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Spring cleansing

2006 story examines dietary trend of 'detoxifying' one’s body

To mark the beginning of spring, we’re republishing a story we ran in 2006 about cleanses and Courier entertainment editor Michael Kissinger’s colourful 12-day digestive travelogue aboard the popular Wild Rose Cleanse.

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Originally published March 22, 2006

Winter in Vancouver can be a dreary, rain-soaked slog. Like a lot of people, I battle the winter doldrums by staying indoors, exercising less and wrestling with a debilitating Slurpee addiction, which I somehow managed to kick last year after decades of frosted beverage abuse.

In short, winter is when I'm at my most pale, pudgy and unpleasant.

Not surprisingly, I look forward to spring.

Not only is it a time when blossoms bloom, animals wake from hibernation and the Canucks renew their golf club memberships, it's also a time for clearing out the cobwebs and getting your household in order.

This year, however, I felt I needed to do more than just re-alphabetize my CDs and argue with my girlfriend about why I still couldn't part with my dusty collection of WWF wrestling glasses. I needed an overhaul that would add some lustre to my lacklustre, slay the Slurpee dragon once and for all, and put me on the road to wellness.

So I went on a cleanse.

Although cleanses have been around for thousands of years and most social structures and religions contain a period of fasting or cleansing, the idea that you can "detoxify" your body through strict diet, herbal supplements or any number of health regimes is catching up in popularity to the current trend of realigning your chakras in a new pair of lime-green Lululemon groove pants.

In the film Lost in Translation, an airhead Hollywood starlet tells Giovanni Ribisi about "this amazing power cleanse" she's just done.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes and Kate Moss all attribute their healthy glows to celebrity health guru Dr. Nish Joshi, author of the new book Dr. Joshi's Holistic Detox: 21 Days to a Healthier, Slimmer You — For Life. Recently a co-worker overheard two women in a Safeway checkout lineup talking excitedly about their upcoming cleanses. And just last week, while watching my cousin enjoy some doughy goodness at the Kolachy Shop, of which I sadly couldn't partake, the guy behind the till commiserated with me, saying he was on a cleanse, too.

cleanse

While there are cleanses for weight loss, increased energy and just about every ailment and supposedly overtaxed organ, I decided to cleanse my pasty body in the waters of the 12-day Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox. My health-conscious sister, who does strange things like go on weeklong hikes, recommended it, saying it was a good, user-friendly cleanse for a wimps like me.

Developed by Dr. Terry Willard, a clinical herbalist who, not surprisingly, lives on an organic herb farm on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the Wild Rose cleanse (one of several under the Wild Rose banner) combines a basic diet with herbal supplements. They include a foul tasting tincture and pills with telling names like Cleansaherb, Biliherb and Laxaherb, which, without going into great detail, makes you go to the bathroom more than you'd think was humanly possible.

In terms of food, I'm to avoid anything processed, breads or other flour products, dairy products except butter, alcohol, anything fermented, sugars, tropical fruits and peanuts. Twenty per cent of my diet should be protein foods, while 80 per cent should be starch and bulk-forming foods, with mad props (as the kids like to say) to almonds, brown rice, and just about every vegetable except mushrooms. Although Slurpees aren't mentioned specifically, the fact they're not on the list means I'm not to slurp them.

Pre cleanse:

The day before my cleanse I decide to go out with a bang. A friend from Nanaimo comes over and we drink beer. Later we go to Denny's and I order something called the Sampler. For those of you who haven't been seduced by the Sampler's greasy charms, this abomination of nature is essentially a basket of deep-fried chicken tenders, onion rings and cheese sticks — at least Denny's claims they're cheese. I would hazard a guess that half of all death row inmates about to be executed in the U.S. mistakenly order the Sampler for their last meal. It's that seductive. At home, I further poison my body with a sugary soft drink, which makes the bold claim of containing 12 per cent real juice, while watching TV late into the night. I think I even watch an infomercial — it's a little blurry. By allowing myself to hit rock bottom, I'm hoping that the next 12 days of clean living will seem all the more awe-inspiring.

For added inspiration I talk to Samara Edwards, a self-described "multi-tasker" whose domain is the vitamin section of Sweet Cherubim. She says the Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox kit is the most popular cleanse sold at the long-serving Commercial Drive health food store because, unlike some others, it isn't overly extreme. "For people who aren't used to it, it doesn't put their body into complete shock," says the 26-year-old in a mellow drawl that could best be described as "stoner-esque."

