Is that juice cleanse just another compulsion?

I often get questions about the “right” foods to eat for mental illness recovery: What are the best foods to prevent intrusive thoughts? Will eliminating gluten lower my anxiety levels? Can a detox fix the chemical imbalances in my body?

But if you’ve struggled with your mental health, be very careful about searching for a magic solution by drastically restricting or changing your diet, even if it’s temporary. Before you get started on a detox/cleanse, consider these three questions:

1. Why I am doing this?

Mental health challenges are all about avoidance and trying to experiencing things less. We want to avoid anxiety, feel less regret, get rid of an urge, shut up that voice in our heads, be judged less, escape harm, not have a panic attack, etc. The things we do as attempts to avoid those experiences are compulsions. The more we do compulsions to avoid those experiences we don’t like, the more we have those experiences. If you want to do a detox because you hope it’ll help you avoid an experience you don’t like, expect it to create even more of that experience over the long-run. Especially if you’ve dealt with any food or body related anxiety or restrictive compulsions in the past, rationalizing yourself into a juice cleanse or detox should raise red flags.

If you want to drink a lot of juice and poo a rainbow out the other end, more power to you. But you’ll likely find it’s far more beneficial to you if you drink that juice to fuel experiencing more in your life, not less. How will this support doing more of what matters to you? Adding some nutritious juice into a well-balanced diet could supply some extra nutrients to help you recuperate after the gym. Improving endurance and strength at the gym is a much healthier goal than pursuing avoidance of unavoidable feelings.

2. How much will I pay for a placebo?

If a sales person is promising you mental health benefits with a juice cleanse, keep in mind that big pharmaceutical companies are shutting down their psych medication research labs (Novartis to shut brain research facility) because they struggle to beat placebos in controlled studies (Antidepressants give drugmakers the blues). Your average sugar pill (I’m sure they’re made with organic agave nectar) will “help” around 50% of the time. Many people doing juice cleanses will believe they experience some type of psychological effect if that’s what they believe they’re supposed to experience. The packaging looks healthy, the juice colours are ethereal, the ginseng makes your skin tingle–it’s a potent recipe for natural snake oil.

But here’s the thing: placebos work (sorta). You might temporarily perceive yourself as having some type of imagined experience resulting from the ritualized intake of pulverized swiss chard. So can you just buy the cheapest placebo? Not exactly. Research suggests that buying more expensive name brands heightens the placebo effect (The Behavioral Impact of a Higher Price). You might have to buy the most expensive placebo to get your best shot at imaginary benefits. Although I suppose I’ve ruined the placebo effect for you now by explaining it… Sorry.

3. What’s wrong?

Your liver and your kidneys cleanse toxins from your body. Detoxes cleanse money from your wallet. They’re all very effective at what they do. If your internal organs are failing to do their job, you likely need medical attention, not a juice cleanse.

It’s often the case when we go looking for an instant cure that we’re trying to relieve the symptoms of a much more complex systemic issue. Whether you’re looking to a juice cleanse as a way to relieve stress, you’re hoping to rapidly lose a lot of weight, or any other number of reasons that people often go searching for these types of products, there are probably some big changes you need to make in your life. The juice cleanse might seem like a more immediate, direct way out of your problems–no need to get into the messy work of changing your judgments about yourself, or how you relate to others, or dealing with contextual issues around you that impact your health and ability to function. But then you’re only slapping a band-aid on a wound that will continue to fester and grow. So take this opportunity to ask yourself: what’s wrong? That urge to grab the promised benefits of one of these detox products is a welcome bell that can bring your awareness to underlying issues needing attention. What is actually causing the symptoms from which you want relief? Are there more long-term changes you’d like to make but have struggled to stick with consistently? Why have you struggled to make those changes? What supports can you bring into your life on an ongoing basis that could help you live a healthier, happier life?


9 comments On Is that juice cleanse just another compulsion?

  • Hello Mark,
    I attended the panel talk you and three others gave today at the University of Toronto. I’m so happy to know that there are people like you who are so passionate in helping others, and that you’re all trying to help improve the system. I think it’s a great idea that you seek to connect others to getting accessible help swiftly. I too struggle with mental health, and know how tediously long the system can be. Once again thank you for your speech. By the way I think your drawings are really cute 🙂


    • Thanks for coming out to the talk, Nicki, and for your kind comments! As more and more people speak about problems in the mental healthcare system and take action to change, we’ll start to build a system that’s more effective and accessible for people.

