• Skeptical Dog Sniffs Around Colonics

    by  • 10/20/2009 • science • 1 Comment

    I wrote this for Skeptical Dog, and I’m re-posting it here on my regular site.

    Eye Weekly’s Semi-Weekly Load of Crazy

    Eye Weekly is one of Toronto’s free weekly newspapers, and their editorial policy seems to be on par with the Huffington Post when it comes to issues of health.

    Damian has told readers “Don’t Fear The Flu” and recommended that they ask their homeopaths and naturopaths how to fight H1N1 and seasonal flus. She recommends such “time-tested” methods as keeping your kidneys warm…

    She has another piece where she tells returning university students how to save money by seeing student naturopaths. That’s right, don’t see pretend doctors, see pretend doctors in training to save money. At no time does she mention that you could see a real doctor for free. Naturopath or nothing, it would seem.

    There was the one article where I thought that she might write some sense, as my first thought seeing the headline “Booster Shots” was that it might address vaccination updates such as those for mumps, tetanus, flu, etc. Nope; just advice on how to “boost” your immune system with herbs and vitamins. I’ve never heard anyone who can define how an immune system can really be boosted, but I suppose the fact that she can write it in a paper must make it so.

    The latest article Damian gives us is not the worst one I’ve seen, but it’s as full of bad advice and unproven treatments as all the others. This one needs so much of a response that I can’t just leave it on the comment system over at the web page for Elimination Dance. This one needs paragraph by paragraph response; quoted text is Damian Rogers’ text, and mine follows.

    “I realize it’s sort of trendy, but there is a reason those clear-skinned, bright-eyed, naturopath-following, yoga-loving people — the ones who make you feel badly about bingeing on pizza in front of the television — swear by seasonal detox programs. And that reason is that taking a break from your less health-minded habits can make you feel lighter, sharper and ready to rumble. And hey, the Canadian winter isn’t for the weak.”

    Health minded people should be seeing health professionals. You’re implying here that detox makes yoga-loving people acne-free and bright-eyed, and that’s not exactly true. Sure, there are plenty of fit looking, clean skinned followers of yoga and naturopathy, but their number has not been shown to be any different than a random collection of healthy non-yoga people. I can only assume that you’re suffering from some sort of confirmation bias when you’re in your yoga class, seeing only the pretty people.

    I know a yoga instructor who is neurotically unhealthy, acne-ridden, and homeopathy-downing; this does not support any conclusion about yoga instructors at large. Using similar logic to what you use in your article, and based on my personal experience alone, I could conclude that yoga instructors are filled with self-loathing at not being good enough. I’m sure that’s not the case at all, and that yoga instructors and yoga practitioners represent a similar demographic as you might encounter in any after-work gym session; basically people that are trying to improve themselves in some way, and people with at least a bit more disposable income than the average.

    “Of course, individual results vary, so it’s important to find what works best for you. Here are some things that have worked for me.”

    The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. I’m going to spoil the end of the article now, and let you know that at no time does Damian recommend anything like seeing a professional that’s covered by your provincial healthcare; just naturopaths and unregulated, unproved services.

    The following quote is from Tim Minchin[1]; a comedian with a wry description of what, exactly, alternative medicine is;

    “By definition”, I begin
    “Alternative Medicine”, I continue
    “Has either not been proved to work,
    Or been proved not to work.
    You know what they call “alternative medicine”
    That’s been proved to work?

    At this rate, I’m going to have triple the word count in my reply that Damian had in the article this is supposed to be a response to. So, back to the article with the first anecdote.

    SKIN BRUSHING – I do this all year, but it feels especially good once the air gets cooler and the first hint of winter itch sets in. The idea is to literally brush your skin with a dry, natural-bristle brush (you can pick one up at most health food stores) from the bottoms of your feet up to your neck, always moving the brush in the direction of your heart. This is a cheap and easy daily detox routine that not only sweeps away dead skin cells but also stimulates the circulation and lymphatic systems.

