Detoxification Quackery – From Footbaths to Fetishism

The last time I went to the Puyallup fair, I passed a booth where an elderly man and woman were sitting with their feet in basins of water. How nice – a chance to rest their tired feet after a day of walking the fairgrounds! Unfortunately, they weren’t just resting, they were being scammed. The vendor was selling a “detoxifying” foot bath and was trying to convince them that the color that appeared in the water meant toxins were being removed from their bodies through the skin of their feet.

These footbaths run a low-voltage electric current through the water to produce ionization by electrolysis. There are many versions such as: IonCleanse, BEFEU (Bio Electric Field Enhancement Unit), Aqua Chi Detox Foot Spa, ionSpa, Ionic Detox Foot Spa, Ionic Oasis, Dyna-Chi, Bio 1200,Bio-Energizer, Dual Chi Ionic Ion Detox, and Integrated Chi Ion Ionic Detox. By the time you read this there will probably be more new brands. lists two pages of offerings, one for $2000, most in the $2-300 range. The Pro Aqua Chi Detox Foot Bath Spa Bio Energy Machine sells for $1590 and is advertised to give you a rush of energy, natural healing, and a balancing of the electrical body with a significant increase in the number of negative ions. One brand even has an MP3 player connection.

Here’s what the colors in the water supposedly mean:

  • Yellow-green=detoxifying from the kidney, bladder, urinary tract, female/prostate area
  • Orange=detoxifying from joints
  • White cheese like particles=most likely yeast
  • Brown=detoxifying from liver, tobacco, cellular debris
  • Black=detoxifying from liver, gallbladder
  • Dark green=detoxifying from gallbladder
  • White foam=mucous from lymph
  • Black flecks=heavy metals
  • Red flecks=blood clot material

How did they figure out what the colors meant? Someone did uncontrolled tests with a bogus biomeridian energy machine! Throwing darts at a dartboard while blindfolded would have been cheaper and equally reliable.

Some users claim to have produced parasites, pinworms, smelly purple mucous, and “various rancid odors.”  Pinworms coexist with poop in the colon: to imagine that they could be removed through the skin of the feet defies all reason. It makes as much sense as thinking you could take your appendix out through your ear. The rancid odors I can easily believe!

Skeptics tried running the footbath without putting their feet in it, and guess what? The colors appeared just the same! The color mostly amounts to “rust” liberated from the electrodes, but any contaminants in the water or any oils or other material on the surface of the skin might be expected to contribute. Some manufacturers are now admitting this and downplaying the significance of the color changes. But they still claim wondrous effects for practically every human ailment from acid reflux to wrinkles. Some resort to reflexology to explain how mythical channels in the feet conduct toxins to where they can be removed. Others say the footbath will cleanse, balance and enhance “the vital energy force present in the breath of bodily fluids,” so that complex energy fields permeate and realign the body’s energy field, improving oxygen levels and increasing both physical and mental energy. Don’t bother to try to understand this; it’s just meaningless mumbo-jumbo.

A Thriving Industry

These footbaths are only the tip of a detoxification iceberg. There is a whole industry selling detoxifying skin patches, diets, fasts, saunas, herbal mixtures, colon cleanses, and other bogus remedies. Even bottled water has jumped on the bandwagon. “Detox with Evian: Evian spreads quickly through your system and facilitates the elimination of waste and regenerates the body from the inside out in the easiest, most natural way.” Evian is well named; it’s “naïve” spelled backwards.

People who want to “detoxify” often don’t have any idea what “toxins” they’re talking about. They may vaguely believe that modern life contaminates us with lots of bad things that we ought to get rid of. It’s reminiscent of religious fasting and purification rites.  Jewish women go to a ritual bath (Mikveh) that restores them to purity after childbirth or menstruation. Shamans used smoke for purification. Numerous religions observe periods of fasting.  American Indians used sweat lodges for purification and sacred ceremonies. It’s mysticism, not science.

Our bodies come equipped with livers, kidneys, stomachs, intestines, enzymes, and metabolic processes that deal with toxins efficiently with no outside help. When kidneys fail, we use dialysis. In certain cases of poisoning with large amounts of heavy metals, we may use chelation therapy. In addiction treatment, “detox” is achieved by simply abstaining from drugs or alcohol for a few days. There is no medical evidence to support any other methods or benefits of “detoxification.”

