Upon rising, I'll drink 32 ounces of warm water mixed with two teaspoons of sea salt. While pretending it's hot-and-sour soup, I'll chug it like a frat boy pounds a pitcher. I'll spend the next two hours in or near a bathroom, preferably with a good book and better toilet paper. Later, I'll make my breakfast: two tablespoons of lemon juice and Grade B maple syrup, 8 ounces of water and a pinch of cayenne.
This isn't just my breakfast; it's my lunch, dinner and snacks; I am to drink anywhere from six to 12 glasses of this a day. I'm not to eat or drink anything else, save water and the occasional cup of mint tea.
I am doing this voluntarily.
It's called the Master Cleanse.
Portland's so revered for its culinary bounty that it's hard to imagine why someone would voluntarily abstain from our luscious fruit, artisan breads and wholesome cheese—all for a beverage that's like a bar mitzvah prank.
But sometimes you don't know what you've got till you take it away.
This past spring, I couldn't run or exercise due to a calf injury, but was, regardless, still gorging on coffeecake. I was polishing off another brick of it when a friend called, raving about transformative lemonade.
Let's get this straight: I'm not fat. I usually weigh about 125 to 130. I'm 5-foot-8. At this couch-potato stage, I weighed 135. Jeans fit snugger but weren't Fatty McFatpants. Nor do I have an eating disorder (despite the rumor spread by that horrible girl in college).
The Master Cleanse is a detox program. It's a fast in that you don't eat any solid food for its 10-day duration. It's not a complete fast—you're taking in some calories. But for simplicity, I'm going to refer to it as a fast.
The Master Cleanse was developed in the 1940s by natural healer Stanley Burroughs, and is described in his 1976 eponymous book, The Master Cleanse, available att New Seasons and Whole Foods. The premise: Since digesting food consumes energy, eliminating solids takes the energy used for digestion and uses it to heal other areas of the body. The lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper loosen and break up excess mucus, while providing energy and necessary vitamins. The fast should be followed for a minimum of 10 days.
This time of year is right for it: Portland's Dr. Steven Bailey, a naturopathic physician at Northwest Naturopathic Clinic and author of The Fasting Diet and the upcoming Juice Alive, recommends that would-be fasters choose the Master Cleanse in the summer, as it's a "cooling" cleanse." In the winter, we need the heat created from digesting solid food to keep warm, but in the hot summer the lack of that thermal energy is more bearable.
Some local docs approach fasting with skepticism and concern. Dr. Ellen Michaelson of HealthMax in Northwest Portland says there's "no medical reason for it," except for pre-surgery fasting. But local naturopathic physician Dr. Jason Barker feels that fasting might relieve the "toxic burden" of pollution, additives and indulgence.
In fact, Dr. Bailey says he's taken "thousands of people" through fasts over the course of the past 20 years—at least 2,000 in the Portland metro area alone—and leads regular Rose City group fasts every spring and fall. He boasts a patient completion rate of 98 percent for his program.
So who is master cleansing, besides masochists like me? Statistics are hard to come by. Bailey says there's been a "moderate increase" in people who consult him about fasting. While there are fasting retreats in cities such as Santa Cruz and Sedona, and centers in California for water fasting, the combination of Portland's multiple colleges of healing arts and fresh juice availability makes the city an apparent fasting Mecca.
Locally, those who fast do it for many reasons. "The Master Cleanse I did helped me initiate changes in my diet, and I like the way it made me feel," says Sara Wood, a student at Portland's National College of Naturopathic Medicine, who also works as a server at a Lake Oswego Chili's. "The lemonade kept me full and is easy to prepare," she says. "I actually had more energy on the Cleanse than when I went off it. But I did feel a little spacey, forgetting things I normally wouldn't."
Northeast Portlander Joni Ryan, a local Direct TV marketing manager who's a two-time Master Cleanse vet, acknowledges the fast is definitely not for everyone. "For me, it isn't about losing weight," she explains, her skin emitting a healthy post-Cleanse glow. "It's about healing myself and cleansing the body and the mind."
Wait a minute, isn't the body designed to detox on its own? "Almost no one's body is keeping ahead of the curve nowadays," Dr. Bailey tells me. "The body's historical function has to be [discarded], given our man-made environment."
And a large part of any detox program means, ahem, discarding. While colonics are practiced widely today—Portland alone has 11 facilities—they're unnecessary when you're on a Master Cleanse. That's because the salt-water drink acts as an enema; every morning it felt like I was preparing for a colonoscopy.
In fact, you need a strong stomach—in many ways—to do the Master Cleanse, because you spend a lot of time feeling gross. In fact, naturopathic physician Dr. Marnie Loomis, who teaches nutrition at NCNM, doesn't recommend fasting precisely for that reason. "I know too many people who feel really terrible when they're fasting."
I don't know if I felt terrible as much as everyone else smelled terrible: By Day 7, my sense of smell turned canine. I smelled Doritos from a block away. Riding the bus, I could tell who'd showered and how long the un-showered had gone without.
I monitored myself for improvements. Part of the Master Cleanse
program involves studying your tongue, which is supposed to appear white and fuzzy while fasting; when it's completely pink, you're done. I stuck it out so much I felt like a long-lost KISS
member—but saw no change.
But I didn't quit. I stuck it out the full 10.
When you complete a fast, you can't just grab a Big Mac; you must gradually progress to solid food. The first day off, I could only drink a few glasses of orange juice, slowly. When I did, I swear every orange molecule turned cartwheels in my mouth. Over the second and third days, I slowly reintroduced broth and vegetables.
I followed up with my doctor. My blood pressure and pulse were notably lower, but neither was high to begin with. As for weight, I'd lost 15 pounds.
So I went shopping. And when I saw myself in the three-way mirror at the Washington Square Nordstrom, I screamed.
I had cellulite.
Since I'd dieted without exercising, I'd lost lean muscle mass. I could wear jeans—effortlessly—but didn't want to take them off.
Oddly enough, though, my brain didn't feel flaccid. I don't know about any kind of personal spiritualism, but I did slow down. I read, took walks, ruminated. I don't know if I was just lightheaded, but my mind did feel less cloudy. I totally get why every religion contains a fasting component.
On the whole, fasting's not me, though. I get a similar sense of thoughtfulness and completion when I finish a long run. For me, it's more like a parlor trick—hey! Lookit me! I can exist on weird, spicy lemonade! For 10 days!
Besides, coffeecake rocks.
Dr. Steven Bailey can be contacted at Portland's Northwest Naturopathic Clinic, 2606 NW Vaughn St., 224-8083.
PSA: Do NOT embark on anything like this without first contacting your doctor. I saw both an MD and ND before starting the Master Cleanse, and you should also.