Imagine a place where everything is calm. Where kind ladies tuck you up in bed with a hot water bottle and a soothing cup of herbal tea. Where the duvets are snowy, and the pillows the softest you’ve ever lain your head on. Where you can walk in forests breathing in clean air, listen to stillness, and gaze for hours at the ever-changing view of a beautiful lake. Where you can meditate, swim, talk about your problems – whether medical or emotional – in confidence with experts, and nourish your body and mind in a caring and supportive atmosphere.
Sounds like heaven? Well, in a way it is. Part wellness centre and part clinic, Buchinger Wilhelmi is the closest to heaven on earth that you can imagine. People come here for time out, to boost their general health, to alleviate chronic conditions such as diabetes or IBS, to boost their recovery from serious illness, bereavement and divorce, to reclaim the balance in their lives, to rest, or simply to think. Sometimes they come here primarily to lose weight. Or to kick-start giving up smoking or drinking. Sometimes they come because they feel broken in some way, and they need to be healed. Everyone, whatever their issues, emerges restored, stronger, happier, more able to cope with life’s demands … and – more often than not – with answers to their particular challenges.
Set on the banks of Lake Constance, just across the German border from Switzerland, Buchinger Wilhelmi is a scattering of buildings which, at first sight, looks not unlike a university hall of residence. Inside it is not luxurious, but neither is it basic. The staff are all slim, clear-skinned, sparkly-eyed, smiling and helpful. It works – with classic, clean German efficiency – and if you’re careworn and tired, simply giving yourself over to that level of assured efficiency can be very reassuring indeed.
Founded in 1920 by Dr Otto Buchinger, the central pillar of Buchinger Wilhelmi is therapeutic fasting. Fasting is practiced by many cultures for its health benefits, but Buchinger experienced the benefits at first hand when, as a naval officer in 1917, he fell ill with rheumatoid fever. Wracked with pain, and desperate for relief, he underwent a 19-day therapeutic fast. By the end, his symptoms had disappeared, and he was pain-free. “This 19-day cure truly saved my existence and my life. I was weak and thin [by the end], but I had regained the ability to move my joints.” Stunned by the beneficial effects of fasting for reducing inflammation, he devised the therapeutic fast – the Buchinger Amplius Method – which most people choose to follow at Buchinger Wilhelmi. Since his death in 1966, the clinic has been run by his descendents – currently Buchinger’s grandson, Raimund Wilhelmi and his wife, Dr Francoise Wilhelmi de Toledo MD.
Francoise describes her first fasting experience, aged 17, as ‘a revelation’. ‘During the fast, I felt buoyant – sometimes euphoric – and wanted to change my whole life. ‘A devotee of therapeutic fasting ever since, Francoise couldn’t be a better advertisement for the regime. She believes that we all have a natural ability to fast – it is simply a question of relaxing and ‘letting go’ – something which is made much easier with the support of a range of therapeutic treatments (massages of every kind), psychotherapy if required, exercise, walking, meditation and the removal of the stress of our regular ‘toxic’ lifestyles.
I had arrived frayed around the edges, and desperately in need of a rest. I’d suffered a close family bereavement, plus the non-stop barrage of a demanding job all year. And there was that stubborn ten pounds I wanted to shift, too. However, the real reason I came was to support a relative, Anna, who was on anti-depressants following a bruising divorce, and who suffers chronic IBS and was keen to see if fasting would relieve her symptoms.
Our arrival day was about settling in and getting to grips with the layout of the clinic. Dinner that night was a light artichoke mousse with salad leaves, followed by mushroom ravioli – all made on the premises by head chef Hubert Hohler and his team, using organic vegetables, and quite delicious.
The next day was ‘adjustment day’ where we were given a choice of rice or potatoes with vegetables for all three meals. We chose rice, which came with apple compote for breakfast, tomato for lunch, and aubergine for dinner. But I felt nauseous and tearful, and had a blinding headache. When the cleaner asked if she could vacuum my room, I found myself suddenly in tears. All due to the de-toxifying effect of going without my normal cup of strong, black coffee in the morning for just one day …
The following day, the fast proper began. On this day you start the fast with ‘a thunderbolt’: the powerful, bitter-tasting Glauber’s Salt (sodium sulphate) – a laxative solution to empty and cleanse your bowel. After not venturing too far from a loo for a couple of hours, you will now be ready – inside and out – for the fast to begin.
