Cleansing Diets: Why or Why Not?

Cleansing diets are trendier than ever. But do they actually provide any of the claimed benefits?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Fads, Health

Skeptoid #335
November 6, 2012
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Also available in French | Russian
 

These days, just about everyone has some friend who is doing a "cleanse". Cleansing is the process of severely limiting your intake of food for some period of time, usually around five days or so, often replacing food with a fruit drink. Believers in cleansing consider it to provide a whole long list of health benefits; however, doctors never seem to prescribe it for anyone. There are, in fact, two schools of thought on the matter. On one side you have the alternative health marketers, nutritionists, naturopaths, chiropractors, and other alternative medicine providers who sell cleansing drinks or books; and on the other side you have doctors and dietitians who never mention cleansing to anyone at all. Unfortunately, right in the middle are all of us, the consumers who have to make decisions based on what we hear. What should we conclude about cleansing?

Even the Big Pharma conspiracy theory has a place in cleansing. Some advocates believe that the reason doctors don't prescribe cleanses is because it's not a drug they can make money on. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is patently absurd: the majority of what doctors tell patients is good basic health advice on which they don't make a dime; and there is a tremendous amount of money to be made selling cleansing products. In 2011, Businessweek reported that Marketdata Enterprises found boutique cleansing juices to be a $60 billion industry.

The difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian is an important one. In most countries, a dietitian has an accredited degree and is a licensed professional, while nutritionists are not subject to any regulation or training requirements, and are really just any person who chooses to call themselves that. Generally, dietitians practice science based medicine, and nutritionists are usually part of the alternative medicine community.

So without the advice of a medical professional, what person would stop eating a healthy diet in favor of an expensive fruit drink? According to BluePrint, one of the most upscale and expensive cleansing drinks, the majority of its customers are healthy, educated young women. BluePrint and other marketers are notoriously unclear about the benefits of their product, using only vague, medically meaningless terms like "cleansing impurities" and "restoring balance". I visited a large number of alternative health and cleansing websites to see if anyone made specific claims about why someone should do this. I did find a number of common themes. Let take a look at these claimed benefits of cleansing, one by one.

1. Lose weight.

A cleanse is basically a fast, and obviously, fasting of every type results in weight loss. Whether you consume nothing at all, just water, or otherwise reduce your intake to fewer calories than your body requires, your body must dip into its energy stores. A regular healthy diet for the average person delivers around 2,500 daily calories, and if you cut that by 80% and replace it with a half liter or so of high-sugar fruit drink, you've got a big deficit. And a deficit that size causes your body to turn to its protein stores — your muscles — in addition to your fat. What you're losing is lean mass, not fat mass.

A far healthier (and safer) way to lose weight, that's more likely to deliver long-term results, is to get regular exercise and reduce your daily intake to a balanced diet of just your basic requirement — called the basal metabolic rate — or even just below it, and stick to it.

2. Rid the body of toxins.

The central thesis of cleansing is that our bodies are all choked with toxins, and that the special cleansing diet will solve this. It's most telling that almost none of these companies ever tell you what these alleged "toxins" are — if they did, it would be a trivial matter to verify through simple before and after blood tests.

Some marketers do mention specific substances like lead, mercury, asbestos, etc. Very few people actually have harmful levels of these; and for those who do, it's a serious medical condition for which medical interventions do exist. Starving yourself is not among them. There is no plausible biochemical reason why a fast would impact heavy metal levels, despite the unfounded assertions made by those who sell them.

Most often, cleansing marketers imply that normal dietary intake constitutes toxins, often enhancing their rhetoric with scare words like "processed" food, "chemicals", "biotech" crops, and so on. Fasting will certainly empty your digestive tract, whether you drink water, special $100/day fruit juice, or nothing at all. But anything you've already eaten, that's already been metabolized, would certainly not be affected.

It's fair to ask how people have survived so well when only a very few people in wealthy countries have picked up on this trend, and only in recent years. The reason is that the human body already has a 100% proven method of detoxifying itself. In medical terms, it's called pee and poop. The processes that create pee and poop and expel them from the body operate independently of whether you buy cleansing drinks. The consumption of cleansing drinks does not create new detoxifying methods, so their use for this purpose is fundamentally uninformed.

Moreover, fasting depletes your liver's store of glutathione, an antioxidant that's one of the most important substances used in the detoxification of blood. This depletion, and resultant decreased liver function, actually causes waste products to accumulate in your body, exactly the opposite of what the advertisers claim for their products.

3. Strengthen the immune system.

This claim asserts that your immune system is weakened by your normal diet, and is thus strengthened by the cessation of food intake; and also that the contents of the cleansing drink include special nutrients that "boost" your immune system.

As we discussed in great detail in the Skeptoid episode about immune system boosting, the entire premise is wrong. There's only one component of the fantastically large and complex immune system that can be strengthened, and that's the part called the adaptive immune system: the various types of T-cells and B-cells whose production is triggered by a response to a disease agent. Catch a cold, and your adaptive immune system develops new killer cells adapted to the surface proteins of that particular pathogen. These cells cannot be created by drinking a special juice; they can only be created by challenging the body with exposure to a disease.

Knowing this, the marketers of cleanses generally contend that your immune system is compromised because of your normal diet, again trotting out the scare words like "processed" food, "chemicals", and "biotech" crops, therefore our bodies are contaminated. It sounds like it makes sense. People do overeat, we love our prepared foods, and many of us are obese. Has this truly resulted in compromised immune systems?

In fact, the opposite is true. Obese people generally have inflammation, which is an immune response. We catch colds and have no difficulty in producing symptoms. When we're exposed to irritating substances, we react with hives or itching or asthma, all of which are immune responses. Practically every one of us has some immune system response going on right now. The claim that living in our modern world has compromised our immune systems is measurably, and unambiguously, untrue.

4. Cure a variety of illnesses.

Similar claims are made that our normal diets are the cause of a huge number of diseases, and that replacing those diets with expensive juice for a few days is all it takes to make the diseases all go away.

