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Brigid Delaney told her body, ‘I’m going to starve you for as long as we both can stand it.’

When I return home from America, the sensation I carry around in my body is an almost ever-present discomfort. I’m not feeling sick sick (apart from the jet lag: that heavy, weird feeling of your body arriving somewhere while another part of you – your soul, perhaps – is still travelling), but I’m not feeling well well. It’s that discomfort many of us have. The discomfort of abundance. The discomfort of people who have too much, who do not need to move too far or too hard to get food, the discomfort of always feeling a little bit bloated and off, the discomfort of the desk-bound worker, bent and curved like a well-fed snake around the computer screen and office chair for eight, nine, ten hours a day.

This is the discomfort of someone who can fit in a yoga class on the weekend or a walk to the shops, but tends to clock around 6000 or fewer steps a day. The discomfort of a person who drives to the supermarket, eats out a few times a week, once in a while will lose her shit on bourbons and Cokes, but mostly likes one or two glasses of wine a night. This is the discomfort of a person who has a lot on her mind and worries about the future, her work, her family, waking sometimes at 4am and having a hard time getting back to sleep. This is the discomfort of a person for whom exhaustion – or at least a low-level version, with its minor aches and pains, a bit of brain fog and forgetting names, the ‘hmpruff’ sound made when bending to put on her shoes – is the new normal.

Listen: On the No Filter podcast, Brigid talks Mia Freedman through why we ‘detox’ instead of moderating.  

I have all that. My body feels like it has a tenant on a long-term lease trashing the place a bit. Not enough to get them evicted – not yet – but those tenants were not taking good care of the structure. ‘I have a plan,’ I tell my body. ‘You may not like it. It’s pretty dramatic, but hear me out. The plan is to kick out this bad tenant and do a major reno. It’s going to be painful. There’s going to be some demolition work – the foundations are going to be ruptured and rebuilt.’

‘Hmmm . . .’ says my body, a bit nervously. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to starve you for as long as we both can stand it.’

Detoxes are controversial. It used to be that the word ‘detox’ was used to describe a medical procedure to wean addicts off drugs and alcohol. It was done in a treatment centre, under medical and psychiatric supervision. People detoxed if they had life-threatening addictions. It was a hair-raising, hang-on-to-your-hat sort of ride. People died.

Yet somehow the term ‘detox’ has entered the mainstream, uncoupled from its original meaning and co-opted by the wellness industry. There’s detox tea, detox shampoo, detox oils, detox energy drinks, detox powders, detox juices, detox salads, detox books, detox apps and detox holidays. Detox programs available over the counter at pharmacies or on the internet promise to detoxify specific organs – or the whole body – and alleviate a range of symptoms. A happy side effect is weight loss – although many programs would not be so gauche as to say that on the box.

‘Let’s be clear,’ says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University in an article in the Guardian. ‘There are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t.’ The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. ‘The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.’
If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete, the professor says, you’d likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention. ‘The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak. There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.’ So basically, if you have internal organs, you’re detoxing.

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But what is a ‘toxin’? Is it just a word that encompasses all our regrets?

The word derives from Greek and is defined by Dorland’s Medical Dictionary as ‘a poisonous substance produced within living cells or organisms’ that can be capable of causing disease when absorbed by the body’s tissues. It can be something that enters the body (like lead or pesticide), it can be found in drugs and alcohol, and it can also be poison found in nature such as a bee sting or snake bite.

Do detox teas really work? Image: Getty.

But the word ‘toxin’, as thrown around in the wellness world, has come to have a fairly elastic meaning. It’s toxins that make us feel sluggish and toxins that result in disease. It is too many toxins that rob us of our vigour and strip us of our health. Toxins are to blame for many of our modern maladies – the things that make us feel slightly off but not downright sick: the tiredness and exhaustion, the trouble sleeping, the bloating and constipation, joint pain and stiffness, the greasy pallor, the fat around our middles that won’t go away (despite all the Pilates classes, all the stomach crunches), the dull hair, the weak nails, the colds and flus we pick up so easily at every change of season, the moodiness, the irritability, the low-level depression, the spikes of anxiety that wake us in the night. It’s the word we reach for in January with our bodies weak from partying, the slightly sweaty-sour taste of last night’s champagne still in our mouths, a receipt for a burger we don’t remember buying at 2am, eaten in the Uber we don’t remember ordering . . . In contemplating all of this we utter the words that signal our edge, our limit, our end point, our surrender: ‘I really need to detox.’

And we mean it, we really do.

For more on debunking wellness fads, click here.

For more health news, click here.

This is an extract from Wellmania by Brigid Delaney. Available now, RRP $32.99. You can grab your copy here.

Listen to the full interview with Brigid on No Filter:

To subscribe to the podcast, go to apple.co/mamamia.

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