I don't think I can quit coffee. I have been happily addicted to it for some seven years. Every morning it organizes the jumbled mess that is my brain. Without it, I'd feel lobotomized, which, I suppose, would be preferable to quitting coffee, since severing my prefrontal cortex might hurt less than a caffeine-withdrawal headache.
But coffee's not good for me. In fact, a lot of the things I eat and drink aren't good for me. Never is this more apparent than during the holidays, when I, like most of us, can't help but indulge in obscenely large platters of food and imbibe at scores of seasonal celebrations. That's why I decided to try something different this year: For three whole weeks, stretching from before Thanksgiving into the heart of the Christmas season, I tried to turn my back on typical holiday fare and commence a cleansing program intended to improve my health and rid my body of its accumulated toxins.
And, boy, are there a lot of toxins in our bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has measured 212 chemicals in Americans' blood and urine. This year, for its Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, the CDC discovered 75 chemicals for the first time. The study found some commonly used industrial chemicals in nearly every American tested, including fire retardants known as PBDEs; BPA, which is used to manufacture polycarbonate-type plastics like beverage containers; and PFCs, which are used to make products resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
The CDC's findings help explain why cleanses have become so popular, especially in enclaves of alternative medicine like Missoula. There are countless kinds of cleanses, with perhaps the most popular being the Master Cleanse, a method that calls for a week of consuming only a concoction of lemon juice and maple syrup, plus a daily salt water "flush" that triggers a sudden and involuntary purging of the bowels.
My research, thankfully, revealed that such masochistic cleanses may not be the healthiest way to rid the body of toxins. Teresita Martinez, a naturopathic physician in Missoula, runs the Golgi Clinic with her partner, physician Jeffrey Friess. Martinez explained to me that many of the faddish cleanses can be more detrimental to the body than good, partly because of their narrow focus on detoxing only the liver.
Instead, Martinez steers me toward the Golgi Clinic Cleanse, which, she explains, "addresses every organ of elimination—not just the liver, but every organ." That means I'll be addressing the gastrointestinal system, kidneys, lungs and skin. My cleanse will include not just lemony cleansing concoctions, but also a strict anti-inflammatory diet. I will also take probiotics and homeopathic remedies, explore the benefits of castor oil, rethink the way I breathe and chew food, and even cleanse my colon. Through it all, Martinez will act as my cleanse coach.
Before I start, however, there's one dirty piece of the process that I need Martinez to address. There's no elegant way to say it, but cleanses typically foster keen attention to bowel movements. I have witnessed my fiancée, for example, just a few days into the Master Cleanse and a few minutes after drinking the salt water flush, evacuate uncontrollably all over our couch. "It was shooting out like a fire hydrant," she recalls. (That couch, I feel compelled to disclose, was later sold on Craigslist.) My brother, who cleanses about once a year, tells of having to run out of sales presentations and barely making it to the bathroom in time. Despite these cautionary examples, Martinez tells me not to worry. My comprehensive, long-term cleanse should be a little less, shall we say, rushed than some alternatives.
As comforting as that sounds, I'm still faced with a daunting challenge: Three weeks of the holiday season devoid of my favorite indulgences, a strict daily regimen and a sudden attention to, of all things, my bowel movements. Happy holidays? Hardly. I can't help but wonder, despite the mounting evidence in support of such cleanses, is this really going to be worth it?
This morning I had only one cup of half-regular, half-decaf coffee, a fraction of my usual morning intake. As I sit with Martinez in her office, listening and nodding as she gives me my first biology lesson since I got a C-minus in the class in college, I can feel the migraine brewing inside my head, bubbling up like a kettle before its piercing whistle.
For two hours Martinez explains the science and reasoning behind my cleanse. She says when natural routes of elimination—liver, lungs, kidney, etc.—become imbalanced from the toxins we accumulate through stress, the air we breathe and the food we eat, the body chooses to force them out with inflammation. We often view these responses—like a skin rash or diarrhea—as signs of disease, but she explains that that's not usually the case. It's actually the process by which the body is seeking to restore a healthy balance.
