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Detox: the fingerprint principle

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January-that month of atonement for many Christmases past-is the time of year that healthfood shops look forward to their best sales of detox products all year. So, it caught our eye when the self-styled quackbusting watchdog, Sense about Science, announced that detox products are useless and unnecessary, and that our bodies are perfectly able to sweep up and throw out the trash without the need of any extra special assistance.

So well-oiled are these systems, claims the appropriately initialled SAS, that the 80,000 chemicals to which we are now routinely exposed in our air, water, food and homes don’t pose any particular toxic threat.

Such a mindset, which is commonly found in medical circles, betrays not only shocking ignorance of the body’s elaborate system of detoxification, but also of what makes for health or illness.

One of the biggest mistakes that Western medicine makes is lumping us all into single categories. It’s the very impulse that insists on labelling disease and treating the label, not the individual. It assumes that we all fall ill in the same way-that all illness stems from the same cause, that all illnesses act alike and there is only one way to cure them.

However, the fact is that our body and its needs are uniquely individual, the sum total of our relationship with our environment. As Dr Leon Eisenberg of the social medicine department at Harvard Medical School once put it in an address to doctors: “Between genotype and phenotype, a lifetime of individual experience has fashioned what began as an envelope of stochastic probabilities into a single personal embodiment: the patient who faces us.”

The individual’s health profile, he was saying, is as individual as his fingerprints. And so too, as our deputy editor Joanna Evans writes in this month’s cover story, is our ability to detoxify. Some of us do it well without help, but an increasing number of people cannot.

Detoxification is extraordinarily complex, but essentially involves enzymes that make the toxic waste sticky enough to adhere to the agents that can safely eliminate them before they cause us harm. It’s like the workers in a nuclear reactor who painstakingly collect and dispose of nuclear waste so that it doesn’t contaminate the surrounding countryside. Unless handled efficiently, any spillage in the process can prove more dangerous than the toxic waste was to begin with.

The extent to which each of us can handle this delicate operation has to do with an extraordinary number of factors: what we were born with, what we eat and where we live, both indoors and out. Yet, nearly half of us lack the genetic code for efficient garbage disposal, and a large proportion of us are so overwhelmed by our toxic environment that our detox systems have virtually shut down. In other cases, we may be eating food that hampers our ability to detoxify.

In other words, our detox status is rather like a fingerprint-unique, and treatable only on a case-by-case basis-but, happily, there’s a host of natural methods proven to work. Detoxification should always be viewed a little like a case of CSI-style forensics-something that inevitably requires a focus from the general towards the particular.

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