- Annie Internicola
It's a messy world. Farmers wear hazmat suits in pesticide-drenched potato fields. The fish we eat is laden with mercury. Weed killer seeps into our drinking water. Invisible pollutants, like sinister fairies, lace the air we breathe. Even the breast milk we drink as babies, if we are lucky enough to get it, turns out to be afloat with trace toxins; some tests have revealed flame retardants and jet fuel ingredients. "Basically, we've been on a journey of accumulation since conception," says Hillary Thing, owner of Accord Acupuncture & Herb Shoppe, who recently added cleansing and detox programs to her holistic healing offerings. "We each have more than 700 chemical contaminants on average inside our bodies. So it's not such a surprise that as a species we're experiencing declining fertility and declining immunity, that we're overweight yet undernourished, and that cancer rates are soaring." What's a 21st-century Earth dweller to do? We can't go live in a bubble. Nor can we accept our fate as the New Normal—its consequences are too lethal. One thing we can do, say some alternative experts, is cleanse.
The words "cleanse" and "detox" might raise eyebrows as New Age healer marketing speak—bright and hopeful but potentially short on delivering their outsize promises, like sudden weight loss and vibrant, unassailable well-being. Regimes like these are also seasonally faddish, and when the daffodils raise their sweet heads in April we start to hear more about spring cleaning that extends beyond our hearths and into our very health. But when you take the average coffee-guzzling and processed-food-eating American and put him on a nutrient-rich detox diet, the potential for amazing things can happen. And there might be something to it beyond hype when a cleanse has thoughtful expertise and research behind it. Two programs debuting this spring—Thing's "Radical Radiance" course begins May 15, and Tom Francescott, ND's "Natural Detox & Weight Loss Cleanse" starts at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck on May 31—offer just that kind of reassurance and guidance. While a background in traditional Chinese medicine informs Thing's work, Francescott, who owns Dr. Tom's Tonics in Rhinebeck, brings a naturopathic approach. "We give our cars an oil change every few months," says Francescott, or Dr. Tom, as he's known to patients. "We should do the same thing for our bodies."
Gentle Yet Powerful
When most people think of a cleanse, it's a juice fast or some other liquid menu accompanied by a strong laxative—but that's not the recommended approach, especially for first-timers. "I definitely don't suggest a water fast," says Francescott. "People are too toxic. If it's too much for your system, you're going to get sick." Instead of a spartan regime, Francescott prescribes a diet of thick shakes and green smoothies, fresh juices and whole fruits, soups, lean proteins, and bushels of vegetables both raw and cooked. Frequent grazing on fruits and veggies is encouraged, and good-fat accompaniments like coconut and flax oils, guacamole, and tahini get a thumb's up. What's missing from a cleanse diet, among other things, are common allergens and pro-inflammatory foods like dairy, corn, eggs, soy, and gluten (bread and pasta are verboten), as well as sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and soda; the elimination of the last three gives our overworked detox organ—the liver—a break. "People are surprised that they can be totally content with a diet of mostly vegetables and fruits," says Francescott, "but a nutrient-dense diet will fill you up."
On a weeklong cleanse, the first three days are often the toughest, and the body and mind call out for their common crutches and comfort foods. "Just coming off caffeine can be hard," says Veronica Domingo of Catskill, who took Francescott's cleanse retreat at Omega, where she works as the curriculum developer, in 2010. But after those first few days, things shifted. "I realized that I didn't need the caffeine after being so dependent on it. I thought, wow, I have energy now." And by the end of day three, Domingo recalls a wave of epiphanies and aha moments passing through the retreat group. Someone's blood sugar had never been so low, and another person's blood pressure had dropped. Moderate exercise like walks and yoga, along with steam sessions in the sauna, were encouraged to egg on the detox process. By the end of the cleanse week, some retreaters noted improvements in things like mood, sleep, digestion, and mental clarity. An arthritis sufferer noticed that his pain and swelling had vanished and a range of motion had returned. "Even by just removing common allergens from the group's diet, chances are you're going to impact someone's health," says Francescott. "People learn what their body doesn't need, and they let go of what no longer serves them."