    On first glance, I thought this to be harmless feel-good advice for exfoliating, removing dry skin, or maybe just one of those things that you do because it just feels good. That opening shower scene from the movie “Gattaca” comes to mind, but that’s it.

    Always moving the brush in the direction of your heart? To what end? I did a bit of searching online to find out what dry brushing your skin has to do with the lymphatic system. One of the highest ranked results[2] outlines what natural health practitioners say about the skin and about dry brushing, claiming that the skin is a third kidney and sheds waste acids. Waste doesn’t come out through the skin; that’s water, salt, and oil. Waste actually comes out from two pretty specifically defined regions of the body, and that’s it. Dead skin isn’t a toxin, and its removal doesn’t remove these undefined toxins from the body either.

    Google searches find unsubstantiated claims of dry skin brushing removing cellulite, cleansing the lymphatic system, strengthening the immune system, stimulating hormone and oil-producing glands (wait, brushing skin makes you greasier? Ew.), tightening the skin, toning muscles (how does brushing the skin tone muscles; other than in the arm you’re using to brush?), improving nervous system function, and that it helps your digestion in some way. I think I see a whole article just in dry skin brushing, so I may have to re-visit this one later.

    LYMPH-DRAINAGE OK, so what the hell is the lymphatic system anyway? The lymphatic system filters waste (excess fluid, dead blood cells, toxins, etc.) and destroys pathogens, so it’s a major player in maintaining the immune system. For the lymph system to do its job, it must be able to drain properly. There are a few things you can do to help this happen, like jumping for a few minutes every day on a mini-trampoline (or a normal-sized one if you really want to have fun) and getting a targeted massage.

    This is kind of a glossy high-level view of what the lymphatic system is for, but a bit muddled. To Wikipedia!

    The lymphatic system has three interrelated functions: it is responsible for the removal of interstitial fluid from tissues; it absorbs and transports fatty acids and fats as chyle to the circulatory system; and it transports immune cells to and from the lymph nodes. The lymph transports antigen-presenting cells (APCs), such as dendritic cells, to the lymph nodes where an immune response is stimulated. The lymph also carries lymphocytes from the efferent lymphatics exiting the lymph nodes. — Lymphatic System on Wikipedia

    Now back to the author’s anecdotes about her friends in the alt-med communities

    At the beginning of my recent detox, I got the Lymphomaniac Facial ($105) with Jean Eng at Pure and Simple (725 King W., 416-366-8558) and it really helped get me into the swing of things. First of all, it’s great to treat yourself to something pleasurable when you’re cutting out stuff like sweets so that you feel less deprived. The treatment was incredibly relaxing and I love their products — they smell great — so it’s a good sensual experience. And I found that I could really feel the benefits of the lymphatic-draining massage (of the breasts, stomach and face).

    A good sensual experience; wait a minute; breast massage? Is that a variation on Thai Massage, but for the ladies and without the stigma of entering the clinic through an alleyway?

    For the lymphatic system to drain properly, you basically need to pump the bellows to force the lymph through the series of one-way ducts. There’s no central pump such as the blood benefits from, but there are all these handy muscles placed in good locations to provide all the push your lymph needs. From everything I can find on real medical sites, so long as you don’t have cancer or another disease that affects the lymphatic system, you’re likely doing more to speed the drainage of your lymphatic system through regular muscle movement as part of even light exercise than through an overpriced lymphatic facial.

    There’s no way I can look at this paragraph and not see something that the 12 year old me would giggle over; it just reads dirty.

    Eng explained how the spa uses Ayurvedic principles in selecting the appropriate oils for each client’s needs. She says the facial and massage are useful at any stage of a detox program. “The lymph stimulation is physically helpful if the client supports it with increased water consumption and bowel cleansing,” she says, saying that most poor skin conditions are due to ill health. “We address the necessary skincare and advise on diet and lifestyle care.”

    You’re paying $105 for a facial and a grope of your breasts.

