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The Practical Herbalist

Define Toxin?

One of the more interesting words that turns up in the area of alternative and herbal medicine is the term toxin. Many products on the market claim to help "remove toxins from the body" or they are called detoxifiers. Many people are on the look out for new techniques to cleanse the body of toxins.

So what are toxins? To tell the truth I am not sure. When I ask the people who promote these treatments, they often look at me strange, as if it were obvious, and then explain that toxins are all the bad things from modern life that make us sick. When pressed for specifics I often get vague answers like pollution, heavy metals, parasites, and "bad energy".

Now it is true that all of those things can affect your health. The question is more of is the treatment going to remove the type of toxin that is causing your problems? Are these things actually the cause of your problems? Some patients coming to me want harsh damaging herbs to remove parasites, without having any objective information that says that they actually have parasites. Medicine needs to have a clear link between the subjective and objective signs and symptoms the patient presents, the diagnosis, and a treatment that is specific to the situation. Anything less is marketing, not medicine.

The history of "cleansing toxins" goes back several hundred years. Most forms of traditional and folk medicine recognized that there were times when you had to nourish and strengthen a patient to help them heal. There were other times when the symptoms called for dispersing the body. Infections and parasites were often a situation where "cleansing" techniques were employed to remove a problem from the body so that the patient could then rest and recover. A traditional healer would carefully determine what type of techniques would most help the patient, often using nourishing techniques after cleansing techniques to help the patient recover from the treatment.

In Europe there was a rise in the idea that the body is a temple and is pure and holy since it was made by God. This led to the concept that any dysfunction of the body in the way of disease or emotional disorder had to have come from the outside of the body and thus the only logical treatment was to purge the "evil" out of the body. Now, the traditional techniques of bloodletting, vomiting, and induced diarrhea, once used effectively and cautiously, were used with reckless abandon. This became known as puke and purge medicine. The concept of nourishing the body to help with healing was disregarded.

This notion that we can blame all of our problems on external sources, is very appealing. We used to blame evil spirits or sins, now we just shift the blame to chemicals, parasites, bad energy-- toxins. As a result we have people looking first to harsh treatments as a way to healing rather than to understanding and defining the problem before pursuing a treatment.

That is assuming that a person has the right information to truly make an informed decision. I have seen advertisements promoting various Chinese Herbs to clear toxins (specifically heavy metals and chemicals) out of the body. These herbs fall into a class of harsh herbs classified by their function, to "clear toxins". This is a mistranslation of the term. The original Chinese term "du" that is often translated as toxin, really refers to fever, infection and pus, not "environmental toxins" as we now think of it.

Toxin is just not a well defined term, ask a lot of questions whenever you hear it used in regards to your health. Sometimes it is used because we lack a better term. Before undertaking any medical treatment, always make sure there is clear subjective and objective evidence to support the medical diagnosis and the proposed therapy to treat it. Cleansing and detoxifying treatments have their place when used appropriately, but they should be followed by nourishment and rest, not more detoxifying.

David Bock

This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"

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David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine

Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066