You might think that fasting is difficult, and that you will be hungry all the time and suffer food cravings. This is largely not true. The negligible calories ingested each day are just enough to keep the wolf from the door, and the fact that your bowel and intestine are completely empty and resting allows a break from the normal pangs of appetite. It is essential to drink at least 3 litres (preferably 4) of water or herbal tea throughout the day to give a feeling of satiety and to flush toxins from the system. Fasting correctly releases endorphins, so although you might experience changeable emotions as the days go by, overall you remain pretty positive and happy. Magnesium (which acts as a muscle relaxant, to prevent cramps) and alkalizing tablets are taken daily. The fact is, though, that once you eliminate solid food from your diet, you don’t feel hungry in the normal way. Those nagging hunger pangs only return when you go back to eating regular meals and regular appetite instincts are triggered once again.
I had thought, on the day we arrived, that I would be bored, but there is such a packed schedule at Buchinger that it’s practically impossible to spend any time contemplating how little you are eating. I quickly worked out a daily routine, starting at 7.30 with a meditation session, followed by stretching in the gym at 8.00 a.m. This was followed by spinal exercises, gymnastics of all levels, yoga of all levels, or perhaps a leisurely swim in the warm outdoor pool. There’s a walk every afternoon – again for three levels of walker – through the forests and stunning countryside surrounding the nearby town of Uberlingen. The walks are a good way to meet other guests, who included company directors, mothers and daughters, three young women friends, and other single people who had come to re-set their health.
These activities are all interspersed with a raft of appointments with various specialists. Each guest is assigned a doctor who takes blood tests on arrival day to assess your health, and identify any potential causes for alarm. You will have several more appointments with the doctor during your stay in which you can discuss your own personal health issues. Every morning you visit the nurse who checks your blood pressure and weight (both of which invariably drop very satisfyingly), and in whom you can confide if you’re struggling with the fast, or having bad dreams or broken sleep (common during fasting, but it quickly passes). After lunch every day, you are given a liver compress in your room when you should have a nap. You will visit the nutritionist to discuss your own personal eating habits (over-eating is one of the greatest problems to affect our health), and there are number of talks on the various benefits of fasting, and how important it is at the end to break the fast in the correct way, and build up to eating normally very gradually over at least four days (preferably two weeks).
In the evening there’s a full range of lectures, films and cookery demonstrations, a piano recital one night, and a concert another. I took the opportunity to learn about autogenic training, Roder therapy, Tai Chi, and the background to successful meditation, plus how to cook tasty recipes that will give my metabolism a ‘holiday’ every now and again when I’m back home.
In addition to all this, there are weekly excursions for an afternoon out of the clinic (combined with the daily walk), and you can enjoy beauty treatments, any number of therapeutic massages, and the services of several highly-trained psycho-therapists, counsellors and coaches who will help you with emotional issues you might be grappling with.
Most people sail through the fast. There’s a feeling of camaraderie and achievement – everyone’s in it together – and you hear more laughter than grumbling in the clinic. Once you’ve got through the first couple of days, endorphins are released and you start to feel energized and positive, and the weight melts away at a rate of around 300g per day (more, usually, in the first few days when your body is ridding itself of stored water and toxins). Buchinger put great importance on the build-up phase after you break the fast. If you fast for several days and then stop abruptly and bombard your system with a rich, heavy meal, you will risk your health. It’s important that you gently re-introduce food over several days in the correct portion sizes, so that you adjust correctly to normal eating and are equipped with good habits to take back into your life.
Our 10-day stay at Buchinger was blissful. Under the excellent care of the psycho-therapist, Anna achieved more in two sessions than she had previously in countless meetings with counsellors as to how to move on from her divorce in a positive way, and understand better the nature of the man she had divorced. Her ‘IBS’ was identified as inflammatory gastric auto-immune disease, a relatively rare condition flagged up by the dangerously low levels of Vitamin B revealed in her blood tests (the doctor injected the vitamin direct into her bloodstream, and she will need monthly injections going forward). Vitamin B controls the nervous system and moods, so there is hope that once her body reaches the correct normal level she might be able to wean herself off the anti-depressants. She was also found to be anaemic, so was given an iron supplement.
I am fortunately relatively free of health issues, but over the course of my stay lost 2.4 kilos (around 6lbs), and 3.5cms from my waist, which was very welcome indeed. I also felt better and more rested than I had in years, and with greater clarity of mind. Anna lost 4k, and there are any number of impressive stories of weight loss including one woman who lost 17k during her 31-day stay. An obese man who stayed for three months lost all his excess body fat and cured his Type II diabetes.
