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Dangerous quackery: why you can’t cure cancer by ‘detoxifying’ the body or balancing pH levels

The internet generally and social media in particular is awash in quack cures for serious diseases. But there is little evidence for curing cancer through either detoxing or changing the pH level of the body, and these false promises seriously misconstrue the science there is.

This article is more than 9 months old

  • Some research has been conducted into the effects of certain plant-based chemicals on carcinogens. But none is so conclusive as to be recommended as having a “detoxifying” effect on cancer cells.

  • Claims both about “detoxing” and raising or lowering the pH level of the body misinterpret fundamental biological processes, including the detoxifying role of many organs in the body and the regulation of the acid-base balance that is crucial for good health. 

  • Experts pooh-poohed claims made by companies touting herbal remedies, with one calling them outright “scams” and “money-making practices”.

A number of posts circulating on social media in South Africa advertise a product that is said to “detoxify” the body and balance its pH levels, ultimately acting as an “anti-cancer” supplement. 

The product is made by a South Africa-based herbal supplement company. It is advertised on various websites, where it claims to treat a range of other diseases and to kill bacteria, fungi and parasites.  

The company says their supplement contains a range of “essential oils … that can assist in fighting cancer” via a process of “detoxify[ing] the body of elements that could be causing cancer” and “balanc[ing] pH levels which is a critical part of fighting cancer”. 

According to another advert for the supplement, this is the only solution to kill cancer, and therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy will not work. An older Facebook post appears to show testimonials from customers who claim the supplement cured their cancer, HIV and other ailments. 

Cancer is responsible for around one in six deaths each year around the world, so the idea of an effective new treatment is enticing. But is there any truth to the claim that you can remove toxins that could be causing cancer and balance the body’s pH to help fight the disease? A reader asked us to look into it.

Claim

You can prevent or cure cancer by “detoxifying” the body of toxins that cause it.

Verdict

Incorrect

The idea that you can remove toxins from the body in order to prevent or cure disease is popular. But the term “toxin” is often used as a catch-all to describe anything unwanted, without a precise definition. 

According to health information library MedlinePlus, toxins are poisonous to humans. They include several substances commonly found in food, water and our environment. But something being toxic often also depends on quantity. As the saying goes, “the dose makes the poison”. 

Your body has a built-in detox system

The human body has many built-in mechanisms to get rid of toxins and waste products. These processes involve organs such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, skin and large intestine. 

The liver is essential for removing toxins. It breaks down these substances, and the byproducts are then excreted into the blood or into bile (a fluid produced by the liver that helps to break down fats). Bile byproducts then go to the intestine and are excreted in the stool. 

The kidneys filter out blood byproducts and remove them, along with excess water, in the form of urine. The skin releases water through sweat, and the lungs remove carbon dioxide waste. 

The organs involved in these processes can be damaged if they are exposed to large amounts of toxins over a long period of time. 

Detox diets and supplements generally attempt to increase the body’s ability to remove toxins. However, there is little evidence that any of these are actually effective, either in eliminating toxins that contribute to disease or in stopping or reversing organ damage. Some can also be dangerous

Cancer and toxins

To understand how toxins relate to cancer, it is useful to understand what causes cancer. Cancers comprise over 100 different diseases that can affect any part of the body. They are caused by changes in the DNA of cells in the body. This affects the way these cells work. Affected cells divide and grow uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can then spread to other parts of the body, a process called metastasis, which is what eventually causes death.

There are many risk factors that contribute to the cell changes that eventually cause cancer. Genetics, environmental factors and hormones can all play a part, according to the US National Cancer Institute. Various environmental factors contain or produce carcinogens, which are the toxins that can cause cancer. These include processed meats, alcohol, tobacco, air pollution, and asbestos, minerals that were once widely used in construction and manufacturing. 

Because the processes that lead to cancer take place over a long time, it can be difficult to isolate the exact factors responsible. 

Removing carcinogens from the body – what the research says

The herbal supplement company appears to assume that if toxins eventually cause cancer, then removing them from the body will stop cancer from developing. Its website says: “Detox is one of the most vital actions required to resist [disease-] causing toxins.” 

Scientists have studied the effects of certain chemicals found in plants on the body’s ability to eliminate some carcinogens. In theory, if a medication containing these chemicals made the body more efficient in flushing out carcinogens, this could be thought of as “detoxifying”.

