Normally, I’d roll my eyes at the idea of a “health” detox. But recently, a confluence of events inspired me to undertake the challenge. For starters, I just turned 40 and I’ve been feeling more committed than ever to continue what’s been a lifelong cleansing.
I’m a childhood abuse survivor and, as a result, have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects of this condition play out differently for everyone. For me, it’s meant sorting through repressed memories and emotions to discover the truth about my past and integrate it with the challenge of actually living in my body.
On more than one occasion, progressive health-and-wellness therapies have helped me get through key trials in my life. When I was 20, I suffered from multiple stomach ulcers that got so bad my doctor advised me to have my stomach removed. I lived with the symptoms a few more years until I found relief through alternative medicine therapies such as chiropractic care, massage, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture. And, two years ago, after a long-term relationship ended, I turned again to health-minded changes as a way to support myself. I started riding my bike, doing kettlebells and cutting out most of the sugar from my diet. I also returned to practicing mindfulness and meditation as a way of becoming more self-aware.
In this context, detoxing simply seemed like one more way to explore my mind and body and to be happier.
It’s fitting, then, that The UltraSimple Diet by functional-medicine guru Mark Hyman, MD, doesn’t advertise itself solely as a weight-loss program, but as a way to reduce your overall toxic load. In Hyman’s view, underlying inflammation and toxicity cause obesity, and any weight that is shed on his plan is merely a byproduct of getting healthy.
What follows are excerpts from the journal I kept for the two weeks I followed Dr. Hyman’s detox regimen, as well as some key lessons I learned during the whole experience.
Week One: Preparation
The goal this week is to eliminate foods that tend to cause inflammation and tamp down metabolism, including caffeine, dairy, refined carbohydrates, all sugars, alcohol, trans fats, and processed, packaged food. In his book, Hyman warns that I might feel pretty crummy this week and experience headaches, fatigue and irritability. (More irritable than normal? Yikes.)
Day 1: A bit stumped. Hadn’t gone shopping yet and didn’t have many breakfast options. I settled on a handful of almonds, an apple and a glass of water with lemon — to replace my morning French-press coffee. I did have half a cup of coffee once I arrived at work. (The program recommends a slow elimination of caffeine.) For lunch, I bypassed the burger and bagel joints and headed to the grocery-store salad bar. Stopped at the local co-op on my way home. You definitely have to cook on this diet to avoid the verboten processed foods. I grabbed some broccoli and a piece of salmon. At home, I broiled the salmon with olive oil, lots of lemon, fresh basil and rosemary from my garden box. Made the broccoli and some brown rice as well. Tasty enough. Have a feeling I’m going to be eating this meal a lot the next few weeks. Right now, it’s late and I’m feeling kinda depressed and wouldn’t mind some popcorn and a cold beer. But instead, I’m writing, doing laundry and trying to be mindful of how I feel without freaking out about it too much.
Day 2: Today was a bit easier. I won’t be able to eat eggs in the second week of the detox, and since I had a few in my fridge, I scrambled one with mushrooms, garlic, rosemary and basil. Quick, easy, filling. Had a tiny cup of coffee and think I’m done with it — bring on the headaches! I’ll embrace green tea, which is allowed throughout this detox, instead.
Day 3: For breakfast, I scavenged some crimini mushrooms and kale from the fridge, sautéed it in olive oil with some chopped garlic, fresh basil, and pumpkin and sesame seeds for extra crunch. Not bad, and it filled me up for my six-mile bike ride to the office. This is my first day sans coffee. I don’t have a headache. Yet. Feel a bit lethargic though. Kind of foggy-brained. I’ve heard detox days three and five are the worst.
Day 4: Revolutionized my breakfast today! Made warm rice cereal with almonds, coconut and sliced-up bananas. To be so preoccupied with what I am eating is very different for me. Don’t have access to a tub for Dr. Hyman’s recommended “UltraBaths,” so instead I’ve been spending some time in the gym sauna after my workouts. I hate being hot, but I know that when I’ve been on the verge of a cold, sitting in the sauna really helps.
Day 5: When I woke up today, the foggy feeling in my head was finally gone. I ate the same banana-coconut rice cereal, which satisfied my need for something warm, filling and naturally sweet.
Day 6: Ended up going to a friend’s rugby match in Wisconsin. Another friend, Karen, and I packed some snacks: raw carrots, celery and cucumbers, along with hummus, almonds and water. Following the game, we went out to eat. Settled on the salmon sandwich, sans the refined-carbohydrate bun, on a bed of greens. (I also helped another friend order a microbrew, which was fun.) Had some additional almonds and raw veggies later in the evening, just before the Glen Hansard concert at First Avenue, a Minneapolis rock club. I thought I might be hungry, but the show was so engaging that I didn’t even notice. Note to self: If feeling hungry, turn up the tunes and dance to distract yourself.
