Evil humours have returned … as “toxins”


They say that everything old is new again and that is certainly true in the world of alternative health. One of the axiomatic premises of contemporary alternative health puts its believers behind the times … by approximately 500 years.

A fundamental premise held by believers in alternative health is that we are swimming in a world of toxins and those toxins are causing disease. Like most premises in alternative health it has no basis in scientific fact; makes intuitive sense only if you are ignorant of medicine, science and statistics; and speaks to primitive fears and impulses.

The preoccupation with “toxins” is a direct lineal descendant of the obsession with evil humours and miasmas as causes of disease. It is hardly surprising that prior to the invention of the microscope the real causes of disease went undiscovered. The idea that disease is caused by tiny organisms that invade the body is not amenable to discovery in the absence of scientific instruments and scientific reasoning. And it goes without saying that the same people who were unaware that bacteria and viruses cause disease could not possibly imagine chromosomal defects, inborn errors of metabolism or genetic predispositions to disease.

Instead, people imagined that diseases were caused by excess evil humours, substances that were named, but never seen or identified in any way accessible to the senses. It was recognized that some diseases were contagious, and in that case, people invoked the idea of “miasmas” that somehow transmitted disease.

Even religion got into the act. Rather than attributing disease to evil humors of miasmas, religious authorities often claimed that disease was attributable to evil demons or to sin itself.

These theories shared several important features. The evil humours, miasmas, etc. were invisible, but all around us. They constantly threatened people, and those people had no way of fending off the threat. Indeed, they were often completely unaware of the threat that was actively harming them.

Evil humours, miasmas, demons, etc. were put to rest by the germ theory of disease. That was the first big breakthrough in our understanding that each disease was separate and has its own specific cause. The search for causes has taken us beyond bacteria and viruses, through errors of metabolism and chromosomal aberrations, right down to the level of the gene itself. We now understand that tiny defects in individual genes can cause disease or can increase the propensity to a specific disease.

But fear and superstition never die and the alternative health community has used that fear and superstition to resurrected primitive beliefs. It is axiomatic in the alternative health community that disease is caused by evil humours and miasmas. They just don’t call it that anymore; they call it “toxins.”

Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours and miasmas. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is axiomatic that they have be released into our environment by “evil” corporations.

There’s just one problem. “Toxins” are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination.

Poisons exist, of course, but their existence is hardly a secret, and their actions are well known. Most poisons are naturally based, derived from plants or animals. Indeed, the chemicals responsible for more diseases than any others are nicotine (tobacco), alcohol (yeast) and opiates (poppies).

Nonetheless, alternative health advocates persist in subscribing to primitive theories of disease. For those who have limited understanding of science, primitive theories apparently make more sense.

Hence the obsession with “toxins” in foods, in vaccines, even “toxins” arising in the body itself. The height of idiocy is the belief in “detoxifying” diets and colon cleansing. The human body does not produce “toxins.” That’s just a superstition of the alternative health community. The waste products produced by the human body are easily metabolized by organs such as the liver, and excreted by organs specifically evolved for that purpose such as the kidneys and liver.

Alternative health practitioners are nothing more than quacks and charlatans and their “remedies” are nothing more than snake oil. The fact that anyone in this day and age still believes in such crackpot theories is a tribute to the power of ignorance and superstition.

Evil humours and miasmas have not died, they’ve simply been reincarnated as “toxins.”


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in August 2009.

56 Responses to “Evil humours have returned … as “toxins””

  1. Steph858
    August 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    As a former plumber who was trained on how to work with lead including all the precautions you need to take (because apparently these days roofers don’t bother to learn and so the job of repairing/replacing lead fittings on things like chimneys has to be done by plumbers), whenever I see an ad for a product that claims to remove all toxins from the body, I wonder if that company could be sued for a lot of money if someone who worked with lead were to forgo PPE, ventilation, regular blood tests etc and instead use the detox product to remove the toxin from their body when that lead-worker inevitably developed lead poisoning.

