Some Notes on Cleansing

Eat up those whole foods, but save the raw until spring!
Eat up those whole foods, just save the raw until spring.

A month’s worth of holiday excesses, combined with this wet, soggy weather can contribute to feelings of bloated, puffy lethargy. I feel that, at this time of year, everyone is shunning the scale and examining their side profiles in the mirror, lying down to button up jeans and secretly blaming life’s woes on apple pie. For many, weeks of over-doing it in December, mean a January of self-induced deprivation to get back on track and re-emerge as svelte and bounding again.

It seems intuitive to balance a period of indulgence with deprivation. If weeks of unrestricted treats pushed us off track, then surely a firm, hard shove in the other direction should get us back on the rails. However, as any winter driver or horseback rider knows, sometimes all we need is a gentle nudging to steer our stead back on to the right path.

This year I’ve held myself back from diving off the cleansing deep end. I’ve decided that this year I need gentle nourishment, not another nagging voice in my head, moulding my behaviour one way or the other. I need far more carrots (cooked delicately in stews, not raw) than sticks. I’ve decided to nurture my relationship with food using diplomacy, not by summoning the cavalry.

That being said, cleansing can be a useful health practice. It can help reset digestion, heal the gut and restore a balance of healthy digestive flora. It can help disentangle ourselves from the grasp of food addictions, rebalance hormones and remove some of the burden off the liver. However, many of us use cleansing as a way to instil a state of Victorian purity on our lives, wage war on normal cravings or to punish a body already chastised by a critical inner voice. It can even be used as a way to reaffirm willpower and dominance over our natural, more animalistic love for physical pleasure, like a vow of chastity – an allegiance to all things sugar-free and organic. If you feel that your gluttonous holiday sins deserve penance, then I suggest confession, reciting your Hail Mary’s and then moving on – leave the diet changes for seasonal adaptation and wait until spring.

However, here are some things to consider before embarking on a fast.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you want to develop an unhealthy complex for something, I recommend restricting it from your life. Vatican sex scandals may or may not have something to do with this. One of my professors often tells the story of a patient of hers with a particular fondness for Mars Bars. She refused herself them of course, fearing that they would upset her commitment to healthy eating. When she was instructed to stop avoiding these chocolate-like candies and include one small bar in her daily meal plan she discovered – I think you know where this is going – that she no longer liked them any more. Her cravings vanished miraculously as soon as she tasted the forbidden fruit.

Keeping this in mind, I like to go by the 10/10 rule: If the (guilt-inducing) food in question does not deserve a 10/10 on the delicious-ness scale, then don’t bother. I recommend following that rule most of the time, cleanse or no cleanse. But, when embarking on a cleanse, be wary of the fact that food that you’d turn your nose at under normal circumstances now looks like it was cooked by the gods, and sent down from heaven just for you. Even if it’s just a crummy granola bar. Deprivation breeds obsession. Obsession rises cortisol.

Everyone else is hibernating and gorging on acorns. Winter is just not the best time to detoxify. The squirrels running around my backyard are at their fattest, and it’s not because of an overdose on stuffing or apple pie. In the winter, our bodies naturally slow down, our metabolisms go into storage mode, we naturally get less exercise. This is not necessarily a health disaster. Cold, tired digestive fire means that we need to nourish ourselves, not deny. We also need to make up for in the constitution of our food what the weather is lacking. When undergoing a fast this time of year, forgo the icy smoothies and raw salads and enjoy some stewed apples with cinnamon, or a warm lentil stew. Waiting until warmer weather to fast, such as the spring, the Liver time of year on the traditional Chinese calendar, when that particular organ can use some gentle stimulation, is a better option for those who want to take advantage of a growing digestive fire and not feel completely depleted of much-needed energy and resources.

Cleanse your closet, not just your fridge. Cleansing should be a holistic endeavour. I believe that cleansing is not just about removing excesses or impurities from the diet, but from our whole lives. What have you been getting too much of lately that you don’t need any more? In Japan, the days leading up to the new year are reserved for conducting a thorough cleaning of the living space, removing and donating unwanted clutter and simplifying life again. Vowing to purge harmful thoughts, toxic relationships, releasing stagnant emotions by sobbing uncontrollably or screaming into a pillow or practising a month-long buying fast, where only the necessities are accumulated and brought home, can be an even healthier, whole life way to detoxify, simplify and purify life of complicated excesses that threaten to impede creativity and mental clarity. Cleansing is not and should not be just about diet.

Address your internal S&M conflict. Beware of any masochistic tendencies behind cleansing. Cortisol is a funny hormone. It tends to rise, not just when we find out the garden hose we’ve stepped on is a live cobra, but also when we experience conflict, criticism or feelings of inadequacy. So, you didn’t mean to serve yourself an extra helping of those mashed potatoes and yet, you ate them any way (and you enjoyed them too, didn’t you? You can say it…). Surely the punishment that fits this not-so heinous crime is an extra lap around the block with the dog or a refusal of ice cream on top of your pumpkin pie, not a month-long barrage of self-hate as you count calories and eliminate anything that tastes remotely interesting. If cleansing feels more like punishing work than nurturing self-care, I think it’s time to whip out the journal and question the motive behind your goals and expectations. Is the need to cleanse arising from a place of self-love or critical self-hate? If the answer is the latter, then cleansing is definitely not what you need right now; it’s just not worth the cortisol spike.

Stoke the flames of passion. Passion for life and digestive fire are inextricably linked; the temperature and constitution of your food and life matters when cleansing. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine have always held my interest for their ability to observe and document the wonders of the mind-body connection. Fire element manifests in the body as good digestion, a sharp, intelligent mind, motivation, creativity and zest for life. It is also at its lowest this time of year. Rather than extinguishing what little embers continue to burn through the winter, by invoking a soul-sucking fast, blow some oxygen into the flames by engaging in your passions and nurturing creativity. (Adding some extra ginger, onions and chilli pepper to your food won’t hurt either.) The stronger your inner fire burns, the better your body will be at converting nutrients to energy, without letting any go to waste and settling on your hips and fogging up your mind.

Balance long-term and short-term gains. I have yet to meet someone who is still doing their juice fast. The funny thing about extreme, lifestyle-altering practices like restrictive dieting is that we tend to stop doing it eventually. We inevitably go back to our nacho cheese habits, especially if we’ve failed to address the underlying cause behind them in the first place. I like the tortoise’s strategy of slowly and steadily winning the race – something still foreign in our want-it-need-it-now capitalist culture – maybe adding a cup of kale each day or baking your own cookies rather than consuming store bought. Small changes, if you can sustain them, will have a bigger impact on your health and life than 4 punishing days of a liquid-only diet – unless you’re doing it for political reasons. And, in that case, keep on, comrade.

This year my “cleanse” involves a thorough purging of my desk drawers and closet, a commitment to avoid commercialism, a vow to get sound sleep and a re-evaluation of fitness and lifestyle goals for the new year, implemented slowly, with tenderness and gentle encouragement.

How will you get back on the rails this year?

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