I found a staggering number of such conditions claimed on the web sites. Here's a partial list in alphabetic order: abnormal sugar levels, acne, addiction, aging, allergies, anxiety, bad breath, bloating, cancer, cell damage, contamination with chemicals, depression, diabetes, fatigue, headaches, heavy metal contamination, hormone disfunction, indigestion, lack of focus, liver disease, liver stones, memory loss, obesity, thyroid disease, the list goes on; and of course, that "Modern lifestyle has taken its toll on our organs." Imagine, all of these, treated by the same wonder cleanse.

Unless you subscribe to the conspiracy that all medical institutions, professionals, and students worldwide are being paid to suppress this miracle, you might wonder why doctors don't treat any of the above with cleansing diets. The reason is simply that it's untrue. As much as we'd all love for there to be miraculously easy solutions to complicated problems, it's rarely the case. The first red flag is that the marketers claim to successfully treat so many conditions with a single miracle product. The second red flag is that it's a high-end, boutique, expensive product marketed to the people who can afford it. Red flags don't prove anything on their own, of course, but they should give you pause to be skeptical.

5. Increase your energy.

In fact, the opposite is true. Severe calorie deprivation causes your metabolism to slow dramatically as your body attempts to conserve its limited biochemical resources. Among the most noticeable results of fasting are lethargy, weakness, even fainting, as anyone who has tried it has experienced. When your blood loses its nutrient supply that usually comes in through your digestive system, it has to shift to breaking down the fat stores, a process called glycolysis, which is a much less efficient process.

Most cleansing drinks try to combat this inevitable lethargy by containing almost exclusively sugar, the most bountiful nutrient in fruits. This gives your body a temporary boost, but as simple sugar is metabolized very quickly and there's little else in those precious few hundred daily calories from the drink, your body is soon left high and dry.

6. Increase your brain function.

Again, the opposite is true. Your brain runs primarily on sugars. Cutting your caloric intake by 80% or more means that there's no incoming fuel. Your liver stores enough of the polysaccharide glycogen to fuel your brain with glucose for about 6-12 hours. Halfway into the first day of your cleanse, that store is gone, and your body starts breaking down its own tissues for glucose to keep that all-important brain going. Your brain slows down many non-essential functions, and the result is that within just the first day of fasting, your attention and responsiveness begin to drop. Fasting is not good for the brain.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

7. It's inexpensive.

I'm constantly floored by the claims of alternative health products, such as cleanses, that characterize their products to be a blow at greedy corporate pharmaceutical interests. With boutique cleanses alone being a $60 billion industry, imagine the size of the overall alternative health industry. With every cleansing purchase, a customer is enriching an already extremely wealthy corporate culture, and no amount of greenwashed, all-natural, organic purity inspired product marketing, nor even celebrity endorsements, can change that fact.

Some of the marketing asserts that by not buying food for a few days, you're saving money. That might be true, but cleansing products are rarely inexpensive; and often their prices alone are competitive with, or exceed, the costs of a healthy home-cooked daily diet.

Conclusion

Almost everyone's diet could stand some improvement. Doing so is a conscious, ongoing commitment. Some of those who are too lazy, or too busy, or have some other excuse, try to shortcut the hard part by instead throwing a few dollars at a miracle product, and then returning to their lazy ways. Cleansing diets simply do not work. At best they accomplish nothing besides transferring money from your pocket into the pockets of the advertisers, and at the worst extreme they can damage virtually every part of your body.

Cleansing is a made-up solution. It is not a substitute for good diet and exercise. It is a for-profit ripoff, invented by those who think they can easily take your money by cloaking their claims in positive, healthy-sounding rhetoric. Clever marketing and implausibly high prices are always a sign that you should be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Editors. "Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels." Bloomberg Businessweek. Bloomberg LP, 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Nov. 2012. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_09/b4217077879973.htm>

Editors. "How Glycolysis Works." Anatomy & Physiology. McGraw-Hill Companies, 4 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 Nov. 2012. <http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072507470/student_view0/chapter25/animation__how_glycolysis_works.html>

Miller, B. "How Crash Diets, Like the Master Cleanse, Harm Your Health and Heart." Health. Health Media Ventures, 22 Jun. 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20409933_1,00.html>

Moore, S. "Health Risks of the Master Cleanse Diet." Livestrong. Demand Media, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.livestrong.com/article/244811-health-risks-of-the-master-cleanse-diet/>

Moores, S. "Experts Warn of Detox Diet Dangers." NBC News. NBCNews.com, 18 May 2007. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18595886/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/experts-warn-detox-diet-dangers/>

Wohaieb, S., Godin, D. "Starvation-Related Alterations in Free Radical Tissue Defense Mechanisms in Rats." Diabetes. 1 Feb. 1987, Volume 36, Number 2: 169-173.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Cleansing Diets: Why or Why Not?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 6 Nov 2012. Web. 31 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4335>

Discuss!

Thank you for your strongly-worded conclusion on the cleansing racket.

ThorGoLucky, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
November 6, 2012 8:01am

Reminds me of Josey Wales spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice on the guy selling an all purpose snake oil. "How's it with stains?"

Brian, Cleveland Ohio
November 6, 2012 8:11am

This is great. Permanently linked to send to friends talking about their latest "cleanse".

In a post-religious culture (a good thing), woo (a bad thing) tries to replace religion. Cleanses are an example of that - addressing "original sin", i.e. we are all dirty and need to do something drastic and (a little bit but not too) tough to remove these "sins".

dean cameron, l.a. - cleanse capital of the world
November 6, 2012 8:48am

Thanks for the great article! It amazes me how people buy into this stuff, even those, as you stated, well education.

Case in point, ex-girlfriend, now a PhD and microbiologist for a different state's health department, used to go on these cleansing diets all the time. I never understood how someone so educated in the ways of biology and health could buy into this hype and expect any real results. I think she's since grown out of this behavior, but it was scary to see the hold the need to feel good and "clean" has on some people, especially younger women already at odds with their bodies and the social perception of what is desirable.

