A type of mushroom called Amanita muscaria grows in some parts of Siberia, and it contains a cocktail of hallucinogenic chemicals. One who consumes the sun-dried mushrooms will usually experience euphoria and hallucinations, but one will also experience a host of unpleasant side-effects, such as nausea, twitching, and an increase sweat and saliva output.

Most of the unwanted side effects can be avoided by putting the mushrooms through a special filter: a human. In the Koryak tribe in Siberia it is customary for an individual who consumes the mushrooms to save his or her urine in a pot for others to drink. The mushrooms’ active ingredients are not metabolized by the body so they are excreted into the urine, but the chemicals which cause the unwanted side effects are filtered out by the kidneys. It is said that the potency of the mushroom does not decrease significantly until about the seventh time through.

But not everybody who imbibes urine is doing so for psychoactive pleasure-seeking. Many people drink it because they believe it makes them look and feel healthier, or sometimes because it’s their last resort for survival.

The popular belief is that urine is a germ-ridden fluid, but as is often the case, popular belief is at odds with reality. Urine from a healthy person is actually relatively sterile. It is unknown how many people in the world deliberately drink their own urine, but the practice is particularly popular in Indian and Chinese cultures for its purported health benefits. In June 2001, a Chinese news feed reported that more than three million Chinese people drink their own urine to stay healthier. This practice is called Urine Therapy, and its promoters credit urine with a number of curative powers.

Though there is nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support it, the drinking of one’s own urine has historically been credited in curing irregularity, fluid retention, abdominal pain, food allergies, exhaustion, chronic illness, hair loss, weight problems, lack of energy, jaundice, scurvy, gout, “hysterical vapors,” and more. It can also presumably cure pleasant-smelling breath.

It is true that urine contains many vitamins, hormones and nutrients that are essential to the proper functioning of human body. This is because the kidneys only absorb what is immediately necessary, and pass the leftovers on to the bladder. But it also contains unhealthy metabolic waste by-products, and toxins such as ammonia and formaldehyde. It is no surprise that the health benefits of urine therapy are highly controversial, and that the practice is subject to a lot of criticism. No formal studies have validated urine therapy, though it is highly doubtful that any organized scientific effort has ever been made.

One point of concern is that urine allows dangerous toxins to be re-introduced into the body. Environmental contamination can introduce small amounts of arsenic into a person’s diet, and this deadly poison can become harmfully concentrated in urine. Similar effects can occur with other toxins, and with certain drugs such as the hormones in birth control. Consumption of urine can not only harm one’s social life, but might also compromise one’s health.

One component of urine which has been proven to offer health benefits is urea, an ingredient which is added to some medicines. In my research I learned how the pharmaceutical companies go about collecting the urea for their products, and I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this knowledge will now haunt me anytime I step into a Port-a-John brand portable toilet, or see a horse relieve itself.

Consuming urine for health or cosmetic purposes is certainly not a new pursuit. Aztec physicians administered urine as a drink to relieve stomach and intestine problems, and there is evidence that the ancient Romans used the bleaching power of urine as a teeth whitener, supposedly originating in what is now Spain. Today, some runners will occasionally drink their urine to replace lost electrolytes.

There are many stories of individuals drinking their own urine in survival situations, such as to avoid dehydration in the desert or on ships adrift at sea. But urine contains a very high percentage of salt, which will accelerate dehydration in most cases, much like drinking seawater. Introducing urine into an already dehydrated body is not advisable, as it will most likely result in kidney damage. It may also cause vomiting, which will further dehydrate the body.

But it turns out that urine is not completely useless when it comes to survival. The U.S. Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate has spearheaded the development of special dehydrated food packs where urine can, in an emergency, be used to rehydrate pouches of dried chicken and rice. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any critical reviews of the unique food rations’ flavor. There is also the portable purifier invented by Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway) which uses distillation to purify any tainted water, including urine. He demonstrated his invention by drinking his own purified urine at a medical and information technology conference in 2005.

Some people drink urine as a sexual fetish. This practice is known as urophagia, and such people are known as loonies.

Does urine offer any benefits as a health beverage? It is difficult to be certain. It could be that someone who is experimental enough to attempt the practice is particularly susceptible to the placebo effect. But even if it can improve one’s health, perhaps the more compelling question is how this benefit was discovered. And how did the Koryak tribe learn that the hallucinogenic properties of the Amanita muscaria mushroom are passed into one’s urine?

Given that urine really doesn’t contain any vitamins or nutrients which can’t be obtained through a healthy diet, urine therapy seems a pointless and somewhat risky pursuit. If anyone would care to speak in the defense of this practice, please do so. Just be sure to use some mouthwash first.