According to Sweet Cherubim's resident vitamin queen, most people go on cleanses to rid themselves of perceived toxins, get their digestive track in shape, feel more energetic and gain a "clearer mind." Spring tends to be the most popular time for cleansing, says Edwards, because people are preparing for the summer. She bucked the trend and jumped aboard the Wild Rose love train in October after a friend recommended it to her.

"I stuck to the diet for a good two weeks afterwards and slowly started being suckered in by the sugar thing, because the sugar thing is the hardest, hardest, hardest part," she says. "I didn't smoke cigarettes when I was doing it, and I found the sugar a lot harder to kick than the cigarettes — it was really intense."

Edwards says Sweet Cherubim sells anywhere between one to four cleanse kits a day, ranging from beginner cleanses like the Wild Rose and First Cleanse to more specific and intensive cleanses that promise to rid users of harmful yeast, bacteria, parasites, even the non-musical kind of heavy metals.

"There's definitely diehards out there who are worried about everything," she says. "But for the most part our customers who have been coming in here for years know what they want, know what they're doing and they teach me a lot."

Edwards' advice to virgin cleansers? "Prepare yourself mentality so you actually finish it," she says. "And know what you're getting yourself into — don't jump into a liver cleanse or a heavy metal cleanse. If do something like a heavy metal cleanse and you have a blocked or unhealthy colon, you can be pushing those heavy metals out of your pores because they have nowhere else to go. So you have to know what you're doing when you get into these."

With that horrifying image imbedded in my brain, I'm ready.

Day one:

I get to work 40 minutes late, not because I'm feeling sluggish, irritable and generally wiped out — that's normal — but because it takes time to make a cleanse-approved breakfast and lunch. The heady days of dining at noon with co-workers are over. Good riddance, I say. Talk to the hand, Cactus Club. Bye-bye, Thai House. Earl's? He's dead to me.

At work I try to wrangle up a cleanse posse for support, but all I get are lame, junk food addicted excuses. Only Courier entertainment editor Fiona Hughes agrees to jump on the cleanse wagon, but then again she's an Ultimate Frisbee player, which I'm pretty sure means she's required by law to join any cleanse in progress. She tells me she'll have to start a few days later, since she has a bottle of wine at home that she hasn't finished. I suddenly have serious doubts about her commitment to the cleanse cause.

One of the reporters, the resident Catholic of the office, points out that my cleanse coincides with Lent. Forget God, I want to tell her, I'm doing this for me. But I don't — I'm too mesmerized by the box of freedom fries and can of C-Plus she's having for lunch. I can't help but feel she's eating so poorly just to spite me.

My lunch of brown rice, cilantro, almonds and carrots is satisfyingly unsatisfying.

To add another element of difficulty to my cleanse, I've decided to stop shaving —  kind of like a playoff beard. If I can't find solidarity in my fellow workers, at least I'll find it in my follicles.

Day two:

Almonds are my new best friend, and almond butter is proving to be a sufficient, albeit expensive, replacement for peanut butter.

At work, the receptionist announces she's brought coffeecake for everyone. What did I ever do to her? My bag of organic peeled carrots are starting to lose their health food cachet. Lunch is tofu, vegetables and brown rice. Sigh.

It was bad enough that everyone except the Catholic went to lunch yesterday, but it's worse now that everyone has decided to order in. Chicken burgers, fries, lasagna. I feel like Gandhi at an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. My energy feels depleted. My focus: foggy. My burly complexion: rugged.

For added insight I turn to a veteran cleanser who's startlingly in touch with his digestive system. Kacey McDougall not only looks like he can grow a beard in a single afternoon, but the whiskery 33-year-old estimates he's been on five or six cleanses in his life, and he isn't afraid to share the gory details.

McDougall says he first learned about cleanses from his mother, who would go on what's known as a "Master Cleanse" — a diet of fresh lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup in the day, followed by a herbal laxative tea at night, taken for several days or even weeks.

"Definitely at times during my upbringing, we ate fairly macrobiotically," says McDougall, who works as an office coordinator for a set construction company in the film industry. "I wasn't raised a vegetarian or anything, but there was definitely a lot of kelp in my diet."