  2. Hannah
    May 21, 2015 at 11:47 am #

    OT: The first midwife to be investigated in the Morecambe Bay Hospital fiasco has been stricken off, with 68 of 85 charges proven. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-32808014
    Hoping the others involved all go the same way.

    • KeeperOfTheBooks
      May 22, 2015 at 12:25 am #

      No effing kidding. I live in the US, not the UK, and that all still freaked me out a little for the next time I have a baby. DH is under strict orders that if I say, “I want an epidural” and don’t get one in a very reasonable timeframe or if I get BS’d, the next words out of his mouth will be “Do I need to call a lawyer and the press, or is she getting an epidural now?” (For perspective, I’ll be delivering in literally one of the largest hospitals in the US. Anesthesiologist coverage is not an issue.)
      I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to worry about medical care of me or baby, as I have complete trust in my OB and the pediatricians we use. I can only imagine what those poor parents over there went through. *shudder*

      • Hannah
        May 22, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

        I just moved from US to UK a year ago, and I am scared &#!~less for when we have kids. Luckily hubby gets private insurance through work, but if something happens and we wind up at the NHS hospital, I’m terrified.

        • KeeperOfTheBooks
          May 22, 2015 at 11:22 pm #

          There’s a very slim possibility that DH and I could get sent to the UK as expats with his job. His job would provide private insurance, and we’d damn well use it. Even if it didn’t, we’d pay out of pocket to go private. And like you, I’d still be worried about anything happening and our ending up in a NHS hospital due to an emergency. Ugh.
          May your future pregnancies be peaceful!

    • Anonymous
      May 22, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

      Let’s see how fast she picks up and moves to Australia, NZ, or the USA to get sheltered in the natural med community.

  3. KeeperOfTheBooks
    May 20, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    Please, please tell me that I’m not the only person who has sudden visions of the Blackadder leech scene? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3D6Ecs7VhQ

    • Hannah
      May 21, 2015 at 11:43 am #

      The fact that I didn’t is proof positive that I don’t watch nearly enough Blackadder…

      • KeeperOfTheBooks
        May 21, 2015 at 1:18 pm #

        Ah, but you see, there’s the problem. You assume (incorrectly) that there is such a thing as “enough” Blackadder. There isn’t. 😉

  4. KarenJJ
    May 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

    Even if you have a tested genetic issue and you can say exactly what the problem is and in what gene, someone will pipe up with “But how did the gene mutate originally? Did your grandma eat a lot of yeast?”… You can’t reason with that type of thinking… And whose Granny didn’t eat a lot of yeast? And tea with bikkies… And lamb with mint sauce… Besides Grandma is 88, lives independently, is sharp as a tack and in good health. Yeast/tea/biscuits/mint sauce have not done her an awful lot of harm…

    • Sue
      May 21, 2015 at 5:03 am #

      Meh – must be EPIGENETIC something something blah blah blah gut flora

  5. Amy M
    May 20, 2015 at 9:15 pm #


    I have been binge-reading this blog, but I thought this post was relevant to today’s discussion. Or yesterday’s.

  6. demodocus
    May 20, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Bad humours were a plausible idea in Nostradamus’s day, and one with better results for the local minorities than the not-infrequent idea that x (usually Jews in Europe) poisoned the wells. It was disproved so long ago, and there are lots of books and articles describing it in words your average 5th grader can understand. Sheesh.

    • EllenL
      May 20, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

      Then there was bloodletting. That must have been fun.
      The Detox must be the modern equivalent, and just as effective.

      • SporkParade
        May 21, 2015 at 4:42 am #

        Actually, there’s still bloodletting. It’s just used way more judiciously than it used to be.

        • Inmara
          May 21, 2015 at 5:27 am #

          At least here bloodletting is done with leeches and it’s supposed to have health benefits from some compounds in leeches’ saliva or something (probably preventing blood clots? don’t remember exactly). Sounds gross, but it’s used from time to time as supplemental treatment.

          • The Computer Ate My Nym
            May 21, 2015 at 9:53 am #

            Leeches make hirudin, a factor II inhibitor and a very effective, if scary, anticoagulant. It’s used, minus the leeches, in the setting of need for anticoagulant in patients who are allergic to heparin or in whom heparin failed.

