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To cleanse or not to cleanse?

Sustainable Health Nutshell: Recently popularized fasts and cleanses are not healthy for most people because they shock the system unnecessarily. I recommend you simply eat local, mostly vegetables, take in as few toxins as possible (pesticides, drugs and alcohol, weird processed additives, etc), and if needed for your body type or imbalance, you can do an Ayurvedic fast regularly. Intense detoxification can be tough on your body and can actually work against you if done incorrectly, and should be overseen by a professional, so serious panchakarma should be discussed with your healthcare practitioner.

Cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder. Eating a typical western diet, it’s not surprising that a large number of people feel the need to ‘detoxify’ when they finally tune into their bodies. I’ll start by clearing up some misconceptions, and end with some simple ideas to help keep your digestion working swimmingly. If I don’t answer a question you have, please leave a comment or send an email! :)

Let’s start with a quick description of your digestive system. The intestines have 90% or more of your body’s seratonin, and are so connected to your emotions and thoughts some call the gut “a second brain.” This means if you have digestive issues, it’s 90% likely due to stress rather than an infection or ‘toxin buildup!’ It contains 70% or more of your immune system, and naturally has trillions of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi growing in it daily in balanced amounts (some of which are responsible for digesting food including lactose, and others help make vitamins K, D and B12!). Then there’s your liver, which is incredible and complicated and for now I’ll just say it deals with toxins and turns most of what we take in into useable bits for the rest of our bodies.

Another fun fact: your gut sheds it’s lining entirely every 1-7 days. Meaning it’s self-cleaning. I won’t go into the gritty details of why the theory behind typical cleansing is silly because this guy’s done it for me. Basically, if you drink bentonite and clay (or a number of other ‘natural’ substances), you will have interesting things come out of you. Stringy dark things. That look like clay and bentonite covered in… yes, that. You also never want to be rid of your healthy intestinal flora because you can’t live without them and you don’t want the wrong ones to grow instead and cause disease. The idea is to have a good balance of all different kinds of flora so that your immune system works at its best, and to have effective and efficient digestion so you can actually absorb and use the healthy food you take in.

The easiest way to make sure you’re always detoxifying is first to have adequate time between meals to completely digest what you eat normally (3-6 hours- if this feels too long you may have other digestive issues, which I’ll write about in a later post). The second easiest way is to drink freshly boiled water (with spices if needed for your particular imbalance) throughout the day. This stimulates digestion and keeps you hydrated- we’ve had people lose crazy amounts of weight just by replacing whatever they were drinking with this ‘spice water routine.’ Another way is to do an Ayurvedic “fast” weekly. This type of “fasting” makes sure your metabolism doesn’t slow down like it would if you actually stopped eating (why people who fast stop feeling hungry), and that the entire system isn’t weakened (the lining needs food moving through to regenerate itself efficiently and the good bacteria need food too!).

Guidelines for this type of fast are simple. One day a week, take liquid food at your normal meals. This allows your body to have enough easily digestible calories to keep you moving, but gives your digestion a break so it can focus on completely digesting what you take in as well as getting rid of toxins or anything backed up during the week. Fresh juices and briefly boiled milk are great, but thick hearty soups are good too if well cooked, made fresh, and blended fully. Even Dr Weil weighs in on cleanses and recommends an occasional day-long juice fast here.

Further specifics: If you are of thin build, exhausted, or have been told you have a ‘Vata’ imbalance, only one meal should be replaced with liquid. If you are of medium build, normal weight, or have been told you have a ‘Pitta’ imbalance, replace two meals with liquid. If you are of large build, overweight, or have been told you have a ‘Kapha’ imbalance or buildup of ‘ama’ you can replace all three meals with liquid. It’s best not to have cold or heavy liquids (like full strength yogurt or ice cream) or meat (including fish, even blended), during this day–animal proteins take about 2 days to move through your system, while vegetables and carbohydrates only take 24h or less generally. Basically you don’t want to take in something your body has to work hard to ‘cook.’ If you think your intestinal flora may be out of balance, it’s helpful to take lassi made with fresh yogurt and spices and 3-4 parts room temperature water, especially after a fast or panchakarma.

If you are very out of balance or overweight, or just generally feel unhealthy, other recommendations may help more, and I’d suggest you see an Ayurvedic practitioner near you, or shoot me an email if it’s a general question I can answer this way. Being mindful daily about what you take in will help keep you in tune with what your body truly needs, and eating fresh, local, pesticide-free produce will help both you and the environment!