Though he admits to falling prey to Blizzards and McDonald's hamburgers on occasion, McDougall says he eats organically as much as possible and tries to go on a cleanse once a year. He began cleansing during his booze-soaked 20s. "I was going out and partying and then every once in a while I would want to sort of clear out the toxins and badness," he says.

Like many cleansers, he was deflowered by the Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox, recommended by a roommate. Since then, McDougall has withstood a Master Cleanse, dined on Bentonite clay and psyllium husk and gotten jiggy with a gall bladder and liver cleanse in which he drank Epsom salts dissolved in water by day and olive oil and grapefruit juice at night.

Over the course of our increasingly intimate conversation, McDougall regaled me with tales of "crazy bowel movements," over-stimulated bile production, the digestive benefits of cabbage and a "pretty cool" experience involving the elimination of clay that had molded perfectly in the shape of his intestine. Good times.

Despite his rebel with a cleanse attitude, McDougall suggests that anyone considering a cleanse for the first time should change their diet for a month and not plunge head — or bowel — first into anything.

"That's Western-style medicine," he says. "You do whatever you want, you totally screw yourself up and you have a radical procedure to have you back in shape... but it doesn't work that way."

He adds, "After a cleanse I will always go out and eat something quite wretched for myself, which is stupid, I'm not advocating that. But after the cleanse you feel really good and the first time you eat some food that's not so easy on your body, you realize what the cleanse did for you. The mindfulness is awesome."

As for his next intestinal adventure, McDougall isn't sure. "To be honest, right now it's whatever one my girlfriend tells me to do."

Day three:

This is the second day in a row in which several co-workers have ordered in chicken burgers and fries. Cruel.

It's day one for Fiona, my sympathetic cleanser, and she says she feels fantastic.

"This will pass," I warn her.

I'm not sure if it's the lack of sugar in my diet, but it feels as if the world is conspiring against me. When I get home, I notice my girlfriend has made pasta for dinner — a cleanse no-no. Not only that, but for some reason she's decided to put a dollop of cream cheese on her salad, which I've never seen her do before. I think it's her way of expressing her independence. I've never felt more alone.

Day four:

While almonds continue to befriend me, my relationship with brown rice is taking on the banality of a sexless and unsurprising marriage. My body feels sore and my head aches. My girlfriend accuses me of being "pissy," which only makes me feel more pissy. A trip to Granville Island proves tortuous. Everywhere I look somebody is drinking a foamy coffee or eating a slice of pizza and looking unnaturally happy in their toxicity.

At night I watch the documentary Super Size Me, but it only makes me crave McDonald's, which I'm pretty sure wasn't filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's intention.

This whole growing a beard thing is also proving to be counterproductive since every few minutes I'm scratching my itchy face and complaining about it. I don't know how hockey players do it, let alone the members of the bear community, who probably wouldn't know a cleanse if it bit them in their oversized asses.

Day five:

Note to self: never join a ZZ Top cover band. The itchy beard, dull headache, sore body and overall pissyness continues. This must be how Todd Bertuzzi feels on a daily basis.

Hanging up his lamb's wool coat and sitting down for our interview at a Main Street diner, a decidedly beardless Todd Caldecott orders a mint tea from the waitress, which immediately has me second-guessing my order of green tea. The youthful-looking 37-year-old is not only a clinical herbalist, but also an ayurvedic practitioner, former Director of Clinical Studies at Wild Rose College and a former film and television actor who's appeared in a Friday the 13th movie and an episode of 21 Jump Street called "Under the Influence." (Thanks, Internet Movie Database.)

Caldecott says the concept of cleansing is built into our relationship with nature and likens cleanses to the natural cycles of the earth, which people have observed and emulated throughout time.

"We eat these heavy rich foods over winter time, but as the weather warms up, the nature of that food in our bodies, like a spring runoff, begins to move out of our bodies, begins to become eliminated," he says rather peacefully. "So just like a landowner might clear out streams, creaks, ditches to make sure when the runoff happens you don't get a backlog and a flood of your land, because that's no good, you make sure that everything is clear, all the routes of elimination are clear, there's no block inside a drainage pipe somewhere."