Nick, Beacon, NY
November 6, 2012 8:54am

One doesn't have to buy an expensive regimen to do a cleanse. There are cleanses that only require simply ingredients many people already have in their home. The digestive system does get "clogged" up with junk, especially in those who don't eat properly and lack proper elimination. I have not done a cleanse for many years; however, I remember the effects of it when I did it, and they were beneficial. I did lose weight and felt better than I had in years. I always say "Don't knock it til you've tried it." I swear by Dr. Mercola and to a certain extent by Dr. Oz as well. Dr. Weil is also well respected in the holistic health community. of course, there is always the mind-body connection. I think doing good things for your body makes you feel good mentally, which in turn makes you feel good pysically.

Karolyn, Ruby, SC
November 6, 2012 9:03am

As always, thank you, Mr. Dunning.

Government Goodies, Secret Government Lab
November 6, 2012 9:04am

Hmmm no 'It worked for me' anecdotes yet?

Sure I've known people who 'cleanse' themselves and believe does them good. I knew one that drank water only after it had a crystal in it for a an hour or so, apparently the 'energy' or 'vibration' of some cheap quality gemstone imbues the water with magic powers.

All people need do is eat sensibly and choose healthier lifestyle choices. I know woo woos who believe in cleansing and the full encyclopaedia of woo woo, that keep telling me about evil big pharma, the healthcare conspiracy, how our foods are all poisoned with or that microwaves or chem-trails are controlling our minds and how important it is to cleanse all these toxins, while smoking 40 a day and necking crates of lager...

I do wonder if woo woo adherents have a mental illness, and if so, the people who take advantage of them should be imprisoned for taking advantage of the vulnerable.

I still remember naturopath Hulda Clark who claimed that illness all brought about by parasites. She even had her own techniques and machines to eradicate said illnesses. She even said that cancer was caused by these parasites, then she died of cancer.

Woo woo is dangerous.

Eriq, somewhere on Earth
November 6, 2012 9:13am

Well, I just finished a 6 day cleansing diet and I can tell you it is not AT ALL expensive. Now, if some dummies buy some cleansing juices, that's their problem. The title of the article should be :
Cleansing Juices: Why or Why Not?

Beside this, I invite you to read some articles about Russian research on the effects of diets on the efficiency of medicines in heavy pathology. You may revise your judgement on the usefulness of diets.

On my first, small diet, I do not feel any of the ill effects you described. But I still need some time to see if any will ever happen. Now, everybody is free to do what it wants, and I am happy to have tested it on my own…

Alain, Paris, France
November 6, 2012 9:16am

Fasting is a key element of just about all spiritual exercises -- from the rituals of Siberian shamans to Benedictine monks to American Indian manhood ceremonies. Apparently going without food for a while makes people feel "purer" somehow.

Mystery cults also emphasize secret knowledge which initiates possess but those outside the cult don't. The parallel with the disdain for "corporate medicine" or the "toxins" of everyday life are obvious.

Apparently humans are wired for cult behavior. Considering some of the things people can get up to under the influence of a charismatic leader, drinking overpriced sugar water for a few days seems positively benign.

Cambias, Massachusetts
November 6, 2012 9:31am

Now that the cleansing woo (garbage) has totally been debunked, I'm going to do my own cleanse with fast food, cigarettes, as much beer as my fat belly can hold and my prozac. I can't stand those healthy idiots, with perfect hair, perfect abs, all the energy one could wish for... I'm at peace reading my Skeptoid and watching Oprah. God (also woo) be with you Mr. Dunning. PS: I'm also voting for you daily!
Proud to be American! Er, Skeptic

Mark M., Texas
November 6, 2012 9:51am

This is a shockingly uneducated opinion about fasting and cleansing coming from someone who claims to be helping people expel myths! Wouldn't be surprised if Merck is paying you.

Allibabba, Ohio
November 6, 2012 9:53am

So Karolyn and Alain: there was more to this article than pointing out the unnecessary expense of the juices. The point is the pointlessness of fasting altogether.
Karolyn, mentioning that you lost weight makes it appear that you didn't read where Brian pointed out exactly what kind of weight is lost in fasting. The "clogging" of the intestines that you allude to is "cleansed" by eating "fiber", not by starvation. Finally, if the only benefit that can be attributed to cleansing is that it makes you feel better then your time would be better spent finding something without deleterious effects that can do so.
Alain, trying a "small diet" on a small sample, i.e. yourself, yields virtually nothing scientifically speaking because there's not enough information to draw larger conclusions. Saying that Brian, or anyone, should "read some articles about Russian research on the effects of diets" would be more useful if you pointed out which ones since you seem to think they might revise his judgement.

Bruce, Aurora, CO
November 6, 2012 9:59am

I can remember detoxing in my youth! The toxin was quite specific, and the regime consisted of drinking LOTS of water and staying in a very quiet place, away from loudly stamping cats and the like. Happy days.
I think you're a bit harsh on the (completely cost-free) option of fasting, though. Brief (24-48) regular fasts or near fasts work quite well for weight loss or maintenance for a lot of people (myself included), and given how we evolved without supermarkets and fridges, it seems likely we can cope with or even thrive on the odd very lean day. No special drinks required, though. Just a well-stocked vegetable rack. Takes less thought and vigilance than all-day-every-day dieting, which gets a bit grim after a while.

Candida, UK
November 6, 2012 10:17am

Bruce, nicely said.

All they have is a subjective observation, some kind of placebo effect, most times if someone does something that they believe will make them feel good, then it shouldn't be a surprise if it does make them feel good!!

I know a crazy Yoga practitioner and she spends a fortune going to retreats where she eats nothing but porridge all week and isn't allowed to talk. She always comes back full of energy she says, except that she spends the weekend getting 'realigned' with the material world, ready for normal life on Monday. I call it her recovery from a week of abuse.

I know Muslims that get very week with the hours of fasting during Ramadan and try to have as much time off work as possible.

Of course lack of food is going to do stuff. Years ago, for one reason or another, I went about 48 hours without food and the only thing I had in that time was a bottle of water. I felt crap, week as kitten and my mood was awful. Towards the end of this 'fast' I had a cup of tea and it felt like the best sensation in the world.

I'm pretty sure after a fast anyone would feel better when they returned to their normal routine...

Eriq, somewhere on Earth
November 6, 2012 10:29am

Remember your body cleanses itself when you go to the loo, also sweating and crying all cleanses different part of your body.