But disease can set in, Martinez says, when the root cause behind the inflammation isn't addressed. People typically respond to symptoms with short-term solutions—like, say, taking Imodium for diarrhea—but continue to live in a way that makes inflammation possible. Such lifestyle choices can lead to chronic inflammation, which results in chronic disease.
As Martinez explains this, she points to an image on her laptop of a human cell membrane under high magnification. She says that scientists have come to understand that cells are a much more complex, elegant and interwoven set of systems than we ever thought. Specifically, the membrane maintains a delicate balance of nutrients and waste. Disharmony for one cell, she says, can influence cells all over the body.
"The cell membrane," Martinez says, "is the basic principle behind why we cleanse. The cell membrane has this intelligence to it and whenever it lacks the ability to exchange normally, as toxic buildup accumulates, the cell becomes deranged. This derangement is synonymous with chronic dysfunction or disease, and without intervention may be the beginning stages of cancer."
The human body processes seven million chemical signals every second, she says. "So it's easy to imagine," she continues, "over the course of many years, how all of that waste can accumulate." I wonder how intelligent—or how deranged—my trillions of cells are. And how would I know?
"Seemingly random symptoms set in," Martinez answers, "such as headaches, fatigue, unexplained skin rashes, a change in bowel movements, feeling more irritable or maybe more moody. They will have more upper respiratory infections. They just feel a bit off, foggy brained, a little confused. They don't concentrate as well. Those are all signs that the body is not processing things as well as it should be, and that the body isn't being allowed to go through its processes normally."
At the end of her lecture, Martinez hands me a paper bag full of powders, pills, drops and oils, plus a stack of instructions that explain all the foods I can and cannot eat. My cleanse coach then sends me on my way.
"Three weeks?" I ask meekly.
"The reason we cleanse for three weeks is because it teaches you new habits," she says. "It takes 21 days to create a habit. For some it may take less, for others it may take more, but it's really well proven that it takes at least three weeks to get a habit engrained."
I pedal home with my pack overstuffed with cleansing goodies and my stomach anticipating that it won't be overstuffed for a while. But I'm at least fueled by the challenge the cleanse poses, the novelty of it. I'd soon find out the feeling wouldn't last long.
On the first page of the Golgi Clinic Cleanse instruction manual is this Hippocrates quote: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." I understand it, I agree with it, but I've never fully acted on it.
While I eat mostly local and organic foods, it doesn't necessarily mean my diet is healthy. I tend to go on weeklong bacon binges, and I save the fat to fry my garden-grown potatoes and locally raised eggs. I spread butter or dollop sour cream on anything that might otherwise be healthy. (I'm the only person, as far as I know, who has smeared butter all over a Taco del Sol burrito and pan-fried it.) A gluten allergy has forced me to give up the beer and breads I used to consume copiously, but I still pile my gluten-free pizza high with salami and two layers of cheese, and wash it down with whiskey. I've enquired about a meal plan at Sa Wad Dee. I have an unhealthy, and nightly, relationship with Tillamook's Chocolate and Peanut Butter ice cream.
So I recoil when I see the list of foods I can't eat for three weeks. They probably account for 80 percent of my diet. Here's what's off-limits:
All pasteurized animal milks (yogurt okay)
All pasteurized cheeses
All corn products
Potatoes—red or white
Commercial eggs (organic okay)
Citrus fruits (lemon/lime okay)
All fruit juices
All dried fruit
Pork and grain-fed meat
Any processed food
All fried foods
All caffeinated teas, coffee (green and white tea okay)
All gluten-containing grains
The list of foods I have to better incorporate is considerably shorter:
Seeds and nuts
"The key points," the instructions read, "are to eat fresh, unprocessed, whole foods. Eat vegetables of all colors daily along with lean meats and fish. When possible, eat local, seasonal and organic foods. Avoid all common inflammatory foods such as wheat (gluten), processed foods, dairy products, refined sugars, fried foods, alcohol and coffee. To promote healthy digestion, remember to chew your food well and avoid any beverages 15 minutes before and after meals."
The "chew your food well" part strikes me as particularly odd. I'm supposed to chew each bite of food 36 times.
