In September 2014, after attending the Functional Medicine Conference, I spent a weekend at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center. The Tree of Life is one of a handful of health retreat centers in the U.S. where guests can embark on a holistic health program supervised by a physician. The center offers a number of detox programs ranging from 10 to 21 days, many spiritual and physical health programs, as well as the option of a brief holistic vacation.
The Tree of Life is in Arizona, about 30 minute drive from Tulsa, or 3 hour drive from Phoenix. The center itself is set on a hill with plenty of open space for walks and meditation in the beautiful Arizona desert. Amenities are intentionally kept simple to promote detoxification and simple living, but there are still plenty of treats for guests! The Tree of Life has a spa that offers Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments along with massages, scrubs, and other services. They serve ultra-healthy and well prepared raw food meals, offer a self-serve unlimited wheatgrass station, and daily yoga, cooking, and spiritual teaching classes.
The Tree of Life was founded by Dr. Gabriel Cousens, who is a psychiatrist, a Rabbi, an enlightened teacher, and a raw food enthusiast. The Tree of Life website gives the following bio for Dr. Cousens:
“Gabriel Cousens functions as a true and complete holistic physician, homeopath, psychiatrist, family therapist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Chinese herbalist, world leading diabetes researcher, ecological leader, spiritual master, founder and director of Tree of Life Foundation and Tree of Life Center US, and bestselling author of the books Conscious Eating, Spiritual Nutrition: Six Foundations for Spiritual Life and Awakening of Kundalini, Rainbow Green Live Food Cuisine, There Is a Cure for Diabetes, Creating Peace by Being Peace, Torah as a Guide to Enlightenment, and Depression Free for Life.”
The center is based on Dr. Cousen’s vision of a place where living a spiritual life and an ultra healthy lifestyle are easy and complementary.
While I am not a proponent of prolonged fasting or any temporary extreme measures, as they may contribute to dysregulated eating patterns and a relapse back poor eating habits, brief fasts and detoxes can be extremely helpful for some people. The detox can be a symbolic reset and a beginning of a new healthier lifestyle. Taking time out of regular activities to fully focus on physical, emotional and spiritual health allows for an in depth study and progress of the health journey. Fasting and detoxification give the body a break. Fasting allows the body to restore, and to focus more energy on fighting diseases. For example, fasting turns on genes that fight cancer. An article in the highly respected journal Nature notes that fasting for up to five days can be helpful for people with cancer on chemotherapy and that it is more effective than restricting calories for weeks or months.
People come to the Tree of Life for a variety of reasons, and so you are sure to hear some interesting stories. I met some detox participants during my stay, and asked them about their experiences. Elen, a guest from Australia, shared that she is a believer in detoxing at the change of seasons, and that she felt “completely detoxed on all levels” after a 10 day juice fast. She described the emotional effects fasting: shedding layers of stress, developing new tools for dealing with anxiety and depression, and feeling better than she had felt in years. On the physical side, she also lost 16 lbs. Other guests, a mother and daughter dealing with diabetes and weight issues, described being in a difficult place half way through a 21 day detox, struggling with waves of negative emotion, frustration, and cravings.
The trouble with fasting at the center is that the food is excellent! Didier, a professional raw food chef from France, supervises the preparation of elaborate raw food meals three times a day. He happily answers questions and educates about raw food preparation. The food is low in sugar and consists of vegetables and nuts. The kitchen does not use corn, soy, gluten, sugar, eggs or dairy. These foods are kept out as they are common allergens. Animal products are kept out for spiritual reasons. The center grows most of the food that it serves and uses “veganic” farming methods – no animal products (other than bacteria) are used for fertilization. Fruit is kept to a minimum to limit the sugar load in the food – low sugar is key to dietary treatment of diabetes, cancer, and various brain conditions. The Tree of Life diet fits the elimination diet requirements and even goes beyond them. Thus even without participating in the fasting program, a stay at the center will be a powerful detox.
The raw food lifestyle dominates the conversations in the dining area, and many of the Tree of Life staff are long term raw foodists. Didier is the happiest and most energetic raw foodist I have met so far. The raw foodists I know in New York City, including a fellow child psychiatrist, have a much more difficult time maintaining the diet and keeping up with the pace of life in New York City. Raw food is a lifestyle – it requires an investment of time and commitment. A raw food diet may be beneficial for certain individuals in protected conditions, but it is not be suitable for everyone. A raw food diet would not be healthy for people with genetic conditions such as MTHFR gene mutations that increase the need for B12 or folate, or for people with very busy lives.
Individuals with history of eating disorders can benefit from the center in a different way. They can learn to have a healthy relationship with food in everyday life through approaches such as intuitive eating and cognitive behavioral therapy, rather than fasting and detoxing, which may further disrupt their relationship to food.
The Tree of Life is a spiritual center with daily yoga and meditation, and weekly Kabbalistic Shabbat ceremony. Dr. Cousens offers spiritual counseling and shares spiritual healing practices with the visitors to the center. Health, food and spirituality are intertwined at the center, so be ready for a full immersion! In many spiritual traditions good health and clean eating are not an end in themselves, but rather tools that facilitate spiritual growth.
I left The Tree of Life refreshed, inspired by the healthy food, and fascinated by the range of human health practices. I am glad to know about this jewel in the desert and would especially recommend it to individuals with diabetes, autoimmune conditions, food sensitivities, or psychiatric conditions that may be related to inflammation and food quality.