At the James Randi Educational Foundation, we hear all sorts of interesting health claims: “These special candles can remove excess ear wax,” “these colored lights will align your chakras,” or “apricots cure cancer.” One of the most popular claims is that “cleansing” your colon will eliminate “toxins”: substances that build up in our bodies, causing harmful side effects like weight gain, fatigue, and a host of diseases. So the story goes, a special fast or diet can help eliminate these poisons and promote better overall health. Never one to turn up a good experiment, I decided to try one of the most popular alternative colon therapies: the so-called “Master Cleanse.” The test: try to survive five days of consuming nothing but lemon juice, maple syrup, water, cayenne pepper, and two daily doses of laxatives. Guest blogger Ross Blocher joined me in this investigation by trying out a similar alternative medicine practice, colonic hydrotherapy, which he will share in a future post.
What follows is my daily diary of what happened when I stopped eating food, and started drinking non-stop lemonade and laxatives. Warning: stool photo within.
Today is my “ease-in” day. According to the rules, a Master Cleanser can choose to ease in to their fast by first eating a “regular diet” for a day, relying heavily on “live” foods (I’m not sure what that means, but vegetables and grains are offered as examples), eating only fruits and vegetables for day two, fruit and veggie juice for day three, nothing but orange juice for day four, and then start the lemon juice medley on day 5. Since the lemon juice fast is supposed to go on for ten days (and I am only attempting five total), I thought I ought to get this truck rolling, and sprint right to the orange juice phase. I allowed myself one large glass of orange juice, followed by nothing but “lemonade” and laxatives.
So far, it’s been about 19 hours since I ate solid food, and I’m feeling fine. The orange juice is keeping me relatively satisfied, even if I am tempted by the faux ham and fancy bread I have in the fridge here at the JREF office. The instructions advise me to drink my lemon juice mixture every time I get hungry, followed by water or tea. Needless to say, I am taking frequent bathroom breaks. Tonight I take my first laxative; the Master Cleanse site I’ve been studying tells me that because I am not eating, I won’t have bowel movements (sure) and therefore can’t remove toxins from my body (oh!), so the laxatives will help me do that. Sounds not at all shady-- let’s give it a whirl.
It’s the second day of my fast and I already hate fruit. Lemons, oranges, limes: I hate them all and vow never to consume them again, even if it means James Lind is going to make an example of me. Last night, I took the first laxative of this cleanse (and of my life), and another this morning. Shockingly, my body had nothing to expel, so now I just have two laxatives in my stomach. That doesn’t seem like healthy living, but what do I know?
JREF outreach coordinator Brian Thompson is sitting across from me, chomping away on a piece of coffee cake from Starbucks. I would think this sort of food exhibitionism would make me jealous at best and promote workplace aggression at worst, but since everything I am allowed to consume is basically made of sugar, nothing could look worse. I’ve never wanted a pretzel to this degree, before.
A note on the “lemonade” part of this diet: it’s not lemonade. I don’t claim to be some sort of lemonade chef, but lemon juice, maple syrup and water is definitely not the magic recipe. The maple syrup all falls to the bottom, no matter how much I stir it, making the upper half unbearably tart and the bottom like drinking a liquified pancake. Sprinkling cayenne on top is the last possible way to make this drink worse, so I am leaving out the pepper entirely and eating that on its own (off my hand-- the perfect way to maintain personal dignity).
Eating cayenne pepper off my hand... for science.
Things I found myself saying to my coworkers today:
“I’m hungry, but I’m out of lemons.”
“The efficient machine that is my body is broken.”
“I have gotten to the point where I don’t want to tell you what’s going on in my person.”
“I just lick the cayenne off my hand. It’s easier.”
“No, you can eat lunch in front of me. I have some syrup left.”
The worst part is definitely the stomach pain. The morning laxatives start twisting my stomach up around noon, and since there is nothing for me to expel, this results in a bathroom visit too horrible to detail here. I do feel hungry, but it’s a vague sense of something I once got to experience (food), kind of like missing an aunt who died years ago. I’ve given up on knowing the feeling of a full belly, and all my favorite foods sound good but not great.
Coworker Brian suggests that soon I will feel the euphoria that sets in as a person slowly starves. I can’t wait!
Well, last night was eventful. After I went home from work, I was overwhelmed with a stabbing stomach pain so bad, I called poison control to tell them how many laxatives I had taken (the minimum required for the cleanse) on an empty stomach. The doctor there advised me to go to a doctor right away for the horrible pain and the laxative overuse. I took this as a sign to stop taking the laxatives, and... eat something.
I know, I know. I have failed all of you and eaten something on only day four of my fast, but my capability to do future investigations will be much reduced if I am dead. So, I ate some curry. Then I threw 75% of it up. Then I went to bed.
This morning, I returned to fasting, drinking tea and lemonade like a champ, but foregoing the laxatives. The crippling stomach pain is gone, but the hunger remains, and for the first time during this process, I feel lightheaded. Getting up to go to the bathroom (something I must do frequently, since I am drinking an absurd amount of fluids) makes me feel like I am going to faint. The good news, however, is that my colon has been empty since day one. If it was ever full of excess waste, as the cleansers claim, I haven’t seen it, despite having taken seven laxatives now.
I want to eat something.
Obligatory stool photo.
Well, friends, after four days of not eating and three days of laxative misuse, my body called it quits. I found myself lightheaded, distracted, and in pain (though less pain) even after I stopped using the horrible blue pills I have come to hate. I now harbor suspicions of those who claim they have done this “cleanse” for five or ten or forty days, especially if they are taking the laxatives as they go. One woman on youtube tells us she did the Master Cleanse for 40 days and lost 32 pounds. Her magic formula? 1200 calories a day of the patented “lemonade.” Never mind that eating only 1200 calories a day of Twix bars would do the same thing.
If the Master Cleansers are right, my colon should be in tip-top condition at this point, free of the “toxins” and excess waste bogging it down these twenty-eight years of negligence. Somehow, though, I feel much worse. Maybe it’s the toxins escaping for the first time, wearing me out. Maybe it’s exhaustion from pumping out the (invisible) lining of my large intestine. Or maybe I need to go eat a salad.
Testing last hypothesis... now!
Carrie is the communications director for the James Randi Educational Foundation, and co-host of Oh No, Ross and Carrie!. You can hear more about her Master Cleanse experience here .