The 28-day, no alcohol, gluten-free, headache, dizzy, colon cleansing, no caffeine, anti-inflammatory, no soy, Detox.
With local gyms, some doctor’s offices, and even a few restaurants launching cleansing programs, Diablo volunteered one fearless writer to endure the popular “Danville Detox” to see what the fuss is about.
Illustration by Nathalie Dion
I’m in Starbucks and up to my nostrils in latte froth. I’ve signed up for the Danville-based 28 Days to Health Weight Loss and Performance Cleanse, and Brandi Geiger, the program’s bubbly detox leader, is sitting across from me, sipping herbal tea and telling me what my life will taste like for the next month. “No gluten, no dairy, no caffeine, no soy, no sugar, no processed foods, and no alcohol,” says Geiger. “They’re inflammatory foods. Our bodies don’t have the enzymes to break them down and absorb the proteins. . . So, are you excited?”
I’m not so much excited as horrified. I like the idea of cleansing my body, but frankly, what am I going to eat for the next four weeks? To appreciate the real scope of cruelty here, it should be noted that I love a buttery croissant for breakfast, I have a penchant for thickly grated parmesan, I drink too much red wine, and I harbor a fondness for Lunardi’s cheesecake. This is going to be the mother of all diets. “It’s not a diet,” says Geiger, who has a master’s degree in exercise science and a background in nutrition. “It’s a lifestyle change. The purpose of this program is not to starve you. You learn about nutrition, the pH of foods, the glycemic index, and how different foods affect your body. It’s about empowering people to take control of their health.”
But cutting out inflammatory foods is only half the story. During the next four weeks, I will also be detoxifying my body with a cleansing food powder, detox tea, and—wait for it—a colon cleanse. “The water you drink, the air you breathe, the food you eat, and the medications you take all add toxins to your body. We’re going to cleanse you. I want you to know how great you can feel.”
The list of purported benefits is long: more energy, fewer digestive problems, less muscle pain, reduced blood pressure and blood sugar levels, better athletic performance, mental clarity, and—my favorite—less fat on my backside. Just what the doctor ordered, right? Maybe not.
The fact is most doctors and registered dietitians are skeptical about such cleansing programs. “We don’t promote detox diets,” says John Muir Health dietitian Angie Hunt. “We believe the body naturally eliminates most of the toxins we consume or are exposed to.”
She’s also skeptical about the so-called powers of the various supplements that are part of the cleanse. “Due to the lack of evidence-based science behind these, I would not advise their use,” says Hunt. “It appears there is more research to be done to determine their safety and benefits.”
That said, detox diets are no longer just a Hollywood fad. They are popping up in chiropractors’ offices, health clubs, and even doctors’ offices around the country. The East Bay is no exception. Detox programs have taken root in Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Alamo, Pleasanton, and San Ramon, in addition to Danville, where up to 300 people (on-site and online) are completing the 28 Days to Health cleanse every month, some from as far away as New York and Florida. Many are emerging with impressive results.
Chris McCrary, triathlete and president of Danville’s Forward Motion Race Club, lost a few pounds, increased lean muscle, and improved his racing times. Pacheco’s Jon Schlaman was so pleased with his results that he’s done the program four times. The first time, he lost 20 pounds, lowered his blood pressure, and alleviated his back pain. Walnut Creek’s Nancy Robey has a digestive condition that can result in ulcerations and requires an alkaline diet free of acid-forming foods, such as meat, fried food, white bread, cookies, and cakes. “I’ve found the program to be unbelievably life transforming,” says Robey. “I haven’t had one flare-up since.”
Even some family doctors and chiropractors are jumping on the detox train. Walnut Creek’s Dr. Alph Wise and San Ramon’s Dr. Thomas Vamvouris have both been licensed to offer the 28 Days to Health cleanse to patients.
