Enemas, laxatives and one nut: my 10 days at a German fasting clinic

Putting up with an entirely liquid diet and constant toilet visits is one thing, but who’s going to stop the killing spree when your blood sugar drops?

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It wasn’t like I expected it. Then again, my idea of Buchinger Wilhelmi was mainly based on the clinic James Bond gets sent to in Thunderball, where they threaten him with enemas, and try to murder him in a spinal traction machine. Conversations prior to my stay had gone something like this:

Me: yes, it’s a fasting clinic. You don’t eat anything.

Friend: can you have coffee?

Me: no coffee, no booze.

Friend: but you’ll die.

Or alternatively:

Friend: bring snacks.

Me: but what if they find them?

Friend: you’re not six.

Me: but it’s a clinic and it’s in Germany.

Friend: maybe don’t bring snacks.

I had tried to give up coffee in advance, and eat vaguely healthy things, but a last minute trip to the Frieze Art Fair in London had scotched that. Also, the minute the flights were booked, some deep survival instinct had led me to become ravenously hungry – all the time. So I arrived at the clinic feeling in need of all manner of cures, with my previously comfortable jeans feeling decidedly snug.

Hotel with nurses

Buchinger Wilhelmi is like a hotel with nurses. Instead of being in the middle of nowhere, with high walls to keep the starving inmates in, it’s a pleasant complex with lovely gardens and an outdoor pool, just on the edge of the pretty town of Überlingen, on the shores of Lake Constance. Arriving to be welcomed by a team of nice smiley women, I try not to think of Stepford. They give me a cup of herbal tea and take me to my room, which has a balcony and a view over the lake.

Another smiley lady comes by and slips a hot water bottle into my bed. This makes me feel very loved. They also give me an iPad with videos that, they say, will explain everything. I watch the one on Glauber’s Salt. Otto Buchinger, who established the clinic back in the 1920s after finding fasting gave him respite from his crippling arthritis, said: “Fasting should start with a thunderbolt”. I feel nervous.

The regime is for a “digestive rest day”, where you eat very simply, and then it’s straight in with the “thunderbolt” of Glauber’s Salt, a bitter tasting half litre of laxative. I’m told not to leave my room for five hours afterwards but, they claim, I won’t feel hungry afterwards. It turns out to be true.

During my 10-day stay, I’m to fast for six days, and then have three days where I’m slowly building my digestive system back up again. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I love food and I get anxious, as well as grumpy and dizzy, when I don’t eat. Surely six days consuming only 300 calories worth of liquids a day would finish me off?

Flushing toilets

Day two starts with blood tests and a session with the doctor. I decide, after a plate of fruit for breakfast, to walk into Überlingen, in case I’m not up for it later, and then I am ready, back in my room by 10am for what is to come.

In the end it’s not so bad. Glauber’s Salt doesn’t taste any worse than a mildly bitter Alka Seltzer, and five hours later let’s say I’m definitely cleansed. Dinner – a small bowl of clear vegetable broth – is served in my room, and I would probably have slept well, except, encouraged to drink as much water as possible, I spend a great deal of time getting rid of it again. A gentle symphony of flushing toilets murmuring around the otherwise silent building leads me to believe there are others in the same boat.

The first two days of fasting are the hardest. Your blood sugar may drop (mine did), you get headaches, you may feel weak. I spend most of the time in my room alternating between enjoying the view, and wondering what the hell I’m doing there. But then, on the third day, you do rise again. And it’s incredible: I don’t feel hungry.

Therapeutic fasting is far more common in Germany and Switzerland than it is in Ireland. Some health insurance policies pay for it, believing they’ll make savings in the long run, and research shows it has positive outcomes for rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, migraine and various other health issues, alongside the obvious outcome of losing weight. Many people return annually for a health-booster fast, and while I’m there for their recommended minimum of 10 days, some have committed to a month.

Liver wrap

The days turn out to be busy. There’s a trip to the nurse each morning to check all is well. I opt not to be weighed every day, because I can imagine how easy it would be to obsess. An information sheet left on the bed each evening lets me know the full programme of yoga, tai chi, stretching, guided walks, meditation and talks. There are art classes, films and concerts every Sunday.

There’s also a liver wrap every lunchtime. This concerns me as, after Glauber’s Salts, I wouldn’t put it past them to use real liver, but instead the nurse wraps me up in a lovely blanket, with a hot water bottle just where my liver is, and tells me to nap for an hour. It is completely lovely and becomes a highlight of the day.

So too do the walks, which are graded according to fitness, but generally involve 7km hikes through vineyards, over hills and beside lakes. Keeping active keeps your metabolism up and after a few days I start to wonder when did I ever find the time to work? And discovering I can walk 7km on no food makes me realise how exciting it is to test previously imagined limits.

A 10-day stay entitles me to vouchers for some of the treatments on offer. There’s a thick booklet of every massage imaginable, plus facials, personal trainers, counselling sessions and various other medical things. I opt for a Tibetan Singing Bowls (not bowels) Massage, basically because I can’t imagine what it might be like.

It proves to be delicious. After a warm-up massage, different sized bowls are placed on various bits of me, and then gently struck, to chime. I can feel the vibrations right up my spine. It’s as if I’m floating on a raft on a sunlit sea. When the one on my forehead starts to sing, I could almost believe I’m a goddess being given the gift of glory, only I have to cut the experience short, as I’m overdue for my enema.