Just eat and drink what you normally do, get exercise if you eat too much sugar. your body will detox itself because its awesome like that.

Ed, Exeter
November 6, 2012 10:34am

I spent most of the last two years alternating doing juice fasts and a ridiculous diet where I used homeopathic herb drops in conjunction with a 500 calorie a day diet (the HCG diet) to lose weight for my wedding. What happened? I lost weight. I lost a lot of weight. I also passed out while driving, totaled my car, and had to change my wedding date while I healed up from the consequences of that. I learned my lesson about woo especially since the person who told me about the diet and the juice fasts told me I'd just done it wrong and if I'd done it right I wouldn't have passed out. I understand that people want to feel powerful and that they feel powerful when they take their health in hand, but this just isn't the way to do it. I'm losing weight now the right way with diet and exercise, and I don't do the juice fasts or the weird diets anymore. Oddly enough I feel better now with a 1500 calorie a day diet and moderate exercise than I ever did after a juice fast.

Carrie, Old Orchard Beach, ME
November 6, 2012 10:41am

Hey, Mark M. - I think you may need to get some strawmen cleansed!

Cory Albrecht (@Bytor), Kitchener, ON
November 6, 2012 10:43am

It's great to see you tackle this topic, Brian. I've watched many friends throw away money on this nonsense while jeapordizing their health in the process, and it always bothers me.

As a biology major, one thing tickled my ears, though. Our cells are ALWAYS fueled by glycolysis. As you know, it means roughly "the splitting of glucose". It's a crucial metabolic pathway in the cellular respiration process and we're always doing it, whether that glucose came from an apple or stored up glyogen in the liver.

But that is a small point whch doesn't change the premises of ths Skeptoid, Nice work!

William Radik, Portland, OR
November 6, 2012 11:04am

Bruce/Eriq,
Save your snarky, smug, and ignorant comments. This article is as misleading as that which it criticizes. Real science strongly supports fasting for several health benefits (longevity, lower rates of disease).
See http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/1/7.full, and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=RHEB-1, and going back even further http://jn.nutrition.org/content/31/3/363.full.pdf or are we to believe that the NIH and other scientific journals are 'woo.'
It's been known for a long time that fasting can be essentially healthy and is likely a significant part of human evolution (If you believe in such things) such as its ability to induce neural autophagy [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20534972]. I suppose the induction of autophagy can make fasting be considered a 'cleanse' in and of itself without exotic juices.
Correction, the more fat mass a person has the less muscle mass is lost during a fast (ie being 25% fat consumes mostly fat instead of muscle, versus being <10%).
Brian, according to WebMD "The average American is 23 [overweight]...[equating] "normal" with average, it's not much of a stretch to say it's normal to be fat." If you consider the Standard American Diet to be "A regular healthy diet for the average person" as mentioned several times your are probably making several false assumptions.
I realize you need money to run the site, please consider listing science journals, not opinion sites and articles as references:(

jorge, Raleigh
November 6, 2012 11:32am

Unless you've been poisoned, there's no need to "detox."

And that's what Brian is talking about the "detox" fad.

Fasting may have other benefits/uses, but it has nothing to do with mythical detoxification.

Jeff Wagg, Chicago, Illinois
November 6, 2012 2:05pm

I think you chose the wrong word in point 5 when you said "glycolysis" is the breakdown of fat. You probably meant to say Lipolysis, leading to Gluconeogenesis. Glycolysis is the breakdown of glucose to make energy.

John R. Ellis, Texas
November 6, 2012 2:48pm

Jeff,
There were 7 points listed, not just #2, Detox. I previously pointed out fasting initiates autophagy (uniquely so in the brain) which rids the body a of unhealthy cells. This article may correctly infomercial-bash ineffective products, but it does a disservice in not revealing the whole truth in "the truth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth" fashion. Anyone who reads this is lead to believe that not eating like an average american at every opportunity has no benefits and is healthy.
Historically humans fast for extended periods of time through famine or lack of availability of certain/any foods in winter. The body evolved systems to deal with this and not exercising the other side of this built-in homeostasis equation might be the reason for many diseases. Fasting is a way of activating the bodies cleansing systems (see earlier references) and may be the only way of activating certain ones.

William R,
Without clarification on you glycolysis statement I'm going to disagree. Tickle your ear with this: the body can switch to ketosis for metabolism and the heart is 25% more efficient in that state. The brain can run 90% off keytones. Additionally, glucose can be obtained from glycerol, the molecule that ties a triglyceride together, which is released during fat metabolism.
Since references in the skeptiod aren't necessarily scientific studies this should do:(http://www.controlcarb.com/ccn-Articles-Understanding%20Ketones.htm)

jorge, Raleigh
November 6, 2012 3:10pm

Hi jorge,

You are right, the effect of fasting on worms, flies and mice are described, but the data on primates (humans included) are very contradicting.
I recently heard a scientific talk about fasting in chemotherapy (published in: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22984531). The effects they claim are quite interesting and may be used to improve chemotherapy.

But, and that's a big BUT, all the fasting was applied very specifically and short term under professional supervision. So this allows no general conclusion about fasting in everyday life.

So like with all treatments, be careful. Nothing with effect has no side effect.

Paul, Germany
November 6, 2012 3:20pm

I really enjoyed reading this. Our culture is so entrenched in quick fixes for all things involving our health. Cleansing diets are no exception to the rule. When are folks going to realize that all the "claims" identified above can be achieved by eating healthy, whole foods?

The irony is that processed and sugary foods/beverages are the very culprits of symptoms like weight gain and lack of energy. So why not eat less of these instead of depriving our body of much-needed nutrients for a contained period of time?

