Last year after my heart attack scare, I began taking a long, cold, hard look at my eating habits and lifestyle. As a result of copious medical testing, it gradually became clear that my alarmingly high blood pressure wasn’t due to any acute event (like renal stenosis or cancer, for example). I was labeled with “essential hypertension,” which means my blood pressure was high and was likely going to stay high without the help of medication. Unless something major changed, I was stuck with it.
I got on the pills like a good girl, but was worried about what might happen in the future. Knowing my family’s extensive history of heart attacks, diabetes and strokes, I was concerned that if I was already this far along with my blood pressure at 39 years old, in another 10 or 15 years I might really be in bad shape. I could see myself getting onto an ever growing list of prescriptions in the coming years, suffering an increasing number of side effects and medication interactions, all the while with my health in an continuous downhill slide.
Cleaning Up My Diet
So I started working on cleaning up my diet. I checked out stacks and stacks of books from the library and learned all I could about eating a “heart healthy” diet. I started with the DASH diet, then went to the Mediterranean Diet, and then tried the Vegeterranean Diet. I started weighing my food and learning how small “1 serving” of meat is and how enormous “1 serving” of vegetables is. All this time I had thought I was eating a fairly healthy diet, but I found out how imbalanced it was. I got rid of the salty snacks I was addicted to and replaced them with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I also started dabbling in yoga and meditation.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
And I felt some improvement. For a while. Eating all of those fruits and vegetables left me feeling more full than I expected. My blood pressure held steady with my medication and improved diet. But after a few months, it started creeping back up again. Plus I began to notice a bevy of other troubling symptoms: pain in my lower abdomen, daily flashes of chest pain, a twitch in my left eye. I contacted my doctor about the symptoms, but she was not concerned about them a bit, given that my full cardiac workup had come back clean.
I found her lack of concern troubling. Having a stabbing pain in my heart every day that took my breath away was not, I felt, something I could just live with.
Taking the Next Step
So I thought I would try something else. I began listening to this set of lectures by Dr. Mimi Guarneri, a cardiologist with the Scripps Center and one of the pioneers of integrative medicine. It inspired me to try an elimination diet and a cleanse. A friend recommended to me this book by Dr. Alejandro Junger, called simply Clean. I read it cover to cover, intrigued by the possibility that certain foods might be causing underlying inflammation in my body that was manifesting as high blood pressure. I decided to give a 21-day cleanse a try.
The results were startling. Within two days of getting off coffee and alcohol, I was shocked to wake up on the third day more alert than I’d felt in years. After a few more days, a fog of sluggishness and depression that I wasn’t even aware had surrounded me began to lift. Over the course of the next weeks, the acne on my face began to clear up, the bumps I’d had my whole life on the backs of my arms almost disappeared. The eye twitching lessened. I felt more calm and centered. I lost a few pounds (though I wasn’t overweight to begin with) as well as a few inches at my belly. And most importantly, the chest pain and organ pain I’d been feeling had completely disappeared.
The most shocking thing that happened during the cleanse, however, was the dramatic drop in my blood pressure. At one point, my numbers dropped to the very bottom end of what is considered a “normal” blood pressure. So low that I was concerned taking my BP medication might depress my numbers below what is safe. So I went off my medication for a few weeks. My numbers mostly stayed consistently low, but I ended up having a couple of big spikes up that led me to go back on the medication, although at such a low dose that my doctor is skeptical that the medication is even doing anything at all.
Although I wasn’t able/willing to stay off my BP medication long term, the experiment of doing the cleanse was powerful. It showed me that the food I put into my body can have a major impact on my health on multiple fronts. Cleaning up my diet was solving problems I didn’t even know were solvable!
The only trouble is, eating like that all the time is tough to sustain. The Clean cleanse program involves removing all of these things from your diet during the cleanse: caffeine, alcohol, sugar, gluten, eggs, dairy, strawberries, corn, soy, citrus, bananas, nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant and all varieties of peppers). It involves consuming 2 liquid meals a day, generally a shake in the morning and a soup at dinner time for me. It involves preparing 100% of your food from scratch. No convenience foods, no prepared snacks, nothing out of a package. Unless you buy their prepared shakes and foods, which I did not.
Preparing 100% of my food for 28 days (I did a 7 day elimination diet prior to the 21 day cleanse) was a revelation for me. I had never cooked that much in my life. As a busy working mom who enjoys eating out, I had no concept of what it’s like to cook 3 meals a day. Especially when you are making all of your sauces, dips and dressings yourself from scratch. It was much more chopping and cooking than I was used to. Plus, since I didn’t expect the kids to eat what I was eating, it often meant cooking a second alternate dinner for them.
A Sustainable, Healthy Path for the Whole Family
I think a cleanse is a valuable thing to do 2-4 times per year, just to keep oneself on track and tuned up. Although admittedly, I’ve only managed one myself this year. What I’m striving for in between cleanses is to establish eating habits that are healthy and sustainable. I’m striving to retrain myself, to learn to crave the foods that are good for me, and to let go of the foods that are addictive and harmful.
The other thing is, it’s one thing to eat “clean” when you are single, or even married. But when you are cooking for a family, and your kids are lobbying for chicken nuggets every night, it’s a tough uphill climb. Not to mention how short on time we often feel at the center of a busy family. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last year in our family. Some of the things my kids wouldn’t go near before, they are gradually getting accustomed to. As we’ve cut sugar way back, they enjoy fruit so much more. And it makes me glow with pride when I serve something up and one of them asks, “Is this a healthy food, Mom?” They are learning to be mindful of what they put into their bodies.
Let’s Keep Going!
I hope you’ll join me on this journey as I learn more about cooking simple, healthy food that anyone can enjoy. Somehow sharing what I learn motivates me to keep making forward progress.
How about you? Have you ever tried a cleanse? How did it change you?