Here’s what I wish I had read before I tried my first cleanse

I didn’t metamorphose into Gwyneth Paltrow, but it did cure my writer’s block.

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Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

At the end of July, I decided to embark on my first cleanse. I blame five months of quarantine eating and exercising — I was eating way more sugar and carbs than I was used to, running the equivalent of 2.5 marathons every week, and generally feeling awful. At any other time in my life, I would’ve been vehemently opposed to the idea of a cleanse. But lately, I was becoming desperate.

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: In general, I am opposed to cleanses. Not the concept, which stems from ancient Ayurvedic healing traditions, but the way they are used today as a thinly-veiled attempt at unhealthy weight loss in the name of “increased well-being”.

In Ayurveda, cleanses are used to unblock chakras, release negative energy, rekindle the digestive fire and reset your system as you transition between seasons. If you’ve been eating mainly processed foods high in sugar and fat, then weight loss may naturally occur during a cleanse, but it should certainly not be the purpose or intention.

My hopes for this cleanse were lofty: clearer skin, brighter eyes, thicker hair, insane amounts of energy, deeper sleep and increased overall well-being. Had I listened to one too many Goop podcasts? Probably. But I couldn’t shake the vision of drinking a green smoothie, Paltrow-esque skin glowing as I dipped gracefully into triangle pose. If I could believe what I’d read on the internet, then a cleanse would surely fix all my problems.

My Cleanse Guidelines

I chose to do my own interpretation of Alejandro Junger’s “Clean” program, as I wasn’t willing to shell out $500 for the actual kit, which includes Junger’s proprietary shake formula and supplements. Instead, I followed a stricter version of the elimination diet, abstaining from soy, gluten, dairy, nightshades, bananas, sugar, oats, strawberries, citrus and peanuts for 21 days. As a strict vegetarian and former vegan, giving up meat and dairy didn’t phase me. And I don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, so that was another easy rule to stick by.

I was mainly concerned about giving up gluten, sugar, and bananas — the core staples of my diet! How would I survive? I had only done something like this once before — a week of raw veganism during college for an anthropology ethnography — and it had been a nightmare. I decided that the only way I was going to be successful was if I chose foods that I really enjoyed, and built meal plans that were robust enough to keep me from walking around feeling deprived all the time. Furthermore, my obsessive exercise routine would need to be adjusted, in order to allow my body time to heal, detox and recharge its energy levels.

Along with giving up some of my favorite foods, I also decided to give up TV. This was a big deal for me — watching an episode or two of my favorite shows was a way for me to unwind at night, my form of self-care — or so I thought. Before Netflix, I had been an avid bookworm and writer, but these interests had long been surpassed by the mindless entertainment immediately available on my computer screen. I decided it was high time I picked up a book or a pen and engaged in some pilates for my right-side brain.

My Daily Routine

I started each morning on the cleanse with yoga and meditation, which is something that I do anyways. While meditation has always been very helpful for me, I found that during this time my mind was clearer and I was better able to tap into my creative energy.

After meditation I’d go for my run — again, this is something that I normally do — but I tried to run less than I usually would. I say ‘tried’ because some days I was more successful at this than others, but I noticed that just allowing myself to have the option of running one or two miles less somehow made me feel better.

One of the reasons for my inability to stick to this rule completely was because I was actually feeling so energized and strong every morning that I wanted to keep running! This came as a complete shock to me — I usually start and end my run feeling sore and drained. I also switched up my exercise routine to include strength training and body weight exercises at home one day a week in lieu of a run.

My Daily Meal Plan

During the cleanse I followed the Ayurvedic principle of waiting 12 hours between the last meal of the day and the first meal of the next day. For me, that usually meant not eating breakfast until 9 or 9:30am. I typically feel hungry as soon as I wake up, and recently had developed a bad habit of eating a small snack as soon as I got out of bed. However, as soon as I stopped doing this I discovered that hunger was mainly psychological and faded fairly quickly. By the time the 12-hour mark arrived, I was feeling ‘true hunger’ and was able to really enjoy my breakfast.

