Sunday, June 16, 2013

Screw Hunger! (More on the Clean Program)

I can’t starve myself. No matter how pretty the book jacket, handsome the doctor or cute the packaging, if deprivation is at the core of a regimen or lifestyle, it’s not going to work long-term for me or anyone else with a beating heart. Unless you’ve got a little crack stash in your purse, you won’t fare well with hunger. Take it from someone who tried it first in the 6th grade, and then again in high school, and probably a few times in college – hunger equals failure. Trust me, I was 30 pounds heavier (sometimes a little more) when I screwed around with deprivation. It messes with your mind and your metabolism. And it makes you a little sad.  Or permanently pissed off. Either way, not worth it.

The Clean Program isn’t exactly a piece of cake, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than being hungry or frustrated with unexplained physiological changes. You have to wrap your head around a few temporary habits (most notably, the absence of chewing in the morning and at night) and hopefully adjust to some that will become new lifestyle choices. The “holy shit” moments when you discover what has been causing heart burn or constipation or mood swings for 15 years make the uncomfortable moments well worth it. You might get a few headaches or be inconsolable every morning when you first ditch the coffee, but in return for your sacrifice you get a front row seat to the most engrossing science experiment you can imagine.  It was fascinating to watch what was happening to my body as I removed all the gunk that was clouding my self-awareness during recovery and in some cases, for years before. In the end I enjoyed an unprecedented level of clarity around the interdependent relationship between food, alcohol, sleep, stress, exercise and elimination that I pray I don’t lose as time wears on.

You begin with an elimination period, during which you remove common allergens and toxic triggers including gluten, dairy, nightshades, corn, soy, peanuts, red meat, processed meats, alcohol, sugar and more. (I know you’re thinking “what the hell can I eat?!” Put down the Cheetos and read the book before freaking out. ) Your next step is to transition to liquid meals in the morning and evening. You’ll be surprised by how fulfilling these high protein, high (good) fat, high fiber, extremely nutrient dense smoothies and soups are. You can have fresh juices in between “meals” and snacks like apples with almond butter or raw veggies and hummus if you need more. Your solid meal (at lunch) might be grilled chicken with mango and wild rice (a favorite of mine) or lamb skewers with apple and onion (another favorite.)

The first few days will range from a little tough to terribly miserable, depending on how many toxins are in your pre-existing diet. I have an uncommon amount of allergies and because I don’t love acne, rashes and weeks of constipation, I avoid dairy, gluten and processed foods as much as I can stand to. The first 3 days for me mostly included sugar cravings, random sneezing fits and a desperate need for naps I obviously didn’t have the time to take. I also missed chewing a lot in days 2-3. Beyond that, the “withdrawal period” was kind of like PMS – inconvenient and irritating, but not life-altering. If you are used to 3 cups of coffee every morning, 2 glasses of wine every night, pizza or burger lunches followed by afternoon fro-yo, a cigarette or two after dinner and ice cream in front of the TV before bed, you might have black-outs and seizures in the withdrawal period. That may or may not be an exaggeration, but if that’s your jumping off point, the first few days will be more difficult for you than they are for people that have healthier, cleaner habits to begin with.  Just sayin.

While you’re eating amazing whole foods like fresh fruits and veggies, seeds, nuts, quinoa, wild game, fish and more and drinking unexpectedly satisfying smoothies and soups, you take some supplements and drink beverages like lemon water or “Natural calm” to help the process along. You’re also to ensure you get enough sleep, hydrate well, exercise more moderately, poop every day, and always leave a 12 hour window between your last meal of the previous day and your first meal of the day. You’re also encouraged to do some optional activities that help your body cleanse, restore and rejuvenate its systems. Meditation, massages, laughter, wellness education, journaling, and more massages were my favorite additions. In essence, you take amazing care of yourself for about a month. It’s a total labor of love - just for you.

Along the way you’ll likely experience peculiar side-effects that are less bothersome and more encouraging. They underscore the effects of what we consume on our bodies and almost restore your faith in the theories as you move forward. I was like a poster child for the mild side-effects and I freakishly enjoyed that. It validated what I was doing and made me feel increasingly excited for what came next. If the book was so right about the wild vivid dreams, headaches, and sleep patterns, those stories about the glowing skin, energy surges, clockwork regularity, mood stabilization and clarity must be true too! And they were.

By the end of the Clean Program, I felt healthier, stronger, more in control of my body and more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have. Yes, I’ve done a lot of prep work over the past 10 years, but I believe the program pushed me over the threshold to a new level of feeling in tune with my physical and emotional needs. It gave me the nudge I needed to return to being kind to myself, inside and out. The lymphatic swelling I’ve had in my right leg for over 2 years dissipated to almost nothing. Miraculously, the spinal and peripheral nerve pain I’ve grown accustomed to was reduced to a quiet hum at worst. My digestion has finally become as predictable as my morning alarm. I left the house one morning and turned to B and said “my skin hasn’t looked this good since I was a baby.” I was very serious. He agreed. My hair and nails felt stronger, my skin tighter. The puffiness under my eyes went away, as did the lingering water retention and bloat I experience from cheating with dairy and wheat. I could go on and on.

