Detox Body or Mind?

by Shiban Ganju

Dedicated to Jenny Mah, a 3QD reader, who blogged the following comment in my earlier post: “Would you consider doing one on other forms of “detox” such as “cleansing” diets and, the latest to hit my city – ionic footbaths!”


I travel for my work; I fly forward across continents and backward across centuries. In twenty-four hours, I journey away from the worried–well, who scurry to ‘detox’ their bodies, to the scared sick, who fall prey to needless death; from twenty-first century neurosis to nineteenth century ignorance.

Currently, my work lands me in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in north India with 186 million people, which would make it the sixth largest country in the world, were it an independent nation. From Lucknow airport we drive – in a rented Toyota Qualis – deep into the state, where 783 persons stuff every square kilometer, all of who seem to crowd into the bazaars on the two-lane highway. The driver assiduously – and miraculously – avoids every sauntering pedestrian without a scratch, but he can’t avoid potholes, which outnumber people. Our Toyota drops and hops, rattling my vertebrae and shaking my innards.

After trundling for four hours we reach our destination – a small village of 150 houses. My jolted body slides out of the car and hobbles into a dusty patch in the center of the village, where I see a circle of women in bight colored saris, who greet me with restrained smiles and curiosity. I learn they have walked miles, from twenty surrounding villages, to become social health activists. My travel aches vanish. I sit among them on the tarp-covered ground.

My job: to strengthen health delivery systems. My aim: to eradicate ignorance. My method: to persuade and educate. And my success: not guaranteed.

Failure to persuade is not new to me; I remember having failed before, when I ‘imparted education’ in my faraway home country, where ‘body detox’ is big business. And where it sells in different packages.

Detox customers throng to ‘colonics’ where they learn that the colon holds body waste in its crevices for a lifetime and a medicated colon wash is curative. The caregiver inserts a tube into the rectum and flushes the client’s colon with a gallon or two of the washing fluid. They may also offer a strong purgative called the ‘oral colonic.’ I have tried – with limited success – to convince ‘colonic addicts’ that a normal colon does not hold any grouse and does not need catharsis. They listen, they ignore me and they go back for the colon scrub.

Then there are the ionic footbath parlors for stressed urbanites. Here, I am quoting a sales pitch I found on the net about ‘Ion footbath detoxification’:

“This is the most relaxing way to get rid of the toxins present in the body. You just have to sit on the chair, with your feet dipped into the water container. A flow of warm water will flow under your feet and the positive and negative ions in the water will attach themselves to the toxins present in the body. Toxins that are insoluble will also dissolve in this water.”

Look at the clever craft of words – toxins, positive and negative ions – to add credence. It helps to sell, if the pitch throws in a couple of mysterious words without context to create a scientific aura. Flowing water under the sole may be soothing but that probably is the only truth in the statement. Even a perfunctory knowledge about the working of the body is enough to arouse suspicion against this ludicrous claim preying on the gullible.

Ions are components of a salt in solution. Common salt, also called sodium chloride, floats as sodium and chloride ions in water. These ions – the commonest ions in the body – can cross through porous barriers by passive osmosis or active transport. Thick sole of a foot is not permeable and the ions in the container cannot penetrate into the feet, which hoard no special toxins to extrude.

Feet also become touch pads for ‘reflexologists’ who carry an unsubstantiated belief that feet possess a mirror ‘reflex’ representation of the whole body. These practitioners promise relief for migraine, hormonal imbalance, digestive, sinus, respiratory and many other ailments by rubbing areas – representing the sick organ – on the feet. Unfortunately for the sufferers of these ailments this relief is merely an expensive promise.

Similar to such practitioners are ‘energy field’ or ‘biofield’ healers, who claim to heal by transmitting energy from the healer to the patient in some mysterious way. They claim to ‘restore balance’ and release ‘congested energy.’ Spurious claims abound in this field and we have to be as much skeptical as we have to be receptive to healthy holistic tips.

Then there are cleansing diets, which may be harmless to the body but not to your wallet. These diets offer no extra benefit. If we just eat the calories and the nutrients we need, we cannot go wrong. Food has an either-or effect; we become what we eat: fat-slim, happy-sad, intoxicated-sober, energetic-mellow, sick-healthy – the choice is ours to make. Each nutrient – carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamin, mineral or water – has a specific utility for normal functioning of the body and in special circumstances, we may have to increase or decrease the quantity of one or the other nutrient. Cleansing diets provide extra amounts of one or the other nutrient and claim an exaggerated benefit.

Some alternative medicine practitioners recommend a liver and gall bladder cleanser. The recipe contains Epson salt (magnesium sulfate), olive oil and ornithine. They offer no rationale about what it cleanses in the liver and how it works.

For people with a temperament of ‘faith’ in much abused clichés of ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’, probably I sound foolish. It is nothing new to me. I am aware of my limitation to persuade people of seemingly simple things. My inability haunts me now, as I face these eager women in this remote Indian village, which still lives in the nineteenth century.

My mission is to devise ways to reduce maternal mortality, which is one of the highest in this part of the world. Over 500 women die out of 100,000 live deliveries. Compare that with the USA, where maternal mortality rate is under 9 per 100,000 live births. The solutions are so simple that we in the west are incredulous. If we treat anemia with extra iron, prevent excessive hemorrhage during birth, give one prophylactic antibiotic before delivery and encourage institutional delivery, we can decrease the mortality by almost 75 percent. It has been done before.

The women, sitting in a circle, introduce themselves; they tell me their name and the village they come from. I enquire about the deaths in their villages.

Shakila, a girlish woman, wearing black, recounts – in a flat voice – the story of her neighbor, who died in childbirth last month.

“How old was the mother?”

“Twenty one.”

Her emotions do not match the tragedy; death is not an occasional visitor – it is their next-door neighbor.

But it doesn’t have to be this way; ‘this death was preventable!’ My challenge is to penetrate this simple message into their brains – the most obstinate organ of the body.

Changing behavior is an uphill task – anywhere in the world. I have ranted against scams in health care; pleaded against colon cleansers, protested against refeloxolgy and energy healing without success. If I have failed in persuading educated twenty first century people against ionic footbaths, how will I convince these illiterate women about the benefits of iron in pregnancy?

I realize, it is all about ‘detoxing’ the mind and not the body.