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Spa for Champions: Buchinger Wilhelmi Clinic

By Juan Remos, MD
Posted On Jul 23, 2014

Slender Moments

Take the straightforward, German approach to your health-centric cleanse at Dr. Otto Buchinger’s legendary fasting clinic.  

BY Inge Theron

The liquid diet has gone utterly mainstream. Look around. Juice joints have sprouted up on every corner—quicker than the alfalfa and spirulina in your morning “greenmachine.” They’ve also become integral, indispensible components of our daily routines. Ten dollars for a cold-pressed concoction of apple, kale, romaine, spinach, parsely, celery, and cucumber? Make it two. The modern fitness-phile devotes a sizable portion of her earnings to the craze. Why? Such bevvies feel “clean” going down, are comprised of virtuous ingredients, and provide a short-cut to skinny jeans territory. Popular juice chains, from Liquiteria to Juice Generation to Organic Avenue, regale customers with juice-cleanse philosophy and benefits, converting devotees every day.

Fasting is hardly a modern invention, of course. It has been in practice for thousands of years, since the times of the Ancient Greeks, who advocated it over medicine, and has since been used as a therapeutic, religious, and political tool. From the liquid diets of the 1960s, to the über-popular Master Cleanseof the 1970s, to today’s 5:2 diet and juicing frenzy, liquid has long been thought to be the answer to all that ails (and adds to) you.

As with all trends, there’s always something newer, faster, and skinnier on the horizon. I offer myself to kick the tires of this hot concept at the famed Buchinger Wilhelmi Clinic (011-49-7551-807-0, buchinger-wilhelmi.com) in Bodensee, Germany, which specializes in therapeutic fasting and integrative medicine. Here goes…nothing.

DAY 1

“In daily life, the hunger of the soul is often confused with the need to eat.” This is the official mantra of the no-frills clinic founded by the famed Dr. Otto Buchinger in the mid-1950s. Not the most disciplined woman on the planet, I will admit I have never successfully managed to fast at home. Not for even 24 hours. However, as everyone and their mother seems interested in the subject, I’m willing to go the extra mile and give this boarding school-style nutrition camp—with its regimented routines, minimal distractions, and a 250-calories-a-day diet plan—a go. Heaven help me.

After a short flight from London to Zurich, plus an hour or so drive, I find myself gazing upon a complex maze of minimal yet modern architecture, with magnificent views of Lake Constance, a glorious
freshwater lake on the Rhine that sits at the foot of the Alps. Upon check-in, I am assigned a white room in the English quarter. My sparse yet comfortable-enough accomodation is spruced up solely by a row of books centered upon subjects such as the benefits of not boozing. There are also emergency ripcords (in case you lose consciousness and faint), and red call buttons to alert the nurse that you are ready for her to administer your enema. (No, I’m not joking.)

By 3 pm, I’m due for my 30-minute welcome consultation in the main building with a handsome German doctor called Drinder. The good doctor administers a blood pressure and weight check. He is quite polite about this well-guarded information. This is followed by a lengthy interview on my emotional and physical state—as well as a lecture on over-
enthusiasm for my favorite source of resveratrol.

I am told that today is the pre-fasting prep day. Here’s what I have to look forward to: I will consume a maximum of 800 calories—a mono-diet of rice, fruit, or potatoes with a small portion of vegetables, lots of water, and herbal tea. The aforementioned tea is meant to dull the digestive fire in my belly and make the inevitable hunger pangs of the coming days less prevalent. Are we having fun yet? I squeeze in a walk along the absolutely lovely river and a deep tissue massage before bed.

DAY 2

The day starts at 8 am in the nurse’s office. She explains, in her extraordinarily thick German accent, the schedule to which I am about to submit in order to make my own folds and foils somehow disappear: “The body likes routine so we have taken the thinking out of your stay.” Whew. “You will see me every morning at 8 am so I can check on how you are doing.” OK. I learn that I will have an 11 am apple skin tea respite, accompanied by an enema every other day. I am instructed on how to perform a “liver pack” at 3 pm daily—a procedure during which I place what is essentially a sack of warm hay atop my abdomen. This is thought to increase the circulation in the liver, draw out toxins, and kick-start the metabolism. Odd? Maybe. In fact, it feels rather counterintuitive. That said, I’m here already, and therefore game to see how effective this regimen really is.

“That’s it,” she says. “The only other thing I want you to do is the daily walk.” Otto Buchinger was a firm believer in mountain hikes. Frankly, with this scenery, how could you not be? (Take our word, Mother Nature is leaving nothing to the imagination.) “It’s not just about abstaining from solid food,” my nurse counsels me. “It’s also about letting go, emotionally releasing, and enjoying ‘doing nothing,’” something which our modern society, a.k.a. me, has a great deal of trouble doing.

Next, I hit the gym, wherethey have a rather modern approach to fitness. There’s plenty of cardio and interval training in each session, TRX bands hang from every conceivable part of the ceiling, medicine balls, bosu balls, and hand weights. An array of cardio machines line the glass windows, which look out upon the lovely lake. My trainer, Mrs. V., certainly cuts me no slack on speed or weight, and wipes the floor with me. Jillian Michaels has nothing on Buchinger.

