An invitation to sign up for spring cleansing appeared in my email in-box a few days ago from someone I did not know. Reading the email too quickly, I thought the sender was in the home closet organization business, and was having a spring sale on getting rid of winter clutter.  But no, the closets would have to wait. The offer was to participate in a group intestinal cleanse and receive, for a small fee, her verbal and virtual support.  The cleanse was similar to the Master Cleanse, a concoction of water, maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper invented by Stanley Burroughs in l976. Contemporary versions of these liquid fasts designed to act as a solvent for the gut have been promoted by the television doctor, Dr. Oz. And a variety of “gut cleansing” companies whose products can be bought in health food stores, drugstores and on the Internet get a lot of advertising.

Cleanses are not for the weak of will power or people whose jobs don’t give them too many bathroom breaks. One version requires drinking 60 ounces of the cleanse concoction throughout the day and taking a “snack” of a high-fiber supplement, a nutrient supplement, and laxative tea in the evening. Since practically no calories are consumed, the side effects associated with fasting may appear fairly rapidly. Caffeine withdrawal with its attendant headache is usually the first to arrive, and may be followed by nausea, light-headedness, weakness, and even so called “brain fog.” People whose job entails responsibility for the lives of others (like airline pilots, bus drivers, and neurosurgeons) may consider putting off a cleanse until on vacation.

If one can endure this regiment for 10 days then, according to promoters of cleansing, the body will be detoxified. All the yucky toxins are flushed out and the gut is as clean as a newborn infant. Curiously, detoxification is a term that traditionally is used to describe withdrawal from alcohol or drug addiction. Undergoing this type of detoxification is physically and psychologically difficult, and must be done under medical supervision. 

Cleanse “detox” is totally unrelated, because it is not dealing with foreign substances like recreational drugs or alcohol that have been entering the body in excessive amounts over long periods of time. Cleansing supposedly gets rid of the waste products in the gut that are normally eliminated anyway. It also supposedly flushes out toxins from the blood and cells. That the liver and kidneys do this anyway is rarely mentioned in promotional material.   

What are we eating that is so toxic we must go through a cleanse? If we ingest a poison, then the emergency room, not a cleanse, is the only option. Mercury is another toxin but since physicians detect this and other minerals like lead through blood tests, they will recommend the course of action to rid the body of these toxins. (For example, many are told simply to stop eating tuna, in the case of elevated mercury levels.)

Some “experts” compile long lists of supposedly toxic foods or ingredients that require a cleanse, but really should be avoided all the time. The list includes cow’s milk, chocolate, coffee, cereal grains, rice, potatoes, corn, quinoa, oils made from corn, soybean, safflower and sunflowers, sugar, red meat, alcohol and environmental contaminants like pesticides.  Foods that may cause cardiovascular harm like large amounts of butter, bacon grease, and pork rinds don’t appear on these lists.

Must the body depend on a springtime cleanse or detoxification to rid of the body of toxins, assuming we are ingesting them? Fortunately, the answer is no. We are covered with a detoxing mechanism called skin that acts as a barrier to toxic substances. The liver and kidneys filter out toxins, although of course these organs cannot handle an overdose of a drug or excessive exposure to harmful substances. According to information put out by the Mayo Clinic and other similarly reputable medical organizations, there is no evidence that cleansing diets have an effect at all on our toxin status.  And a prolonged period of non-eating and laxative use can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes such as potassium or sodium.

Some go on a cleanse as a prologue to a diet.  A prolonged fast or even a day or two without really eating will cause a slight weight loss (once all that extra water consumed leaves the body). Alas, studies have shown that there is no permanent effect on weight and, because no protein is eaten during a cleanse, the weight loss can come from loss of muscle as well as fat.

So what is the point of a cleanse?  

Well, like cleaning out the closets and finally getting rid of a forty-year-old never worn string bikini or fraying T-shirts, going on a cleanse confers a sense of control.  Eating cannot be random, impulsive, or gratifying.  Several days of not eating anything, anywhere or in any amount, may reveal just how chaotic one’s eating habits have been. It’s just like looking at some, “Why did I ever buy this?” article of clothing that drives home how erratic our clothes purchases may have been. 

As one who occasionally experiences that pang of shame and guilt over a ‘must-have but never worn’ article of clothing, the closet cleaning motivates me to be more disciplined in the future. Perhaps the arduousness of a 10-day cleanse does the same to those whose past food choices have been unwise.  Once the cleanse is over the eater is able to start anew, focusing only on foods that are healthy, rather than self-indulgent and gratifying. And if the effect lasts, another cleanse may not be needed.

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