Every breakfast on Junger’s cleanse is a smoothie — I usually accompanied this with a peach or some papaya, just because I needed something to chew on. My go-to smoothie was a baked sweet potato, almond milk, two dates, mango, almond butter, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. I topped the smoothie off with cacao nibs and it tasted better than a Dairy Queen pumpkin pie blizzard. After eating those for a week straight I realized that they were quite high in natural sugars, which was probably why I liked them so much. So I switched to a peach, mango, tahini and turmeric blend, which was equally delicious and better for my blood sugar.

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Breakfast or dessert? You could’ve fooled me

I have two myths that I’d like to debunk about smoothies. First, the idea that they are a quick breakfast solution is not true, unless you are willing to pay for the pre-cut, frozen fruit packages (opportunity cost, I get it). But I don’t get paid enough to spend $12 on a bag of frozen mango when I can get two mangoes for $0.50 in the produce section. The time it takes to cut up all that fruit, measure out your ingredients, and then actually blend it all up is no faster than microwaving a bowl of oatmeal. Also, washing a blender every day is a real pain.

Secondly, the idea that liquid breakfasts are less filling than solid breakfasts is simply not true, provided you add the right ingredients to your smoothies. I had never believed this, but the cleanse smoothies were so filling I probably could’ve skipped lunch and dinner every day and been just fine. That’s the power of #plantprotein, folks.

Of course, I didn’t skip lunch or dinner because I had delicious meals planned. Lunch ended up being the same thing every day, because I am boring and dislike having to interrupt my workday to cook something. I made arugula salads with chickpeas, sauteed mushrooms, and avocado or tahini for a healthy fat. Was I using this cleanse as an excuse to put tahini on every piece of food I consumed? You bet, and it was forking good.

For snacks, I ate fresh or dried fruit, walnuts, or chia seed protein bites I bought at my local food co-op. I usually wasn’t hungry in between meals, but these came in handy whenever I started feeling like I wanted to eat something sweet (which was surprisingly infrequent).

Dinner was supposed to be another smoothie, but I knew glugging down a cold, thick drink before bed would only aggravate my dominant vata dosha. Instead, I opted for warm, creamy soups made from pumpkin or squash straight out of my garden. Honestly, I could eat these year-round (and kinda do). “Dessert” ended up being more fruit or sugar-free cacao squares.

The Results

My hair didn’t grow three inches, my skin didn’t magically clear up, and I didn’t wake up one morning with a fabulous new body. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you what did change, because it was far more significant.

After two days on the cleanse, I started writing again. And I mean really writing, as in pages of creative fiction that hadn’t come out of my brain since I was in middle school. It felt like some sort of a literary miracle. Ever since I had graduated from university, I had been living with a writer’s block that felt ten miles thick. Suddenly, words were spilling out of me left, right and center.

While I think I can contribute this sudden return to wordsmithery more to the Netflix cleanse than anything else, I do feel like my mind was clearer as a result of my diet. It was as if someone had turned on the windshield wipers and sliced through the deluge of thoughts constantly pounding about in my head.

Furthermore, I started sleeping better than I had in months. As a result, I had more energy throughout my day and felt like I was operating at 150% all the time. I didn’t crave sugar — not even once — and found myself thinking about food a lot less than I normally would.

The Verdict

If you, like me, are skeptical about the health benefits of a cleanse, I get it. I’m not trying to get you to pursue this, I’m just here to provide some anecdotal context. And truthfully, if I had known how un-painful this cleanse was going to be before I started, I would’ve done it months ago!

If you’re feeling good in your body right now, then maybe the diet aspect of the cleanse isn’t for you. But regardless of the state of your physical health, I would highly recommend taking a week to unplug from media, particularly if you are struggling to tap into your creative energy. Who knows — you might paint the next Mona Lisa.

Netflix and I have had a permanent breakup since finishing the cleanse, and two months down the road, I can say it has significantly changed my life. Does this mean I’ll never watch TV again? Nope. But right now, I want to enjoy this period of productive creativity and get some words down on the page!

Freelancer from Arizona, USA. I write about health and wellness, agriculture, science, travel, and lifestyle.

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