Day 7: Weather was glorious today, so Karen and I took a long bike ride. Halfway through, we stopped for smoothies. Her drink included cold-press espresso and looked great, but mine (aptly titled “Nutty Spokes”) was tasty, too. I changed the recipe a bit: Asked for almond milk instead of rice milk, skipped the honey, which it didn’t really need, and kept the banana and crushed-up mixed nuts.
Tomorrow, I formally begin the UltraSimple Diet plan. For dinner, I decided to start incorporating Dr. Hyman’s broth recommendation. I didn’t have the time (or desire) to cook his potassium-packed vegetable “UltraBroth,” so I subbed in the packaged organic vegetable broth he offered as an option. I do not plan on drinking broth, as Dr. Hyman recommends — just can’t imagine being excited to have a snack or meal of broth — but I did use the broth to cook rice.
In preparation for the more rigid week-two diet, I shopped for food and spent $138, which also covered the supplements Dr. Hyman recommends, including a multivitamin, protein powder, acidophilus and vitamin C. I am so grateful to the knowledgeable and patient co-op worker who helped me pick out my supplements. He was never annoyed that I didn’t know the answer to the questions he asked, such as “How powerful of an acidophilus tablet do you need?” “There are different strengths?” I asked in wonderment. We settled on a low-grade amount, since I’m simply aiding digestion and not building up good gut bacteria lost through taking antibiotics. After years of searching, it seems I’ve found a multivitamin that doesn’t make me nauseated. Bonus!
Week Two: UltraSimple Diet Plan
Day 8: I started the formal UltraSimple meal plan, but it was not a dramatic transition for me, since I eliminated so many things last week. Had my usual rice cereal (this time with raspberries and blueberries instead of banana) for breakfast; salmon, rice and broccoli for lunch; and, for dinner, I wasn’t really hungry so I had a simple spinach salad with shaved carrots, cucumbers, olive oil, lemon and black pepper.
Day 9: Dear Sweet Potato: You are a detox-diet game changer. Last night I broiled a walleye fillet in olive oil, fresh basil and lemon. I also added a sweet potato, which I sliced and cooked in garlic, olive oil, fresh rosemary and thyme. Took only about 15 minutes to prepare (and much less time to eat). The sweet potato gave me something filling and a little sweet without breaking any rules. Detox tip: Eat these. They will make you happy. Overall, I am not feeling as hungry this week. Maybe my body has adjusted and my previous hunger pangs were more about cravings? Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for the satiety.
Day 10: Halfway through the second week. Having a tough day today. If my mom were alive, it’d be her 73rd birthday. I’m craving coffee and know it’s emotional. I’ve found detox sobriety awkwardly alluring. If you choose to, you can really use it as the ultimate tool for getting in touch with why you want to drink, eat or whatever. Pain avoidance. I’m sad right now. Sad because my mom died. Sad because she and I had a messed-up relationship. Sad because it all feels so unsolvable. Mad because it feels like she got off easily. I’m not saying this is how I feel all the time, because it isn’t, but right now I’m just feeling this stuff. I’ve got nowhere to hide, and I’ve got nothing to take the pain away, so I’m just sitting here staring out my window at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, watching the birds. It’d be so easy to make some coffee. But, coffee isn’t going to make me feel better. Only I can do that. I’m just going to hang out here with myself and feel the feelings.
As I sit typing, I noticed this quote on Pema Chödrön’s Facebook page: “The Detox Period — When you refrain from habitual thoughts and behavior, the uncomfortable feelings will still be there. They don’t magically disappear. Over the years, I’ve come to call resting with the discomfort ‘the detox period,’ because when you don’t act on your habitual patterns, it’s like giving up an addiction. You’re left with the feelings you were trying to escape. The practice is to make a wholehearted relationship with that.” Yep. That’s what this detox has been about for me. It’s running across things like this that make me buy into the idea that we manifest what we need.
Day 11: Four more days to go. Serious caffeine craving. The Keurig brewer at work doesn’t help matters. Had a couple UltraShakes today, including a close-enough version from the café downstairs from our office: almond milk, blueberries, protein powder and almonds. The second week has actually been easier foodwise. I haven’t been as hungry. It’s like my brain got used to it. If I started feeling like I wanted to eat or drink something — even things on the “approved” list — I waited about 20 minutes and checked in with myself: Am I actually hungry? I carried lemon water around all week and drank some each time I felt hungry. It helped a ton.
I’ve felt more in tune with my emotions the past few weeks. Cry, punch a pillow, embrace joy, be grateful. I feel like this has helped me in my mindfulness practices and just being more self-aware, which is one of my main motivations in doing the detox. (At 5-foot-2 and 116 pounds, I’m not trying to lose weight.)