            Bloodletting, using a needle not a leech, is commonly performed for a couple of conditions: polycythemia vera and hemochromatosis. It helps in those settings. In others…not so much.

          • Nick Sanders
            May 26, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

            They’re also used after reattachment surgeries to keep the reattached piece from overloading with blood.

  7. May 20, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    As an aside, I love supplementing my eating disorder with cleanses. It’s what people sometimes do as a way of losing that immediate water weight, there’s something satisfying about it in a *completely* unhealthy way.

    I’m not saying that to encourage anyone, it really is a shitty feeling (pun intended) and makes you feel like your body is turning inside out, but some commentors have noted knowing otherwise rational people who do them to rid themselves of toxins. They’re a gateway to disordered eating, if not embraced by people who already have an unhealthy obsession with reshaping their body, and imo is something people should look out for.

    • fiftyfifty1
      May 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

      “They’re a gateway to disordered eating, if not embraced by people who already have an unhealthy obsession with reshaping their body, and imo is something people should look out for.”

      So true! And there is a huge amount of denial. People with no h/o a full blown eating disorder but with disordered eating who do “cleanses”. And people with histories of full-blown eating disorders who have histories of laxative abuse but who would *never* do that now (but who do cleanses).

    • MegaMechaMeg
      May 21, 2015 at 9:13 am #

      The first time I read about the detox diet in cosmo I literally had a fit of hysterical laughter because the magazine was literally telling women “Stop eating for three days and you will lose weight”

  8. May 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    This drove me nuts when I worked in hospitals because a lot of the medical professionals believed in this nonsense! I think it might be a Utah thing though, alternative medicine is a huge deal here.

    • May 21, 2015 at 3:01 am #

      No, alas, it seems to be increasingly common throughout the medical world. I remember, back in the Sixties, how we nursing students chafed against the idea that our “limited” intelligence could not cope with medical textbooks, but needed dumbed-down “nursing” texts for the science courses; yet, in 2000, when my hospital went bankrupt and I wondered out loud, to the head of our nurses’ union, what sort of nursing/midwifery job I could get at 55years of age, she advised me to become a reflexologist, citing a “large demand” for them. She seemed completely unaware that one was based on science, and the other on woo. (In the event, I got a great job with a Health Fund’s Women’s Clinic, where I mostly dealt with women who had high risk pregnancies.)

      • SporkParade
        May 21, 2015 at 6:54 am #

        Do you have any insight as to why the health funds are so into alternative medicine all of a sudden? Maccabi has a whole clinic in Tel Aviv just for shiatsu, accupuncture, Ayurveda, etc. I can get a nice discount on any of their services with my supplemental insurance.

        • Who?
          May 21, 2015 at 7:45 am #

          It’s been happening for a while in Oz. I’ve found the weird stuff is inextricably linked with things we use ie shiatsu with optometry, so I can’t dump it, and have complained loud and long to our fund, since I won’t ever use the ‘alternatives’.

          The providers love it, gives the hocus pocus credibility and financial security it doesn’t deserve.

          • SporkParade
            May 21, 2015 at 7:51 am #

            I’ve gotten in trouble in a couple of moms’ groups for saying that homeopaths and osteopaths are quacks. Turns out that some of the women have husbands who work in those fields. And their husbands have MDs. It makes me want to cry.

          • Fallow
            May 21, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

            I would get in even more trouble when I said, “Oh, sorry to hear that you’re married to a quack. My condolences.”

          • Megan
            May 21, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

            Just keep in mind that osteopaths have very different credentials depending on what country you’re in.


          • May 22, 2015 at 1:27 am #

            I think the average lay person really cannot distinguish between mumbo-jumbo, magic, and science, especially if the mumbo-jumbo is presented in scientific jargon and given the authority of being “ancient knowledge” [previous eons being somehow Golden].

