poisoning. Early uncontrolled studies suggested it may help treat cardiovascular disease, and proponents say it also helps treat autism, cancer and diabetes. But CR could find no solid research to support such claims. To illustrate, several clinical trials show chelation therapy, using a chemical called EDTA, is ineffective at alleviating leg pain caused by clogged leg arteries. And research has identified several risks of the treatment, including bone loss, abnormal heartbeat and death.

Copyright 2009. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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