Day 12: Revelation! On my way to visit a friend recovering from surgery, I stopped off at the health-minded Birchwood Cafe in south Minneapolis. Dining out is much easier if you tell the server what you’re doing and ask her which menu items are easiest to change up. Follow that with lots of thank-yous and a generous tip, and everyone is left feeling happy. I ended up with a black bean and quinoa burger over greens (no bread) and a side of berries. I put tons of olive oil on the greens and burger (it usually comes with cheese), so I got my healthy fat hit. Satisfying, and I didn’t have to eat any brown rice!
Day 13: Had a great visit tonight with my friends Laine and Desi. Desi even gave me some of the delicious homemade almond milk she’s been whipping up in her Vitamix. I have to try to make some myself. I’m amazed at how supportive people have been. You don’t even really have to ask for support, you just have to share what you’re doing. This detox experience is reinvigorating my faith in humanity.
Day 14: Final day. No special meals, just my basic detox menu. I’m excited to start adding things back in after today and see how my body reacts. I plan to continue with some of the changes I made, namely cooking more at home. Thinking of making it a group thing. It’s totally different to connect with people in a home rather than going out all the time. More intimate settings bring out different things in people.
The UltraSimple Diet
Developed by functional-medicine physician Mark Hyman, MD, this book involves two simple phases.
Week one focuses on eliminating certain foods — caffeine (except from green tea), refined carbohydrates and processed sugars, trans fats, alcohol, and all processed foods — that interfere with metabolism.
Week two involves eliminating even more categories of food — such as eggs, dairy, gluten, sugar, most meats — and following a meal plan that centers on organic poultry and fish, brown rice, nonstarchy veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds, berries, and some custom-made broths and shakes. (For a detailed description of Dr. Hyman’s detox diet, see “The UltraSimple Slimdown” at ELmag.com/UltraSimple.)
Life After Detox
So, what did I learn from the detox experience? Well, once I got over feeling hung-over and depleted in the beginning, I felt great. I’m interested to see how reincorporating certain foods will affect me. As I sit typing this, I’m enjoying my first almond milk latte in 16 days and it seems really strong.
I’ve had sleeping issues for years and during this diet I felt totally exhausted for a few days during week one, but still slept well. Week two, I slept seven hours a night for four nights in a row, which for me is amazing.
My digestion was also even better than normal. I felt like I was processing food as fast as I consumed it. And, I learned different ways to like water — adding lemon or basil or cucumbers, for example — thereby drinking more of it (always a good thing to help flush out the toxins that detoxing unearths).
I’ve also noticed that things taste different. Fruits and vegetables taste even better than they did before. I’ve had no cravings for salty items (potato chips were always a weakness!). I even chose to eat carrots and celery with hummus and roasted almonds for a snack one day.
I also learned that people detox for different reasons. I was not interested in losing weight. I bike an average of 50 miles a week, and I’ve actually been struggling to put on weight for the past six months (my Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor was concerned about the reduced fat intake during the detox). I did end up losing 3 pounds while on the program, but for me, that wasn’t the point.
As it turned out, detoxing was about coming clean emotionally. And, after doing this detox, my mental state and mood are awesome. You can’t hide from yourself on a detox diet. I really saw and felt how my mind and body work together. I felt much more aware of what I was feeling emotionally and was willing to actually explore those feelings instead of covering them up. Stop, breathe, experience, let go. Even though I’ve been working on these things for years, it’s been much easier over the past couple of weeks.
All in all, this has been an incredibly positive and mind-opening experience. I have to admit, though, that if I ever see brown rice again, it’ll be too soon.
Here are just a few ways to ensure a successful detox:
- Create a support team. Share what you’re doing with friends and family. I found that most people were really open and interested in what I was doing. A few even tried a detox of their own.
- Ask for what you need. There’s a lot of power and knowledge to be gained from learning to ask for what you want and need — even from total strangers at restaurants.
- Don’t be misled by initial sticker shock. I spent $138 dollars on groceries and supplements for the detox, which seemed relatively expensive at first. In the end, though, you save money on eating out. Also, if you eat like this more often in general, I’ve no doubt you’d see overall improved health benefits and lowered medical costs.
- Don’t let the ideal be the enemy of the good. Case in point: if you don’t want to prepare the UltraBroth, simply pick up one of the organic vegetable broth brands that Dr. Hyman recommends. (And, if you don’t like drinking broth straight up, get creative — I cooked my rice in the broth.)
- Spike your water with herbs, such as basil and mint, or lemon or cucumber or spices. Or, forgo plain water altogether and drink coconut water (rich in electrolytes).
- Satisfy your sweet tooth by adding raw coconut to your rice cereal or your smoothie, eating an apple or a banana with almond butter, and embracing sweet potatoes (they taste like Thanksgiving!).
- Be willing to listen to your body and mind without running away.