The Feel-Good Cleanse

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countdown calendar

I like to call this my “annual cleanse,” but truth be told, this is the first time I’ve embarked on it in a couple of years.  The first time I tried it, it was upon recommendation from my naturopath, whom I’d been seeing for a number of low-grade-but-totally-impairing ailments like eczema, apocalyptic menstrual cramps, and most notably, exhaustion.  I was so, so, so tired, all the time.  For someone who was finally getting enough sleep (after years of workaholic 5-hour nights) and drinking as much coffee as I was, it just didn’t make sense.

Most likely, my naturopath offered, all of these things were connected, and had to do with something in my diet.  The “cleanse” she recommended to me wasn’t so much of a cleanse in the traditional sense (no 10-day juicing regimen or toddies of hot lemon water and cayenne!), but more of an elimination diet.  In the world of naturopathy, all of my ailments pointed to different forms of inflammation, and there are certain foods that trigger this — ten of them, in fact.  The theory behind elimination diets is that if you cut out all the possible culprits for a few weeks, give your gut bacteria a chance to settle down and stabilize, then you can start adding these foods back in, with each new introduction being a “challenge” to see how your body reacts.  Once you’ve abstained from these foods for long enough (about 4 weeks), re-introducing the perpetrator will cause a much stronger reaction than before, so it’s super simple to nail down which food(s) you might have a sensitivity to.

When she showed me the list of foods to completely abstain from, for a full 4 weeks, I said no, immediately.  We are talking about a full month without:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Red Meat
  • Sugar
  • Nightshades
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine

But for some reason, the psychological challenge tugged at a little part of my brain even more than the possibility of feeling better in my own body, and I woke up the next morning, decided it was Day 1, and promptly made a tear-away calendar.  I love tear-away calendars.

And after 4 weeks?  The astonishing thing was that even after rigidly abstaining from everything on this list, and reintroducing each element one-by-one, just like I was supposed to, I concluded…nothing.  All of my symptoms had gone away — rashes on my hands, crazy period cramps, uncomfortable digestion, and most amazingly, the lethargy.  Granted, the first 5 or so days without coffee, for someone who has woken up to coffee every day of her life since age 15, were absolute hell.  But after that it got easier, and I was astonished at how much more energy I had all day long, compared to a week earlier when I’d been drinking coffee and eating all the things on this list.

I was confused by the outcome of the cleanse, but this was my naturopath’s explanation: Lucky for me, I didn’t seem to have a glaring allergy or sensitivity to any of the foods on this list.  After the cleanse was over, I went right back to eating all the cheesy, bready, tomato-ey goodness I always had, but they were no longer triggering all this body malaise.  Sometimes, your body just needs a reset.  It’s possible that I do have a very low-level sensitivity to one or more of these foods, and it had just built up to a point that it was dragging my body down.  But 4 weeks is a long, long time as far as diet goes, and it just may have been long enough to flush out all the years of residue or whatever was going on in there, and with a clean start, my body was able to handle it all again…for awhile, at least!

Which is why I like to call this a “cleanse,” not a “diet” or a “challenge” or a “fast.”  I’m not doing it to lose weight (though, that is often an unintended consequence, as it is anytime you are forced to make deliberate decisions about every bite you’re putting in your mouth), I’m not doing it to reach enlightenment, or to flush my body of everything but fruit juice; I’m doing it to give my body a break, to hit that reset button once a year and give it some time to recover.  And I’m certainly not fasting.  I eat 3 full meals a day on this cleanse, and snacks aplenty, and it’s damn delicious food!

Yes, this list of no-no’s looks brutally restrictive, but in fact, for any homebody creative cook, it’s really not that hard.  I made it the full 4 weeks eating 3 full meals a day, and barely repeating a single meal once.  It’s hard to train your brain away from the easiest foods to prep, cook, and bring to work (like sandwiches, quesadillas, tacos, scrambles…even healthy options like yogurt smoothies, or a fresh heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad).  But once you learn some go-to substitutes, and once you figure out that it’s not necessarily tortilla chips you’re craving but really just some CRUNCH, it’s totally doable.

The hardest part for me is that this really all has to take place at home.  I live in Portland, where food allergies are mainstream and catered to with pride, so I actually do have a handful of options of places to eat out if I’m really going stir-crazy and want to “get a drink” (i.e. kale-celery-wheatgrass-citrus juice) with a friend.  But for the most part, this cleanse means cooking or at least prepping every meal in your own kitchen, so that you know every ingredient in the sauce you’re making, or so that you can be sure that rice isn’t cooked in butter, or that there isn’t soy lecithin in that gluten-free cracker, or soy in that dairy-free ice cream.  Ugh, there is soy in EVERYTHING).

So yeah, it gets boring to stay at home, especially for someone like me whose social life often revolves around eating and drinking at our favorite establishments around town.  BUT, that doesn’t mean the food has to be boring, and I will tell you that keeping the food interesting is probably the only way you’ll get through a full 4 weeks of this.

Oh yeah, and of COURSE you can do it on less than $6 a day!