A Cleansing Lifestyle
In order to effect lasting change, cleanse practitioners need to keep the momentum going. While some incorporate a few simple practices into their lives post-cleanse, others radically restructure their relationship to food and their bodies. "I see cleansing as a daily practice, not as a short-term regimen after which you turn back to a life of reclogging your system," says Thing. Her cleansing-as-a-lifestyle method consists of daily rituals and practices that allow practitioners to process, loosen, and remove waste, toxins, and other obstructions to the life force known in Chinese medicine as chi. "Alcohol, medications, the processed food we ate as children—our body holds onto and stores all of this, and it does so at a cost. Our life force energy can't flow as well anymore and we have a kind of blah experience in life. It looks a little different from person to person, but the trend is very much the same. Once I began to see this, the more I saw it everywhere. When I began to do this work with the people I treat and with myself, then I really saw the benefits." She also noticed that acupuncture and herbs worked better during cleansing, and patients who had reached a stubborn plateau in their healing journey were having breakthroughs. "It has really proven itself to me clinically."
A typical day of the cleansing lifestyle looks something like this. Upon rising, a glass of lemon water followed by two to four cups of fresh vegetable juice help the body do its natural job of elimination and self-cleansing in the morning, when it's meant to happen. Practitioners are encouraged to move from light, raw fare to more dense, cooked foods throughout the day and during any given meal. Foods that sustain the body's naturally alkaline state, including generous amounts of vegetables and fruits, take precedence over acidic foods like breads and meats. Certain principles of food combining also govern meals to enable more efficient, easier digestion (a big no-no is putting carbs and animal products together, like pizza, hamburgers, and almost every meal the average American eats). Regular exercise and other practices help the body along its detox path, from sweating to elimination. "You have to do this stuff gradually," says Thing. "If you're jumping in so fast that you feel like you're denying yourself, it's not going to last. Eating this way also has to become pleasurable because if it's not, that's not a sustainable lifestyle. A big part has to do with the learning curve of eating in a new way—learning how to make really delicious raw vegetable salads and side dishes so that it becomes an easy and desirable part of your everyday diet. The beneficial effects are very motivating to people because they start to feel better and have more energy almost immediately."
The Art of Letting Go
In an in-depth cleanse, practitioners eventually find that it's not just physical toxins they are clearing; it's emotional toxins too. "Sometimes during a cleanse you can let go of something that you were holding onto and that you were not aware of before," says Francescott. He's seen people release things like long-held grief or anger during a cleanse. Others have had life epiphanies, like one client who realized that she needed to leave her job. It's as if through cleansing we are hitting the reset button on our lives, which can catalyze change on many levels. One client of Thing's was inspired to do a massive decluttering and reorganization of her home. "The physical cleansing goes hand in hand with emotional and mental processes of letting go, of releasing patterns and beliefs that are no longer life-generating for you," says Thing.
Recognizing the mind-body-spirit connection, Francescott weaves mindfulness practices into his detox retreat program. With awareness-building exercises, journaling, meditation, and visualization, participants find new tools for dissolving stress—one of the most pervasive toxins in our culture today. And during a food cleanse is the perfect time to also take a media break, cutting out television, movies, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and radio to limit our intake of emotionally disturbing information. "Cleansing is a way in to make our patterns shift," says Francescott. "It's as old as the ages. The Native Americans had sweat lodges; in Finland they have saunas. Shamans fast before special events and ceremonies to get clear. It can take many forms—there are endless ways to cleanse."
For a successful detox, Francescott adds, preparation is key. He gives individual clients a shopping list heavy on vegetables and fruits, as well as recipes for smoothies, soups, and other staples to gather before day one. Once the cleanse is under way, it's a good idea to have support and guidance through a group, retreat, or holistic health-care provider. Highly customizable, a cleanse can mean different things to different people depending on their starting point. "Cleansing doesn't have to be severe, stressful, or challenging," says Francescott. "It can be as simple as drinking more water and less coffee. You can do an easy, natural detox."
Toxins, Be Gone
Since we can't exactly measure the contaminant levels in our bodies without complex lab tests, how can we know that we've reduced them? Cleansing is successful, says Thing, when we notice that we have more energy, joy, and flow. When there's less blockage in our system we have better digestion, easier breathing, and less brain fog, among other benchmarks. "Across the board, there's nobody who engages in this who doesn't feel lighter and more energetic, and who doesn't lose weight if that's what they need," says Thing. "As human beings we're meant to conduct vitality and have energy all the time. We're naturally joyful and creative, and we're able to heal. Ultimately, we want to be in charge of our bodies and not have to rely on doctors or even alternative people to tell us what's best. Health, to me, in a word, is freedom."