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Cleansing Me Softly

Blasting your bodily carburetor doesn't require a juice fast


Published January 19, 2011 at 6:47 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen

It’s the first of January. You awaken with a headache, swearing off wine, cheese sauces, shortbread — everything that made December a glorious gastronomic blur. For you and the rest of the Western world, it’s time for a cleanse. You resolve to drop sugar, alcohol, wheat, dairy and caffeine for at least a month. The first day goes well, perhaps because you’re in bed by nine.

It’s the fifth of January. You’ve given up sugar for a few days, drunk a few kale smoothies. Then you trip over a currant scone at a coffee shop, and one dietary slip makes a too-ambitious plan come tumbling down like a house of cards. Again.

It’s the 12th of January, and again you try to rein in your baser food impulses, growing more severe and masochistic in your plans. You buy piles of vegetables for stock, lemons and maple syrup for hot elixirs, psyllium to scrape the colon clean. It will be the ultimate fasting cleanse, the one you never finished last year. Soon, brain fog sets in as toxins flood your bloodstream.

Mmm, not so fast. Though you may feel all gunked up from the holidays, January is, sadly, not the season for a full-on flush. Timing is everything, and a high-drama winter flush is inclined to failure. “Winter’s not the time to do a big cleanse or fast. It just doesn’t make you happy,” says Laura Savard, the co-owner of and holistic health counselor at All Wellness in Burlington and a certified holistic nutritionist.

Chinese herbal medicine holds that fasts and cleanses are best undertaken in the spring, “when people have the sense that they’re coming out of the dark winter and into the light. They want to shed layers, literally and figuratively,” says Marcy Balter, owner and director of Interlude, a personalized cleansing and retreat center in South Londonderry. A board member at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and once a hardcore supporter of a raw-food diet, Balter holds “warming” foods in higher esteem during the cold months — even oil and salt.

While cleansing is a familiar concept these days, its history is full of oddities. After the Civil War, a physician named James Salisbury used his experience treating the loose bowels of Union soldiers to declare that vegetables and grains actually harmed our insides, and that people were best served by a diet of coffee and boiled minced beef. His contribution to the American diet was the enduring Salisbury steak. The doctor thought that, ingested three times daily with copious amounts of water, it would cleanse the body of its ills.

Minced, boiled or fried beef has dubious health benefits — but even cleanses from the holistic crowd can get wacky. Balter once went on a watermelon diet for a few days, “and you’re up so high when you do that,” she says. “You feel out of your head. I wouldn’t even suggest experimenting with it.”

Some of us, though, love extremes. One Seven Days staffer’s wife advocates for three days of apples followed by a quarter cup of olive oil. “I was dreaming of doughnuts. It was a great intestinal cleanse,” she says.

For those who want to take it a little easier, experts such as Balter say the most effective kind of snowy-weather inner scrub involves a few simple tenets: slowing down your digestion; coaxing your liver to bile up; capturing free radicals with cocoa, blueberries or green tea; and keeping your gut flora happy and warm.

Kicking the system down a notch for a seasonal rest is key, says Savard. “Your digestion is always going, and your body is working really hard,” she says. “When you’re always eating, you’re never in that slow-down mode.” One way Savard changes the pace is by substituting one meal during a day with a liquid, such as a smoothie, juice or broth.

Most cleansing regimens recommend foods that caress your battered liver and calm the hostile innards of an inflamed colon. If you can eliminate these organs’ great offenders —coffee, beer, red meat, cake and bread — you’ll give them wide berth to do their jobs that much more effectively. Here are a few cleansing helpers; the sidebars are recipes that incorporate them.


An elixir of herbs such as gentian, angostura bark, orange peel and quinine, bitters are best known for their ability to calm a roiling stomach, but, on a more profound level, they coax the liver to up its production of bile. The liver being king of detoxification and toxin removal, this is most definitely a good thing.

A century ago, bitters were common in the American liquid diet. And “they still are in Europe,” says Guido Masé, who grew up in Italy but now lives in Montpelier and works as the clinical herbalist for Urban Moonshine Bitters, a Burlington company that produces herbal bitters. He pointed out that pre-dinner aperitifs (such as Campari) and post-dinner digestifs are still the norm across the Atlantic. At American meals, beer and vodka have taken their place. “We’ve lost the medicinal component of happy hour,” Masé laments.

“In every bar in the world is a true herbal remedy,” says Jovial King, founder and owner of Urban Moonshine. A bracing 802 Old Fashioned at the Bluebird Tavern may spike your bile production, though its alcohol content blunts the effect. But a squirt of bitters in a glass of water or tea each morning can stimulate digestive enzymes.

Come spring, bitter greens such as dandelion greens and escarole can be blended into salads for a leafy liver wake-up call. In the depths of winter, we can look to endive and radicchio to accomplish the same task.


When the cold creeps up your sleeves and across your back, curries are an ideal antidote on a number of levels. Not only do cinnamon, turmeric, coriander and ginger warm the system, but they move clogging compounds up (or down) and out. “Using some of these spices helps clear mucus out of the body,” says Morella Devost, a founding partner of Transformation One in Winooski and student of Ayurveda. Turmeric, especially, is “an incredible anti-inflammatory.” Put an inch or two in a glass with water, swirl it around and swallow. Or compose a vegetable curry with local root vegetables — the ultimate winter food.


Raw, chopped, sautéed, powdered. Any which way, it fights fungus, inflammation and vampires.

Cacao nibs

Chocolate may be the Achilles heel of many food addicts, but the bean from which it springs has four times the antioxidants of green tea and lifts our mood by stimulating endorphins and serotonin. It’s the yum factor in Savard’s morning smoothie. Devost says cacao is “the king of antioxidants” and the most magnesium-rich food around. Nibs or powdered cacao can be sprinkled on granola or ice cream and blended into herbal teas (or, hell, even into coffee).


Though citrus’ cleansing moment is more toward spring, lemons are the muscle behind the Master Cleanse, the legendary draconian regimen of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and warm water — and little else — for 10 days.

For those who eschew that extreme, puckery, flavorful lemon concoctions increase body temperature and circulate and clear toxins. Taken in the morning before a regular meal, a lemon/cayenne/maple elixir “is great for circulation,” according to Balter. It’s the principle behind the solid reputation of hot toddies (lemon, whiskey, sugar, hot water) and hot teas with lemon.

Grapefruit also has cred as a flush. Balter (who’s in Florida this winter) recently underwent a daily morning regimen of the fresh-squeezed juice of one pink grapefruit with one or two pressed garlic cloves, two tablespoons of olive oil or flax-seed oil, and one tablespoon of soy lecithin. “My eyes seemed brighter, and my joints don’t ache,” she says.

Lots of liquidity

“You can’t wash a car without water,” says Devost. “The general rule for cleansing is an ounce of water for every two pounds of body weight.” For a medium-sized person, the human car wash is 12 glasses a day. But teas of steeped dandelion greens, ginger or nettles, all tonic and cleansing for the system, will pass through you like so much sand. Muddy Waters in Burlington has a juice bar offering kale, celery, beets, ginger, apples, carrots and parsley.

If the thought of so much green goodness makes you wince, perhaps a bitter cocktail is in order. The ice will melt, eventually.