March 6, 2015

The Trouble with Cleanses.


Oh, today’s health scene!  It’s quite a minefield of information and misinformation.

The topics du jour range from vaccinations, to paleo vs. vegan, and whether or not you should steam your nether regions. It can be overwhelming to navigate today’s world of health, and one word continues to crop in 2015 that isn’t making it any easier: Cleansing.

In the 1980′s and 90′s, they were casually referred to as “diets”. This was before the word diet itself carried the negative associations with deprivation, shame, and knowing that the weight would most likely come right back on.

Thankfully, at the turn of the new century, we got wise and stopped “dieting”. Then we started “cleansing”. Now, many wellness professionals are likely to start you on a “cleanse” or “detox” to get you into optimal health. And like its grandfather, the diet, the cleanse and those pushing it promise significant benefits to your health and happiness.

But do they work?

I’ve done several cleanses myself. Most recently after the Super Bowl. I was feeling icky and knew that my digestion was suffering from my consistent eating of toxic food. Yes, I used that too often thrown around hippie term: toxic. Because I know my body, and I know when I’ve overindulged. For me, overindulgence usually isn’t about weight gain, but a general feeling of sluggishness and irritability. I knew it was time to reset, and so I took the advice of a friend and did a very simple, whole foods cleanse.

And it was going well…until it wasn’t. By the end of the first phase, my stomach was officially done. It did pretty much everything to tell me so except leaving my body completely. And one could argue that these were withdrawal symptoms, and that if I had toughed it out, I would have felt better eventually. But a friend, who is also in wellness, pointed out that the cleanse I was on just wasn’t agreeing with me. I hadn’t even considered up to this point that my body couldn’t handle all the ruffage, and I took it as a sign of my own (and my body’s) weakness.

But after hearing her say this, I realized that I hadn’t been using this cleanse to love my body: I had been using it to punish it.

For some, cleanses really do work. A cleanse or elimination diet truly can reset your body. If you’ve never experienced this for yourself, you should. I recommend consulting a professional, who can help guide you and present alternatives if you experience symptoms. If you are a person who eats quite a bit of processed food, you really should consider this. It can be life-changing and even set you on a path for a longer, healthier life. I’ve seen it happen, many times.

But for the rest of us—those of us who are already “clean” and “detoxed” and “yoga-ed” to the max—are we taking it a bit too far?

In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko proclaims that “Greed is Good,” a statement I’m sure most yogis and natural health nuts would vehemently disagree with. But is it possible to be greedy for things other than money and possessions?

The recent surge of those who are health obsessed are demonstrating with much vigor that greed is alive in the counterculture and is simply showing itself in other forms. There is constantly the need to acquire more; clearer skin, more radiant hair, a smaller waist, a better yoga pose, a cuter butt, and even a beefed-up immune system.

Where this need came from is not difficult to see: We are desperately trying to “get back to nature” in our ways of eating, living, and breathing. Of course this is a noble intention. Most of us in this camp have studied what is making our nation and planet sick, and we want to be part of the solution. But now even large corporations are spinning this desire to get more money from us, the “conscious” consumer. Everything is now “green”, from toilet paper to lip balm. Suddenly slapping a “contains sugar cane” (instead of corn syrup) label is the answer. We feel a surge of pride for buying the “all-natural” products to use on our skin.

And of course we jump at the chance to feel more radiantly alive, and present in our bodies. But what if being present isn’t just about acquiring better health?

My friend suggested I have rice instead of vegetables for a little bit. I did. My stomach let out the digestive-organ version of a sigh of relief. I felt comforted at the idea that I didn’t have to, well, I didn’t have to…anything. I eat well. I practice yoga, daily in fact. I do everything in my power to be mindful, and loving, and self-aware and present. But damn. I swear, sometimes, it is just too much for us to expect that our lives must be like this all the time.

We have boxed ourselves in confines disguised as self-love, and used our social media outlets to both brag about our “good” behavior, and publicly shame ourselves for “bad” behavior (#faileo). The need to acquire on the part of the ego does not dissolve with kale juices. I’d argue in fact, that in some ways, we are feeding that need. We are perpetuating a cycle in which we feel compelled to be better, and do better, and eat better, and poo better. And at what cost? Sometimes, isn’t it enough to just be?

Any good health professional will tell you that true health is about balance. That balance is different for all people. Most of us agree that junk food and couch surfing are not the healthiest way to live. But now that we are moving into the 21st Century, it is important going forward that we acknowledge that health is a transient state of mind, as is balance. And homeostasis—of mind, body, and spirit—is an ever-shifting state. Sometimes that shift might include beer and corn chips. Or it might even contain that which is even more toxic—shame and guilt.

As a practice of mindfulness and in hopes of health, we must constantly evaluate what that health is for each of us. The commercials, new products, Gurus and billboards don’t contain the answer to what is right for you. Information on nutrition and exercise change daily. Fads and trends will continue to correspond with this ever-changing field of science, and that’s wonderful and exciting. And it’s important to take in this information seriously.

But what matters most is how you feel. Your confidence and happiness, your ability to simply “be” in your own skin are the best ways to measure your health. Because there is only one true expert on your wellbeing: You.


Author: Sarah Kleinsmith

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Flickr

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