How to Cleanse, Part Two: The Details

Last week I wrote about the basic principles of cleansing and why this is the ideal time of year for it. Generally, I favor cleanses that consist of reducing food intake and simplifying the diet to things that are natural, non-irritating, and easy-to-digest. This regimen is best accompanied by an equivalent reduction and simplification of physical and mental activity. Virtually anyone can do this form of cleanse without worry of suffering ill effects. Rather than undertaking a more intense cleanse, people can usually get the same benefit from a gentler cleanse over a longer period of time (even a few weeks or months). If you choose to do something more challenging, I recommend you consult with a healthcare practitioner.

Now, let’s look at the details of how to accomplish this housecleaning.

1. Consume Less (on all levels)

This is just basic mechanics. If you want to clean out a sausage machine, you can’t keep stuffing meat into it. Consuming less means less energy is tied up in assimilating what you take in, and more resources can be devoted to removing waste.

Studies have shown that fasting induces organ regeneration, but a total fast (just water) for more than about a day is difficult for most people. Luckily, some of the same benefits can be achieved through “intermittent fasting” – fasting briefly and repeatedly. A study a few years ago showed a correlation between a 13 hour fast each day (between dinner and breakfast) and a reduced rate of recurrence of breast cancer. Subsequent research indicates that a longer fast can provide additional anti-aging benefits.

When a patient is interested in trying intermittent fasting, I have them aim for at least 14 hours, and ideally 16 hours between dinner and breakfast. This means all your meals are consumed in an 8 (to 10) hour window. This window should correspond roughly with the daylight hours (for example, eating only from 9 AM to 5 PM). In this way, when the sun is shining (the main presence of the Fire Element in our lives) there’s a parallel activation of our digestive fire, and when it’s dark, these organs are allowed to rest. This is what both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine recommend.

Outside of this window, it’s ideal to have only water. During a cleanse, I believe it’s permissible to also consume plain, non-caloric, unsweetened herbal teas (avoid even non-caloric sweeteners).

Whether or not you choose to limit your window of eating, during a cleanse (and really, always) you should never eat to the point of feeling full. Fullness means the stomach is packed. Perhaps even stretched beyond its normal size. Rather than aiming for a feeling of fullness, the goal should be to simply not be hungry. So, stop eating at the point of feeling no more than 80% full. It may require some mental retraining, but you’ll find if you pause and listen to your body, this is enough. If you’re slow and mindful during the eating process (that is, giving it all of your attention), you may find that you need much less food than you think.

As I explained in the previous article, this reduction of consumption should go along with a fasting of the mind. Avoid media of all kinds – especially anything that involves conflict or pain. It’s just more to digest.

2. Choose Simple & Easy-to-Digest Sustenance

While many people believe a cleanse should involve zero food, and perhaps even substances to cause the body to purge waste, I see a safe and universal cleanse a little differently. Since I can’t assess the suitability of a strong cleanse for a person I haven’t met, I lean again toward gentleness. Rather than starving the body or taking the herbal equivalent of Liquid Plumbr, think of the process as one of satisfying the body’s minimum nutritional needs while replacing waste with nutrients.

In Ayurveda, the main fasting food is kitchari, a porridge made with rice, mung beans, spices, and occasionally vegetables. You can find lots of kitchari recipes online. For the easiest cleanse, you can have a day or several days of kitchari with well-cooked vegetables in it. For a more challenging cleanse, you can work your way from kitchari with vegetables to plain kitchari (just rice, mung beans, and spices). To take it a step further, you can then go to a day of just rice. To go further still, you can follow this with a day of just rice water (the solid rice strained out). To go further still, you can follow this with a day of just water, and then follow the cleanse in reverse – rice water, then rice, then plain kitchari, then kitchari with vegetables.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a simple cleanse is achieved through a qing dan diet. Qing means clear, pure, or light, and dan means bland. This means generally avoiding rich (fatty) and foods that have a strong flavor (i.e., very salty, very sour, very bitter, very sweet, or very spicy). It sounds boring, but it’s easy for the body to handle and tends to calm the internal environment. All sweet processed foods would quality as very sweet, all salty snack foods would qualify as very salty, almost anything fermented or that contains vinegar would qualify as very sour . . . you get the idea. Primarily it’s a diet of whole grains, cooked vegetables, beans, and a little fruit. A staple is porridge known as congee (“con – jee”), usually with a base of rice cooked with several times more water than usual, sometimes with bland root vegetables such as yams.

Many American naturopathic physicians recommend Bieler Broth (or Bieler’s Broth) – a bland green soup presented by Dr. Henry Bieler in his 1965 book, Food is Your Best Medicine. The basic idea is to steam or simmer several kinds of chopped green vegetables (ideally organically grown) in a couple cups of water until tender, then puree the whole thing, including the water, and consume warm. It’s best to use little or no salt.

Most recipes utilize some combination of zucchini, string beans, celery, parsley, chard, and spinach. Some cook and puree the whole thing, while others add some of the leafier ingredients (such as spinach and parsley) just for the last two minutes, or even don’t cook them at all. Also, there are differing philosophies on how long to cook the broth. I recommend that if you have very sensitive or weak digestion, you may benefit from cooking the vegetables for quite a while (perhaps 45 minutes on low heat). You can find many variations if you search for “bieler broth” online. Bieler Broth could be your sole sustenance for a cleanse, or something you use as a supplement. It’s rich in minerals and is considered to be alkalizing.

