Thomsonianism Meets Juice Cleanses

I will be the first to admit that I love juices. They’re colorful, full of tasty fruits and vegetables, and highly “Instagrammable.” I’ve been known to occasionally treat myself to a $10 cold-pressed drink, but there’s more to juice than just an expensive beverage. They’ve become part of an alternative medicine culture surrounding the idea of detoxification. Not to be confused with the medical treatment for drug addiction, this kind of “detox” typically refers to the process of ridding your body of toxins through natural remedies.1 The most common and pervasive of these remedies is the juice cleanse, which is when you drink nothing but juice made from raw fruits and vegetables for a specified time period, typically three to five days. Cleanses claim to have a wide array of health effects, including improving digestion and getting rid of “toxic chemicals.”2

What are these toxic chemicals, you may ask? Well, many times they’re unspecified, and proponents of detox cleanses just want to flush out their bodies in the name of wellness. Other times, toxins are addressed by name. Some believe that juice cleanses and other detox methods can rid your body of pesticides you may have inadvertently consumed. Others say that juices help get rid of toxins from those processed foods you’ve eaten or alcohol you’ve drunk. Some sources target specific chemical compounds; the book Detox Diets for Dummies, for instance, talks about how we are naturally exposed to chemicals such as arsenic and aluminum, which can be removed via detoxing. The general idea is that no matter what you do, you will accumulate toxins in your body, so flushing yourself out by detoxing is necessary. Juice cleanses may be the most common form of detox in the US, but others prevail amongst the more niche alternative practitioners, including coffee enemas, chelation therapy, and more.3 These detox practices may have strong followers, but the scientific community isn’t sold on their efficacy.

Samuel Thomson, a New Hampshire botanist, whose theories about herbal remedies used to flush out the body became popular in the nineteenth century. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

While juice cleanses and other detox diets are a relatively modern fad, the notion that you need to flush out your body is not new. One of the very first theories of alternative medicine, Thomsonianism, used this same concept. The theory was developed by Samuel Thomson, a botanist from New Hampshire. Thomson believed that lay people should use natural herbs to treat themselves and their families, a contrast to the harsh mercury-based treatments physicians were using at the time. Thomson relied heavily on lobelia, a plant affectionately referred to as the “Emetic Herb” for its ability to make you vomit. Historian James Whorton argues that lobelia was a “chimney sweep” that “scraped the human fireplace clean.”4

While juice cleanses and modern alternative detox are a little milder than this nineteenth-century treatment, their function is very similar: clean out the body and remove the bad stuff. Thomson also recommended the consumption of cayenne pepper to return the body to its normal state.5 Sound familiar? A wildly popular detox called the “Master Cleanse,” once endorsed by Beyoncé, has just three ingredients: lemonade, maple syrup, and cayenne. Like detox practices now, Thomsonianism wasn’t particularly concerned with what the bad stuff was or what kind of sickness you had. The important thing was cleaning out your body.

Another core part of Thomsonianism was the idea that every person could be their own physician. Thomson made sure that his herbal remedies for health were available and easy to use by everyone, so much so that he even created “Family Right Certificates” that ensured individual families could use Thomson’s treatments at home.6 There is a parallel here to modern alternative detox treatments in that they are intended to be used at home or on-the-go with no guidance from a physician. You can make juice at home, buy coffee for an enema anywhere, all without having to get a prescription from a doctor. Better yet, just like Thomsonianism, you don’t have to get different treatments for different ailments; doing a cleanse or taking lobelia is intended to be a universal therapy.

Lobelia, otherwise known as the “Emetic Herb” for its ability to induce vomiting. (Courtesy New England Historical Society)

Many alternative medicine systems throughout history have relied on post-hoc reasoning rather than controlled studies. Thomson was guilty of this; he would notice that patients got better after taking his herbs and therefore assumed that herbs cured them.7 This sort of empirical reasoning was incredibly common in alternative medicine and regular medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a common justification for modern alternative medicines as well, including detox diets. One website references the history of juicing and detoxing in other cultures, such as Ancient China and Greece. The article claims that “its continued use further implies that indeed, juice fasting diets … have been proven to provide many health benefits and effects; otherwise, it wouldn’t be continued to be practiced thousands of years later.” This reasoning suggests that because people in the past believed it worked, and it is still being used today, it must be effective. Alternative medicines rely more heavily on personal experience and testimonials rather than hard scientific evidence, and detox diets are a perfect example of that.

So what does the mainstream scientific community say about detox diets? The general consensus is that they don’t work as advertised. Drinking juice appears to be pretty good for you, but substituting juice for all meals as a colon cleanse can have serious side effects. Detox diets may leave you lacking essential nutrients, can be harmful to people with kidney issues, and diets that include laxatives or enemas can leave you dehydrated. They are also not regulated in the same way prescription medicines are, and there have been cases where the FDA has had to take action against detox products because they did not do what they claimed to or had harmful ingredients. Researchers have also concluded that there is no convincing evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from your body. There are organs with this specific function, including your liver and kidneys, and drinking nothing but juice has not been proven to help those organs work. A juice cleanse won’t undo the effects of a night of binge drinking or eating greasy food. Your best bet is just to avoid the “toxic” food and drink altogether.

While detox diets such as juice cleanses are a relatively modern phenomenon and have a short history thus far, they share their roots with other systems of alternative medicine including Thomsonianism. Detox diets have done a great job of permeating our culture, and while I love an aesthetically pleasing juice as much as the next person, you might want to think twice before you consider using juice as anything other than a refreshing treat.

Notes

  1. E. Ernst, “Alternative Detox,” British Medical Bulletin 101, no. 1 (2012): 33-38. Return to text.
  2. Gerald Don Wootan and Matthew Brittain Phillips. Detox Diets For Dummies, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010), 168. Return to text.
  3. Wootan and Phillips, Detox Diets, 24. Return to text.
  4. James C. Whorton, Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 29. Return to text.
  5. Whorton, Nature Cures, 26-27. Return to text.
  6. Whorton, Nature Cures, 38. Return to text.
  7. Whorton, Nature Cures, 28. Return to text.

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