Leaving Buchinger was hard. We immediately missed the cocooning atmosphere, the kindness of the staff, and the extraordinary attention paid to our health. We will return.
What does the fasting involve?
Amplius therapeutic fasting is the central pillar of the Buchinger philosophy and is recommended for everyone, except for those with specific medical issues which might require them to follow the 800 per day calorie diet, also available.
The basic 10-day fast includes an adjustment day, followed by several fasting days, and then three re-building days. All food is cooked using the finest organic ingredients, many of them grown on the premises. On each day you should drink a minimum of two litres of water or herbal teas, though up to four litres is recommended. A person of normal body weight should be able to fast for 40 days (under medical supervision), but most people come to Buchinger to do the 6-day fast, with an adjustment day first, and two re-feeding days afterwards. The secret of successful fasting is to be in a calm, stress-free environment, and to ‘let go’ of your normal instinct to eat. Be prepared to embrace any negative emotions – tiredness, hunger, tearfulness, nightmares – and let these pass, which they will. By day 3, most people are feeling energetic, strong, and on top of the world.
For dinner on arrival day, guests are given the calorie-restricted meal served in the restaurant, with still or fizzy water and herbal tea to follow.
Three calorie-controlled mono-meals of either rice and vegetables, or potatoes and vegetables.
Fasting Day One
On this day you will be given the warm Glauber’s Salt solution to empty and cleanse the bowel, and promote re-generation
Breakfast: Herbal tea with honey
Lunch: Fruit juice or thin vegetable soup
Dinner: Vegetable soup
On this day, you are given ‘globbersalts’ – laxative salts to rid the intestine and bowel of any debris.
Fasting Day Two
Meals are the same as Day One.
On this day, you are given an enema (sounds worse than it is!) to completely wash out the bowel, and a soothing liver compress after lunch to support the metabolism.
Fasting Day Three & Four
These are the same as Fasting Day Two, with enema/liver compress administered on alternate days.
The fast can continue as long as you like, but most people choose the 6 or 12-day fast. It is important to break the fast responsibly, with just a little food properly savoured. The build-up phase back to normal eating normally takes 3-4 days with the gradual introduction of regular, plant-based meals in the correct amounts. When you leave Buchinger, it is recommended that you stick to a plant-based (vegetarian) diet for the next two weeks.
Breaking the fast
On this day, for breakfast you have herbal tea with honey
Lunch: A small bowl of apple puree, with a single nut (I chose an almond).
Afternoon snack: a small apple
Dinner: potato soup
Re-feeding Day One
Breakfast: spelt porridge with prunes, malt ‘coffee’
Lunch: chicory salad followed by mashed potato with spinach.
Afternoon snack: small pot of natural yoghurt with nuts, and an apple
Dinner: pumpkin soup, followed by rice with vegetables in sauce
Re-feeding Day Two
Breakfast: Bircher muesli made with grated apple
Lunch: salad of leaves, quinoa soufflé with tomatoes and spinach puree
Afternoon snack: small pot of natural yoghurt, nuts, and an apple
Dinner: fennel and orange salad; braised chicory with bulgar wheat
What are the benefits of fasting?
Fasting is an inter-disciplinary therapy which acts on a number of organs and the psyche. It has been shown to be beneficial in relieving or curing practically all chronic illness, apart from tuberculosis, the advanced stages of cancer, and hyper-thyroidism. If you suffer from illness and are taking medication, you should only fast under supervision of a doctor. Fasting lowers cholesterol levels, reduces inflammation, and lowers blood pressure. It has been found to be extremely beneficial for the symptoms of Type II diabetes, sometimes even curing it. It has a positive effect on all inflammatory illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflamed joints. It reduces pain and improves mobility. All diseases that end in ‘itis’ (such as sinusitis, bronchitis, cystitis) are inflammatory, and respond well to fasting. After fasting, the immune system often improves on a long-term basis. Allergic conditions, such as hayfever and asthma can successfully treated by fasting as each break from eating is a break from allergens, and the immune system is able to recover. Migraine, fibromyalgia, and digestive and bowel disorders can be relieved through fasting, due to a change in the pain receptors. Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis can also be helped. Perhaps the most noticeable effect, though, is on the psyche. Serotonin – the feel-good neuro-transmitter – is more active during fasting, and this effect can also be maintained afterwards, if life changes are implemented. Depressive states can therefore be improved, and highly-stressed people can slow down and pay attention to their own needs. At the very least, fasting cleanses body and mind and enables spiritual revival.
Review by Sue Peart