Melinda Hinson Neely, Boise ID
November 6, 2012 3:55pm

That 60 billion dollar figure sounds a little extreme. I checked the cited article. I believe they were referring to the entire diet industry being 60 billion, not the juice cleanses, though the wording was ambiguous

TheGentlemanPhysicist, Canada
November 6, 2012 4:04pm

A few years ago. I got chest pains, thought the worst and rushed to the doc who found I had gallstones.
When I mentioned this at work, nearly everyone had a "cure"! The main suggestion was a "liver cleanse" using a horrible concoction of cod liver oil and grape juice - I shudder when I remember taking it. And I had to do this over a couple of days.
Funny how our minds forget bad events but the main memory I have of that "cleanse" was lots of vomiting and collecting "stones" from my poo.
Anyway, I went in for another xray and guess what? the stones were still there! I related the story of my "cleanse" to the nurse and she fell off her chair laughing and saying that everyone did the same thing.
Since the removal of my gallstones, I think they were caused in the first place by me going on an Atkins Diet for several months about a year before they appeared. Hahaha - all self inflicted.

Sue Tamani, Australia
November 6, 2012 5:10pm

@ jorge,

I am neither a nematode nor a rat, so I can't see the relevance of two of your links. The other links to an article that states that the benefit of fasting was inconsistent, with suggestions that sex may play a part in the alleged, inconsistent benefit.

So, your point is?

Western medicine and other advances have led to longer lifespans, we live almost double that we would even a few centuries or so ago, and we do know that many health problems today present themselves at periods that in older generations would be considered old age.

True, there seems to be problems associated with diet but mostly from quality food being easily provided to society. We no longer have to walk ten miles for water, dig for root vegetables and chase antelope, most folks drive everywhere now, I don't. I do more than my fair share of walking, keep active and eat what I like and at 53 I have had no health issues other than occasional colds and a hernia years ago, and that from being stupid. Sure maybe I am lucky, that's what all the health failures keep telling me.

Anyone who thinks a few days 'cleansing' their body can compensate or reverse the effects of sloth, over-eating, smoking, drinking, recreational drugs and all the other social temptations is fooling themselves.

These days folks even have the dietary information on the food, so I see no excuse for overeating or a poor diet.

For opportunistic unscrupulous pedlars of woo, cleansing is just another money making enterprise.

Eriq, somewhere on Earth
November 7, 2012 8:00am

I agree with some of what is being said but not all. First of all it depends on how you define toxins. Food additives and preservatives have been linked to many diseases as well as weight retention. Fructose is a particularly destructive ingredient.
http://guide2diets.com/say-no-to-fructose So a sensible "detox" would simply be to avoid packaged foods either for a time or permanently. I do agree that giving yourself an enema constantly is not a good solution.

Arthur, new paltz ny
November 7, 2012 9:55am

Arthur

Fructose is not some scary chemical found only in Packaged Products

Fructose is Fruit Sugar, plenty of that in fruit juice.

Why does that article not tell you to avoid Fruits and Vegetables?

Chad H, Here, there, Everyhwer
November 7, 2012 2:37pm

Jorge,

You're hand-waving. And you didn't address any point I made, so I'm going to take your disagreement with a big grain of salt. I'm also not going to tickle my ears but thank you for your kind offer. I see you throwing around language with the trappings of science but without the substance.

Fasting and carbs can indeed initiate ketosis, which is a dangerous state to be in, despite some quacks saying otherwise. It also makes you smell like nail-polish remover, which is really desirable and attractive, I'm sure.

Will Radik, Portland, OR
November 7, 2012 10:09pm

Sue Tamani my story is the opposite. I had chest pains from gallstones which were confirmed by Ultra sound. I did a flush and my Gall stone related symptoms all but disappeared. I did a second flush a couple of months later and followed up with an ultrasound to show most of the stones had vanished.

Sometimes more than one flush is needed. The Gall stone flush diet was actually recommended to me by an MD.

The process and mechanics behind the flush are very sound. Consuming apple juice which contains malic acid softens the stones. The epsom salt solution contains magnesium which relaxes the Gall Bladder muscle walls. The Olive Oil forces the Gall Bladder to contract and thus expel its contents.

This flushing process cleverly uses our natural Gall Bladder function to our favour, as typically Gall Bladder attacks occur when we eat fatty food and the Gall Bladder contracts and releases hard stones into our bile duct.

Darren, Canada
November 7, 2012 11:11pm

One of my uncles chain smoked and drank a bottle of whiskey a day and never excersised. He died of a heart attack at age 57. His brother who did not smoke or drink and went to gym played golf-died at the ripe old age of 50 of a heart attack-go figure!!!

Joe, Dban
November 8, 2012 12:43am

Joe, the common factor is they...are related to you. Man you are jinxed!

As to Brian"s obviously cynical skeptoid; you arent supposed to ingest these products. They are topical. Hasn't anyone read the pack. Its acucleanser!

Since 2006, you can call anything acu something and it works just as good as acupuncture or acucebo.

One of the cleansing products here is just fine river sand in a capsule. I said "big whoop" when I read it out to the pharmacist. I silently corrected myself as my then 14 year old daughter chided me on my faux pas.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
November 8, 2012 4:31am

Sorry some corrections.

Brian: glycolysis is the act of breaking down individual molecules of glucose, not fat. Lypolysis is the biochemical process of breaking down triacylglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol backbones. The breaking down of fats is what actually creates the ketone bodies that make urine have a wonderful bouquet and provide the majority of metabolic energy for an individual partaking in a "fast". So regarding Will's statement from above, carbohydrate intake will actually reduce the numbers of ketone bodies in a system, not create them.

Bob Gaultney, Grand Forks, ND
November 8, 2012 9:08am

Up there where I said carbs, I meant to say low carb diets. Ewps!

Will Radik, Portland, Oregon
November 8, 2012 2:59pm

>>>Generally, dietitians practice science based medicine, and nutritionists are usually part of the alternative medicine community.

Brian, this is where I take issue with you.

Dietitians do not practice medicine. They are not MDs. They have the equivalent of a BS or MS.

They say they follow guidelines based on science, but they do not. The fundamental basis of their guidelines (that carbs should account for more than 50% of calories in the diet and that fat, including saturated fat, should be limited) are not based on science and are infact directly contradicted by the best science available.

ES

ES, Montrose, CA
November 8, 2012 8:20pm

What is going on ??? I love Skeptoid, but one of my favourite things is reading all the psuedo science whack jobs trying to convince the critical thinkers that "woo" is real answer. They seem to be getting scarcer and scarcer (frowny face)

Mik, Pearth West Oz
November 9, 2012 4:36am

Mik, they are amusing aren't they? Funny thing is, you can present all the evidence in the world and they will stick with their 'It works for me anecdotes" and they are the ones claiming sceptics are closed minded!!!

