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Herbal 'detox' treatments spread a poisonous message

There is no evidence to support certain 'detox' treatments, as the advertising watchdog has just ruled, and their promotion spreads a poisonous message which is anti-science, anti-evidence and could worsen people's health, not improve it, argues Professor Ernst.

There is no evidence to support certain 'detox' treatments, as the advertising watchdog has just ruled, and their promotion spreads a poisonous message which is anti-science, anti-evidence and could worsen people's health, not improve it, argues Professor Ernst.

In CAM, the term ‘detox' is used in a very strange way. ‘Detox' describes all sorts of interventions which claim to eliminate toxins from the body. The targeted toxins can be environmental (e.g. heavy metals or pesticides) or they can be physiological waste products of our metabolism.

Typically ‘detox' fans believe that, left to our own devices, our bodies poison themselves with our own waste. Not a very rational thought, I admit.

The ‘detox' treatments on offer range from oral supplements, diets, chelation products, foot baths, patches – there truly are no limits; this is a fool's paradise. Recently, Prince Charles launched his 'Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture' containing extracts of artichoke (Cyanara scolymus) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The PIL stated that it is made from "cleansing and purifying herbs to help support the body's natural elimination and detoxification processes, and help maintain healthy digestion".

But where is the evidence? Even the most encyclopaedic volumes of herbal medicine contain no hint that either artichoke or dandelion might eliminate toxins. Yet the principle could not be easier to establish: all we need to do is to name to toxin and quantify any decline after the treatment in question. But none of the ‘detox merchants' ever go as far as stating "this product will eliminate this toxin".

So, is it just a silly folly then? No, I think it's irresponsible and harmful. Ten days' supply of the ‘Detox Tincture' (50ml) cost £10Most consumers can now ill-afford extra expenses, this is harmful. The concept of "detox" flies in the face of science, its promotion thus undermines rational thought and evidence-based medicine.

This is harmful too. There is, of course, a respectable side of herbal medicine with the potential to help many patients. The promotion of a bogus herbal remedy, like the ‘Detox Tincture', puts this in jeopardy. This is harmful as well. There is also a potentially life-saving type of detox, namely the treatment of drug dependency.

The marketing of a bogus "detox" remedy can harm its aim. Perhaps most crucially, the bogus concepts of "detox" imply that we can happily over-indulge, e.g. with food and drink, because the ‘Detox Tincture' will swiftly repair any damage. This would contribute to the ill health of the nation – and who would doubt that this is harmful?

For me, all of this was enough reason to criticise Prince Charles Detox Tincture in the media. Last week the Advertising Standards Agency upheld a complaint (not mine!) against the advertising of this tincture. So, perhaps all is not lost and we are not heading towards the age of snake oils sellers after all!?!

Professor Edzard Ernst The Advertising Standards Agency ruled that claims the Detox Tincture was a food supplement that could help eliminate toxins and aid digestion were misleading because there was no scientific evidence for its efficacy. Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture Recent posts

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