The Meat Issue

The Sustainable Health Nutshell is at the bottom this time! So scroll down if you can’t wait. :)

First, thank you SO much to all of you that came to my presentation! I felt so loved, and it went really well for a first public speaking experiment, 100% because of your great questions and attention! Thank you. Next time will be even better, promise. ;)

Here are a few interesting facts that people who lobby for corn fed cows don’t really want you to know: 1 cup of lentils has as much iron as 4oz of steak… Vegans have the same occurrence of iron-deficiency anemia as the general population (Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1999)… The average person only needs about 10% of calories from protein to be healthy, and more than 40% can cause severe illness (National Research Council in the Journal of Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 2006)… B12 deficiency is not actually inevitable for vegetarians and is not common… Vegetarians have less osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and obesity (I can get you the refs if you like :) )… Vegetarian athletes can win triathlons (Dave Scott actually won 6 Ironman Triathlons as a vegan)… Current widely consumed animal breeds genetically have higher levels of hormones than ever before even without injecting them, since they have been bred to have increased muscle size and therefore available ‘meat…’ It is really hard not to get the basic amount of protein needed from non-animal foods if you eat enough calories. Even rice has some protein for heaven’s sake.

This post isn’t saying vegetarianism or veganism is for everyone. Every individual is different. Eating meat isn’t ‘evil’ or anything of that sort. And eating only vegetable foods means having to mindfully eat combinations of foods to get adequate nutrition (adding eggs and milk products makes it worlds easier of course). Something with so much concentrated energy as an animal can be thought of as medicinal, and can be consumed helpfully by people living in harsh environments and by people that have been depleted by trauma, surgery, illness, or intense suffering. One thing is certain, though. The western diet, with large amounts of corn-fed animal protein eaten daily (cows, pigs, and even farmed salmon are forced to eat corn now), is definitely not healthy for anyone, and is terrible for the health of the planet.

For instance, cows are built to eat grass, but feeding them corn makes them fat quickly (“finishing” in feedlots and “marbling” in steak). It also makes them very sick quickly and changes healthy Omega 3 fats to more inflammatory Omega 6 and 9 fats. The same happens to farmed corn-fed salmon (who clearly didn’t evolve to ingest corn). Michael Pollan has done a lovely review of the corn issue in his books and commentaries so I won’t belabor that point here.

As for the wider environmental impacts, consider that 40% of the world’s agriculture output is currently devoted to livestock production, with 33% of arable land going to produce feed- not for people, but for animals we intend to eat. Imagine if instead of doubling that production as expected, we cut those numbers, say, in half (by consuming less meat), and actually used the land to grow food for people. That would certainly make the worry about feeding the growing population much less overwhelming. And sustainable animal consumption would mean decreasing all of the following: water over-consumption, pollution of the oceans, rivers, and groundwater with petroleum-sourced fertilizers of nitrogen and phosphorus, the destruction of coral reefs, and of course rainforest deforestation…

I propose starting to think about what you eat. Which includes the land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, runoff, soil loss and degradation, and oil-driven transport of the grain that goes into making a cow (about 10 pounds of grain to 1 pound of cow muscle). Think of the concentration of hormones and of pesticides from all that grain the cow ate that now sit in that lovely Omega 6 corn marbling (those are largely fat-soluble, remember from my cholesterol post?). Think about an animal that was miserable the last few months of its life (if not its entire life in the case of most chickens) and how that might effect the energy that you’re making part of yourself when you eat that animal. How about thinking of this idea instead: animals living on a farm close to where you live, eating and going about their lives as they instinctively know how to behave… cared for by farmers who sustainably use the land and resources… perhaps someone like Joel Salatin.

That brings me to the Sustainable Health Nutshell: Treat meat as a treat! If you must eat it, choose pastured and local cow, pig, chicken, eggs, milk, etc. Find heirloom varieties if you can (some can even reproduce by themselves still, and most can fight off illness better and may have fewer extra hormones running through them). If you eat meat at most meals now, consider starting by taking it out of your menu one day per week and replacing it with something else interesting from the wealth of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, websites, and farmers’ market options out there. Eventually aim to eat it once a week or once a month or only on special occasions. These are mindful decisions that will improve both your health and the planet’s.