Lest anyone think Caldecott's metaphors are all related to Little House on the Prairie, he also compares cleanses to "rebooting your hard drive." He recommends a yearly cleanse, but says what's more important is learning how to "live strategically." That means eliminating processed foods from your diet as much as possible, cutting down on the booze, sugars, fermented foods and most of all, paying attention to your body.

"You need to find a healthy diet that strips all these empty foods from your diet," he says. "We're talking about a dynamic balance between building up the body, filling it up, and then eliminating that which you don't want. You are what you eat and what you don't eliminate."

Caldecott describes the 12-day detox that I'm on as a "landowner maintenance cleanse" good for "clearing out the brush in preparation for springtime." His allusion to my brush makes me feel funny. Still, he's wary of most cleanse kits on the market, particularly if there's no follow-through after it's over.

"The issue I have, is that people will do a cleanse, but the whole concept of the cleanse won't stick," says Caldecott. "Which is why I like to encourage people to eat strategically because it builds in a knowledge that they really need to have. It's not just a quick fix of taking a kit — paying 45 bucks for a kit — and taking that for 12 days and thinking they're fixed."

Day 6:

I've reached the halfway point — the cleanse equivalent of hump day — and I feel surprisingly good. My headache is gone and I'm more energetic than I've been all week. Not only that, but my energy level is steady and constant without the afternoon crash, which usually has me going for a coffee. Maybe it's my inner Gandhi kicking my inner Bertuzzi to the curb. I'm not hungry, I don't crave sweets, and my relationship with brown rice is back on track with a newfound feeling of mutual respect and understanding. Maybe we'll even renew our vows.

Days 7-11

The homestretch. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, except for my growing self-righteousness that has me scoffing at co-workers' toxic lunches and doubting the validity of Fiona's "unsweetened" soymilk. I've become a monster. To keep my head from exploding, however, I drive over to St. Paul's Hospital for a second opinion.

For Linda Watts, it's not just the quick fix mentality of some cleanse users that's a problem, it's cleanses themselves.

A registered dietician at St. Paul's Hospital's Eating Disorder Program, Watts says many cleanses lack more than just a Slurpee component, but the science to back them up.

watts

"I do something called myth-busting with my groups," says Watts, "and one of the biggest myths is the assumption that cleanses or fasts can help get rid of toxins that accumulate in the body... That's what our liver and kidneys are for. That's their primary goal is to retain the good stuff and filter out the bad."

Watts also argues that some cleanses aren't just misguided, they're unhealthy and can create more toxins than they claim to get rid of.

"One of the biggest things that can happen on cleanses or fasts is that people don't meet their energy requirements, their caloric requirements, and when that happens the human body starts breaking down its own protein tissues... And one of the biggest metabolic byproducts of using protein for energy is two very toxic things — ammonia and urea. So instead having this great cleansing going on when we're not eating enough, we're getting a buildup of toxins."

While Watts acknowledges that some cleanses can be a springboard for healthier eating habits, she worries about their long-term effects and questions the need to deprive yourself of foods you really love. Her advice? Eat more fruits and vegetables, eat food that isn't processed or refined, have meals every four or five hours for more stable blood sugar levels and, of course, everything in moderation.

"I use the 80/20 rule, where 80 per cent of the time, yes, eat things that have really high nutrition, that are really good for you, but 20 per cent of the time it can be fluff," she says. "Because eating isn't all about nutrition. There's such a social component to eating and we get certain emotions met through eating."

A healthy dose of skepticism doesn't hurt, she adds.

"In 2004, the U.S. weight loss market was $46 billion," says Watts. "And any time there is a promotion of easy weight loss, any time that it promotes buying pills along with it, buying potions, buying devices, I would say turn on your crap detector. People are really good at using that in other areas of their life, but when it comes to nutrition they don't question... I think people are looking for easy answers when it comes from nutrition and unfortunately they can be very gullible."

Day 12

It's over. I've tamed the Wild Rose cleanse. Or maybe it's tamed me. Although I originally envisioned celebrating with pizza and a Slurpee and perhaps throwing up all over my co-workers' greasy desks, I think I'm going to try to stick with some of the cleanse's dietary suggestions, keeping in mind Watts's nifty little 80/20 rule. I'm going to eat more vegetables, avoid processed foods and cut back my sugar intake — maybe I'll even live more strategically. As for my playoff beard, I'm cutting that back, too.

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