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Do cleanse diets really clean the colon--and does your colon need it?

click to enlarge DULL DIETER :  Dr. Susan Swadener, a lecturer for the Cal Poly Food Science and Nutrition Department who has her own private practice in Los Osos, recommends boring diet alternatives like eating healthy foods and regular exercise over quick fixes and colon cleanses. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DULL DIETER : Dr. Susan Swadener, a lecturer for the Cal Poly Food Science and Nutrition Department who has her own private practice in Los Osos, recommends boring diet alternatives like eating healthy foods and regular exercise over quick fixes and colon cleanses.

I  lost three pounds in a week, and it’s all thanks to not eating.

By Day 5 on the Master Cleanse—a diet that encourages its victims not only to not eat, but also to jet-blast the digestive tract with turbo-charged laxatives—I was passing out at work, having nightmares about food, and worried that I was developing an eating disorder. Add to that a greenish yellow film that developed on my tongue due to the torrent of citric acid I was sucking down every day, and the misery I had voluntarily subjected myself to shifts into focus.

To top it all off, after spending about an hour on the toilet every morning, parts of me had become itchy and chaffed from, well, constant wiping.

For the sake of modesty and brevity, I’ll spare the more squeamish by replacing all anal references in this story with an *—an idea unashamedly stolen from the pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.

For no other reason than constant friction, any * blitzed with frequent morning bouts on the toilet would become irritated. Lacking any solid food—and with a liquid regimen of saltwater laxative flushes in the morning, followed by two quarts of water mixed with lemon juice, pure maple syrup, and sprinkled with cayenne pepper—my morning constitutionals began to produce a neon-yellow cocktail that would make Jackson Pollock nauseous.

For seven days, my diet consisted of one-third of my recommended calorie intake, almost all of which was provided in the form of carbohydrates—though it all seemed moot, as everything was blasted out every morning with the assistance of laxatives that seem to defy the basic laws of physics and human physiology.

It was 7 a.m. on a Monday. A blue haze of early morning light was pouring through my kitchen window. I, on the other hand, was pouring saltwater down my throat as quickly as possible, trying hard not to think about throwing up or how I’d always been taught that drinking saltwater kills people.

Within 15 minutes there was a low gurgling sound in my stomach, like my intestines were unwinding uncomfortably, trying to make for a smoother ride.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, it typically takes 24 to 72 hours to digest food or water. Drinking saltwater, it turns out, speeds up the digestive process to that of a NASCAR driver blitzed on angel dust.

Proponents of the Master Cleanse refer to the results as “eliminations.” I just call it gross. Drink a quart of saltwater in the morning and you’ll feel more like skin wrapped around a funnel from mouth to *.

By Day 2, I was irritated and itchy in places you’re not supposed to be itchy.

On Day 3, I found a crumpled piece of paper in my pocket I’d forgotten about with hastily scribbled words about being agitated.

By Day 4, I’d gone through two rolls of toilet paper and finished two books.

On Day 5, I got a brief boost of energy and people were telling me how spry and healthy I was looking.

Then came Day 6, otherwise known as the day I passed out at my desk, nauseous, with a sandpaper tongue, and all around hatred of the world.

It began on Jan. 2: two days into the new year and exactly one week after my 28th birthday. What better way to ring in the new year and my late 20s than by rocketing the past 28 years out of me like an intestinal parasite that could only be conceived in Satan’s underground laboratory?

A crash course for the prospective cleanser:

• Drink an organic laxative tea before bed.

• Wake up early and prepare to get acquainted with your toilet. Mix two teaspoons of sea salt with one quart of water. Drink the mixture as quickly as possible.

• Eliminate, wait, and eliminate some more over the next 30 minutes to an hour.

• Mix two quarts of water with one cup of Grade B maple syrup and one cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

• Drink the mixture throughout the day, adding a pinch of cayenne pepper with each glass.

• Allow yourself the occasional cup of organic peppermint tea, but nothing else.

click to enlarge H_F.jpg

• Repeat.

For the first few days, I was a zombie—unable to focus and plagued by the unnerving feeling that my senses weren’t working properly. By Day 5, I was coherent again, if only briefly.

“I’m feeling clear-headed today, which has me kind of worried,” I confided to Anna Weltner, our arts editor.

“Yeah, that’s when you know you’re starting to starve,” she said. “Like, when you’re hungry all the time it’s fine, but when you stop, you know you’re starving.”

