You need look no further than Gwyneth Paltrow's dubious Goop summit last weekend to see 'tis the season for pseudoscience. Summer is prime time for much of the alternative health world, according to Britt Hermes, a former naturopath who recently penned a blog post about the time she created and sold a phony detox program.
"Spring and summertime are classic detox seasons in alternative medicine because there are more fruits and veggies available," Hermes told me via Skype.
In 2014, while working at Genesis Natural Medicine Center in Tucson, Arizona, Hermes helped create a new detox program called "The Right Detox." It was advertised on local TV stations, at a women's health convention, and with a now-defunct website, claiming it was a program designed to "cleanse and detoxify your body to maintain maximum health benefits." Customers could purchase different tiers of the program, which included everything from massage sessions and sauna visits, to intravenous vitamin drips, and strict diet protocols, Hermes said.
"Everything that was included was something I thought had some sort of health value, even if it was minor," Hermes said. "But really it came down to being able to package products and services together and make it marketable, and tacking on some up-charge."
In her blog post, Hermes makes it clear that while she at the time truly believed these treatments were beneficial, the goal of marketing them as a specific "detox program" was to make more money. "In each instance, the decisions to include specific detox supplements, protein powder shakes, or therapies were based on profit margins," Hermes wrote.
Now an evolutionary genomics PhD candidate at Kiel University in Germany, Hermes writes for her blog and Forbes to debunk pseudoscience and stand up against natural medicine that's simply out to make a profit. She has her detractors, mostly in the alternative medicine business, who say she exaggerates or lies, but their accusations so far seem to be unfounded. Naturopathy is a particularly contentious issue because many people do enjoy the care they receive, but treating a naturopath like a doctor can be dangerous, even deadly.
Hermes told me that while some elements of a "detox" program are good for your health—eating more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, and staying hydrated are all fine—there's no good scientific evidence that detoxes are necessary or beneficial. Our liver and kidneys flush out the toxins in our body already, and taking massive doses of herbal supplements or vitamins won't help that.
Furthermore, Hermes told me that these programs can actually be harmful, and not just to the patient's wallet. For one, most supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, making it really difficult for even the most well-meaning naturopath to guarantee a patient is taking what's on the label, and that it's safe. Many of these supplements also work as diuretics and laxatives, Hermes said, to make people "feel" like they're flushing out extra toxins (when in fact they're just pooping or peeing more than necessary).
There's also a potential for psychological damage, Hermes said, because these detox programs promise ultimate health but when they ultimately fail, it's easy to blame the patient for not adhering to the program strictly enough, in order to sell more treatments. This can cause feelings of inadequacy and guilt, along with the stress of trying to following a program perfectly.
"Naturopaths never ever say 'oh gosh, maybe the detox program don't work, maybe these supplements aren't effective,'" Hermes said. "It always goes back to the patient needing to do more, needing to invest more, instead of the practitioner ever considering that what they're prescribing is nonsense."
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