            From the beginning of the “Antibiotic Age” in the 50s, with “miracle drugs”, medical science promised, well, miracles, yet, as we all know, there still isn’t a cure for the common cold. It’s a let down, so why not try an “alternative” — which often is less invasive or painful. Who wouldn’t prefer massage to getting injections, or a tasty smoothie to a nasty-tasting medicine? A lot of “alternative medicine” requires long patient contact, one on one with the patient, with considerable physical contact [“laying on of hands”] rather than 5 minute consultations with a slip of paper at the end. I believe there are studies done about patients’ feelings of satisfaction with their doctors and the amount of time the doctor actually looks at them rather than at the computer screen. It is certainly known that patients are disappointed if they leave a doctor’s office without a prescription.

            As for cost, in the Israeli health funds at least, they are huge money-spinners. Alternative treatments are NOT free, whereas allopathic consultations usually are. For me to see an orthopedic specialist, I pay a fee of NIS 28 once every three months; to go to the “pain clinic” which is largely “alternative” therapies, I pay at least NIS 70 per visit, and most therapists want sessions twice a week “to be effective”.

          • Sue
            May 21, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

            True – there are campaigns on foot to de-fund the evidence-free practices.

        • The Computer Ate My Nym
          May 21, 2015 at 9:56 am #

          I have a couple of hypotheses:
          1. Pressure from special interest groups, i.e. big altie trying to get their share of the insurance.
          2. It’s cheaper than actual care. Especially if the patient dies before they can get a proper diagnosis and real treatment.

  9. yentavegan
    May 20, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    All health problems facing privileged populations are caused by toxins. Essential oils, chiropractic adjustments, colon cleansing, supplements are underrated by the medical establishment because the industrial pharmacology complex is invested in prescription medications. If you believe yourself to be run of the mill, average or common then maybe your ills can be helped by medical doctors. But if you are , special, a maverick and open to other ways of knowing then you can be helped by natruropaths and homeopathy.

    • May 20, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

      If you are privileged and rich, the most important surgery alternative practitioners perform is a cashectomy.

    • Sue
      May 21, 2015 at 5:05 am #

      Spot on, Yenta! The ebil toxins have a homing mechanism for the privelged maverick.

  10. Megan
    May 20, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    When people tell me they did a juice cleanse or a detox diet to get rid of “toxins” I always ask what “toxins” they are getting rid of. Funny, they can never tell me. I have a friend who is a PA and even she does these type of diets. She can’t ever tell me what “toxins” she is ridding herself of either. You’d think that would tell her something but she keeps doing her “detoxing.”

    • araikwao
      May 20, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

      I wonder if that’s because of Dr Amy’s other contention, that there is a moral value ascribed to food intake – maybe she inwardly perceives it as “atoning for her ‘sins'”. Did she drink too much on the weekend? Detox! Did she have a particularly indulgent meal (or three) this week?No worries, just do a juice cleanse. Etc, etc.

    • Amy M
      May 20, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

      Yeah, toxin people can rarely elaborate, and when they do, they insist that xyz is found in yoga mats, and its also in bread! So you shouldn’t eat bread because its like eating a yoga mat! Of course, the same substance may have myriad uses, and there are different amounts of it in the yoga mat, vs. the bread.

      On the flip side, I can’t understand why these people embrace amber teething necklaces. The websites that sell them tout the benefits of succinic acid (with absolutely no scientific evidence.) I don’t know much about succinic acid, but I’d be willing to bet that its found in lots of things, in fact, I’ll let Wikipedia speak the truth:

      “Succinic acid is a precursor to some specialized polyesters. It is also a component of some alkyd resins. It is also sold as a food additive and dietary supplement, and is generally recognized as safe for those uses by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.[8] As an excipient in pharmaceutical products it is used to control acidity[9] and, more rarely, in effervescent tablets.[”

      So clearly, succinic acid is involved in various processed foods, as well as synthetic materials. If it is so beneficial, why not eat the foods (or wear the polyesters) where it can be found? Especially since you’d have to boil the shit out of the amber to even extract it.

