Illustration by Jihyang Lim

I Tried A 21-Day Cleanse And This Is What I Learned

Clean is a state of mind

I've had a colonic. I've gone to an infrared sauna. I've laid upon a bed made up of LED lights and basked in their glow with nothing to entertain me but my own mind for an hour (and yet the hour flew by—magical!). I've done all these things and countless other beauty and wellness treatments (some in the name of journalism, others in the name of "I really, really just want to try this—it looks super cool"), but none of them have garnered the amount of questions as did my experience with Dr. Alejandro Junger's 21-Day Clean Program, a feat which I attempted during a stretch of time in which I had vowed to live more GOOP-like.

I embarked on this particular adventure for all the usual, aforementioned reasons: journalism and wanting to try things because they look super cool. I assiduously sought out different treatments and experiences that came recommended in the GOOP newsletter and found myself wondering when exactly anyone with a job and friends and family and a life and a job could possibly have the time to fit aerial yoga, sound baths, and hours of foam rolling into their daily schedule. All of which is to say, the GOOP girl is a very busy, very toned woman who manages her time far better than I. Good for her! 

But amidst all the recommendations to go on retreats in Sedona, Arizona, make smoothies with Sex Dust, and exercise with Tracy Anderson, one thing stood out to me as something I absolutely must do: Dr. Alejandro Junger's 21-Day Clean Program. Dr. Junger is a frequent expert advisor on GOOP; he's a cardiologist with an incredibly impressive resume who has written extensively and lucidly about the powers of detoxing through diet and the mind-gut connection. And while in many areas of my life, I'm a highly skeptical person, I am one of the many, many women who find themselves drawn—perhaps now more than ever before—to all things "wellness" related in a not exactly guileless, but certainly a want-to-believe kind of a way. There are a few reasons for this (the very real appeal of cults and group-thinking are certainly one of them), but the main thing for me is that I know I am always going to be looking for a way to feel more at home in my body, and to feel as strong a connection as possible between it and my mind—and paying attention to what I eat is a big part of that. 

That said, I was not someone who was automatically on board with doing a three-week cleanse. Three weeks is a long time! And I have, in my day, done a couple of juice cleanses, and the end results were decidedly mixed. Sure, my skin seemed lit from within by the light of a million supermoons, but also, I was really hungry, and the surface of my teeth felt fuzzy, and it's boring not to chew. Plus, the juice cleanses I have done in the past lasted four, five days, which is not such a long time actually. Like, it was a long time to not have food, but it wasn't long enough to establish new, healthy patterns. It was a sprint, and I was pretty sure I needed a marathon. The only problem with that, of course, is that marathons are really fucking long, and what if I got bored while doing it? That would be terrible. I hate to quit things, and, as a woman in today's society, I'm pretty sure I can pull off any self-deprivation challenge someone could throw at me, so I probably wouldn't quit, I'd just be really hungry and frustrated. And that would be terrible.

But so, pretty quickly after looking around Dr. Junger's Clean Program website, I realized that the boredom I felt during my juice cleanses was not likely to be replicated. For one, this is not a purely liquid diet; I would definitely be eating on this cleanse. The Clean Program consists of multiple daily supplements, two shakes, and a hearty lunchtime meal. There is a whole list of restricted foods (the usual suspects: wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, coffee, nightshades, and a few that were less expected like strawberries and bananas and citrus), but there is actually a wide-enough variety of available foods that I was confident I wouldn't grow bored with my meals. And after speaking with the wonderful Emily from the Clean Program, I grew even more confident. Emily explained to me that everyone on the cleanse has access to the Clean Program team for support and guidance throughout the 21 days. This service is incredibly helpful, as is the existing Clean Program community, because it's impossible to feel alone and unmoored while engaging with the program. 

I chose to do the Clean Program for the first three weeks of November. I wanted to make sure I wasn't restricting myself during Thanksgiving, and also felt, in the days leading up to the presidential election, like I just needed to detoxify in general (oh, sweet, pre-November 8 me, if only you knew how much toxicity was about to come!). I spent the weekend leading up to the cleanse weaning myself off of coffee (I had a solid three to four cups a day habit) and limiting my sugar and alcohol intake, so as to not totally shock my system once I abstained completely. And then... I was off! 

There is maybe not much that's more tedious than recounting deprivation to someone else, except for maybe reading about that deprivation. But here's the thing: During the entire time I was on the cleanse, I didn't feel deprived. Rather, I felt like I was gaining something. I had given up coffee, but I was newly filled with energy in the morning, even though I wake up at the ungodly hour of 6am most days and rarely get more than five hours of sleep because I am incapable of being responsible about my sleeping habits. I had given up eating a full meal at night, but I had gained a newfound awareness of how much better I felt when my stomach wasn't laden down with heavy food at the end of the day. I had given up eating certain foods, but I had gained an appreciation for what I could eat and I never felt hungry—not once—the entire time I was on the cleanse. Instead, I felt, well, clean.

I know that ascribing "cleanliness" to things like eating and living is fraught, to say the least. Calling things "clean" implies a virtuousness that can then be wielded to diminish those people who don't eat "clean" or live "clean," and this is a problem, not least because many of those people are already marginalized in our society. There's no denying the fact that the idea of clean living and wellness have been thoroughly commercialized; empowerment is now something that can be bought and sold. The consumerist element of clean living necessarily excludes all the people who can't afford to participate in things like the 21-Day Clean Program (which costs $475), which hardly seems fair when living clean is touted as being, you know, the only way to live. And though there are some people who will complain about the money that needs to be invested in the Clean Program but not think twice about spending $100 a week when they go out drinking (a cost that would be immediately eliminated if participating in the Clean Program), there are many others who simply don't have the financial ability to embark upon the path of clean living that is now all the rage. 

All of this is to say, that I understand it's a privilege to get to spend three weeks downing vitamins and protein-packed smoothies and lunching on kale and salmon salads. It's not specifically a privilege for the wealthy, of course; it is possible to do a makeshift Clean Program on your own and it's not that expensive to buy Dr. Junger's book, Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body's Natural Ability to Heal Itself, and see for yourself what it's all about. Though, if you're like me and not particularly self-motivated and work better with someone overseeing you, then there's really nothing quite like the actual Clean Program and its built-in support system. The main thing, really, is that by participating in something like this, you're telling yourself that you want to change your habits, you want to get rid of the harmful clutter in your diet, and you want to feel like your best self.

Or, anyway, that's what I told myself during those three weeks, and it's something that I still live by, almost two months later. Unlike those sprinting juice fasts, the 21-Day Clean Program was the marathon I needed. Since it's a full three weeks long, it's possible to really establish new habits and then, as I have, stick with them. While I occasionally have a cup of coffee now, I don't need one to start my day, and rarely have one first thing in the morning. Since the program, I've not had more than two drinks on a single night, and have found myself less drawn to alcohol and more inclined to say "no" to that glass of wine than ever before. I've cut down on sugar and massively cut back on how much food I have delivered, as opposed to preparing myself. I have more energy and focus and am now in full possession of the knowledge that I'm able to sustain something that is good and healthy for me over a long period of time. That the cleanse also took place during an incredibly difficult time for me (and our nation) meant that I had to deal with a wildly psychologically stressful time without recourse to unhealthy habits, like overdoing it on caffeine or ice cream. This gave me a clarity that I can't value highly enough, an ability to see that I don't need any external crutches to get through trying times. And that is something hard to put a price on.