I collapse into a chair, ravenous, for my doctor’s interview afterward. From here I explain what has brought me to Buchinger in the first place: After six months of bi-monthly trips between London and Miami, I’m experiencing more than just garden variety burn-out. My usual porcelain skin is crepe-y and blemished. I have deep hollows under my eyes. Looks aside, I have lost efficiency at work and my mind just seems across-the-board fuzzy. Decision-making of even the most trivial sort is troublesome. Anyone who knows me and expects my usual razor-sharp retorts are leaving my presence sorely disappointed.

The doctor shakes her head and explains she is not surprised, given my lifestyle and relentless travel schedule, which is wreaking havoc with my insulin levels and hormones. It makes sense. The onslaught has left me emotionally exhausted and drained. She pores over my schedule and gives me her prescription: To just be here and fully participate in the fasting diet; get lots of rest and drink plenty of hot tea; and, of course, make sure I take the daily Buchinger-approved mountain walk. After my harrowing schedule, what I first saw as severe is actually starting to sound like the salve I need—or will not enough be too much?

Eager to find out, I set out for a two-hour group hike in the countryside through the local town of Überlingen, where the stunning environs do a marvelous job of calming the mind. I round it off with a Thai massage on the floor by the lovely Dr. Kuhner, who spent years training in Thailand, followed by a half hour in the sauna. (Be aware that Germans aren’t shy about being naked.)

 DAYS 3-4

I wake to a thumping headache, typical with detoxing. Detox symptoms, I learn, are the most severe and intense for the first three days. I explain to the nurse I am starting to feel a little weak—she takes my blood pressure which validates my claims: “Your blood pressure has plummeted,” she explains. A half-cup of apple sauce with a dollop of honey is prescribed to subdue my sugar cravings and prevent fainting (a result of my heart working faster to compensate for the blood-pressure drop). “Days 2–4 are always the hardest,” she explains.

True enough. The initial detox feels both endless and arduous, but then things start to change.

Although I wake up on Day 4 to a thick, bitter tasting residue on my tongue (a not-unusual sign of detoxing, I learn), my energy levels appear to be on the rise.  “Within these first three days, your energy levels are dwindling,” my nurse explains this morning. “But then something miraculous happens called ketosis, signaled by a change in the body’s internal energy economy, in which the organism switches over to the more efficient burning of its fat reserves to satisfy its basic energy needs. It is then that the energy levels get significantly better, your mood rises, and you feel that you can conquer the world.”

I’m actually starting to believe it. The walks are divided into advanced, intermediate, and beginners so everyone can go at their own pace. That day, I break out and stay first in the advanced group despite my strong male competition. Later, a glance in the mirror makes me doubly pleased. I am literally shrinking! My face, which was bloated, is now chiseled and feline, my skin is glowing, and my eyes are brighter than they have been in months. I’ve lost almost 5 pounds (although I’m told most of it is water) and my blood pressure is stable.

I feel well enough to get back into the gym. My session is nothing short of hard, but I still have energy after for a guided two-hour hike to a neighboring village. My stomach feels empty and grumbles aggrievedly but I remain sharply alert: Without needing energy to digest, surplus energy goes to my brain. I end the day with a traditional Thai massage.

DAYS 5-6

At this point, I’m truly into the swing of things. My body knows it’s not eating and, as such, the hunger pangs—which were as punctual as Big Ben—are gone. I spend my mornings at the gym and my afternoons hiking. There was even one glorious afternoon in which I nabbed myself a mountain bike, cued up some inspiring tunes on Spotify, and bombed around rugged trails for about 90 minutes.Serotonin seems to be flooding my brain, leaving me with a calm sense of well-being and helping me to think clearer. Supposedly when patients fast, the stress hormone decreases and serotonin levels rise, resulting in a “fasting high.” When I arrived, my brain was whirring and foggy. I could barely hold a thought. Now I have complete clarity. In my first difficult days of detox, wondering if I’d made a horrible error in health judgment, I never would have thought this possible or plausible. I originally came here seeking to reclaim the “old me,” but I may have found an even better “new me.”

DAYS 7-9

I am re-introduced to simple, bland solid food on Day 7, which is key to re-entry into normal life. (Could I be hesitant?) As it turns out, all I needed was a good old rest and the fasting diet seems to be doing me a world of good. The hikes get ever-better as the days go on. There are plenty of group classes such as Pilates and yoga—the latter of which has been a perfect addition to my nightly meditation practice. I’m significantly less hungry than back in the day when I tried my own, amateur juice detox. I’m informed that this is because juice enzymes stimulate digestive fire—an unquenchable, irritating sort of flame that makes a person hungry after every sip. Food for thought—well, not food, per se. I’ve managed to lose 9 pounds. My hormone levels are testing clear. I am raring to make my triumphant return to the urban jungle. Watch out, lower primates!

The Bottom Line

By Day 2, I was in tears, dying to go home. I missed the textures and flavors of food. More than that, I desperately craved the rituals that accompany my meals. But by Day 4, something extraordinary started happening: the dark cloud abated, as did the bloat off my face and midrift. My mood and energy absolutely soared. Buchinger began to feel like soul food. I started to look forward to my hot water bottle and scoop of afternoon honey. My hunger pangs evaporated and I experienced no sugar cravings for wine. And miracle of miracles, my passion for physical exercise was restored thanks to those energizing, soul-inspiring, can’t-say-enough-about-them hikes around that magnificent lake. Would I go back? I bet you a dress size I would. In fact, I’m booked for a fortnight before the summer. l