    When do you think that Jean Eng would say is a BAD time for you to part with $105 under any circumstances? You’re also likely to leave the office with a vial or two of those oils, and maybe some other retail impulse buys; and people say that regular doctors are all about the money.

    Now, what Ayurvedic principles is Jean using, and would ten practitioners give you the same thing, or is it basically one big guessing game? We don’t know, because so much of alternative medicine practice is completely unregulated, unlicensed, and untrained. All you need to be a lymphatic masseuse appears to be that you think to put it on your business cards.

    DETOX DIET There are so many different approaches to the “detox diet,” it can get a little dizzying. Some folks have great results with juice fasts or the Master Cleanse (that’s the popular 10-day trial of consuming nothing but a lemonade made from lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper), but I’m pretty attached to chewing. Most holistic health practitioners support periods where you give your digestive system a break by avoiding common allergens like wheat and dairy and stimulants like caffeine and sugar. Once I got into the habit of cooking whole grains every day, I got pretty into it. Bonus: I was never hungry. Talk to a holistic practitioner to find the best program for you.

    That dizzy feeling is your body starving. The euphoria that kicks in, and that eventual loss of the hungry feeling? That’s your body acclimatizing to starvation. Cleanses don’t kick start your metabolism; they kill it. Sure, limit or eliminate your caffeine and sugar intake, maybe cut back on calories and processed foods; you’ll feel better too, and not be crippling yourself in the process.

    You feel great when you come off your cleanse because wait for it… you’re eating again. A combination of the starvation euphoria, and the return to something approaching a balanced diet lead you to conclude, incorrectly, that you just did something that was good for you.

    COLONICS I’ve noticed people are mentioning colonics more often (they were referenced in two HBO shows — Entourage and Hung — this season), so maybe that’s a sign that they’re becoming more mainstream. (I feel like there’s a bad pun here that I will not tease out.) Still, I am sensitive to the fact that the idea of having a hose stuck up your bum is not necessarily an attractive prospect. I’m not going to lie — it can be a challenging situation at times — but I have felt powerfully better after getting them.

    So, characters in HBO TV shows mention colonics… this isn’t even an appeal to authority or an appeal to celebrity; this is an appeal to a fictional character? I was watching BBC’s production of Merlin the other day, and they were talking about magical creatures like gryphons and dragons; that doesn’t make them real or good for me.

    I’m not going to resist the pun; colonics are crap. That’s it, start to finish crap. There’s nothing in your intestines that regular waste functions aren’t up to getting rid of. If you can swallow it, your gastrointestinal system is going to be able to pass it. This includes bubble gum, steak, and nickels; they all go pretty much right through. There’s no store of undigested meat in your colon, and bubble gum isn’t hanging out for seven years.

    You feel better when the hose is removed, just like you feel better once your older brother stops punching you; adrenaline response and little more.

    When I went for my sessions with Stacey Smith (who is a registered holistic nutritionist as well as being a colon hydrotherapist) at the newly opened Vitalife (2251A Queen E., 416-849-0004), I hadn’t been for one in years and I’m so glad I went. Smith has a calming manner and is a natural at helping clients feel comfortable.

    Smith sounds like a good sales person. How does one become a registered holistic nutritionist? One apparently only has to take classes from a school like the the CSNN, but there doesn’t appear to be a central licensing board, etc.[3]

    As to how one becomes a colon hydrotherapist, that seems even less clear. I’ve found some people offering them with designations of CSNN (see [3[), CNP (Certified Nurse Practitioner), RNCP (Registered Nutritional Consulting Practitioner), and other designations.

    Stacey in Damian’s example lists herself as “Stacey Smith BA, RHN, Holistic Nutritionist and Colon Hydrotherapist” on the Vitalife website[4]. The RHN is a purchased set of initials from a college like CSNN, and the BA could be in anything at all, but it doesn’t typically involve a huge science requirement. As far as calling yourself a Holistic Nutritionist or a Colon Hydrotherapist? As far as I can tell, anyone can do that. So, from now on, you may refer to me as Xinit, Holistic Nutritionist Third Degree, and a purple belt Colon Hydrotherapist. The titles mean nothing, and as far as I can tell, the only licensing they need to pursue is business and tax licensing; cleanliness, etc? Nothing I can find on this.