      • Mishimoo
        May 20, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

        Something I found frustrating – I was at a function, chatting with a paediatric nurse friend, when a mutual friend with a young son asked us about amber teething necklaces. The nurse mentioned that she’d seen kids be severely injured by them, so she hates them and recommends other relief methods for teething like cold washcloths/teething rings/nurofen or panadol. It was very obvious that the other mum immediately wrote it off as fearmongering despite it being first-hand accounts from a nurse in that field. When I explained that it’s a dangerous scam due to risk of injury and that if my child was hot enough to make the amber actually release succinic acid, I’d have more pressing concerns than teething, she took it on board and decided against using them based on being a waste of money. Same deal with the homoeopathic teething tablets: more concerned about the fillers than the risk of someone screwing up and putting belladonna in again.

        • Sue
          May 21, 2015 at 5:07 am #

          Not to mention that the sucrose “pillules” aren’t the best thing for developing teeth! The “remedy” might be homeopathic, but the sugar is real!

        • Laura
          May 21, 2015 at 11:47 am #

          Oh man, I tried those homeopathic tablets when my daughter was teething (I was still caught up in woo at the time). Didn’t do a thing.

          I haven’t been able to find first-hand accounts about the dangers of amber teething necklace, and because of this, the friends I have who use them when I tell them that they’re dangerous just blow me off.

          • Amy M
            May 21, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

            I don’t know where to find them–check Pediatric Insider–but it seems like a no-brainer: don’t put anything around the baby’s neck, or give her access to small objects that are choking hazards.

        • Mac Sherbert
          May 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

          Oh, do not get me stared on amber necklaces. I absolutely do not understand why those who use them insist they are safe. Under no other circumstance would they that tie a rope of beads around their babies neck.

      • Laura
        May 21, 2015 at 11:45 am #

        I found out that succinic acid is in beer and readily absorbed, if you want to get arrested for giving beer to a teething baby.

        “But our grandparents did it!”

        That’s because they didn’t have Tylenol back then, idiot!

      • The Bofa on the Sofa
        May 21, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

        So you shouldn’t eat bread because its like eating a yoga mat!

        So why shouldn’t this apply to succinic acid? “Don’t use succinic acid! Don’t you know it’s in amber? You wouldn’t ingest amber, would you?”

        Oh, but ingesting amber is different, of course…

        • Amy M
          May 21, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

          I was thinking more “don’t use succinic acid, its in polyester! you wouldn’t ingest polyester would you?

  11. NoLongerCrunching
    May 20, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Interestingly, sometimes there was a grain of truth in the idea of miasmas — malaria (“bad air” in Italian) could be found in river banks, where mosquitoes congregate. People noticed that going near that bad air caused disease though of course they were wrong about what exactly caused malaria. There is an interesting passage in Little House on the Prairie where Ma insists watermelon causes fever n’ ague; of course it was going to pick the melon on the riverbank that caused the exposure, but I thin it’s interesting how people got so close to the truth (sometimes) by observation.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym
      May 20, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

      I think people naturally observe patterns and try to draw conclusions, but miss sometimes because they don’t have all the information. The people who thought malaria had to do with “bad air” weren’t wrong: they just didn’t realize that the definition of “bad” in this case was “mosquito filled”. I’m sure we’re equally off about some things we currently measure. Cholesterol, for example, has migrated from being a bad thing to having good and bad bits and there’s now a good deal of evidence that not all HDL (“good cholesterol”) is helpful. Knowledge continues to grow, hopefully.

      • sdsures
        May 20, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

        Agreed: it’s in human nature to try and tease out patterns to find an explanation for something, even when that turns out to be incorrect. (i.e. “The MMR vaccine causes autism.” tripe.)

    • attitude devant
      May 20, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      In the Deep South, it was understood that Yellow Fever was more common in people who lived near swamps. As we know now this is a mosquito-borne disease but at the time people attributed it to swamp ‘vapors.’ Comically, in my childhood on the Gulf Coast I was witness to many refined ladies complaining of ‘an attack of the vapors,’ which was an all-purpose excuse for not feeling well. The idea persists in the culture even though the science has long moved on.

      • demodocus
        May 20, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

        Oh! I always thought it meant they’d eaten too many beans…

        • attitude devant
          May 21, 2015 at 9:52 am #

          and then there was that…..

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