“Because my body is eating itself,” I concluded.

If Beyoncé jumped off a cliff …

Cleanse-ophiles tout the health benefits of knocking your system back to ground zero—your colon free of toxins and clean as a newborn.

For better or worse, such diets as the Master Cleanse are more popular for their ability to produce weight loss than the supposed benefits of a squeaky clean digestive tract. Some denounce the fad-diet stigma, saying cleansing isn’t about losing weight.

Nevertheless, there are innumerable books, kits, and websites dedicated to various cleanses.

“It went beyond the group of people who had read the book by Stanley Burroughs—and later on had read mine—and really knew what they were doing in terms of detoxifying,” said Peter Glickman, author of Lose Weight, Have More Energy & Be Happier in 10 Days and a kind of go-to spokesman for the Master Cleanse.

The Master Cleanse was first introduced by Stanley Burroughs, an alternative medicine practitioner who published the book The Master Cleanser in 1941 primarily as a means of curing stomach ulcers.

Beyoncé, for instance, lent her seal of approval to the Master Cleanse after claiming to lose 20 pounds for a movie role. Beyoncé declined to comment when contacted through a representative.

Unsurprisingly, the Beyoncé nod helped promote the Master Cleanse as a weight-loss miracle, even if hearing you can lose weight by not eating seems about as surprising as hearing you can lose weight by hacking off a limb.

“It doesn’t teach you how to eat correctly,” said Dr. Susan Swadener, a lecturer for the Cal Poly Food Science and Nutrition Department with her own private practice in Los Osos. “So most people, they’ll gain the weight back; they’ll feel like failures.”

According to Swadener, the body dumps a pound of weight for every 3,500 calories it’s deprived.

“It’s horrible,” Swadener said of cleanses, sitting in her office as she plugged my age, height, and weight into a computer to break down what my diet had been for the week of cleansing. “I don’t know how people do it. Well, Beyoncé did it.”

“Oh God,” she said as I described the lemonade mixture, laxative tea, and hellacious saltwater flush.

Based on her calculation, I was consuming 918 calories per day, or roughly 32 percent of my recommended daily intake of 2,835 calories.

“You need 2,000 calories just to sit here and breathe,” she said as an example.

Swadener estimated that I should have lost 3.8 pounds, which was just about dead on. There’s a catch: Losing weight quickly through fasting or other light-speed diets causes the body to burn through just as much muscle as fat. In other words, losing 3.8 pounds in a week meant I lost almost two pounds of muscle. A more gradual diet, on the other hand, will cause the body to burn through 75 percent fat and 25 percent muscle.

“It would really hurt your muscle mass if you kept at it,” Swadener said.

In fact, by burning muscle as the body slowly eats itself, a diet such as the Master Cleanse can actually create toxins, said Andrea Giancoli of the American Dietetic Association. Without enough calories or carbs coming in, your system will break down lean-muscle tissue to keep the brain alive, and in doing so release acidic ketone bodies. As your lungs attempt to filter out the ketone bodies, the outcome can include bad breath and excessive urination.

The average cleanser, Giancoli said, will interpret the urination as a good sign—a visual fireworks display that the body is ridding itself of toxins.

“And you’re getting rid of those ketone bodies,” she said. “But you’re also getting rid of lean tissue.”

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS :  The Master Cleanse lemonade diet calls for a cocktail of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. But don’t forget the saltwater laxative flush in the morning. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS : The Master Cleanse lemonade diet calls for a cocktail of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. But don’t forget the saltwater laxative flush in the morning.

Science, schmience

Colon cleansing is an anachronism of diet and nutrition with roots dating back thousands of years to its origins in fasting. There was, however, a resurgence in the notion of curing ailments by shoving things into the rectum.

Burroughs’ idea of the Master Cleanse rode on the last ripples of the colon-cleansing wave in the early 1900s, a fad that pitted scientists against proponents in what was sometimes referred to as “colonic quackery.”

“Throughout the history of medicine, the colon was treated ‘with attacks from above with purges, attacks from below with douches, and frontal attacks by the surgeon,’” according to a 1997 article in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, citing another article in the British Medical Journal titled “An address on the sins and sorrows of the colon.”

The article goes on: “Even today’s experts on colonic irrigation can only provide theories and anecdotes in its support. It seems, therefore, that ignorance is celebrating a triumph over science.”

