It's the same story year after year: Spring comes, suddenly, and after nearly five months spent (largely unsuccessfully) dodging cookies, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres, I start to panic. My clothes are tight, my anxiety's high, and I'm low on energy. I haven't slept well since Valentine's Day.
Last year, in a desperate attempt to jump-start healthier habits, I tried the trendy "Master Cleanse," which had me subsisting on a barely tolerable concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper, along with all the herbal tea I could drink. Day one, I felt great, thinking I was in for a quick, easy fix. Day two, I was less thrilled but made it through, drowning my dismay in peppermint tea. Day three, I downed a jumbo bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.
Something tells me I'm not the only one who has experimented with a renegade form of detox (cabbage soup, anyone?) to be followed by a destructive binge.
But done wisely, I've since learned, a detox can provide some serious benefits. By targeting the liver (where toxins and mood-altering hormones can build up) and the colon (which holds waste), detoxing provides a mind/body housecleaning of sorts. "Increased energy and improved digestion are the two most consistent results," says Cathy Wong, a naturopathic doctor and author of the forthcoming "The Inside Out Diet." Additionally, those who suffer from headaches or skin problems may find that their symptoms clear up, she says.
"If we lived in a perfect world, we'd never have to detox," says Roberta Lee, M.D., medical director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing in New York City. "But ours is a world of artificial stimulants, pollution, and chemicals-and toxins accumulate in each of us." While the body naturally eliminates waste through the skin, kidneys, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract, sometimes it can use a little help.
That said, drastic or sudden calorie restriction -- a hallmark of many haphazard detoxes -- can do more harm than good, says Lee. As fat stores open to release trapped toxins, these toxins stream into your blood, contributing to headaches and nausea in some people. "A moderate plan will release toxins at a slower rate," says Wong, who suggests detoxing under a doctor's supervision or following a moderate cleanse at home. (The exception: Pregnant or nursing women, people who are underweight, and those with diabetes or other chronic conditions shouldn't detox.)
In search of a sound, sensible cleanse, I recently found my way to Exhale, a mind/body spa in Boston. Compared with my previous attempts, Exhale's seven-day program seemed fail-safe. Lucy Turnbull, R.D., the head nutritionist on-site, mapped the course of my week, with instructions for meals and twice-daily supplements (a toxin absorber and a "digestive stimulator").
During the first three days, I started my mornings with decaf tea and lemon, followed by a smoothie with fruit, rice milk, and protein powder. Lunch consisted of steamed beets over brown rice along with a cup of vegetable broth. For dinner, I ate steamed fish, brown rice, and Swiss chard. Strangely, I wasn't hungry. The fiber in the toxin absorber, Turnbull explained, serves as a "bulking agent." Yet I did find myself craving more sleep -- again, a natural response. "Toxin release will affect your blood sugar, as will the restricted diet," says Wong.
For intense detoxes, Wong recommends "cutting back on as much nonessential activity as you can." It's true that it was hard to drag myself out of bed, but I felt good once I got up, if a bit less energetic than usual. As for the digestive stimulator, I soon realized the name was a euphemism if there ever was one -- I was running to the bathroom every 15 minutes, which Turnbull had told me to expect.
On day four, some friends of mine had a spontaneous dinner party. I skipped the filet mignon and the wine and stuck to salad and whole-grain couscous, feeling unswayed and pretty proud of myself. But then came dessert -- Key lime pie. After a lot of complex, heavy rationalizing, I allowed myself a tiny piece. I felt guilty the entire next day. (Wong later told me, however, that a cheat here or there won't render your detox efforts null -- it'll simply take the benefits a little longer to set in.)
By day six, I wasn't hungry, but I did feel deprived. I missed food that wasn't mashed, steamed, or blended. I wanted coffee. At the end of a week, my jeans were looser, and I felt good. Sure, there were cranky moments, but there was something quite satisfying about sticking to a strict regimen. It wasn't Everest or a marathon, but it was a challenge I saw through.
In the weeks after, I slept better (and got out of bed more easily) than I had in months. At the grocery store, I skipped the chips and loaded up my cart with fruit, grains, vegetables, and fish. "A detox is not simply a fix," says Wong. "In the best scenario, it's a springboard for a lifetime of healthier eating."
Try this recipe for Whole-Wheat Couscous with Almonds.
See our plan for a healthy detox.
Text by Alyssa Giacobbe