    I asked her about the role of the colonic during detox and she was passionate about their benefits. “When you do a cleanse, you’re basically loosening up toxins in the body — these toxins need to be eliminated from the body and colonics are a very effective method of doing so,” she explained, saying this will also help detox symptoms like headaches, fatigue and nausea. (It should be noted that they can also cause fatigue and nausea.)

    Toxins, for the most part, aren’t sunk in concrete to be loosened up by cayenne pepper lemonade. If only we could define what these mystery toxins are, where they come from, and then identify them scientifically as they leave the body. I guess that would be too much like real medicine with its science and its facts, thought.

    Let’s see if I have this straight detox programs on their own can cause fatigue, headaches and nausea. Miss Smith recommends that washing out your colon can miraculously cure these symptoms… but it can also cause them… May as well pray the headaches away at that point, and save yourself the visit to the tube girl.

    “Many people aren’t aware that the number one immunological organ in their body is their colon. Cleansing the colon of toxic wastes prevents the absorption of toxins into the bloodstream, and their spreading throughout the body. The average person can have 10 to 25 pounds of fecal matter in their colon!”

    Many Registered Holistic Nutritionists aren’t aware of basic biology and science. If the food you’re eating is loaded with these horrible toxins that alternative practitioners keep going on about, you’re already in trouble well before things hit your colon. The colon functions to remove liquid and salt from waste before being expelled from the body. Sure, you might have 10 pounds of food in the process of being digested at any time, but it’s an ongoing process. When Smith words it the way this unlicensed practitioner does makes it sound like it’s a negative thing, when it’s a function of the way the gastrointestinal system works. It’s kind of the same effect as when I call Smith an unlicensed practitioner – while it’s true, it is a biased statement that implies the worst.

    Yes, I know, it’s gross. But it’s also damned compelling. While colonic irrigation is gaining acceptance as a health practice, it’s still controversial and it’s important that you feel safe. My naturopath alerted me to the fact that not all methods are as gentle as others (Vitalife uses a system that relies on gravity rather than forced water pressure), so it’s a good idea to talk to a naturopathic doctor if you want more information.

    That’s right, folks, it’s gaining acceptance by writers for a comedy show on TV who script their high school teacher character selling sex to pay repair bills. Oh, and that fictional character also gets a tube shoved up his ass to do what nature would do for him on its own time.

    It’s not just important that you feel safe, it’s important that you BE safe. The way to BE safe is to speak with a real doctor, even if it is in addition to your naturopathic doctor, shaman, or tarot reader. If you absolutely feel that you need to use services of someone who will inject or remove things from your body, you need to ensure that they are clean, medically competent, and knowledgeable. Without an unbiased authority to judge this, you’re relying solely on the word of the practitioner, and luck, in avoiding infection or damage.

    Tattoo parlors have much more strict regulation than does someone who can insert a pressurized hose up your ass. The odds of rupturing something while getting a tattoo are pretty low, and thanks to regulation, and years of good practice, even the roughest tattoo parlor runs like out patient surgery.

    “Herbal medicine’s been around for thousands of years! Indeed it has. And then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became medicine. And the rest of it’s just a nice bowl of soup and some pot pourri.” – Dara O’Briain[5]

    [1] I took the quote from Tim Minchin from podblack’s transcription.

    [2] I’m not linking it because I don’t want them to get more traffic, even from robots who might visit this page. http://www.naturalhealthtechniques.com/healingtechniques/Dry_Brushing_Technique.htm

    [3] http://csnn.ca/programs/rhn-program/rhn-registration/

    [4] http://www.vitalifeclinic.com/aboutus.html

    [5] Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain

    Originally published at http://tr.im/CmHd


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