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.