With these endorsements in mind, along with my desire to shed some weight, I decide to give detoxing a shot. I march home from my initial meeting with Geiger filled with inspiration and armed to the teeth with cleanse products: protein powder, soluble fiber, cleanse powder, an alkaline-forming greens powder, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oils), detox tea, colon cleanse tea, fizzy tablets to make natural energy drinks, and some chocolate-flavored weight-loss candy—for emergencies.
The registration fee of $145 (it’s $100 for the online program) does not include the mountain of requisite cleanse products, the cost of which comes to well over $500. But each participant gets a binder chock-full of detox tips, nutritional information, and “clean” recipes, and has the option of attending a weekly group class that includes a private weigh-in.
Each day for the first week, I have one protein shake (blended with soluble fiber and a healthy fat such as coconut flakes) and two small, organic “hormonally balanced” meals. For a woman, that means four ounces of lean protein (like grilled, free-range, grass-fed chicken); one serving of a healthy fat (like olive oil or avocado); one serving of a low-glycemic (helps regulate blood sugar), high-fiber carbohydrate (like leeks, sweet potato, or beans); and unlimited leafy green vegetables. “You can eat as much kale as you want!” says Geiger, as I stumble from my first class.
I won’t lie: Day one is grim. My first shake holds little appeal. It’s rich and gloppy, and it takes me a good hour to get the thing down. Then I feel nauseous. What’s more, a juggernaut-size headache has parked itself between my ears. I can’t tell whether I’m getting sick or if this is my body’s protest at being robbed of sugar and caffeine. I feel like a junkie in rehab.
I’m tired, too. Really tired. So, where’s all this boundless energy I’ve heard so much about? Geiger sheds some light on my misery.
“Everyone gets different symptoms during detox,” she says. “Sugar is like crack. Gluten and caffeine are addictive. So, when you remove these ingredients from your body, you’re going to get withdrawal. It can create headaches, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating.”
Then, there’s the colon cleanse. I dutifully drink it in tea form every other day. I do it with some trepidation (and much gratitude that a tube isn’t involved). “Our intestines are 30 feet long,” says Geiger. “If we don’t eliminate, we start to build up layers of waste in our colons like spackle on a wall. Even healthy foods can start to ferment and become toxic in our colons.”
I’m thankful that I work from home.
On day three, I notice that my often dry, bloodshot eyes are whiter and brighter than they’ve been for a long time. Could it be that I’m finally hydrated? Maybe, but I’m still feeling far from great.
It takes all the self-control I can muster not to snack between meals. I get dizzy spells, and I’m ready to gnaw at the table come dinnertime.
But I’m supposed to eat only every four to six hours. That’s a long time when you’ve lived the life of a sugar-bent grazer. Geiger admits that letting go of the snack factor can be difficult. “People say they have low blood sugar levels and have to eat all the time. But actually, they just need to eat the right foods some of the time. When blood sugars get low, people grab a quick sugar fix, which causes blood sugar levels to go up and down. This leads to diabetes if it goes uncontrolled. If you are eating protein, high-fiber carbohydrates, and healthy fat, this won’t happen.”
Geiger’s right. By the end of the week, my blood sugar seems happy. The headaches and light-headedness have gone, and the fridge no longer torments me between meals. I’ve lost two pounds, and I’m able to work out without collapsing into a crumpled heap. “Exercise is very important throughout this process because you want to sweat out the toxins,” says Geiger. “But exercise means really hitting it hard for an hour. Not walking the dog around the block for 20 minutes.”
Just as I think I’m getting the hang of this, our houseguest arrives. I watch him chow down on a crunchy, buttery, parmesan-coated piece of garlic bread that I baked. I watch him bond with a chilled bottle of Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay. Now this takes self-control.
Week two, we up the ante. I have two shakes and one meal a day, and we introduce the body cleanse powder. Packed with vitamins, minerals, and organ-detoxifying supplements, the powder adds a not unpleasant malt taste to the shakes and makes them much more filling. But the label on the tub reads like a small encyclopedia—what is all this stuff? Geiger points out two key detox ingredients: methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM, a natural sulfur compound found in many foods; and an herb called milk thistle. “Your body needs these supplements in order to release toxins from the fat cells so that they can bind with amino acids and be removed from your system,” says Geiger.