"You really want to churn it up so it's easier to digest," Martinez says.
Apparently, everything that goes down the hatch needs to be the consistency of baby food. I think that if even my dog can master delayed gratification then I can, too. Then again, training him to be composed when there are treats in my hand required Prozac.
There's more to my new diet than just restrictions and chewing. I'm supposed to drink a tablespoon of extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil every morning. That's followed by the "Master Cleanser" drink, a mix of unfiltered apple juice, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, honey, grated ginger, salt and cayenne pepper in eight ounces of water. Plus, I'm to drink smoothies every day chock full of MediClear powder, a protein supplement used as an adjunct in liver and colon detoxification. (In all, the cleanse costs $295, including three consultations and all of the supplements.)
Other dietary instructions: Before meals, drink a half spoon of organic apple cider vinegar (this gets my digestive enzymes flowing). Once a day, take a B vitamin supplement. Twice a day, drink a glass of water with a teaspoon of probiotic powder. Three times a day, take five drops of three different homeopathic remedies. Drink half of my body weight in ounces of water—about 85 ounces.
I'm a beanpole already, and I wonder if this diet will have me wither away entirely.
The caffeine-withdrawal headache doesn't fully manifest until the third day of the cleanse, which happens to be a Monday, a deadline day at the Indy. Beyond the creative constipation I'm suffering from, staring at a computer screen for eight hours as needle-nose fish swim around my brain and poke my right eyeball—that's how my migraines typically feel—is absolute misery.
"There's a huge effect that coffee has on the central nervous system," Martinez tells me. "The body starts to shut down the central nervous system in order to be able to accommodate all that stimulation, so it makes complete sense that your concentration would be less, though initially it does create a ramped-up effect."
By the end of the first week I fully de-tether myself from coffee's clutch and settle into a nice routine. I'm helped largely by the fact that the Master Cleanser drink—that mix of apple and lemon juice, grated ginger, honey and water—becomes more than a suitable coffee replacement. I make the beverage fresh every morning with piping hot water and sip it, as I did my coffee, as I check my e-mail, play a few Scrabble turns on Facebook and head out with my dog to the park. It even—just like coffee—keeps me as regular as the rising sun.
As for food, I'm surprisingly sated by my new regimen, which I largely attribute to the 100 grams of protein I dump in my fruit and yogurt smoothies every day.
For breakfast, I typically eat toasted gluten-free fiber bread (without butter), an egg (not fried in bacon fat), and seeds and nuts (ground in my suddenly neglected coffee grinder) mixed in yogurt with berries.
For lunch, I typically down a MediClear smoothie, eat a salad tossed with olive oil and apple cider vinegar, spoon out an avocado sprinkled with lime juice and salt, and maybe munch on a few gluten-free pretzels with mustard. At work, I snack on a mix of cashews, pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts.
For dinner, I eat lots of soup. My favorite becomes pureed winter squash, carrots and ginger added to stock. I also grill salmon, cook wild rice, and steam chard and spinach. Throughout the day, and especially after dinner, I sip Traditional Medicinals' EveryDay Detox tea.
I soon find my intense cravings for food before lunch and dinner are gone. My peaks and valleys in energy are also gone. My nighttime clenching and grinding (I spent $500 on a mouth guard a few months ago) seem diminished, as are the headaches they often cause. And, despite having to get up to go to the bathroom twice a night to rid myself of all those ounces of water, I'm enjoying nights of deep sleep.
But while my energy levels seem to be more consistent, my endurance wanes during the first week of the cleanse. Martinez warned me this might happen, but it's still surprising.
I first notice it when pedaling just one mile to and from work. It's more of an issue, though, while hunting. I spend a Saturday up the Blackfoot with my friend Molly, and by noon, after a morning of trudging over hills and down into steep ravines, I'm wiped. Swigs of MediClear smoothie, pretzels, pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts don't energize me—not like Molly's summer sausage and cheese would. My concentration leaves me, my footsteps become careless, and the chances of me getting a buck in my sights are nil. I make a case to call it a day.
