Monday, January 22, 2018


Feeling a bit low on energy? A few more headaches than usual? Googling treatment options quickly leads to websites suggesting you may be suffering from an accumulation of toxins.  And a good cleanse will turn things right around!

Cleansing has been around since the time of the Egyptians in 1500 BC.  In 500 BC, Hippocrates, often referred to as the "Father of Medicine", suggested using enemas for fever therapy.

The benefits of a cleanse are based on the theory of autointoxication. This is the belief that food not absorbed in the upper intestinal tract passes into the colon where bacterial digestion or fermentation occurs (this part of the theiry is true - see my article on the microbiome ).  

But the theory then goes on to postulate the formation of “poisons” which are absorbed into the bloodstream and are a major factor in the development of a variety of chronic disease states.

Cleansing increased in popularity in the early 1900’s until a medical paper in 1919 discounted the theory of autointoxication. When it became clear that the scientific rationale was erroneous, and colonic irrigation was not merely useless but potentially dangerous, the practice was condemned by the American Medical Association as quackery.  The practice of cleansing then went into a decline until its resurrection by alternative health providers in the 1990s.

We now know that the multiple bacteria inhabiting the colon, the microbiome, do indeed metabolize unabsorbed carbohydrates, but instead of being poisons, these short chain fatty acids are necessary for our health. They can reduce the inflammation that aggravates arthritis, lower cholesterol, and may prevent certain cancers. This knowledge would suggest that colon cleansers or laxatives would reduce the absorption of these beneficial nutrients.

In 2009, a systematic review of the worldwide medical literature found “no methodologically rigorous controlled trials of colonic cleansing support the practice for general health promotion.” Yet this practice continues to be recommended by alternative medicine providers.

There are two approaches to cleansing - by mouth and by rectum (colonic enemas or lavage).  Both may use large volumes of water (up to 16 gallons for a “colonic”). And the solutions often contain other substances such as herbs or coffee.

These procedures are not risk free. Large volumes of fluid, even if just salt water, can lead to major shifts in the body’s water balance (especially risky if you have kidney or heart problems), and the herbal supplements are not without their potential side effects (imagine how you’d feel if you suddenly drank the caffeine equivalent of 3 or 4 Starbuck’s Grande coffees).

And finally there is the risk of actual physical injury from the enema paraphernalia leading to an intestinal infection or even a perforation of the bowel.

In summary

  1. Colon irrigation is unproven as far as benefits while it has a real risk of adverse effects.
  2. The devices that practitioners use for the procedure are not approved for colon cleansing by the US Food and Drug Administration. Inadequately disinfected or sterilized irrigation machines have been linked to bacterial contamination.
  3. Colon cleansing practitioners are not licensed by a scientifically based organization. Rather, practitioners have undergone a training process structured by an organization that is attempting to institute its own certification and licensing requirements.

If you feel you are carrying around a colon burdened by bad bacteria and toxins, a safer approach might be an increase in daily fiber (flax is easy) and perhaps a probiotic yogurt to shift the bacterial population.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Flexitarian Diet

Is there a single change to your diet that would have the greatest positive impact on your health? It is reducing the amount of red meat you eat per week and replacing those calories with extra fruits and vegetables.

Although red meat is the principal source of protein in a traditional American diet, research has linked its consumption with an increased risk for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. By simply eliminating meat from your diet, you can add up to 1.5 years to your life expectancy. Combined with other pieces of a healthy lifestyle you could gain as much as a full 7 years.

But Americans love their steaks and hamburgers. Are there any dietary alternatives to the full, all or nothing, vegetarian diet? Fortunately there is - the flexitarian diet.

A flexitarian diet is also plant based but without a complete rejection of meat and animal products. With four or more meatless meals per week, its approach to meat as an occasional side dish or garnish is much more adaptable to a family's dietary requirements and a busy schedule.
It is estimated that true vegetarians account for 3 percent of the American population, the number of flexitarians could be as high as 40 percent. These include many people who eat mainly vegetarian dishes at home but are happy to eat meat dishes when eating out at restaurants or when they sit down for a meal at the homes of family and friends.

The health advantages are demonstrated by a study showing that following a flexitarian diet for just four weeks decreases the total cholesterol levels of participants by almost 20 points. Other studies show a balanced vegetarian diet also lowers the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even cancer.

The diet’s flexibility also helps with implementation, letting the “consumer” slowly add plant-based foods while they cut back on red meat. The threshold for a beginner flexitarian generally starts at two meatless days per week (a total of 26 ounces of meat or poultry per week) slowly advancing to the expert level with five or more meatless days a week (9 ounces of meat or poultry per week).

Are there any disadvantages to becoming a flexitarian? A full vegan has to be sensitive to avoiding deficiencies in such micronutrients as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc. But eating meat just once a week protects the flexitarian from this risk.

Another potential negative factor is that the low fat content of a plant based diet increases the odds of  getting hungry between meals. That is easily countered by increasing the use of healthy oils (olive oil) and cheeses in cooking and snacking on nuts (with the added benefit of their healthy oils).

If you decide to embark on the flexitarian journey you will not only be improving your health, but that of your environment. A quarter-pound hamburger (equivalent to slightly less than one meatless day) requires almost seven pounds of grain and forage, 53 gallons of water for drinking and irrigating feed crops, 75 square feet for grazing and growing those feed crops and 1,000 BTUs of fossil fuel energy for feed production, enough to power the average microwave for 18 minutes.

The best news is that you can multiply this benefit by five when you reach the expert level!