It’s nearly impossible to spend time in Los Angeles without hearing some person loudly testifying to the powers of their current alternative medical practice of choice. The colloidal silver dosing of one month gives way to the sensory deprivation therapy of the next month and the detoxing diet of the month after that, and so it goes. You can’t track the seasons here by the weather, but you can track them by the ripples of popularity for one not particularly FDA-worthy health trend or another.
I first heard about iridology in 2005, when a relative gushed about how much more energy she had since taking an herbal formula her iridologist recommended. Its roots go back to the 17th century, but credit for the current iteration is usually given to 19th century Hungarian doctor Ignatz von Peczely. The method is roughly analogous to reflexology: practitioners claim that particular areas of the body are linked to corresponding areas in the iris and that they’re able to reveal deep and otherwise unknowable truths about your physical health. Basically, iridologists are on the psychic end of the alternative medical world.
I was skeptical at the time. But more recently, having come to a bit of an impasse with my medical doctors over a nagging shin splint issue, I thought it might be time to revisit. Adherents claim iridology is especially useful in dealing with inflammation, so why not try it out? The rational part of my brain told me the whole thing was pseudoscience, but there was a little sliver of my brain that wondered… what if it wasn’t?
I noticed that most places advertising iridology in the LA area also offered colonics (which, in retrospect, should have told me everything I needed to know about the efficacy of iridology). I contacted a bunch of places to get more information, and it wasn’t long before mildly creepy emails from iridologists started rolling in. “Our dear Sharone,” one began, before launching into a disclaimer-heavy spiel about iridology’s many benefits, including identifying “inherent strengths and deficiencies in the body” and giving me a “thorough understanding of how [my] body works” while boosting “longevity and vitality for a good, healthy life.”
After weeding through the masses of information, I settled on a location that was reasonably close to my office and also not $400. Happy, healthy me, here I come!
I’ve been a fairly serious (if not spectacular) runner for a decade, but for the last three years I’ve been unable to shake a shin splint issue that has baffled orthopedists and physical therapists and (not least of all) me. Plus, iridology is supposed to help me know my body better and give me a “good, healthy life.” Who doesn’t want that? Fools and hypochondriacs, that’s who.
When I showed up for my appointment, I was handed a form to sign promising that I wasn’t a government investigator and understood that iridology isn’t intended to diagnose or treat diseases. This might have weirded out someone less well-versed in the practices of alternative medicine, but I’ve been watching relatives drag each other to every hippie rainbow healer in the book for decades. I signed.
The iridologist was an elderly Irish woman who asked in a lowered voice about my “monthlies” (they’re fine, thanks) along with some other standard health history questions. The reading itself was a lot like an eye exam. I put my face into a little cradle while a light was shone into each eye, and the iridologist read my eyes while her assistant furiously scribbled notes. She asked a lot of leading questions, most of which didn’t lead very far.
“Do you have a lot of urinary tract infections?” (No.) Nevertheless, down it went on the paper: Urinary tract is weak.
“Do you get headaches?” (Yes, sometimes, I am a human.)
“You have very good genes,” she said at one point — but before I could do too much preening, she announced that my blood was “very toxic.” Chastened, I silently apologized to the ancestors whose precious gift I so clearly had squandered. My liver and gallbladder were also toxic, my blood pressure was a trouble spot and I was low in iron, vitamin C, and vitamin B.
Most of these issues, I was surprised to learn, could be attributed to one badly behaving set of organs: my intestines. The headaches were the fault of my transverse colon, while blood pressure issues came from pressure in the left side of my large intestine. And I won’t even tell you what she said about my “rectal area.” She didn’t mention anything about the musculoskeletal system, but based on the other results I assumed my overachieving, underwhelming colon was to blame for my shin splints, too.
The solutions were both simple and daunting: I was to drink an intestine-clearing mixture every day for 60 days (!), take a digestive enzyme with meals and add B-complex and C vitamins to my diet. I had expected more of a hard sell for the supplements, but surprisingly, the recommendations were mostly food-related. I was told to eat more leafy greens and vegetables, especially beets, cut back on dairy products and avoid pork entirely.