Woo is as much a cult or belief as any religion, not really worth too much time explaining stuff to individuals but a general critique may get one of them to actually think for themselves. I used to be a little woo but then started to use my brain, which seems to be dormant in most woo, certainly the cognitive and intellectual functioning of it,

As I have said somewhere above, it is quite amusing and sad that people think that a few days of 'cleansing' can neutralize months, years or a lifetime of hedonism.

We still have 'caveman' bodies, I would guess, yet as much as the food woo go on about eating like a caveman, none seem to advocate the rest of the caveman's lifestyle, constant foraging, walking, running, avoiding predation and lack of medicine.

Fact is, cavemen did not live lives as long as we do, the whole ill-health in middle-age thing could just be because we are living longer than nature intended., as much as anything else.

I would rather be living to a potential 80 plus years in western society, with the possibility of dietary or lifestyle illness, than to be living to, say 30 to 35, as a hard life living a full caveman existence.

Eriq, somewhere on Earth
November 9, 2012 6:57am

>>You can present all the evidence in the world and they will stick with their 'It works for me anecdotes" and they are the ones claiming sceptics are closed minded!!!

On the issues of Fat/Carbs/diet and ketosis, you have that flat backwards. The evidence (literally all the evidence in the world) supports the LCHF model. Not the balanced diet.

>>>...none seem to advocate the rest of the caveman's lifestyle, constant foraging, walking, running, avoiding predation and lack of medicine.

Right. No one advocates that, which makes your next argument a straw man.

>>>Fact is, cavemen did not live lives as long as we do, the whole ill-health in middle-age thing could just be because we are living longer than nature intended., as much as anything else.

Right, we've done a great job on combating infectious disease and improving infant mortality and made numerous other advances. (Those two are the biggest in terms of life span.)

We haven't made the same advances in all areas, and diet and nutrition is one area where modern medicine has failed.

>>>I would rather be living to a potential 80 plus years in western society, with the possibility of dietary or lifestyle illness, than to be living to, say 30 to 35, as a hard life living a full caveman existence.

And that is a false dichotomy. Those are not the choices. Adopt a LCHF diet (with similar macro-nutrient proportions as the caveman's diet) and you still enjoy the benefits of modern medicine.

ES

ES, LA, CA
November 9, 2012 9:56am

Will Radik,
Actually, I think I did directly address the only point you made which was that our cells are always fueled by glycolysis. Can't speak much of your friends money wasting :/ The article I linked to was very specific in saying that heart and brain cells run very efficiently on fat (ketosis).
It is also a false conception that ketosis is 'dangerous.' It is very much a normal part of human metabolism, as a matter of fact I'm willing to be you probably wake up in ketosis every morning, and unless you have breakfast immediately upon waking you continue to be in ketosis. The condition which has led to the misconception on ketosis is ketoacidosis, which is primarily associated with diabetics and can be life threatening (just like a diabetic not getting their insulin in time), look it up. I had the same misconception for years as well.
As for the nail polish remover scent, that would be the result of acetone which is a product of fat metabolism (remember, ammonia is excreted in urine). This also only happens when you body overproduces ketones (faster than you can burn them up). One way of detecting ketones is in the urine using ketone strips, although this only detects excess ketones. If you are burning them at the rate that you liver produces them, then you will be in ketosis but not have a detectable excess level. You'd have to be well in excess production to smell the acetone in your breath.

-Jorge

jorge, Raleigh
November 9, 2012 9:28pm

Brian, I think this is your single best skeptoid podcast. Very well researched and presented. I know many people taken in by this nonsense, but unfortunately, they are almost never willing to listen to rational reasoning. Even when they fail, they just blame on something else.

Mark, Huntsville
November 10, 2012 8:16am

Paul,
I've heard similar on easing chemo side effects.

Eriq,
My point is research suggesting fasting has benefits. I'm not a human study curator, if you have a problem with animal studies you're throwing out alot of how science is practiced, but if you wish a good resource is: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/health-benefits-of-intermittent-fasting/#axzz2BnOEwJhc [Coincidentally, Mark is one that advocates the caveman lifestyle. Not so much in the manual labor, but short bouts of intense work outs with heavy lifting followed by plenty of R&R and 'play' (sport done for fun rather than obligation to exercise).]
ES covered other points fairly well, and to add to the longevity discussion.. http://condensedscience.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/life-expectancy-in-hunter-gatherers-and-other-groups/
Diseases ARE on the rise and hitting people younger (look up type 2 diabetes rates in children).

>>quite amusing... few days of 'cleansing' can neutralize months, years or a lifetime of hedonism.
I am not advocating any quick-fix concoctions. "Western medicine" does advocate quick fixes, aka Drugs, and certainly does pseudoscience to convince the FDA to let them sell products. I'm just as skeptical of wonder drugs and their side effects.
Kudos on your health, and remember 'science' once told us margarine and trans fats were healthy substitute for butter/saturated fats. If you haven't seen the memo, that has proved an abismal failure.

Jorge

jorge, Raleigh
November 10, 2012 4:30pm

A recent bbc documentary "Horizons-Eat, fast and live longer" appears to show several scientific studies that suggest potential benefits to short periods of fasting. There's clearly more research required but it seems far from the open and shut case you've presented here.

The program is presented by Michael J. Mosley who was named Medical Journalist of the Year in 1995 by the British Medical Association.

As well as looking at evidence from various studies, Michael tries fasting for himself and has various health indicators such as cholesterol and IGF-1 positively improve when measured before and after the experiment.

I really recommend watching this documentary, it makes for very thought provoking viewing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pD3ug4EaKb0

S Reyner, Birmingham, uk
November 11, 2012 9:38am

"With boutique cleanses alone being a $60 billion industry"

As TheGentlemanPhysicist suspected, the $60bil figure is for the whole diet industry. This article makes it clearer:

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/5/prweb8393658.htm

I'm not sure if "cleanse diets" are considered part of the "meal replacement" segment (<$3bil), or if they're even considered part of the "diet industry" at all, but they're likely a very small slice of the $60bil if anything.