Enemas are essential – apparently. The thinking goes that a completely cleansed system doesn’t experience hunger pangs. And it does seem to work. I find I’m aware I’m not doing something I usually do (eating), but I don’t really miss it. And, as every day I feel even better and more deeply well, I find I’m prepared to do anything they throw at me. I go for a shiatsu massage, during which I realise that we frequently forget, despite all the time and money we may spend on clothes and grooming, to inhabit our bodies. Sometimes we can even forget we have one.

My fellow guests are a mixture of very healthy Germans and Swiss people who come once or twice a year; another group who seem to go on safari round Europe’s chicest health spas and who generally seem to live in more than one country; and others who are there to combat specific health issues. Apart from one or two I could have cheerfully killed (fasting can do things to your hormones and everyone gets one “irritable” day), everyone is very friendly. Maybe when you’ve shared some intimate experiences, there’s no point in pretending to be aloof.

Fasting is, of course, nothing new. It’s rooted in the older cycles of survival, of planting and harvesting, hunting and storing meat for the lean times. Almost all religions have fasting as part of their calendar, either for the spiritual, meditative aspects, or in a co-opting and overlaying of existing patterns of survival. And, while it may feel odd and possibly wrong to spend money eating nothing in a world where hunger is not a choice for many, it’s clear that fasting can alleviate many health issues in the developed world. I sign a paper to say my results can be used in a long-term scientific study the clinic is participating in.

Chewing feels weird

I meet a nice German woman who has been dreaming of chocolate, a brilliant girl from London who is here for a health boost after a particularly stressful period at work, and a charming man from Dubai, whose gallantry is ideal for getting anyone’s mind off biscuits.

My energy levels go up and down, but the deep core of wellness is increasing. The day before I’m due to break my fast, I have an idea. This surprises me, because I realise I haven’t had a single other idea since I got here, but now, here one is. Not constantly thinking is wonderfully relaxing. I start to see why people fast for longer, though I’m looking forward to my dish of apple and nuts tomorrow.

The clinic quotes George Bernard Shaw: “Any fool can fast, but it takes a wise man to break a fast properly.” It turns out I get only one nut, but I can’t actually finish my apple sauce. Chewing feels weird. I go to see the nutritionist and am honest about my alcohol intake. She seems rather in awe, so I tell her I eat too much mayonnaise as well, to take the emphasis off.

Food, over the next two days, is delicious and it’s hard to believe it’s still under 800 calories. By the time to go home, I have never ever felt this well or this relaxed before. I have lost six inches from my waist and four kilos off pretty much everywhere. They send me home with a picnic box of healthy goodies to eat on the plane and a head full of good intentions.

Is Buchinger Wilhelmi life-changing? Yes, if you let it. I’ve made a good start – I bought the cookbook. And if that fails, I’ll probably be going back next year for more.

Ten days at Buchinger Wilhelmi costs from €2,390. Medicines and additional treatments extra. The nearest airport is Zurich. Flights not included. buchinger-wilhelmi.com

Fast Facts

What happens when you fast?

According to Dr Francoise Wilhelmi De Toledo at Buchinger Wilhelmi, “humans have the ability to switch their metabolism to fat-reserve burning.” The therapeutic fasting that happens at the clinic, which includes vegetable soups, freshly-squeezed fruit and herbal tea with a small about of honey, “boost the fasting metabolism”.

As she outlines the process, the body taps into its fat reserves. Fat supplies most body tissues with energy, although the central nervous system, including the brain, requires sugar (glucose) for fuel. It takes a few days until the nervous system switches to burning fat. When fat deposits are broken down, and turned into ketone bodies, glycerol molecules are released, which can then be transformed into glycose, supplying the brain with energy.

Initially, your sympathetic system is on alert, sending hunger signals, as your blood sugar levels drop, and adrenaline is released. Then, as you switch to the parasympathetic system, you emerge into what Dr Wilhelmi De Toledo describes as “the calmer waters of the fasting metabolism. Glauber’s Salt and enemas speed this process up. “Your metabolism works more efficiently during a fast,” she says, “as the majority of the digestive processes are no longer required, which signifies considerable conservation of vitamins and minerals.”

Can you try this at home?

It’s not recommended to try a fast like this at home, and the medical supervision at Buchinger Wilhelmi is part of the programme. But you can pick up some nutritional tips from the clinic.

Basic Rules
Pay attention to the quality and quantity of fat avoiding saturated fats, margarine and processed cooking fats
Rediscover whole grain cereals and to foods rich in fibres
Introduce at least one raw meal per day (remember to chew well!)
Increase the intake of fruits and vegetables, preferably raw and organically grown
Eliminate / Reduce refined products
Eliminate / Reduce meat
Eliminate / Reduce alcohol
Reduce salt / Drink enough liquids - at least 1.5 litres a day
Try one or two “digestive rest days” per week. These are days of reduced calories, and easily digestible food.

On hearing this, I naturally asked more about alcohol. Dr Wilhelmi De Toledo suggests that it’s “a matter of dosage. Alcohol may have a positive stimulating effect in small quantities. Good wine also contains bioactive plant products that protect the heart.” But then there are, of course, all those calories, and the added stress on the liver. Hubert Hohler, the chef at the clinic agreed that it isn’t always easy (or fun) to exclude. He recommends trying three days a week without alcohol.

And what about coffee? It’s not ideal, but one cup a day, preferably before lunchtime, isn’t particularly harmful. Make sure to leave at least half an hour before or after eating, as coffee absorbs minerals from your system, meaning you’re not getting the best out of your food.

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