The intestinal cleanse recipe was a mixture of aloe vera juice, liquid chlorophyll, unfiltered apple juice and powdered psyllium hulls, followed by water and 1–2 capsules of cascara sagrada, a laxative. The digestive enzyme was a proprietary mix of betaine HCl, alpha amylase, pepsin, bromelain, papain, bile salt, pancreatin and lipase.
Unconvinced of the medical wisdom of consuming huge amounts of fiber supplement followed by powerful laxatives for two months, I decided to start with two weeks. Goodbye toxic blood, hello health!
I mixed up the cleanse with some trepidation that first morning. Liquid chlorophyll is deep green and stains everything it touches, and the powdered psyllium hulls will quickly turn gelatin-like when mixed with liquid, a thing I learned the very, very hard way. I had to add loads more apple juice to get the stuff somewhere near the consistency of runny oatmeal, but it looked like scummy pond water and tasted only slightly better. It was like drinking minty, grainy applesauce. I got it all down, somehow, and then I drank water, so much water. I drank until I forgot.
I only took one cascara sagrada capsule because I couldn’t get my head around taking two laxative pills every day for two weeks. With even one I was nervous that I’d be the living, breathing “before” in a Pepto Bismol commercial, but it was mostly fine. There were no emergency trips to the bathroom while on dates, no wardrobe disasters. My colon was responding beautifully.
Drinking the cleanse got a little easier as it turned into a morning routine. I got up, mixed the drink, gagged it down over the sink and went about my day. I don’t know if I noticed anything particularly improved about my health, except for the obvious effects on my digestion. My energy seemed normal, and I didn’t feel significantly more vital than I had before. I certainly was thinking about the inner workings of my intestines more, for whatever that’s worth. The drink itself was surprisingly filling (or maybe unsurprisingly, given all the fiber). After drinking it at 7 a.m., I often wasn’t hungry for breakfast and didn’t eat until lunchtime.
By the second week, the smell of the stuff was still pretty unappealing, but I got it all down smoothly and my stomach only mildly revolted. I upped the cascara sagrada to two capsules a day, but there wasn’t a huge change. Things continued to proceed according to the new normal: pond scum in in the morning, garbage out in the evening, all the way through Day 14.
I intentionally didn’t do a ton of research into iridology before I went, but the actual science is fairly clear: iridology’s been soundly debunked, including in one well-known 1979 study in which experienced iridologists proved themselves unable to identify which patients had kidney disease (with error rates as high as 88 percent).
Based on my anecdotal experience, I’d have to agree that there’s not a lot of substance to iridology’s claims. I didn’t feel like anything I was told was very specific to me, and I didn’t notice any particular change from following the recommendations, beyond what you’d expect from adding loads of fiber and a regular laxative to your diet (um, no shit).
I did ask an MD friend (a general surgery resident and Ivy League medical school graduate who preferred not to be named) about some of the more interesting claims the iridologist made. What does “toxic blood” even mean? Could any of these recommendations be harmful — or, alternately, helpful? Her primary critiques were of the terminology used, which she described as “a failure of communicative language” with enough wiggle room to be virtually meaningless. The increases in fiber and vitamin intake are unlikely to be harmful, but she affirmed (as numerous recent studies have done) that it’s better to get vitamins through actual food than through capsules.
And the toxic blood? Another meaningless phrase. According to the doctor, moving “naturally occurring toxic compounds” from various tissues to the organs where they are processed and eliminated is “half of what your blood is fucking for.” Nice work, blood, and thank you. I appreciate all that you do.
As far as my shin splints? Admittedly, they seem improved. I didn’t have much pain when I went for a quick run this week, but that could be related to any number of other factors, like the fact that I’ve been on doctor-ordered rest for months.
So given all the evidence against it and the clear inefficacy, why do people continue to do things like choke down sludge in the name of better health? That’s probably a bigger question than I can answer here, but I will say that doing something so repulsive for my health felt mildly gratifying and even a little heroic. A friend from the Midwest once asked me what Californians did to build character since we don’t have winter. “We detox,” I told her. I thought I was joking at the time. Now I’m not so sure.