On our way out we spook about 10 cow elk. We don't have the tags to shoot one (nor, I don't think, could we have gotten a clean shot), but the thought alone of quartering one and dragging it to the car exhausts me. It leaves me wondering, once again, whether any of this is worth it.
Stress, Martinez explains to me, is a big piece of how the body becomes clogged. In fact, she says, many physical manifestations start with a mental or emotional trigger. To deal with those emotions, and to isolate why I might feel a certain way, she recommends that I meditate.
"It's hard to be physically sound and have a mental and emotional imbalance," she says.
The key to effectively meditating, she says, starts with simply breathing well.
"Deep breathing," she says, "is the culmination of a really good cleanse. Most people are totally incredulous. 'I can do that much good for my body just through breathing? I breathe all the time.' It's just that they're not doing it right."
The main purpose of deep breathing, she explains, is to relax. A good, deep, conscious breath expands the diaphragm and triggers the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic system responsible for allowing the body to rest and digest.
"What we find," she says, "is that a majority of people overeat or are stressed or sleep badly. Or they have concentration issues or mood issues, and that's because they just don't appreciate the benefits of a really good, deep breath and doing so regularly."
Martinez prescribes 100 deep, conscious breaths every day: Breathe in through the nose for a count of five or until you feel your abdomen completely rise, hold for a count of one, then exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight. In her office she has me stand up, put my hands on my stomach, and focus on making my belly expand as I inhale, not just my chest.
I take my conscious breaths at night before bed, and use them as an opportunity to reflect, relax and zone out. After a few nights I find myself focusing on my breathing at work. Even when hunting, sitting silently against a tree as I watch the light of the ascending sun inch down the ponderosa pines, I consciously belly-breathe.
While I'm breathing at night, I also slap a castor oil pack on my stomach.
"I'd say that Dr. Friess and I have two things that we use in the practice that are kind of our miracle drugs, and this is one of them," Martinez says as she motions to a bottle of castor oil. "It's an $8 bottle of miracle drug. It's so easy to use. It's by far the best thing we've ever run across."
Castor oil, a 4,000-year-old medicine derived from the castor plant, is a pro-inflammatory agent that seeps into the skin and improves blood flow to an area while also boosting the white blood cell counts, Martinez says. The pack is simply a saturated piece of cotton or flannel that you put on your stomach. I use a washcloth, and toss it in the oven for about 10 minutes at 200 degrees before applying it to give it an extra soothing effect.
"Seventy percent of our immune system lies in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT found linked to the intestines," Martinez says. "Each castor oil application stimulates the GALT, leading to more efficient blood filtration and improvement of digestive related disorders. It's common for patients' bowel movements to be much easier to pass, more formed."
For the record, I notice my bowel movements have been extremely well formed since starting the cleanse.
About two weeks into the cleanse I face my biggest test. It's Thanksgiving Day and a guest brings an appetizer I can only surmise was sent by God to test my will: chocolate covered bacon.
It's two of my favorite things in the world brought together into one amazing dish. There's a cookie sheet full of them. It taunts me. My friends say they're delicious, but I refrain. I imagine my expression matches the sulking dog's, who gets to enjoy even less of this spread than I do, and who scoffs at the rawhide we toss him as consolation.
I beat back the urge to try chocolate covered bacon, but later, sitting with a dozen friends before a Thanksgiving smorgasbord of turkey (raised by friends in Conrad), elk, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberries, green bean casserole, biscuits and salad, my mind equivocates. If I'm going to cheat, I think to myself, this is the time. My friends say that if I lie in the story, they won't tell. Lying isn't an option, I say.
I cheat just a little bit. I plop a spoonful of garlic mashed potatoes on my plate and a little gluten-free gravy to go with my turkey and elk—both allowed—and salad. To convey how little this dietary infidelity does to quell my torment, I challenge everyone to chew the first bite of his or her Thanksgiving dinner 36 times. They can't, of course. Their uvulas—that fleshy thingy that hangs above the throat that triggers the act of swallowing—are as unruly as mine.
