More woo on–where else?–The Huffington Post

It just never ends.

Four years ago, I was one of the very first bloggers to notice that the then-new liberal blog The Huffington Post was from its very inception a hotbed of antivaccine lunacy. David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Dr. Jay Gordon, Deirde Imus, all the luminaries of the antivaccine movement were there right from the very beginning, aided and abetted by Special Projects Editor Rachel Sklar. But HuffPo didn’t limit itself to just antivaccine lunacy. Oh, no. It wasn’t long before Woo-meister Supreme Deepak Chopra joined the woo crew there. About a week and a half ago, I noticed that, not content supporting autism quackery and quantum woo, HuffPo had sunk to having credulous bloggers promote The Secret and distance healing quackery. Meanwhile, last week blog bud PalMD noticed some rip-roaringly stupid commentary about vitamins on HuffPo.

So what could be left to add to HuffPo’s armamentarium of credulous supporters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)?

Why, detox nonsense, of course, courtesy of “Dr.” Patricia Fitzgerald, who, we’re told, has a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine:

In earlier times, giving special attention to liver health and detoxification was a springtime ritual in many cultures. Although it is, of course, important to take care of our liver (as well as our whole body) year-round, we can often draw inspiration from traditions that have been passed down from our ancestors. The thinking behind supporting the liver in this season is that spring brings new life, so it is time to shed what is no longer needed.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (also referred to as TCM) is a system of healing passed down through several thousand years. Treatments include herbs, acupuncture, nutritional therapy, massage, etc., and the care is based on the principles of living in harmony with nature and striving for balance. According to TCM, the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi (our vital energy) and blood.

When our qi is flowing well, we journey through life smoothly without a buildup of toxins, stress, and tension. This ideal scenario isn’t always the case. In our 21st century fast-paced lifestyle, a pattern of liver disharmony observed in TCM called “liver qi stagnation” has become quite commonplace.

The funny thing about this first post is that the actual advice for what to do to “detox” your liver isn’t actually all that bad. No, it won’t “detox your liver,” but it is in general (with a couple of exceptions) decent advice, such as eating green vegetables and citrus every day, decreasing your intake of trans fats, reducing sugar consumption, and reducing or eliminating use of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. It’s yet another example of “bait and switch,” in which CAM advocates appropriate perfectly fine science-based modalities in the name of “diet” and “prevention,” while implying that all the serious woo under the CAM rubric is just as legitimate as diet and exercise. Of course, the reason why such advice is mostly decent advice has nothing to do with “toxins” or the “stagnation of qi.” Rather, it’s just basic nutrition and avoiding the use of substances that can harm your body. There’s nothing magical there.

That is, until “Dr.” Fitzgerald’s followup post on the topic:

The topic of detox is intriguing, whether you are viewing it from a drug or alcohol perspective, or just looking for a solution to your health, weight, and energy challenges. We live in a world where our food and atmosphere contain toxic chemicals, and we truly don’t know what effects this may have on our health. Even so, we want to be healthy. We don’t want to be paranoid, but, at the same time, we don’t want to be in denial.

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the subject of detox. The truth is, we don’t know everything. We are living in an unprecedented time on the planet in terms of toxins. Our bodies are designed to deal with toxins on a regular basis. In theory, we shouldn’t need to do anything special. Our body has the wisdom to filter out toxins effectively. However, there has been no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influences.

Naturally, Fitzgerald cites zero evidence that there has been “no period like this before in history with such an extreme amount of toxic influence.” Apparently she is unaware of some basic history and the conditions in many cities in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, before there were any laws regulating pollution or the environment. It goes even further back than that; in ancient Rome there was considerable pollution from lead smelters. Here is an old picture from Victorian England demonstrating serious air and water pollution:


Indeed, there are numerous studies and articles about air and water pollution in, for example, England dating back to medieval times. If anything, arguably in terms of pollution air and water quality, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe, are better than they have been in quite some time. Smog, although by no means vanquished, is not as bad in, for example, southern California than it was 40 or 50 years ago. There hasn’t been another Great Smog of London of 1952, which is estimated to have contributed to the deaths of between 4,000 to 8,000 people. No, I’m not saying that environmental pollution isn’t still a problem, but rather pointing out that there is no evidence to support that this is the worst period in history for “toxic influences.” That’s just nonsense.