Brett, Vancouver
November 14, 2012 12:18pm

Remember that science and medicine change with new evidence while woo never admits new data

WMccreery, Yucaipa CA
November 14, 2012 7:44pm

woo never admits to data..normally it quotes introduction to journal literature.

Mud (Dr Syd), sin seetee, Oz
November 15, 2012 5:04am

Many cultures with ancient roots have cleansing as annual routine. But you do not need anything except water to do it or nothing at all. Juices are not used, because if you eat or drink anything - it is just a starvation. Also official medicine used to use cleansing. People does not like classic cleansing so others invent how to make it easier.

Alex, Earth/Solar
November 19, 2012 10:05am

"In medical terms it's called, pee and poop." Brian, c'mon...

Chris, Ft. Worth, TX
November 20, 2012 2:15pm

Have to disagree with you on this one.If you want real proof fasting does work read Rational Fasting by professor Arnold Ehret.

The man was once very ill and tried every known treatment available. He cured himself by fasting and became so vibrantly healthy he was able to go on hundred mile walks without eating or even sleeping bursting with energy. Even he was puzzled from where the energy came from. I've fasted once and believe me the benefits are astonishing. The only way to know for sure is to try it and see for yourself. The first few days are hard but then your appetite completely disappears for a few weeks. That's when you know it's time so start eating again.

msteel, clearwater fl
November 23, 2012 4:55am

I also have to disagree with you on this one. I was personally diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and was physically debilitated for 6 months. I saw over 12 health professionals who tried to help, but no relief came. The final straw was when one dr prescribed a cancer drug to help...having a medical background I knew how dangerous they were.

I took the drugs home, and flushed them down the toilet. This in no way would cure me so after months of research I dedicated my life to a cure....I fasted, cleansed, and changed my diet. And very slowly, I got better...and three years later I was essentially cured. No drug in Western medicine "cures" arthritis..however, fasting and cleansing can.

R, Denver
November 23, 2012 8:04pm

To R, Denver:

Just found it interesting that you attribute the curing of your arthritis to the fasting and cleansing and not to the change in your diet...

Jeff, Utah
November 25, 2012 3:02pm

Brian: You said a safe and healthy way to lose weight is to exercise and reduce your diet to your basal metabolic rate or below it. I believe that's not safe or healthy. Your BMR is the calorie intake your body needs to survive if you're lying around doing nothing. That calorie intake won't be enough to sustain you, especially if you're also exercising regularly and burning calories. Eating at that level is starving yourself. The safer and healthier option is to calculate your maintenance calories -- what your body needs to maintain its current weight, neither gaining nor losing -- and cut about 500 calories per day from that figure, which comes out to about 1 pound of weight loss per week...provided that daily calorie figure doesn't dip below your BMR.

Dan, Massachusetts
November 25, 2012 9:02pm

R, Denver:

You've related a purely anecdotal account - the least reliable of evidence grossly contaminated by confirmation bias.

Gunnar, USA
December 4, 2012 4:19pm

I think your article is largely your opinion and biased. It is not based on referenced scientific or medical journals. I occasionally fast for 1-3 days, eliminating food and alcohol, just consuming water, clear juice and clear soup. (no expensive products) The results seem to be that I am rejuvenated and feel positively better than before fasting.

Doug, Vancouver, BC
December 7, 2012 9:48am

I think it is quite obvious to the intelligent person that your conclusion is correct. I have had a couple of cruises recently that had nutrition experts on board giving lectures, complete with titles of doctor and even white coats to keep up the scam. It is a bit like religion though. How do I sit through their bullshit without making a comment? I don't, I walk off to the bar and leave the old ladies to give him their money.

simon bromiley, vic australia
December 9, 2012 4:21am

The article is fine but you should have titled it more accurately - you are only testing the modern-day cleansing industry and it's claims.

There is a long history from all cultures of fasting or cleansing to cure just about anything. I don't believe there is any truth in 99% of these.

But I am quite sure in the millions of anecdotal successes that are entirely bunk, we will find one or two that are actually real.

Or maybe more than one or two.

So a little historical perspective should have been looked at, or you could have used a more accurate title.

Neil, Sydney Australia
December 20, 2012 2:14pm

Alot of the "Proof" in this anecdotal evidence can be attributed to other factors.

Changing your diet to better food can include nutrients to improve joint and bone health, likely explaining the disappearance of arthritis pain.

Alcohol is categorized as a depressant and poisons every biological system in your body. Removing the toxins of alcohol from your body will make you seem to have more energy and drive (particularly by avoiding hangovers)

100 mile walks sounds quite unlikely. To accomplish that in a day one would have to average a 4.2 mph pace for the entire day. If you factor 8 hours of sleep (being incredibly likely) he'd have to be averaging 6.25 mph. Comparitivly, the original world record for a marathon (just over 26 miles, a quarter of this supposed "walk") is just above 6.5 mph.

There is simply no way that you can "walk" that much distance, expelling that much energy and calories, without caloric intake as well.

Ford, Conor, Poway California
January 7, 2013 2:00pm

There's a wide variety of cleansing regimes being pushed. One a friend of mine is going for is a so-called liver cleansing, which requires no particularly exotic buys (the suggested kidney parasite cleanse does, but the sites do allow that it's only a recommendation, and not a requirement). The one in mind involves mostly olive oil and epsom salts, and suggests you examine your stool for small green "gallstones" that have been flushed from your liver and gall bladder - these would be gallstones that have not had a chance to calcify yet. You're supposed to expect to find something like 5000 of these "stones" over the next couple of days. I was impressed with one version of the site suggesting this regime, as it admitted that a dose of epsom salts as large as suggested could be dangerous for some people, and recommended checking with your doctor.

Tara Li, DeRidder, LA
February 4, 2013 10:24pm

Fast is effective when used in balanced manner. I know a lot of people using it in proper manner and getting benefits in good health, weight control and charm.
How it works in simple, don't it regular food ( carbs/fat) instead try to skip a meal or eat only fruits/vegetables. Do not eat carbs/fatty stuff. This will let digestive system rest and body to consume the stored one which is just not used.