  • Hey Mark,

    Hope all is well! I just heard you talking about the role of chemical imbalances in mental illness, it just inspired me to share some thoughts…

    So we’re in agreement that the neurotransmitter imbalance model of mental illness is a hoax. But I think the real problem there is the idea of a “model” of mental illness in the first place…it paints it as a far less systemic and complex phenomena than it is.

    Suppose you have an individual who has a heavily disrupted gut microbiome from a lifetime of poor diet and lifestyle, auto-immune conditions, lacks exercise and social interaction, etc. I think that focussing exclusively on cutting out compulsions, mindfulness and other more “strictly” mental health practices ignores some very serious obstacles that this person is going to have to establishing some degree of stability with their attention, thoughts and emotions. These physiological processes can trigger very dysregulated patterns in the mind, in the same way that a violent external environment can. And the research is in depression seems to be confirming this, more so than anxiety disorders (for the mean time).

    To use a metaphor: Deadlifting is a skill, but you can also lack the hip mobility to start safely practicing deadlifting directly. Of course, you can’t foam roll your way to a 400 pound deadlift.

    Full disclosure here, I actually have OCD themes around diet and lifestyle, so thinking at all about this issue is tricky for me. I could feel differently about it in a week. But I do think that, in an ideal world, we would all be able to see a qualified holistic medical practitioner to assess us for allergies, toxin levels, nutrient deficiencies, etc. Many people may be able to cultivate great mental health without it, but many may actually not. I see it as another node in the system to address. And obviously, to not address it in a neurotic way.

    All the best,


    • I see recovery as being all about learning how to have any thought or feeling, whether that’s triggered by our external or internal context. That’s what mental health and fitness is all about: developing the skills to handle uncertainties and stressors that our brains throw at us or the world throws at us. So trying to control food to control thoughts and feelings isn’t something I’d see as beneficial to mental health. It’d be like somebody saying they’re skilled at not drowning–they just avoid the water. They haven’t learned how to swim. There’s nothing physically limiting about thoughts and feelings in the way that hip mobility could interfere with a deadlift. So I wouldn’t see intrusive thoughts or anxiety or indigestion as a sign of poor mental health. It’s how we relate to experiences that causes problems.

      One of the unexpected benefits of taking care of my mental health has been drastic improvements in digestive health. It wasn’t even something I thought I had a problem with. I had just come to accept all sorts of disturbances down there as “normal” and there were foods I’d avoid and times when I wouldn’t eat to control some imagined catastrophe. But now I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and I’m able to take much better care of my health and fitness. So if you’re running into gut issues, one thing to consider is that it’s not always about the gut affecting the brain, but that brains can affect the gut. What are we doing to our guts when we get anxious and stressed–is that creating a healthy environment down there? If we’re judging external experiences and that’s triggering butterflies in our stomachs, then I can see how we might be creating an environment that may not be conducive to the microbiome we want in our gut. If that’s the case, even if we change the stuff in our guts, if we keep doing the compulsions in our heads, it’ll just keep relapsing to the same unhealthy state.

  • I like what you said about mental health being about our relationship to thoughts and feelings. It’s the basis of resilience…since we can’t always control what food is available, how hostile our environment is etc. History is full of examples of people displaying tremendous grace and dignity in adverse situations, as well as people displaying none of the above in cozy situations. At it’s core, I do think mental health is about giving space instead of figuring out hacks to generate certain feelings and avoid others.

    But, I do see limitations to mental health with physiology. I think you gave an example in the OCD stories of an environment that was so hostile that it was simply wrong not to address it as a source of mental health problems. The intensity with which a serious auto-immune condition can effect on your mind may not be much different, and I think that a growing body of research in depression is starting to support that. As you mention, it’s also a two-way street between the mind and body, but some of these physiological issues date back to infancy for people. I’m agnostic about how well one can do in the midst of that adversity, but with the resources available I think it’s definitely worth addressing in order to cultivate mental health. Obviously, assuming that it’s done with a gentle intention of self-care.