I’m just happy that the cleanse powder makes my liquid meals more satisfying. I’ve got the shake thing down now. I’m even designing my own: chocolate coconut flake and vanilla flax berry. They’re so good, I’m having to restrain myself from knocking them back in 60 seconds. I’ve noticed another result: My skin is clearer.
The detox is speeding up. By the end of week two, I’ve lost another two pounds and gained muscle mass, and I feel good. That is, until Geiger throws a curveball. Week three involves four consecutive days of shakes with no, I repeat, no solid food. A giggling hysteria sets in. “I love it when people give me that reaction,” says Geiger at the end of class. “See how much we focus on food? That’s what we need to get away from. We eat to live, we don’t live to eat.”
But oh, how I love to live to eat! The rationale behind four days of shakes is that we give our digestion a break, stop thinking about food, and have more time to focus on family and friends. But with shakes all day, my focus on food becomes obsessive. I’m miserable. I manage three out of the four days and then succumb to a heaven-sent Greek stuffed chicken.
I don’t lose any weight this week. How’s that for a sharp twist of irony?
Week four, I pull out all the stops. I use water in my shakes instead of almond milk, I exercise harder, and I have smaller evening meals.
I celebrate the impending detox finale with a guilt-free dinner at Piatti in Danville. Ordering from the new gluten-free and cleanse menu, I get a delicious shrimp and bean appetizer and a salmon and spinach entrée. Suddenly, cleansing doesn’t seem quite so bad. The weirdest thing? I’m not even thinking about wine, and my coffee-swilling husband, now my partner in detox, is drinking ginger tea.
My final weigh-in, using a special scale that breaks down your weight into fat, water, and muscle mass, reveals that I’ve lost seven pounds of fat. Not bad. The really good news? According to Geiger, weight can keep dropping postdetox. “Now that you’ve cleansed everything out of your body, it is working so much more efficiently,” she says. “All of a sudden, your body is a lean, mean, functioning machine.”
Day 29. I wake up. Frankly, I feel a bit lost. What now? Coffee and a blueberry muffin? I pace the kitchen in search of something solid for breakfast. But something strange has happened. I might have spent a month dreaming of Zachary’s pizza, but now I’m reluctant to jump off the wagon.
Geiger advises reintroducing inflammatory foods one at a time to pinpoint food sensitivities. I eye the granola (retired from service for a whole month) and decide gluten will be my first battle. It tastes exceptionally good. Later that day, I feel a little bloated. Does this mean I’m gluten sensitive? Not necessarily, says Hunt: “I believe that if you don’t use your gut for certain foods for a while, then you’re going to lose the function to digest them.”
Although the detox is over, graduates of the 28 Days to Health cleanse are encouraged to maintain a “clean” diet (avoiding those inflammatory foods) 80 percent of the time. This quickly proves ambitious for me. A camping trip soon finds me devouring buckets of pasta and snacking endlessly on cookies and chips. A vacation some weeks later takes me to the land of baguettes and Brie. And no, I don’t hold back. But upon my return—and to my happy bewilderment—I find, despite my weeks of delicious indulgences, I’ve lost four more pounds.
How can that be? Maybe Geiger was right, and the cleanse does train your body to be more efficient.
Would I do the program again? Probably not. I trust the doctors who say our bodies are built to get rid of toxins without taking such drastic measures. And I don’t believe I have any gluten or dairy sensitivities. But the cleanse has taught me a lot. I’ve learned, for example, that if I load up on sugary treats, my blood sugar will spike and crash, making me hungrier more often. If I eat chocolate, I still reach for a handful of protein (usually almonds) to slow down that sugar as it travels into my bloodstream. I still drink a lot of water, I still monitor my caffeine intake, and I still guzzle a protein shake after my workouts. I guess some cleanse habits got the best of me.
