Four of the Most Misused Terms in Alternative Medicine

June 23rd 2017

Mike Rothschild

A lot of talk about alternative medicine invovles taking legitimate medical terms and infusing them with dubious new definitions to sell some often sketchy products. The incorrect use of pseudoscientific language lends credibility to concepts that aren't actually accepted by the medical community, turning people away from scientifically proven medical treatment. It also makes its practitioners a lot of money. 

Here are some of the terms that are most commonly used and misused by alternative medicine gurus, natural products websites, dubious doctors, holistic healers, and all those purporting to treat illnesses with things other than science.


Perhaps no word is more misused by the alternative medicine industry than "toxin."

In the scientific sense, a toxin is a poisonous substance that can have either a negative or positive effect on tissue, depending on dosage and chemical makeup. Scorpion venom, snake venom, and Botulinum toxin are all examples of naturally occurring compounds that are extremely poisonous, but also have proven uses in science and medicine.

However, "toxins" in the alternative sense are defined only as bad substances that get into your body and cause a variety of maladies.

The popular site "Mind Body Green" claims that being "surrounded by too many toxins" causes fatigue, weight gain, muscle aches, and constipation. David Wolfe, an alternative medicine guru known for his prolific Facebook memes, lists "signs that you need to flush toxins" as lethargy, skin problems, headaches, and feeling hot. Toxins are also blamed for everything from belly fat to autoimmune diseases.

At no point do these types ever attempt to define the chemical makeup of a toxin, the mechanisms by which they work, or how we can be surrounded by toxins in our air, food and water without being dead. Toxins are simply bad, and you need to get rid of them. Which brings us to...


Alternative medicine retailers sell countless cleanses and detox diets meant to flush you of the toxins that have built up in your body.

Colon cleanse detoxes are among the most popular, but you can do a cleanse for the liver, kidneys, lymph nodes, or anything else. You can go on a cleansing diet, or do a "salt water flush" or a "dual action cleanse" using anything from juices and teas to powders and pills to over the counter laxatives to bentonite clay to coffee enemas. You can get toxins pulled out of your feet, skin, or mouth, and you can sweat them out or freeze them. And you can do it at a clinic, or at home. 

The benefits of cleansing are said to be truly miraculous. The "Global Healing Center" claims cleansing will improve digestion, increase your energy, burn off pounds, promote general health, and above all, purge you of the toxins that can only be removed by cleansing.

What cleansing proponents don't talk anywhere near as much about are the risks of cleansing. The vast majority of cleanses simply speed up and increase waste elimination, which can cause dehydration, cramps, and lightheadedness. And more invasive forms, such as enemas, can have severe complications, including "perforating the bowel, serious infections, electrolyte imbalances, kidney problems and heart failure."

Beyond that, the efficacy of cleansing has never been proven, and many cleanse products are known to be fraudulent. Of course, your body already has an all natural way to cleanse: going to the bathroom. And while detoxing is an actual medical term, it's only done for people with heavy metal poisoning (though detox products are also sold for that) and coming down from a drug addiction. 

Immune system boosting

Given the glut of toxins in our environment, it's only natural that we should want to boost our immune systems in order to stave off disease.

The alternative medicine sphere is filled with immune-boosting foods, supplements, vitamins, and drinks. But do they do anything? And more importantly: do you want them to?

While charging up the immune system to fight illness sounds plausible, science writer Brian Dunning has a better analogy for how it should work: a teeter-totter. "If your immune system is compromised or otherwise weakened, one side of the teeter totter sags, and your body becomes more easily susceptible to infection," Dunning writes. "Conversely, if your immune system is overactive, the other side of the teeter totter sags, and the immune system attacks your own healthy tissues."

The result of an overactive immune system is not health but auto-immune disease. Fortunately, most commonly available immune system boosting products aren't powerful enough to do anything other than deliver an easily excreted megadose of vitamins. 

Generally, experts agree that the best way to keep your immune system running smoothly is to lead a healthy lifestyle, get enough sleep, eat well, and not smoke. 


From a scientific standpoint, energy is defined by as "power derived from the utilization of physical or chemical resources, especially to provide light and heat or to work machines." There are various ways to measure the transfer of energy from one body to another, and it can be consumed as food by living things, liquid fuel by machines, or in nuclear fusion by stars.

However, in alternative medicine, energy is not a measurable unit of work, but an immeasurable field of life force. It goes by a variety of names, including Reiki, therapeutic touch, prana, Qigong, orgone, healing touch, quantum healing and so on. Each one of these is slightly different, but operates on the same principles: that a skilled healer can use their life energy to heal sickness in others, either directly or indirectly.

Unlike many misused medical terms like cleansing and toxins, many of the concept related to energy medicine have been studied in clinical trials. But because "life energy" is impossible to detect, it's difficult to design proper studies that can be double blinded and controlled. As one paper puts it, "testing implausible treatments in clinical trials is wasteful and perhaps even detrimental."

A few studies have shown at least some effect from touch therapy in reducing low-grade pain. This fits with already established research on the power of touch to increase mental and physical health. If some forms of energy healing do work, it's because touch has a powerful effect on human physiology, not because of invisible energy fields and esoteric concepts. 

Knowing that many of the uses of the terms are related to selling fraudulent products or unprovable concepts, it becomes easier to spot them when they're misused, and to appreciate them when they're used correctly.