    • Auto-immune and chronic pain conditions are a great example of how the systems inside of us can start throwing stones at us, just like that example from the OCD Stories podcast I shared where the stones are coming at us from the outside. In both situations, it can be important to go after the thing causing the problem. But I wouldn’t see either as limiting to mental health once we see the problem. At first, it often does cause challenges because we react to the experiences, internal or external, with compulsions. Then we can see that and learn ways to deal with it that support our mental health, and that’s important because, quite often, we won’t be able to change those contextual factors. We could be dealing with a chronic illness or be in an abusive situation we don’t control, like prison. So like you said, self-care is very important! One area of research you might find interesting to explore is around predictors of PTSD. The idea that a specific type of event causes PTSD doesn’t hold up in research. You can have two people experience the exact same event and one can get PTSD and the other might not. There are many studies that try to pin mental illness on specific genes or chemicals or variations in physiology, but as the studies get replicated and the sample sizes grow, those effects have tended to wash out. The idea that something can affect the mind is a fascinating subject to explore, because: what is the mind?

  • Thank you for all of your resources, they have been so helpful to me! I have a question that is related to this topic, I believe. In your videos you talk about coping compulsions, which was a major revelation to me as I’d never seen those kinds of things as compulsions, I’d only noticed the things specifically related to my obsessions. I realize now that I’ve been doing this my whole life, using distraction, food, tv, internet, music etc to constantly keep me from having to feel anything I didn’t want. Not just anxiety, but all of the other feelings I don’t like too! I’ve been trying to recover from a physical illness & am trying to relax a lot and it is hard, not bring able to distract myself all of the time. I can see how distraction is just as much of a compulsion as ruminating,
    reassurance seeking, etc. However, as I’m trying to cut things out/reduce them, I’ve developed an obsession about being an addict. Ironically I now find it harder because I panic every time I have an “urge” to go online, etc. you do talk about how these things can basically be addictions, but at the same I think I am now obsessed about cutting out anything that could be an addiction or coping compulsion. I feel fear about engaging in these thins at all in case I am feeding an addiction. How do I best find a balance between cutting out coping compulsions but not letting that become a compulsion in and of itself? Thank you again for all of your great work!

    • Thanks! I’m glad they’ve been helpful 🙂 What you’re running into is very common but it’s great you’re noticing that you don’t want this to become a compulsion, too. This is one of the reasons it’s so useful to keep the focus on what you want to build and create in your life. So instead of trying to fight enemies, I encourage people to just walk off the battlefield. If we want to avoid and control a mental illness, then our brains will very helpfully worry about all of the unhealthy things we might be doing. By trying to avoid mental illness, it’s very easy to get trapped in it, because we need to keep it around so we can fight it. Initially, we do some work to cut out compulsions, but very quickly, I find it helps tremendously to make the shift to building and creating. You could pick some values related to things you want to do in your life and those values can guide your actions. For instance, I value making mental health tools accessible to people online. So when I go online, I go on to share stuff. And if my brain worried about something, I can just accept that like any fear (I will develop an addiction and spend the rest of my life in a dark basement scrolling through Facebook!) but keep the focus on the actions I know contribute to what I value. If I stop to be certain about the stuff my brain is throwing up, I won’t be able to get to where I want to go. If something goes wrong along the way, that’s fine, I have the tools to handle that. And so do you!

      • Thanks again for the advice! It is so funny how our brains can try to trick us that this problem is the one we have to solve. Once we have some success with one area it automatically wants to find another problem! That makes sense about focusing on what we want to do and not what we don’t. I struggle with this a bit because then I of course only want to do the absolute best perfect things all the time, which is not realistic. So while I can come up with good values overall, I sometimes have doubts about whether certain things align with my values. I guess this is just like all other intrusive thoughts though, I’ve been practicing mental illness for my whole life and it’s not going to go away overnight. I guess the better I get at accepting my thoughts the more it will extend to all areas. Can I ask, will your Brain School be helpful to someone that has not yet gone through ERP and tackled all of their major compulsions yet? I have done a bit of ERP with a therapist and a but self directed but haven’t gone through a full course of ERP yet due to health and financial issues. I was wondering if the Brain School would still be a good place to start before I can get there? Thanks!

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