Not ready for a heavy-duty detox?
Here are Geiger’s tips for cleaner eating.
- Try quinoa: A super high-protein, nutty flavored seed, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) can be substituted for just about any grain. It's gluten-free and packed with essential amino acids, B vitamins, potassium, riboflavin, folic acid, and vitamin E.
-Switch to mineral salt: While table salt is mined from the ground, sea salt is dried from kelp beds in the ocean. Simply put, it contains more minerals and is better for you.
Cut caffeine: According to Geiger, caffeine lowers the pH of our bodies, making us more susceptible to disease. If you don't buy that, buy this: Caffeine raises insulin levels and can mess up blood sugar. Experiment with drinks containing guarana, a South American plant containing B vitamins and a natural caffeine that won't touch your insulin levels.
Get chia seeds: Just 3/5 ounces of chia seeds have the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as 28 ounces of salmon. Add these little powerhouses to protein shakes or baked goods.
Go gluten-free and see what happens. Try using gluten-free brown rice pasta or Udi's gluten-free bread found at Whole Foods and at One Earth in Danville. Gluten-free dining options are available at Piatti and Amber, gluten-free cupcakes at Miglet's bakery, and gluten-free pizza at Jules Thin Crust.
Replace sugar with natural substitutes like xylitol and erythritol, both available at Whole Foods. Or try a low-glycemic option like coconut sugar (also known as palm sugar) or brown rice syrup.
Add lemon to your water, tea and juice: "Lemon juice is the most alkaline-forming beverage you can drink." Says Geiger.
Make your own salad dressing: Commercial dressings tend to be high in sugar and preservatives. Make your own, and experiment with coconut and apple cider vinegars (they have less sugar than balsamic).
Cleanest alcohol? Vodka. "Add fiber powder to martinis," says Geiger. "It will bulk up in your system, combine with the sugars and alcohols, and slow them down into your blood stream."
Best candy bar? Almond snickers. The nuts and fat put the brakes on the sugar.
Is the science real?
Brandi Geiger, leader of the 28 Days to Health cleanse, has a lot of diet advice for her clients. But is all this stuff for real? We ran a few of her recommendations on hot-button dietary topics by Angie Hunt, a registered dietician at John Muir Health.
A mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, gluten can be found in bread, flour, pasta, cookies, beer, and many other products. One in 133 people suffer from celiac disease (a serious gluten allergy), but many more are thought to be gluten sensitive.
Geiger: How many people are tired all the time? How many have gastrointestinal problems and autoimmune disorders? Gluten is a huge factor in people’s health. You don’t need to have celiac disease for it to be bad for you. A lot of people are sensitive to it and don’t realize it.
Hunt: Not everyone is sensitive to gluten. If you’re not having problems, there’s no need to eliminate it from your diet. Get a blood test and biopsy to see if you have an allergy. If it’s not showing up as a true allergy and you’re just sensitive to it, then keep a food diary. Be careful with gluten-free diets because you can actually develop nutrient deficiencies if you’re not really diligent about meal planning.
Many people use soy as a healthy protein option. It’s good for us, right?
Geiger: It’s an inflammatory.
Hunt: There are definite benefits from eating soy. You can get some great natural estrogens from it. Not everyone can tolerate it, but if you are one of those who can, use it.
On the pH scale (zero being acidic and 14 alkaline), the human body should sit a nudge above seven. According to Geiger, some foods can make the human body too acidic.
Geiger: If we have too much meat, alcohol, and fried and salty foods, we become too acidic, and thus a breeding ground for disease.
Hunt: There is no hard scientific evidence that suggests following a diet of alkaline or acidic foods changes the blood pH of our bodies. The stomach has an acidic environment to chemically alter food, and the kidneys and lungs work to maintain the pH of the body. If it’s too high or low, our body naturally brings it back within a normal range.