Do Cleanses Really Work?

Clean, sometimes green and definitely mean, three cleanses push a writer to the limit.

As I sipped my fourth green juice of the day, I couldn’t imagine why I thought this was ever a good idea.

If we are being honest, we don’t always “cleanse” for the right reasons. Proponents claim that cleanses allow your body to remove toxins built up over time. You’ve seen those disturbing photos of gross things that come out of people while they’re cleansing. These toxins might be environmental (pollution), or self-inflicted (too much wine and too many cookies). But I didn’t care so much about all that. I was scared that without a massive intervention, my no-longer flat tummy would turn into a full-blown muffin top. I wanted to drop some pounds without eating better, drinking less or working out more. Even though I knew this wasn’t a solid, long-term plan, it seemed reasonable to me.

And Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, CSSD, LDN, American Dietetic Association Spokesperson and author of The Flexatarian Diet, says that my expectations were reasonable. She says that while cleanses don’t do much good physically, or harm for that matter, they can provide a mental jump start.

“When people string together a few healthy days where they are doing the right thing, that can be great. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t a magical pill. What you do for three days or even 30 days won’t make up for what you do the rest of year. You have to use common sense,” she says.

A magical pill would have been nice.

“In a nutshell, our bodies don’t need cleanses,” Blatner says. “We have all of the organs we need to detoxify out bodies. Our skin is a detox organ, so are our liver and kidneys. They work to detoxify our bodies every second of every day. Many dietitians freak out and say cleanses are terrible, but for most people they’re really not a big deal. All over the world people cleanse for religious reasons, and for most of us a few days without food isn’t so bad.”

Here are three cleanses I’ve personally road-tested. Let’s look at their impact.

I began with the Beyonce-approved Master Cleanse. My friend Heather and I went to Whole Foods and bought a massive supply of lemons, organic maple syrup grade B, cayenne pepper powder and distilled water. I had a whole cart-load of feeling stupid. I mean, everyone knows what those items are used for and, I worried, has seen those poop photos. I bought a magazine and some dish soap in an effort to distract attention. On day three, Heather called and asked how much I had finished because she was ready to re-up on supplies. I had only consumed about 32 ounces because I thought the stuff was nasty. In other words, I was just starving myself. Despite Blatner’s point that we can live without food, I was feeling crazy. Heather came over, declared that I had gone bad, dumped the rest of my mixture and made me eat a sandwich.

Health: The Master Cleanse book claims that the lemon acts as a purifier and provides potassium, the cayenne pepper adds B and C vitamins and aids in circulation, and maple syrup, a sugar, provides energy and minerals. Blatner was neither impressed or disgusted by this particular cleanse, but did suggest that if you’re going to have a liquid lunch, an organic juice cleanse provides more nutrients.

Weight loss: A few pounds that I regained the moment I ate the aforementioned sandwich.

Green factor: You can easily make this at home using fairly inexpensive organic ingredients, so the green factor is pretty good. And because I was starving and my body was in survival mode, I didn’t go to the bathroom a lot – so, hey, I saved water and toilet paper.

A few years later, I tried the four-week Ejuva cleanse. I was smarter about this one and worked with a group led by a cleansing expert so I had support and advice all the way through. On this cleanse you progressively cut the stuff you know is bad for you: alcohol, sugar, meat, dairy, white flour, and so on, taking bushels of herbs and drinking a stomach-churning shake once a day. I cannot stress how disgusting the shake was. Urine-soaked hay comes to mind. Each week, you cut out more food and add herbs and shakes until the final week when you’re either food-free or on liquids only – cleansers’ choice. First, a month is a very long time. Second, this was really expensive. Third, Blatner isn’t thrilled about the herbs. “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe for you. This brings up all kinds of questions about interactions with other medications or supplements.”

Health: The dietary part of this cleanse was great – it’s the common sense stuff we should all do anyway. The herbs were distasteful and taking that many every day was a chore. Mentally, this was very challenging. While you cut foods out in stages, you’re cutting out a lot, including joy.

Weight loss: I gave up four days early and broke the cleanse by scarfing down a grilled cheese with fries from Friendly’s (not recommended and not unnoticed by my digestive system). I’d had to travel suddenly to central Maine and I had no access to a blender, organic foods or self-control. Overall, this cleanse was expensive (both the herbs and all the food), required more cooking and less takeout than I’m comfortable with, and wasn’t worth the misery (and I was miserable, as was my husband). Which brings me to another point: cleanses can ruin relationships. Beware. You will be a Skinny Bitch, and your person will notice the bitch part more than the skinny part.

Green factor: Not great. This requires delivery, as well as the manufacturing of the herbs and packaging. That said the products themselves are natural and organic, as is the food you’re supposed to be eating.

This brings us to the start of 2011. In January, I did the Green Corner‘s three-day organic juice cleanse. This was by far the most reasonable, and successful, of the three. Despite a hamburger freak-out on the last night, it really wasn’t that bad. And I did feel like it was good for me.

Health: You get 1,200 calories a day from fresh squeezed, organic juice. For anywhere from three to five days you have grapefruit juice in the morning, four green juices throughout the day and evening, and a beet/carrot combo mid-day. It was a little boring and I could do without drinking beets again – ever. I learned that green juice is rather awesome and I have incorporated organic grapefruit juice into my daily routine. For me, this was a great post-holiday jumpstart. It got me back on track and I didn’t feel like I was suffering through it or testing out life as a functioning anorexic (see The Master Cleanse).

Weight loss: I have kept off four pounds. I realized I was eating way more than I needed to on a daily basis, and while I happily added solid food back into my life, I didn’t go wild and eat a whole pizza.

Green factor: There are mail-order juice cleanses, but if you can, go local. It’s better for the environment, the juice is fresher and you support your community. Green Corner sources fruits and veggies locally when possible, and while it was winter and I did drive there, I stopped in on my way to yoga and I drive a Prius so I feel fine about it. (It’s practically a Stuff White People Like blog post come to life.) All in all, this was a solid green choice and the best of the cleanse options.

Part of me wants to discourage cleansing and say: If you’re into suffering, or want to make your burger-loving husband hate you, by all means, give a cleanse a whirl! But part of me (the part wearing pants that fit), is totally aware that I haven’t had my last adventure in self-deprivation.

Considering a cleanse? People who have had an eating disorder should talk to their whole medical team if they are considering a cleanse, says Blatner, and most companies don’t recommend cleanses for people who have ever suffered from anorexia. Additionally, she cautions that those with diabetes, kidney disease, digestive issues and heart disease should avoid cleanses, as should pregnant women, children/teens and the elderly. For people in these groups, extreme change to diet can result in anything from dizziness to fainting or coma because of the impact diet has on electrolyte and blood sugar balance. She also says that following any of these plans long term can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and muscle breakdown. Proceed with caution.

Images: Dan Zen, Rachel_titrilga, Matt Lavin, Green Corner