Thoughts on a Detox Death
When I read this CBC report, my first thought was “stupidity carries the death penalty.” But after thinking about it, I realized there was more to it than that.
But first, the facts:
A Quebec woman rushed to hospital after undergoing an overnight detoxification spa treatment involving intense sweating has died.
The woman, 35, died late Friday afternoon in a Drummondville hospital, said Quebec provincial police.
She and another woman were hospitalized after undergoing a detoxification treatment at the Reine de Paix farmhouse in Durham, a small town near Drummondville.
“The treatments consisted of a process of sweating by being all wrapped in plastic with mud, and also with blankets,” said Sgt. Éloise Cossette. Both women were also encased in cardboard boxes.
They were both unconscious when emergency services arrived at the rented farmhouse early Friday morning.
The second woman regained consciousness during the ambulance ride to Sainte-Croix Hospital in Drummondville and is in stable condition.
At least 10 people were undergoing the detox treatments at the time, which lasted for several hours, and did not include drinking water.
Words fail. How does inducing dehydration and hyperthermia “detox” the body?! Perspiration is an important aspect of thermoregulation. Encasing their bodies in plastic and mud undoubtedly eliminated the women’s capacity to maintain their body temperatures. People have died using “sweat suits” – this is even worse.
Dumb? Absolutely. But… hiding underneath this tragedy are beliefs common to all “detox” procedures:
1. A belief in “detoxing itself.” Yes, yes, yes… there are a lot of environmental pollutants out there. But there isn’t a scintilla of proof that the pills, potions, foot baths, diets, colon cleansers, and myriad other procedures/products that people spend big $$$ on actually facilitate the excretion of these toxicants or result in any improvements in long-term health.
The fact that the women in this story subjected themselves to such an unpleasant, prolonged and questionable procedure speaks volumes about the magical thinking behind the word “detox.”
2. A belief that unpleasant symptoms are signs that the “detox” is working. In detox circles, this is known as the “healing crisis.” In the real world that I inhabit, it’s known as “ignoring signs that something’s wrong.”
3. A belief in the “expertise” of the “therapist.” Think that the person behind the formula, program, device or procedure you’re using is an expert in physiology or nutrition?
Maybe they are… but it’s more likely that they’re not. Never assume. This is doubly true when it comes to certifications – many of which are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.
Lord knows, Paul and I have written extensively on detox quackery (see here, here, here and here for examples). Most of it’s harmless, overall (albeit costly and sometimes uncomfortable). But as the CBC story demonstrates, a belief in the (non-existent) power of detoxing can lead to more serious consequences.