It’s also nonsense that there is something about today’s “toxins” that the body can’t handle. However, that’s just what Fitzgerald says:

Skeptics of our ability to enhance the body’s detoxification processes may say that our liver and kidneys do a great job of getting rid of toxins naturally. But to say that our bodies automatically remove toxic residues completely no matter what we eat, drink, smoke or are exposed to in our environment just doesn’t make sense. Still, we have so much more to learn and study about how the chemicals of our time are affecting us.

For the skeptic, I would point out that there are many studies showing that our bodies store toxic levels of chemicals. There is not one single study that I have found to prove that our bodies efficiently eliminate all of these toxic chemicals.

There is evidence that environmental chemicals are being stored in human body tissues. Environmental health expert, Laurine Brown, PhD, MPH has summarized some of these studies in her article, “What’s Your Chemical Body Burden?” She references the Centers for Disease Control’s Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which analyzed the blood and urine levels of 116 chemicals in a sampling of some 2,500 Americans ages 6 and older. The CDC found toxic residues in virtually every sample tested. And that is just blood and urine. Over time, toxic residues accumulate in our fat tissue as well. This accumulation has been linked to numerous health concerns.

The World Health Organization released a statement that cancer will overtake heart disease as the number one global health killer by 2010. I don’t deny that the cause of cancer is multifactorial, but a leading cause is toxic chemicals, whether from smoking, pesticides, or industrial chemicals.

Actually, the leading cause of cancer is genes combined with age. Cancer is, above all, a disease of aging. Yes, “toxic” chemicals can contribute to the development of cancer, but the effects of these chemicals can be quantified and direct risks measured. This is not what Fitzgerald is talking about. Her argument is that, because humans are exposed to a variety of chemicals that can be detected in blood and urine, then her “alt-med” form of detox is necessary and works. It’s a clever argument: “Oh, look, chemicals! We’re full of chemicals! You’d better listen to me and ‘detox’!” She takes this to an irony meter-shattering extreme with this statement:

Bottom line: Research on the subject of detoxification is not only limited, it can be downright inaccurate, flawed, and/or skewed.

My bottom line is that, no matter how limited, inaccurate, flawed, and/or skewed research on environmental exposures to potentially toxic chemicals may be, it’s orders of magnitude better than any “research” showing that “detox” regimens favored by homeopaths like Fitzgerald, naturopaths, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine do anything to actually “detoxify” the body above and beyond what the body can do on its own. Of course, in marked contrast to the CDC studies cited, homeopaths and naturopaths never actually define which “toxins” they are eliminating with their “detox regimes.” Worse, without any evidence that they indicate a problem or guide treatment, often CAM practitioners subject patients to a battery of tests looking for heavy metals, “toxins,” various hormone levels, and a number of other tests. Serving these practitioners are a variety of dubious laboratories that do these tests, regardless of whether they’ve ever been clinically validated or not, usually for cash on the barrelhead. No mucking about with insurance companies or other third party payers for these mavericks!

The funny thing is that Fitzgerald is representing herself as the “voice of reason” arguing against all those nasty “radical” detox regimes. She doesn’t believe in all that purging and fasting, which is a good thing. She also advocates basic healthy diet choices, which is also a good thing. However, her advice is maddeningly vague. For example, she suggests “decreasing your toxic exposures over time,” whatever that means, without actually saying much about how one would go about doing it. However, because she doesn’t advocate chelation therapy, colon cleanses, or liver flushes, sadly, she is among the more “reasonable” of the CAM crowd.

The concept of “detoxification” is more a religious/spiritual concept than a scientific one. In the vast majority of cases, the body needs no help “detoxifying.” However, in CAM world, the body is viewed as being hopelessly “polluted” and in need of cleansing (i.e., redemption). From this point of view, “detox” is nothing more than a modern, more secular version of baptism, designed to cleanse one of one’s sins of unhealthy living.

I shudder to wonder what’s coming next from HuffPo.