“You don’t even know what a binder is when you’re doing a parasite cleanse. I came from Western medicine and I didn’t know what a binder was! We didn’t use those!” So says Kim Rogers, who proclaims herself a “worm queen,” to her nearly half a million followers on TikTok.
She is not referring to school supplies. Rogers sells the ParaFy kit that is meant to cleanse you of parasites. It includes a product called “Cinnabin,” a mixture of cinnamon and activated charcoal, that she calls a binder.
The wellness world thrives on the authority that scientific words possess. Its influencers don’t want to cop to the fact that they are hawking magic and fairy dust; it has to look as if medical doctors are stuck in the past while the supplement salespeople are brave trailblazers conducting cutting-edge research into ancient wisdom.
Binders are simply the latest must-have supplements you learn about from your fashion-forward friend. “What do you mean you don’t know about binders?” she’ll ask you, incredulous. “They’re all the rage!”
As always, there is a grain of legitimacy inside this story, but that grain has been puffed and roasted beyond recognition. And it involves one of the most common misconceptions in the wellness media ecosystem: that we need to detox.
All substances are poisons
A bugaboo of modern living is that we are surrounded by toxins that are making us sick and of which we regularly need to rid ourselves. In her academic tome Why Wellness Sells, Colleen Derkatch highlights the language barrier health experts hit when discussing this fear with members of the public. A toxin is, technically speaking, a natural substance produced by a living thing that causes harm to another organism. Think a scorpion’s venom. But the $4.4-trillion wellness industry has succeeded in redefining toxin for a lay audience. Toxins are seen as industrial by-products, harsh chemicals, that hide all around us and make us sick in ways that doctors can’t diagnose.
Enter a very lucrative economy dedicated to selling detox products. As we often remind its customers, though, we generally do not need to “detox.” The human body has specialized organs that eliminate harmful substances. Our liver actually transforms many of them into less toxic products and eliminates them in our bile. Our kidneys collect waste from the blood and transfer it to our urine. Our lungs can also move volatile materials out of our blood and into the air we expel. To a lesser degree, our skin and sweat also help eliminate volatile and water-soluble substances, respectively. Breastmilk and hair can also be used as routes of elimination.
That is not to say that toxicity never happens; simply that it’s a lot rarer than wellness influencers would have you believe, and that toxicology is much more complicated than separating ingredients into angels and toxins. Take iron and magnesium, for example. If we don’t get enough of them in our diet, we become deficient. But if we consume too much of them, they become toxic. As Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, is famous for saying, “All substances are poisons; there is none that is not a poison.” It’s the dose that makes a poison.
If you consult the websites of naturopaths and other wellness gurus selling you the latest detox solutions, however, you might become convinced that they know what they are talking about by their use of terms like “binders,” “die-off symptoms,” and “herxheimer reactions.” Where does that lingo come from?
Bound to be taken seriously
In the late 1800s, an Austrian dermatologist began treating a patient with syphilis using a mercury compound and he noticed that his patient’s skin lesions started to get worse. Years later, a German colleague of his made a similar observation. They were Adolf Jarisch and Karl Herxheimer, respectively, and this phenomenon became known as a Jarisch Herxheimer reaction.
Basically, it’s a bad, temporary reaction, often seen when taking antibiotics for an infection caused by a spirochete, meaning corkscrew-shaped bacteria with a little tail, like those that cause syphilis and Lyme disease. Within a day of starting the medication, some people get chills, nausea, headaches—a whole range of symptoms that disappear within 24 hours. Scientists don’t exactly know why this reaction happens but suspect that one reason is that the killed spirochetes break down and release toxins, and our immune system’s response to this spill is what causes the symptoms of the Jarisch Herxheimer reaction.
In the detox world, this constellation of symptoms is also known as “die-off” and it can be used to convince consumers that they’re on the right track. Do you feel a throbbing headache and the need to throw up a few days into a major cleanse? No need to worry: it’s the Jarisch Herxheimer reaction and is simply a sign that you are detoxing!
Now, though, this free reassurance is being replaced by more lucrative advice. If you want to avoid the Jarisch Herxheimer reaction when detoxing, you need a binder.
Binders are natural substances that are claimed to bind to so-called toxins in the body so that they don’t spill all over our insides and trigger an immune reaction, or worse, get reabsorbed into the body before they can be eliminated. Think of them as a lint brush for your insides.