Finally, many people like juice cleanses because the all-liquid diet tends to clean us out well, and juice is tasty. However, fruit and carrot juices are very high in sugar, which is arguably a significant downside (non-sugary vegetable juices would be better in this regard). Second, because they’re raw, they’re not always easy for everyone to digest. If large amounts of juice upset your digestion or make you feel bloated, this probably isn’t the ideal cleanse for you. Third, some people have sensitivities to fruits and veggies that are high in latex or salicylates. And fourth, some people have difficulty digesting certain kinds of sugars found in produce, referred to as FODMAPs, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

3. Avoid Irritants

Any of the above foods, as benign as they may sound to most people, may present problematic substances to a sensitive individual. The best way to figure out your sensitivities is to eat a simple diet and pay close attention to what your body tells you. But sometimes it’s tricky, so here are a few common offenders to consider.

A. The Big Five: The most commonly problematic foods are gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, and barley), milk products, corn products, soy products, and eggs. Oats technically don’t contain gluten, but they’re sometimes stored with glutinous grains, and some people are sensitive to a gluten-like protein in oats called avenin.

It’s important to remember that although many people have sensitivities to these five groups of foods, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. However, most people would do well to avoid these foods during a cleanse.

B. Common Irritants: Many people have allergies or sensitivities to shellfish, nuts, sulfites, alcoholic beverages, artificial colors, and preservatives. In addition, deep fried foods, charred foods, hydrogenated oils, processed meats, and all sweeteners should be avoided or consumed in moderation by everyone, and are worth cutting out for a cleanse.

C. Nightshades: Vegetables in the nightshade family – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, huckleberries, goji berries, and all peppers – can make some people feel bad, especially folks with joint pain. Symptoms may include achy muscles and joints, skin rashes, itching, phlegm, and nausea. It’s probably a good idea to avoid nightshades during a cleanse.

D. FODMAPs: FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols” – a group of short-chain carbohydrates that are difficult for the body to digest. For most people, they pass through the body without being absorbed and without symptoms. But in some folks, their gut bacteria ferment FODMAPs and produce hydrogen gas, causing gas pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation.

Anyone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or longstanding digestive upset should try avoiding foods that are high in FODMAPs during a cleanse. They may be worth avoiding long-term, if you feel better without them; however, some scientists have suggested that FODMAPs play an important role in maintaining healthy gut flora and shouldn’t be permanently removed from the diet. The list of high-FODMAP foods is long, so if you suspect you have a FODMAP problem, I encourage you to read about this diet on the web.   

E. High Latex Foods: These are only a problem for people with a latex allergy (usually you would know this from irritation from latex gloves, condoms, or blowing up a balloon) and they tend to cause itching, hives, nasal congestion, or difficulty breathing. Some foods containing the most natural latex are: apple, avocado, banana, carrot, celery, chestnut, kiwi, melons, papaya, raw potato, and tomato.

F. High Salicylate Foods: These foods contain chemicals that are essentially a naturally occurring form of aspirin. Only people with a salicylate sensitivity are bothered by them (more often the case in people with asthma), and they should certainly avoid them during a cleanse. Symptoms of salicylate sensitivity include: nasal and sinus congestion, asthma, gas, digestive upset, diarrhea, and hives. The list of high salicylate foods is long, so it’s best to look it up if you’re concerned.  

Okay, I know that’s a lot to process, so it’s worth saying again that most people don’t have sensitivities to all these things, and significant sensitivities to many foods is pretty rare. For most people, rice, millet, wild salmon, sweet potato and cooked squashes make a good, gentle diet for a cleanse. If you need more variety, you could add most well-cooked vegetables to that list (however, it may be worth avoiding nightshades for the reasons listed above and perhaps avoiding cruciferous vegetables if you find them difficult to digest).

I’d love to hear about your cleanse experience – both past and present.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

4 thoughts on “How to Cleanse, Part Two: The Details

  1. This is really helpful, thank you! I can feel that a cleanse is in order; as you’ve said, it’s the perfect time of year. I did the candida cleanse a number of years ago which was rough – I was living in France and had become addicted to pain au chocolat and Nutella, so to cut out all that and even fruit sent me through the stages of grief. While not a cleanse, I did the Whole 30 diet and confirmed that lengthy deprivation is not for me. And the emphasis on meat protein didn’t jive.

    So I am all about the gentle cleanse life and will go for the kitchari with well-cooked vegetables. My husband went this route (for I think 10 days?) while dealing with intense rosacea and general inflammation and it helped a lot. Plus kitchari is surprisingly tasty! Thank you again, terrific info.

    1. You’re welcome Kimberly! I love kitchari too! I’d eat it just for a meal. Be well.

  2. My family and I are embarking on a whole 30 cleanse for spring renewal. Thank you for the inspiration to start with the new moon. I’ve done a cleanse many times over the past 10+ years that is based on food-combining principles to ease digestion (e.g. eating protein only with veggies, eating grains only with non-starchy veggies, eating fruit alone, etc.), It requires a bit more work to plan out meals and because digestion was simpler I found I would eat more often…usually 5 smaller meals throughout the day. During these times I always feel like I’m coming out of a fog.
    My mind gets clear and my energy is freed up. It’s liberating! Thanks for the useful recommendations. I forgot about Biehler broth! So yummy and naturally salty from the celery. With gratitude, Evyan

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Evyan! I’m glad you’ve figured out what works for you. Take care.

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