Herbal detox cleansing: Not as scary as it sounds

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No chocolate. No gyros. But healthy.

No chocolate malted milkballs to soothe us through deadline. No gyros packed with feta and dripping with dressing from the little shop down the street. No coffee.

So went our first thoughts–and fears–as we at Herbs for Health recently prepared ourselves to test cleansing diets. We knew we would have to drastically change some habits–and continue to work together civilly in the meantime.

I had never tried nor witnessed a cleansing diet, and I pictured us as starving zombies, hunched over our computers and snapping at one another in frustration. But these things never happened. Other than a few mildly rough moments, we each found that the cleanses gave us more energy. And we stayed civil–in fact, we even had some fun. Most importantly, the cleanses helped ease a variety of health problems, ranging from insomnia to rheumatoid arthritis.

The willing victims

Our decidedly unscientific test included before-and-after questionnaires and daily journals. Participants chose diets specific to their desires, including the organ ­systems they wanted to support. The cleansing recipes (we took the “homemade” approach rather than use prepackaged formulas) came from a variety of sources, including Christopher Hobbs’s Foundations of Health: Healing with Herbs & Foods (Botanica, 1992), and the article by Lois Johnson, M.D., on page 28.

During our test, we didn’t consider anything “cheating”–we all went into it intending to complete the regime, but we also decided that if it became too intense, it probably wasn’t good for us anyway.

The word “diet” may be misleading–weight loss wasn’t the focus of our cleansing diets, nor necessarily one of the results. With regard to cleansing and detoxification, “diet” generally refers to eating organic, whole foods (brown rice, beans, and veggies); eating fruits and/or drinking fruit juices; or drinking fruit and vegetable juices. I lost five pounds, but I certainly could have afforded to, and I consider it a side benefit. Others lost a few pounds or none at all.

Nine of us participated: eight women and one man. Our ages ranged from twenty-six to fifty-five, our bodies from round to slim. Among us were a couple of serious athletes, a couple of sedentary bookworms, and a couple of vegetarians. Our group also included one cynic and several skeptics. Editors and editorial assistants participated as did marketing and advertising representatives. And my mother, a family counselor, hopped on the bandwagon, too.

Many of us wanted to address specific health problems, including a chronic cough, muscle aches, poor digestion, dizziness, allergies, joint pain, insomnia, and acne.

Despite our basically healthy lifestyles, eight of the nine of us had never cleansed before. And because we were working, none of us could afford to be out of commission with light-headedness, overwhelming hunger, or other symptoms. But each volunteer wanted to feel healthier, and was curious about just what these diets could do.

We hope our experiences will help demystify the cleansing process and satisfy some of your curiosity, too.

Day by day: What to expect

Choosing homemade cleansing programs over prepackaged products means a little extra hunting for supplies. If you’re lucky enough to have a health-food store nearby that stocks bulk herbs and organic produce, you may be set. But some of our testers drove thirty miles round-trip to find herbs; others resorted to easier-to-find capsules.

One of our testers, Sharon, recommended thinking ahead: “The only problem was needing my own stash to follow me wherever I went. The restaurant at lunch had no juices and no herbal teas, so I just had water. You need to be prepared with your own stuff because you can’t easily find convenient alternatives out there.”

While the majority of us couldn’t take time off from work while detoxing, several of us wrote in our journals that we wished we could have stayed home and relaxed. One exception, Jerri, wrote that, on the day she stayed home, she was having the “weekend problem” of too much access to her kitchen. Given our experience, you may want to choose a time when you can take a “cleansing holiday” and make sure any irresistible foods are out of reach.

Our journals: Seven days in the life

Day one: Several people wrote that the first day went quickly. Even though some were drinking only juice, most weren’t hungry during the day. A few complained of slight headaches, a “spacey” feeling, and fatigue. Some complained of frequent trips to the restroom, some complained of none at all.

Kathleen wrote that she “felt tired, maybe a little flushed, a little headachy.”

Jeff, who was on a whole foods liver cleanse, wrote, “By noon, I’m famished. Though my morning was spent noshing on fruit, I’m in dire need of protein and fat. I feel weak, and I have a dull headache. I get through the day by drinking plenty of water and trying not to think about food.”

Vicki’s day was a little more up and down. She wrote that she felt very tired by midafternoon and had a slight headache. Although she kept fruit and juices in easy reach, she writes that she was “very hungry” when she got home from work. “However,” she added, “I feel so much more energized tonight, I am amazed.”

Day two: For some people, this was the most intensely negative day. For others, it was easy. Several of us felt great in the morning, then slipped into uncomfortable afternoons, with hot flashes, head­aches, or cravings for sugary foods.