To get more insight into detoxification delusions, I followed the advice of a detox website and read one of the “essential” books they recommended: Detoxify or Die, by Sherry Rogers. Reading it was a truly painful experience. It was a mishmash of alarmism, false and misleading statements, and unsubstantiated advice. The author is a medical doctor with additional certifications in family practice, environmental medicine, allergy/immunology, and nutrition. She ought to know better. Apparently she doesn’t even know that she is a “diplomate” of her specialty boards; the book calls her a “diplomat.”

The ignorant think there’s lots of unspecified bad stuff out there. Rogers does only marginally better: she names names. In fact, she names practically everything in our environment from breast milk to wool blankets as sources of toxins. Among her more idiotic claims:

  • ALL disease is caused by free radicals. (But she also blames nutrient deficiencies and the accumulation of toxins.)
  • All drugs cause further symptoms; with drugs, “the sick get sicker quicker.”
  • Detoxification can cure everything.
  • Proper diet can reverse cancer.

She doesn’t recommend foot baths, but she recommends pretty much everything else in the detox armamentarium. She is particularly strong on far infrared saunas and coffee enemas. She refers to the latter as a “hot date with Juan Valdez.”

Stick It Up Your What?

I once tried to write a serious article evaluating the evidence for coffee enemas; but there wasn’t any evidence, and I couldn’t stop laughing. It was all such a “latté” nonsense that I wrote a humorous piece instead: ( I can’t help but question the sanity of healthy young men who are willing to lie on the bathroom floor two to five times a day pumping coffee up their rectums and trying to retain it for 30 minutes each time. And as a coffee lover, I object to wasting good coffee on a part of the body that lacks taste buds.

America’s obsession with bowel function was epitomized by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who directed the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the late 19th century. His story inspired a movie, The Road to Wellville, starring Anthony Hopkins.  He claimed that ninety percent of all illness originated in the stomach and bowel. He proceeded to “cure” all disease by cleaning people out from both ends, and as a sideline invented modern breakfast cereal.

A daily bowel movement was long thought to be essential to health; we know now that this is not true. In my internship I heard a (probably apocryphal) story about a medical resident who was so keen to prove it untrue that he put himself on an extremely low residue diet and went for six months without a bowel movement and with no ill effects. Knowledgeable medical sources agree that the only reason to cleanse the colon is to prepare it for medical examination or surgery. Colon cleansing does not improve health. It’s not only unnecessary, it can be harmful. It can disrupt normal bowel flora, lead to anemia, electrolyte imbalance, malnutrition, and heart failure, and on rare occasions it has even resulted in death.

The misinformation from colon cleansing advocates is impressively mind-boggling. They tell you that almost every chronic disease is due to absorption of bacterial poisons from the intestine. They tell you there are mucoid plaques, 10-year-old hamburger fragments, up to 40 pounds of toxic residue, and all kinds of ugly sticky stuff clinging to the wall of the bowel. Anyone who has ever examined actual bowels on autopsy, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or various imaging studies knows this is nonsense. The bowel wall cleans itself naturally, there is a high turnover of cells, and there is no place that residue could accumulate. The idea that the bowel needs cleansing “like we wash our skin and brush our teeth” is a false analogy, as is the comparison with cleaning out machines. Machines have no way to clean themselves; the bowel does.

Colon cleansing treatments range from high colonic enemas to herbal mixtures. Advertisers show you repulsive pictures of rubbery goop eliminated after using their products, but they don’t tell you the goop is artificially produced by the ingredients in their products that act to fill the colon with a semi-solid mass, producing a sort of cast of the bowel. Testimonials claim all sorts of benefits, from curing acne to improving energy. One enthusiastic soul raved that he would “have to get a bigger toilet.” I suspected some of these enthusiasts suffered from a fetish, and sure enough, I found an offer of an “Extra Large Enema Kit for Medical Fetish ”on the eXtreme Restraints website. In fact, they offer an entire page of enema-related products as part of their extensive array of sex toys, whips, and bondage gear.

For connoisseurs of silliness, the field of alternative health advice provides an ever-increasing treasure trove. It would be hard to find a subject that engenders more silliness than detoxification.

This was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine..






Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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