Trust the “tried everything once former fat kid.” There are no quick fixes with weight loss or whatever it is that ails you. There are band-aids, yes, but the most logical, intuitive approaches to wellness are the ones that will work long term. Whether or not you decide to try the Clean Program, start with small changes and build upon them at a pace that is comfortable for you. Do the best that you can with the body you were born with, the resources you have access to and the means at your disposal. Set realistic but ambitious goals so you aren’t setting yourself up to fail but you feel triumphant and proud of yourself when you reach milestones or start to feel the benefits of your healthier choices. Whatever you do, make a commitment to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. Commitment. If you can manage to honor a commitment to your mental and physical well-being at least most of the time, the rest will follow. It really will.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Clean Program Part 2

I ordered “Clean” by Dr. Alejandro Junger on Amazon and began reading it within a few days. By the time I picked up that book, it had been 8 months since surgery, my wedding was 3 months away, I was still in pain every day and my body simply did not feel like my own. I wanted to dance at my wedding without fearing the price I might pay for a twist or dip into my fiancĂ©'s arms. I wanted to feel like myself again and eliminate the temptation of old familiar habits and comforting myself with food. I was sick of feeling weak and vulnerable. I had a lot of healing to do.  I remember reading the book’s subtitle, “The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself” and thinking, “yes please.”

The book opens with powerful stories of healing and dramatic health changes that were surprising enough to me to inspire nothing but skepticism at first. But I kept reading (I was really in that “I’ll try anything” place,) and eventually I got to a point where I kept nodding my head at the book like a weirdo (by myself on the bus,) or widening my eyes with childlike excitement (which B found rather entertaining.) Once I got through enough of the anecdotal evidence, read about Dr. Junger’s personal experiences with stress, diet and lifestyle, and skimmed over the familiar basics on toxicity, I thought “Jesus. This makes a lot of sense.” (Full disclosure: you’re not going to politically or philosophically agree with everything the guys says. And in my opinion, you don’t have to. That would just be bizarre. But try to keep an open mind and entertain the idea that he is on to something.)  

In summary, Dr Junger’s theory is that we create a war zone in our bodies by consuming processed, inflammatory, acidic  - or in a nutshell, harmful – food and beverages. Then we slather synthetic, funky stuff on top of our bodies, in our hair, on our faces. Throw in toxic substances in our homes (cleaning products, etc,) coming out of our cars and in the air we breathe. Our bodies spend so much energy fighting all these internal, external and environmental battles, that we are ill-equipped to face disease, illness, stress or even silly things like food poisoning. We’re a bunch of sad sacks with overwhelmed bodies and overwhelmed minds. 

“Clean” challenges you to remove as many of the above barriers to overall health and well-being over a 21-30 day process that requires mindfulness, discipline and focus.  Wipe your slate clean so you can have a clear, unadulterated understanding of what your body and mind need to operate as the well-oiled machine it is intended to be. Help the machine "remove, restore and rejuvenate" through a series of pretty simple behavior modifications. Sacrifice a bunch of crap your body doesn’t need anyway; instead nourish it with bold, bright, beautiful fruits and vegetables and wonderful things like wild game and ancient grains. Go easy on yourself while your body is doing the hard work of purging years of Twinkie plaque and ice cream mucus. Help the process along with long walks, steams, meditation, massages, plenty of sleep and rest.  Emerge  feeling like a superhero. Yes, a superhero. That is the only way to describe how I started to feel by day 6. There is no other word that could communicate the combination of energy, clarity, happiness and empowerment that this process yielded for me.

But, as is the case with anything worth anything in life, it isn’t easy. Or cheap. Or comfortable. Or fast. But boy does it work.

Next up: The Dirty Details and Why They’re Worth Dealing With (You didn’t think I’d be all “sunshine and roses” about it did you?)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Clean Program: Part 1

Most of us are completely out of touch with our bodies. We’ve been drowning out the signals sent by our digestive and nervous systems for so long that it’s become difficult to isolate what ails us, and almost impossible to define solutions.  Every day, a million different factors stand between us and our optimal state of well-being. Work, stress, lack of sleep, familial and social demands, personal issues, poor diets and more prevent us from feeling strong, healthy and clear minded. We seem to save money and make time for everything and anything except what’s most important – proactively caring for ourselves.

To some people, recovery from spinal surgery might feel like a game of Chutes and Ladders crossed with a painfully slow round of Monopoly. To me, a physically and socially active, hard-working, always multi-tasking woman, it was more like water boarding. About 8 months after having back surgery, I was frustrated not only with the unexpected duration but with my inability to stay on track with my usual healthy diet and exercise routine throughout recovery. I tried like hell to keep my chin up and to keep perspective, but at times recovery felt like an endless stretch of undulating pain and frustration marked with milestones too small and far between to bear.  Just when I started to feel like myself again, I would have some setback or surge in nerve pain that sent me right to the Peanut M&M’s or if it was bad enough, Suzie cakes. I could have taken pain killers and zoned out in front of the TV, but that simply wasn’t an option for me. Instead I engaged in a tug-of-war with my pain and recovery – refusing to let it take anything away from me and demanding cupcakes as consolation.

I tried to ride it out with a smile on my face. God did I try. But the inconsistent results of my consistent focus and determination left me in uncharted territory. I felt completely and utterly powerless and that is not a position I do well in. I did my best to avoid old habits every time the pain crept back up or kept me awake at night, but as work intensified through the winter and my wedding countdown began, it became increasingly difficult to resist comforting myself with food (and then punishing myself with exercise or restricted eating.) I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I couldn’t fix myself and move on. For the first time in years, there were days when I was dangerously close to crossing the line between that weakened, vulnerable state and self-destructive. At a time in my life when I needed to be more in tune with my bodies needs than ever, I simply couldn't afford to wrap myself in the ironically suffocating comfort of old familiar habits. I knew I needed to do something dramatically different to pull myself out before I got in any deeper. I had come too far to sink back into those muddied waters.
I voiced my need to get back on track for good to a close girlfriend of mine after a weekend of debauchery in LA. She immediately suggested I look into the Clean Program. I entered the name into my phone's note pad and strolled out of the airport. Little did I know her recommendation would not only get me back on track with my diet and well-being, it would reduce my pain to almost non-existent, remedy some other minor nagging issues I had previously dealt with and most importantly, give me a sense of clarity and perspective I have never experienced before.