Trying to Avoid the Term “Toxin”

In recent years, the word “toxin” seems to have become a very handy buzzword for companies selling natural products and remedies. Their wares or techniques are guaranteed to “flush toxins out of the body” or even prevent such “toxins” from entering it in the first place. There are entire Facebook pages and groups dedicated to “detoxes” and “cleanses” and the methods by which they can be accomplished, with everything ranging from drinking nothing but lemon water with a pinch of cayenne pepper for a week, to eating activated charcoal once a month. But what is the real truth about “toxins” and their presence (or absence) in the body, and do you really need to be that concerned with “flushing them out”? More importantly for the content of this post, can massage actually eliminate so-called toxins from your body?

When I first started training in massage therapy, the word “toxin” was used as a part of the industry lingo to help describe one of the many benefits that massage provided. Namely, that a massage could help muscles release toxins and then help your body flush them out once they were released. As an eager young massage student, I started using the term without really considering how people might perceive it. I would wrap up my sessions with a big glass of cold water or a cup of healthy tea for my clients and admonish them to drink lots of water that day and the day after to keep their body hydrated so that it could flush out the “toxins” that had been released during the massage.

In talking with a few people who were confused and concerned enough to question me about the term, however, I began to remember that not everyone perceives or defines it in the same way. Even I, using the word as I did, really didn’t think of the “toxins” that the body was releasing as actual toxins, even though that was what I was calling them. I became aware that using my words in a careless manner could actually cause significant harm, both to the perception of massage as a profession as well as to the people who were overly concerned about the presence of “toxins” in their otherwise healthy bodies. For one thing, if people who are already skeptical of massage as being nothing more than “woo woo fluff” hear that their bodies are full of “toxins” that massage can help remove, they are probably likely to turn away from using it. Such is the case with many Western medicine professionals who have heard the outlandish claims made by some who make themselves out to be part of the alternative medicine and wellness community. Besides these considerations, I realized that I did not want to be telling my clients that their usually healthy bodies were producing or storing up “toxins” when that was not actually the case.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly things out there which are genuine toxins and which can kill a person even in very small doses. Merriam-Webster defines a toxin as “a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.” So such things as the botulinum toxin produced by the bacterium of the same name and one of the lead causes of spoiled food/food poisoning is obviously a toxin. (Incidentally, if you ever wondered where the term “Botox” came from, now you know. It’s a combination of “botulinum” and “toxin,” as that is the substance used for Botox injections to paralyze the facial muscles.) Or, the toxins produced by the nightshade or foxglove plants, which can cause death if ingested in sufficient amounts. These things are obviously toxic. However, when most people nowadays speak of “toxins,” they are using it as a term to refer to the small amount of potentially harmful material that may enter your body on a regular basis, whether from the exhaust fumes you breathe as a part of your daily commute, or from the chlorine in the tap water you drink. These are not truly “toxins” according to the definition, but many people don’t draw that distinction, instead using the term without thought for its proper usage.

Now, the real question is, can massage, or most other natural remedies, really help draw or flush out the minor amount of perceived “toxins” in someone’s system? I believe there are some remedies that actually can, such as acupuncture (and I have a story to support that belief, if anyone wishes to inquire about it), but for the most part, your body actually does a very good job on its own of eliminating anything that is potentially toxic. Natural remedies like lemon water with cayenne pepper may assist your body in this process, but they are not the substances that are actually cleansing your system. In the same way, most holistic treatments are not actually targeting toxins to remove them from your body. Rather, they are assisting your body to make the built-in process more efficient.

Rather than perpetuate this inaccurate quirk of language, I decided to shift my vocabulary to something more scientifically accurate. Instead of ending my sessions with the term “toxin,” I choose to call the chemicals that I want my clients to get rid of what they actually are:  bodily wastes. The human body produces a sizeable amount of waste products naturally and sometimes, if the body is inefficient, ill, dehydrated, undernourished, or any other of a host of issues, those wastes can get hung up in the tissues rather than being eliminated as they are supposed to be. This is why massage is so beneficial. Not for ridding the body of any seriously harmful toxins, but for helping the body rid itself of its own natural waste products by encouraging better circulation, fuller breathing, and the production of anti-inflammatory hormones. This term, to me, is much more accurate as well as healthfully-minded than the term “toxin.” I am a big fan of calling things what they truly are and spreading knowledge as much as I can, so this is one small way of doing that. I encourage others, especially those in the health and wellness community, to do the same.