Despite the potatoes, my friends give me nothing but credit. I forgo the Bloody Marys I typically drink all Thanksgiving Day and sip my detox tea instead. I eat yogurt with nuts and raspberries for dessert as everyone else stretches their stomachs with apple and pumpkin pie. I skip the post-meal coffee. And I'm okay with all of it only because another Thanksgiving tradition lives on—I succumb to the tryptophan-induced stupor and doze off while watching football.
It's the second-to-last day and Martinez meets me again to evaluate my symptoms and discuss the reintegration of foods. During the consultation, she mentions that, if I'm really committed, a great way to end my cleanse would be to clean out my colon.
"Enemas," she says, "are really helpful if you have an issue with your colon or you just want to really do things full-on."
As a journalist committed to probing into even the hairiest of issues, I head to A&C Drug in downtown Missoula and buy a "Fountain Syringe," which is further described on the box as a "personal hygiene and enema system."
An enema, of course, is a procedure in which liquid is injected into the rectum to help expel its contents. Martinez says enemas are preferable to colonics because colonics can inflame the mucosa of the large intestine and deplete beneficial bacteria.
"With colonics," she explains, "the pressure of the water can deplete microbes and alter electrolyte balance. Because the water flowing into your colon does so in a more forceful nature than, say, an enema would, we find that enemas tend to have less of a depleting effect."
The enema system is simply a rubber bag, a pipe and a few feet of tubing with a clamp to stop the flow of liquid. I bring it home, open it up and read the directions:
"Fill the syringe bag 2/3 full with warm water and enema preparation (if desired). Apply lubricating jelly to enema pipe. Suspend syringe bag about three feet above hips. Release clamp to expel air in tubing before inserting enema pipe...Recline in tub with knees drawn up. Gently insert lubricating enema pipe into rectum. Release shut-off clamp to permit solution to flow gently."
The directions prompt me to lock the front and back doors of my house. I'm thinking how embarrassing—and inexplicable—it would be should a friend or neighbor decide to pop in and find me in the bathtub with a tube up my ass. I even shut the bathroom door to spare my dog the sight. I follow the directions, with an emphasis on the gently part.
As I'm lying in the tub, I'm full of two quarts of water, plus some probiotic powder I added for good measure. It feels like the gastrointestinal gravity of eating two pan-fried Taco del Sol burritos followed by three Imodium.
"The idea is that you want that water to be held in the colon for 5–20 minutes," I remember Martinez saying.
So I stand up and shake a little, reasoning that my colon can be cleaned in the same way as an emptied bottle of pasta sauce, and go about my day.
But I'm back in the bathroom in about four minutes, unable to resist the incredible pressure to purge. It comes out, as my fiancée so eloquently put it, like a fire hydrant. I take time to make sure I'm empty, then refill the bag with water and probiotics, lie back down in the tub, and do it again. This time, I'm able to hold it about 10 minutes before I have to speed-waddle to the bathroom. I do it a third time, and decide that the water that comes out is probably about as clean as anything coming out of my colon can be.
I wash the enema pipe, thinking that I may never again be so free of toxins in my life—and that I may reconsider ever doing something so "full-on" again.
My cleanse officially ends at Red's Bar, where I order a double Jameson on the rocks to wash down my Thai take out. But instead of the relief I expected, I feel guilty. It's as if I'm undermining all the good I just did for my health and deranging all those little cells I just worked so hard to unclog.
I don't know if any of the 212 toxins the CDC says could be in my body have been released, but I do know that I feel better—and I didn't even feel bad to begin with. That's probably the most interesting thing. I suppose we are often satisfied enough with how we feel that we don't strive to—or perhaps don't even realize that we can—feel better. That understanding alone makes three weeks of counting my chews and self-administering an enema worth it.
In fact, days after the cleanse is over I'm still largely sticking to the diet, even making MediClear smoothies now and then. Sure, I've fried up some eggs in bacon fat and eaten pizza, but all in moderation, and with less satisfaction than before. That feeling of change, as Martinez said, was the whole point of this exercise—to break some old habits and start some new, healthier ones.
Most significantly, and at risk of disqualifying myself from being a Missoulian, I'm proud to report that I'm still drinking Master Cleanser and detox tea in the morning instead of coffee. Coffee schmoffee. I don't even miss it.