Firm evidence for or against colon cleansing is essentially non-existent, outside of anecdotal claims from proponents and concerns expressed by medical professionals. And online forums on cleansing sites read more like AA support groups than a bunch of people coaching each other on the finer points of starving themselves and sand-blasting their innards with laxatives.

“Don’t give up!” one person assured a blogger on “You can do it.”

Cleanses have been purported to clear the body of toxins ranging from air pollution to chemicals in food, and to relieve illnesses including allergies, asthma, hypertension, joint problems, rheumatoid arthritis, and acne.

Glickman, the author, said he started regular bouts on the Master Cleanse after getting a taste of the benefits from a vegan raw-food diet. Since writing the first edition of his book in 2004, he recently released the third edition with a new chapter citing 150 medical journals on the benefits of cleansing and fasting, he said.

“There’s a lot of evidence about it, but you know, some people don’t like to look,” Glickman said.

Representatives from the California Department of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American Dietetic Association, and UCLA School of Public
Health could not point to any studies on the toxic-reducing effects of cleanse diets, colonics, and other means of exporting toxins through the *.

Only a few studies were indicated that showed some benefit to brief periods on colon cleansing diets to rid solid waste before medical procedures.

“Although doctors prescribe colon cleansing as preparation for medical procedures such as colonoscopy, most don’t recommend it for detoxification,” Dr. Michael Picco wrote for the Mayo Clinic website. “Their reasoning is simple: The digestive system and bowel naturally eliminate waste material and bacteria—your body doesn’t need enemas or special diets or pills to do this.”

In fact, some researchers have been able to produce the same perceived negative effects of a body riddled with toxins by simply applying pressure on the colon—the belief being that cleansing the colon merely relieves that pressure and makes a patient feel better.

According to a 2006 article published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers have found that “mechanically plugging the rectum resulted in the same sorts of toxic symptoms.”

Critics in the medical field worry that procedures such as colonics can perforate or puncture the colon and have other negative consequences. Cleanse diets have also been criticized for risks ranging from dehydration to electrolyte imbalances and even eating disorders.

“When you have people that become consumed with weight and diet and go to extreme measures … it’s dangerous,” said Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the national Eating Disorder Association.

Though she couldn’t cite specific studies linking fad diets to eating disorders, Grefe said people predisposed to such a disorder could easily be pushed over the edge by starting a diet that teaches them to starve themselves.

“We don’t want them to diet; that’s how an eating disorder starts,” she said, noting that the association recommends boring options like eating healthy foods and regular exercise.

Last night I dreamt of hot dogs

On the night before Day 4, I had a dream.

I was sitting at a table, staring down the barrel of a bratwurst. It was sitting in a bun of buttery, flaky bread. Grease dripped down my chin as I devoured it, knowing in the dream that I was supposed to be fasting. I was cheating, and the guilt was almost unbearable.

EWW :  Spend a week on the Master Cleanse and you could have a tongue just like this. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • EWW : Spend a week on the Master Cleanse and you could have a tongue just like this.

“Your body doesn’t know you’re on a diet and you’re trying to lose weight,” Swadener said. “All it knows is you haven’t been fed.”

Indeed, the most commonly accepted medical opinion is that the body naturally rids itself of toxins through the liver, kidneys, and lungs.

“The bottom line is there’s no need to engage in these types of cleanses and, in fact, they may be more harmful than helpful,” said Giancoli of the American Dietetic Association. “For the typical healthy person, they can probably handle it, but they may not be doing themselves any favors.”

I began the cleanse at a weight of approximately 173 pounds. My blood pressure was 144 over 75 with a resting pulse rate of 62 beats per minute. On Day 7, I weighed in at about 170 pounds, with a blood pressure of 119 over 67, and a pulse of 77.

Swadener explained blood pressure can go down in order to compensate for the lack of energy being fed to the body. The longer I starved myself, the more my body naturally slowed down its metabolic rate.

“Because your body’s going, ‘We’re going to die at this metabolic rate,’” Swadener said.

“The protein’s so low, I would say it’s not safe,” she added. “And you were passing out; that’s not safe.”

A week after weaning off the cleanse—after hiding from food, the nightmares, the nausea, the mood swings, and hours on the toilet—I’ve gained back two pounds.

News Editor Colin Rigley’s colon may be clean, but his bathroom’s a mess. Send cleaning tips to [email protected].


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