On this day and the next, our humor came out, such as when Jan discovered a bag of bland-looking nuggets in her desk and, at the mere rustle of plastic, we circled around her to identify the food: wheatberries, which tempted us to distraction (no one partook). And editors found that editing recipes was a peculiar type of torture.

My journal entry for this day shows that I slept well, woke up perky, but felt empty. “Hot and cold flashes throughout day. My face was very hot and pink. At home, I forced myself to drink, even though I didn’t want to–hot teas were ­easier to get down than cold water.”

By contrast, Vicki wrote, “I felt so good!”

Day three: Many of us were thinking about food in terms of basics. It was about this time that Kathleen, who was on a fruit-and-juice-only colon cleanse, was overheard saying, “The reason I have been ­surviving is avocado.” Jokingly defending her choice of a few tiny slices a day, she said, “It’s a fruit, it’s a fruit! I just had this flash last night that it wouldn’t technically be cheating, and it might save my life.”

The herbal mixtures played an important role in the experience. Jerri, who was doing a liver cleanse, wrote, “One thing this herb combination does is that, even though I’m tired (which is my main complaint), I am more clear-headed and emotionally smooth as the days progress.”

Nancy, who tested a lymphatic system cleanse in hopes of some relief from her rheumatoid arthritis, wrote on this day that her “joint pain decreased tremendously.”

Days four and five: Several of us completed our respective three-day fasts, and the hard-core cleansers continued past this point for a total of six or seven days. Even Jeff, our cynic, decided to extend and intensify his fast for an additional day, switching from whole foods to juice and water.

By day four, it appeared that our testers fell into a rhythm. “I haven’t felt detoxed per se,” Jan wrote, “although I do feel an electric, comfortable buzz. And when I’m fatigued, it’s a very comfy fatigue, the type one gets after a workout. . . . The first couple of days, maybe into the third day, I ­either felt like turning cartwheels or taking a nap. . . . Today the energy seems more constant.”

Jerri wrote, “I like this detox. I think my body is definitely releasing toxins of some kind–my thinking is more clear, and my emotions seem less unreasonable–more connected to what’s actually happening from moment to moment. It’s similar to what happens when [counseling] clients release old issues and begin living spontaneously.”

Audrey, who fought cravings for bread and chocolate on day two, wrote, “I feel as if I could do this forever. The idea of eating regular food makes me feel sick.”

Days six and seven: Kathleen, who had written earlier that she was getting a little “bored”, added vegetables to her diet. “I had a baked potato and broccoli–it ­tasted so good that I had to remind myself this was a healthy meal, not a sin . . . still feeling righteous and clean. And lighter!”

On her last day, Jerri wrote, “Energy and focus are incredible–haven’t felt this good for months! . . . Since I didn’t use a severely restricted diet, the difference has to be from [the herbs].”

Breaking the fast

Many office moments were spent fantasizing about “breaking the fast”; Audrey and Jeff, for example, each planned out a week’s worth of after-fast meals. Most health-care professionals recommend breaking a fast slowly, adding foods back in gradually, starting with a salad of greens and very light dressing. But members of our group did it in a variety of ways. Jeff bought a fresh gallon of milk, one of his favorite foods, just to have on hand, but he didn’t drink it right away. Audrey ate chili and biscuits and gravy. Kathleen’s method was elegant.

“I found myself throughout the detox yearning for carbohydrates, particularly biscuits,” she wrote. “To break the fast, I had two biscuits and a glass of red wine. I put the wine in my finest crystal and arranged the biscuits on the plate and lit a candle. I toasted myself (‘This is my body’). I thought of it as a kind of communion with my body. It tasted wonderful!”

Our closing thoughts

Overall, participants in our cleansing test felt it was a positive experience and would encourage others to try it. Although it turned out to be difficult to track whether the herbs had helped with spe­cific organ systems, everyone noted some improvement in their health. Nancy’s arthritic aches lessened; Vicki noticed some improvement in a chronic cough; Audrey, Jan, and I slept much better; and almost everyone rated their energy as higher. And even though Jeff had found the diet difficult, he left blank the questionnaire categories of “fatigue,” “insomnia,” and “mild depression” that he had checked before fasting.

In addition, it was unanimous that we would do it again. Several of us have de­cided to make it routine, once a month, once a season, or just when we need a reminder about how we would like to feel all of the time.

Erika Lenz is assistant editor of Herbs for Health.

No time for teas? Commercial cleanses compared

If homemade cleanses are too time-consuming or messy for you, prepackaged formulas may be the way to go. Here is a sampling:

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