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.