I took to Google to trace back the history of detox binders. Ironically, prior to about a decade ago, “binders” in supplements were bad. Binders and fillers help keep the powder inside a capsule together and stable, but in a consumer space where purity is an aspiration, many supplement websites were proud to state “no fillers, no binders” on their product pages.
Then came the papers describing a different kind of binder in the context of animal feed. The food fed to livestock is prone to grow mould and to become contaminated by their toxins. Binders added to animals’ diet can thus prevent the absorption of these toxins. From 2010 to 2012, we see a few websites adopting this idea for human detox. Nowadays, the Internet is ablaze with binders as if they are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
One (wo)man’s fish is another (wo)man’s poison
What, then, are these binders that are sold to people, especially women, worried about so-called toxins and who want to avoid the side effects of a drastic (and unnecessary) cleanse? They include chlorella, charcoal, clay, fruit pectin, humic and fulvic acids, silica, broccoli sprout, cholestyramine, yucca root, probiotics, and chitosan.
Some of these have genuine uses in medicine. Activated charcoal, owing to its enormous surface area, is used in cases of acute poisoning, but the dose is not a measly one capsule. It is typically 50 grams for an adult. Pectin, a soluble substance made of complex sugars that is found in the cell walls of plants, can be used in children who suffer from diarrhea due to problems linked to absorbing food through their gut. These applications are very narrow, but health influencers would have you believe that everyone can benefit from these supplements because everyone, of course, needs to detox.
There are even more insidious ideas linked to binders and to detox. They are said to also lower cholesterol, alkalize the body, and mitigate the alleged harmful effects of electromagnetic frequencies. One clinic, which offers conventional medical care and alternatives like homeopathy and acupuncture, suggests using binders as part of “vaccine aftercare.” Their website seem to endorse vaccines by pointing out that binders don’t interfere with their efficacy, but it clearly states that toxins come from vaccines and that these toxins need to be bound and excreted. They even recommend a more elaborate vaccine ritual that involves charcoal for 24 hours after the vaccine and a cocktail of vitamin C, N-acetylcysteine, glutathione, milk thistle and alpha-lipoic acid both before vaccination and for weeks afterwards. This is pure nonsense. It serves to make vaccines look more dangerous than they are and it nudges people into spending money on supplements they don’t need.
And don’t be blinded by the scientific references this clinic and other binder pushers list to make their claims appear more credible. They are often studies not done in humans but in livestock, or conducted in tiny groups of human volunteers, sometimes written by higher-ups in, for example, the chlorella industry. These papers fall short of the mark, but they lend a superficial validity to the toxin scaremongering.
Not only are binders useless for the purpose of human detox, but they can lead to harm. They have the potential to cause constipation and some of them can bind minerals our bodies need and thus create deficiencies, which is why the people selling them often suggest using them for short periods of time and cycling through different ones. Of course, cycling through different binders conveniently means buying more products.
A small business owner recently tweeted out that she had just finished reading Rina Raphael’s The Gospel of Wellness, an empathic but critical look at the empty promises of the industry, and that she was left feeling like she had been “had” by it all. She wrote that she felt “icky about being a key demographic for brands looking to make money off my insecurities.” Binders are just the latest products to be added to the detox economy. Its end users, already choked by consumerism and trained to see evil lurking in their modern surroundings, are again told they’re not spending enough money keeping themselves healthy.
Meanwhile, many First Nations communities in Canada have not had access to clean drinking water for years, sometimes decades. Their tap water is contaminated by actual bacteria, toxic heavy metals, and parasites. This is a real problem. What wellness influencers sell to their upper-class shoppers, meanwhile—the insistence that our stressed-out bodies are full of worms, and metals, and vaccine toxins, and that we need to purify ourselves from these latter-day demons with cleanses and binders—is at worst the illusion of persecution, at best a simple solution to complex health problems.
And like most simple solutions, it doesn’t hold water.
- Binders are natural substances, like clay and charcoal, that the wellness industry is selling, claiming that they bind to “toxins” during a cleanse to prevent you from feeling ill and to stop the body from reabsorbing the toxins
- The idea that we need to regularly detox our bodies is not based on good science