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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  • Danimal

    That’s one thing that gets me about all these toxins we’re surrounded with — if they’re actually there, shouldn’t they be quantifiable? Or at least named? The only “toxin” I’ve heard the alt-medders complain about are Thimerosol and aluminum in vaccines.

    I mean, if toxins really are all around us, why hasn’t Mythbusters done a show on them?

  • Undiagnosed

    “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.”


    Proceedings of the Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility: Executive Summary

    Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, MPH, Alison Carlson, Jackie M. Schwartz, MPH, and Linda C. Giudice, PhD, MD

    “Approximately 87,000 chemical substances are registered for use in commerce in the US, with ubiquitous human exposures to environmental contaminants in air, water, food and consumer products. Exposures during critical windows of susceptibility may result in adverse effects with lifelong and even intergenerational health impacts. Effects can include impaired development and function of the reproductive tract and permanently altered gene expression, leading to metabolic and hormonal disorders, reduced fertility and fecundity and illnesses such as testicular, prostate, uterine and cervical cancers later in life.”

    So were not swimming in a world of toxins?

    After the death of a friend, I decided I would update my will to dispose of my body in the most earth friendly way. During my research, I found the human body too contaminated for an ocean buriel.

  • Diane J Standiford

    Toxic world we live and die in. Maybe the moon is next.

  • Paynehertz

    There I was thinking lead poisoning in children was something to be concerned about. Exposure to high levels of mercury in fish is fine, but opiates are one of the primary causes of disease.

    The stuff you can learn from doctors, if you just listen.

  • taffe

    where have you been. Global warming, fish full of mercury, acid rain, smog, processed food, synthetic pesticide (poisonous chemical from second world war). polluted rivers, lakes and oceans. Environmental science is not science.?

  • EKB

    Amy Tutuer’s response to alternative medicine and related beliefs is way too black-and-white. Instead of helping people to seek care from physicians, it creates even more hostility, kind of like Richard Dawkins does in his fundamentalist atheist attack on religion. Mainstream medicine has to acknowledge that it bears some significant responsibility for the flight to alternatives, from the difficulty and expense of obtaining it for many to the corruption in relations between doctors and drug companies that has been publicized to the fact that today medicine often appears to be a commodity offered to consumers and thus “sold” sometimes for more than it’s worth, to its impersonality, to the unaccountability of many who practice. to the fact that some doctors like Amy Tutuer seem to show no respect for patients’ cultures and beliefs. And sometimes alternative medicines are all a person can afford.

    Of course mainstream medicine has a foundation in science that is much stronger than that of alternative medicine. But that foundation is not what a lot of people see or can afford.

  • JinTX

    I agree with EKB – this unfair, broad criticism creates hostility and contributes to the lack of trust many patients have in their physicians. I see a well educated TCM doc for chronic back and neck problems. The acupuncture treatments have enabled me to endure the physical therapy needed to imrove my health. This was not a voodoo/placebo effect, it has worked better than any drug. It actually cured a 3 year bout with vertigo which my family doc had said was something I would probably live with.
    The Air Force has been studying this treatment for vertigo, and even pain relief, for some time now.
    (I guess once western docs do some trials, it is no longer so “woo” – like the Percutaneous Ankle Nerve Stimulation? )

    My TCM doc works to complement the treatments recommended by my spine doc, and is more educated (based on course work, studies, articles and his instruction hours) than many of the docs I’ve seen over the years. I refuse to see a doc who belittles me. I’m not an uneducated fool. This superior attitude is a contributing factor to the frustration many experience with the current health care in this country. I hear docs mocking patients who get their medical advice online. I am able to access, read and understand the same text books and journals they subscribe to. We have a fairly educated population in this country, and those docs who cannot appreciate that will be relegated to the social medical programs where they can treat those who have no qualms being at another’s mercy.

  • JinTX

    On another note: It would be laughable, if not so sad, to see a doc mock the concept of “toxins” – because I have seen what PRESCRIBED TOXINS have done to my mother during a 5 year pharmapalooza festival hosted by her family doc. 26 different medications which worked against each other, damaging her liver, kidneys, and heart, resulting in 6 near-death hospitalizations.

    I do know there are quacks out there selling stuff like “colonic cleansing”, etc – but my TCM docs don’t push that. They do push for diets and lifestyles which are heart/kidney/liver healthy.
    Shouldn’t ALL doctors promote that?

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