Pravin, Pune,India
February 19, 2013 12:58am

@Doug, Vancouver, BC
I agree that there is scientific evidence supporting the benefits of fasting, but you are putting words in Dunning's mouth. Point out to me in the episode where Dunning said that there are no benefits of fasting. The benefits of fasting for which there is scientific evidence (lower risk of cardiovascular disease, for example) are not the same as the benefits claimed by the cleansing diets ("detoxifying," increased energy, increased brain function, etc.). Dunning's focus was exposing the scam of expensive cleansing products and the benefits of fasting were beyond the scope of this episode. Moderate fasting might be good for you mainly because it reduces your calorie intake, but, as you've already figured out, you don't need to waste money on expensive juices to enjoy the benefits of fasting and good diet.

Kat-chan, Seattle, WA
February 21, 2013 4:55pm

An occasional fast of a short duration - 24 hours or less - does indeed have benefits for the average, healthy person. But I can't even begin to see going for 4-5 days without food and living on fruit juice. While I don't think it would be too dangerous for a healthy person upon infrequent occasions (i.e. one), I can see this doing massive damage to people who are facing all the illnesses that these people claim to fix.

Sam, The Real World
February 25, 2013 12:08pm

This article is so poor, I laughed right through it. You are trying to say that there is some big juice fast industry that is milking the public out of their money. Real juice fasting does not cost much and you don't need to buy "$100" fruit juice. Just juice vegetables, that's it. Celery, Beet, Kale, Broccoli, Carrots, Lemon, etc. If you use sachets with weird stuff in them like sugar (the cause of many health problems), you are making matters worse. The body does have a filtering system, but with all the poisonous foods and chemicals in circulation, it gets overloaded and hence, we have more cancer and other chronic illnesses today than ever before. Thus, your theory goes down the drain. Good luck in your counter conspiracy world.

Wayne Berger, South Africa
April 24, 2013 11:17pm

I think REM had a song far more relevant to Brians article...10 years before Brian posted..

Thanx Wayne...

Mud, sin city
May 9, 2013 7:56am

@Wayne

What evidence is there to support the statement "more cancer and chronic illnesses today than ever before"?

Government Goodies, Secret Government Lab
May 9, 2013 9:09am

Cancer certainly is more prevalent today than before; this is simply because most cancers take decades to develop, and people in the western world live far longer than ever before - thanks to developments in public hygiene and orthodox medicine. Fad diets that rely on heavily promoted and expensive 'wonder products' are always - but always - scams of some kind. Avoid foods and drinks with large amounts of added sugars and fats, take a bit of exercise, and ignore all absurd 'miracle cures' - that's a recipe for a healthy regimen.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
May 31, 2013 5:15am

Guys, the superfood issue keeps raising its ugly head in these comments section.

Some foods and juices are just a wonderful treat from time to time. The fact that some folk worship their time with something a little more expensive shows some taste "eclecticism".

Justifying that your treat will save you from a dread disease, immunise you from cancers general and possibly make you more charming to the preferred sexual partner only exemplifies that anyone will justify anything.

Hypochondria is a bit like that.

Its a great party starter to criticise product labelling and inherent parent woo (my term, use at will).

we are lucky to live to the odd seventy-eighty our generation and hopefully 90-100 for our kids.

Enjoy your treats wisely. No, your ultra dark, fair trade organic chocolate bar with extra crispy blattodea flecks will not prevent you from getting cancer.

Come to think of it, who would dare tell someone with a life threatening disease to just eat their favorite woo food to a cure?!

Only a munchausens specialist.

Moral Dolphin Back in Mud Suit, Greenacres by the sea Oz
June 4, 2013 11:13pm

Man I'm not going to fast anymore because of this article . I had done a few 24 hour fasts, and always felt pretty good during the fast really. I heard it was good to come out of the fast on some vegetable juice but I sometimes just went for a normal meal. During the fast I felt like my brain totally sped up and felt an increase in clarity neither of which felt like placebo. But some of my later ones I would do stupid stuff like go play basketball. One day I worked out in a gym and played basketball, then the next day I was out smoking a cigarette on the porch and I felt woozy, so I went inside and immediately fainted. I fell backwards and the back of my noggin bounced off the floor. Then for like a half hour I had cold sweats and my friend said my face was pale. Yeah I'm just going to stick to a normal diet from now on. I'm all about the pimp tight salads tho. I make mean salads YUH!

Sam Waters, In the mouth of Madness
October 4, 2013 11:33pm

People in the western world do not live far longer than ever before.

The increase in life expectancy has been that from birth, and it has increased because of reduced infant and child mortality.

An adult's life expectancy has not changed significantly in a long time (centuries?, millenia?); I think there has been a slight increase in the last few years.

Chris, Toronto
October 12, 2013 12:50pm

Li Ching-Yuen was a Chinese herbalist that supposedly lived to be over 256 years old. He worked as a herbalist, selling lingzhi, goji berry and wild ginseng...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Ching-Yuen

Mike Di Vito, New York
October 12, 2013 1:50pm

I couldn't laugh through this article because Dunning clearly knows nothing about what he is writing...........sad, very sad. I recommend he watch "Fat, sick and nearly dead".

Jackie, Canada
December 17, 2013 6:44pm

Chris in Toronto -

You're precisely wrong. Nearly all of the increase in life expectancy in the late 20th and early 21st century has been due to a decline in late-life mortality.

http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/life-expectancy-around-the-world-has-increased-19786

Paul M.A., Humboldt, CA
January 20, 2014 10:23pm

This article is pure FUD, but so is the "cleanse" industry. There are real benefits to a proper cleanse that includes fasting. Fasting is not about reducing calorie intake, it's about letting your body AND mind rest from *everything*.

I wonder if this is how valuable ancient knowledge gets "lost".

Ivan V., PDC, Mexico
January 27, 2014 12:44pm

Yes Ivan, skepticism is exactly how "valuable" ancient "knowledge" gets lost.

Andy, Melbourne
June 10, 2014 1:06pm

Yeah, you immediately lost all credibility when you referred to feces and urine as "pee and poop".

~~~, Your mom's chest hair
July 29, 2014 4:08pm

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