For example, a 2022 study of about 50 people found lower levels of a byproduct of benzene, a carcinogen produced from smoking tobacco, in the urine of smokers who were given a specific chemical found in broccoli. A similar study, published in 2019, found that smokers who were given a chemical found in aloe plants excreted more of two other smoking-related carcinogens. Chemicals contained in watercress are being studied for a similar purpose. 

This research may one day point to a way of preventing cancer, but it is still in its infancy. Approved medical treatments, such as those used to treat cancer, go through many rounds of rigorous testing on large numbers of people before scientists can establish whether they are safe and effective. 

No evidence cancer can be prevented or cured through detoxification

Africa Check spoke to cancer-care expert Prof Michael Herbst, a health specialist consultant at the Cancer Association of South Africa, about this research. He said he had found no evidence in the scientific literature to support the idea that detoxification could prevent or cure cancer.   

More research was needed to say for sure whether these or other plant chemicals could prevent cancer by detoxifying carcinogens. As Stacy Kennedy, a nutritionist who specialises in the relationship between diet and cancer, wrote in 2019: “Despite their appeal as an easy ‘fix’ to the problem of cancer, there’s little scientific evidence that such measures, especially on their own, reduce the odds of developing cancer, or that they can halt or shrink tumors.” 

Herbst told Africa Check that these kinds of supplements had no credibility: “Products that make these claims can … be classified as ‘scams’ and ‘money-making’ practices.”

Claim

You can cure cancer by making the body less acidic, using a herbal supplement.

Verdict

Incorrect

According to the herbal supplement company, “there is extensive research showing that Cancer exists and flourishes in an acidic environment, and it deteriorates and dies in an alkaline environment. Making the body more alkaline is important in fighting many kinds of diseases.”

The amount of hydrogen in something is measured on the pH scale. Everything falls somewhere on a scale from one (lots of hydrogen and very acidic), to 14 (very little hydrogen and alkaline or “basic”). Pure water falls right in the middle, with a pH of seven. Lemon juice, before it is consumed, is acidic, with a pH of about two. Bleach, usually a diluted solution of sodium hypochlorite, has a pH of about 12 and is very alkaline or basic. 

Different parts of the body maintain different pH levels for ideal functioning. Blood is slightly alkaline, with a normal pH just above seven. But stomach acid has a much lower pH, usually around two, so that it can break down food for digestion and stop pathogens that might make you sick. 

Like the first claim, the idea that more alkaline pH levels in the body are associated with better health is a popular one. Conversely, more acidic pH levels in the body are said to cause or contribute to illness. 

Misreading the Warburg Effect

As with many so-called cures, there is a kernel of scientific fact buried somewhere deep in the one-weird-trick clickbait and inflated promises. Here, the link between pH and disease seems to come from some early research into how cancer cells form. The scientist Otto Warburg won the 1931 Nobel prize for scientific insights into the workings of cellular respiration, the process by which cells convert something into energy. 

But people misrepresent Warburg’s findings to fit the idea that high acidity inside cells causes cancer. Warburg’s research suggested that high acidity within cells was a byproduct of cancer formation processes, involving fermentation inside the cell. In the decades since this research, scientists have found more evidence that pH likely does not cause, but results from, cancer formation. 

The other kernel of truth here is that more recent research has shown that high acid levels in a tumour can make it grow more aggressively, so making these cells more alkaline might play a role in future therapies. But it’s important to note that these are changes in the microenvironment around a tumour, rather than changes across the body. 

Prof Michael Herbst of the Cancer Association of South Africa agreed, telling Africa Check that these kinds of studies were not based on creating an alkaline environment in the human body.

Delicate balancing of pH is essential 

Changing the body’s pH could be disastrous. It is carefully regulated by a number of processes in the body, to keep functioning properly. 

“A major change in the body’s pH can be life threatening,” Herbst told Africa Check. Because of this, “the body will go to extremes to normalise the acid-base [pH] balance”. 

The pH of saliva and urine can be changed in the short term by what you eat or drink, and some people use this to test the alkalinity of the body. But these measurements don’t have much to do with pH in the blood or anywhere else. “Diet does not have a strong influence on the pH balance of the body,” Herbst said. The same is true for concoctions marketed as herbal remedies. 

It is essential for the body to maintain a delicate pH balance in the blood and other areas and this can’t be changed in the long run without serious health consequences. 

Africa Check has debunked similar claims before, such as that no diseases can survive in an alkaline environment, or that cancer is caused by blood that’s too acidic. Like these, the claim that you can cure cancer by changing the pH is incorrect.

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