The alternative, complementary, and integrative health obsession with toxins

Everything old is new again and that is certainly true in the world of “alternative” health. One of the axiomatic premises of contemporary “alternative” health puts its believers behind the times … by approximately 500 years.

A fundamental premise held by believers in “alternative” health is that we are swimming in a world of “toxins” and those “toxins” are causing disease. Like most premises in “alternative” health it has no basis in scientific fact; makes intuitive sense only if you are ignorant of medicine, science and statistics; and speaks to primitive fears and impulses.

The preoccupation with “toxins” is a direct lineal descendant of the obsession with evil humours and miasmas as causes of disease. It is hardly surprising that prior to the invention of the microscope the real causes of disease went undiscovered. The idea that disease is caused by tiny organisms that invade the body is not amenable to discovery in the absence of scientific instruments and scientific reasoning. And it goes without saying that the same people who were unaware that bacteria and viruses cause disease could not possibly imagine chromosomal defects, inborn errors of metabolism or genetic predispositions to disease.

Instead, people imagined that diseases were caused by excess evil humours, substances that were named, but never seen or identified in any way accessible to the senses. It was recognized that some diseases were contagious, and in that case, people invoked the idea of “miasmas” that somehow transmitted disease.

Even religion got into the act. Rather than attributing disease to evil humors or miasmas, religious authorities often claimed that disease was attributable to evil demons or to sin itself.

These theories shared several important features. The evil humours, miasmas, etc. were invisible, but all around us. They constantly threatened people, and those people had no way of fending off the threat. Indeed, they were often completely unaware of the threat that was actively harming them.

Evil humours, miasmas, demons, etc. were put to rest by the germ theory of disease. That was the first big breakthrough in our understanding that each disease is separate and has its own specific cause. The search for causes has taken us beyond bacteria and viruses, through errors of metabolism and chromosomal aberrations, right down to the level of the gene itself. We now understand that tiny defects in individual genes can cause disease or can increase the propensity to a specific disease.

But fear and superstition never die and the “alternative” health community has used that fear and superstition to resurrected primitive beliefs. It is axiomatic in the “alternative” health community that disease is caused by evil humours and miasmas. They just don’t call it that anymore; they call it “toxins.”

Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours and miasmas. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is always the case that they have been released into our environment by “evil” corporations.

There’s just one problem. “Toxins” are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination.

Poisons exist, of course, but their existence is hardly a secret, and their actions are well known. Most poisons are naturally based, derived from plants or animals. Indeed, the chemicals responsible for more diseases than any others are nicotine (tobacco), alcohol (yeast) and opiates (poppies).

Nonetheless, “alternative” health advocates persist in subscribing to primitive theories of disease. For those who have limited understanding of science, primitive theories apparently make more sense.

Hence the obsession with “toxins” in foods, in vaccines, even “toxins” arising in the body itself. The height of idiocy is the belief in “detoxifying” diets and colon cleansing. The human body does not produce “toxins.” That’s just a superstition of the “alternative” health community. The waste products produced by the human body are easily metabolized by organs such as the liver, and excreted by organs particularly designed for that purpose such as the kidneys.

“Alternative” health practitioners are nothing more than quacks and charlatans and their “remedies” are nothing more than snake oil. The fact that anyone in this day and age still believes in such crackpot theories is a tribute to the power of ignorance and superstition.

Evil humours and miasmas have not died, they’ve been reincarnated as “toxins.”

Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Skeptical OB.

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