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Fasting: the fast track to recovery?


Fasting: the fast track to recovery?
With bold new claims being made for the benefits of fasting, the Telegraph’s art critic tells how two weeks of carrot juice and herbal tea saved him from a near-breakdown.

The rest is silence: Richard Dorment found the Buchinger Clinic on Lake Constance 'the place to withdraw from the confusions of the world’ Photo: ALAMY
By Richard Dorment
By the end of last year my body and brain were in slow-motion freefall. In October a bad cold turned into a hacking cough and low-grade fever that wouldn’t go away. Not quite ill enough to take time off work, but far too zonked to do the physical exercise on which my sanity depends, soon I was in a position to confirm a medical fact that doctors never mention: a bottle of wine during the course of an evening makes you forget how bad you felt all day. Unfortunately that sort of self-medication also leads to a paunch, and sleepless nights followed by mornings that have to be got through in a state of exhaustion.
So I resorted to antibiotics and an inhaler. I was also taking anti-inflammatory drugs for my now chronically stiff neck and shoulders. Deadlines loomed, and then passed. As one article went to press, galleys from another appeared in my in-box. Either I could find no time to read for pleasure or after the first page fell asleep. Films I hoped to see came and went.
Then I snapped. One minute I was handling it all, the next I couldn’t face another day. I knew what I needed but not how to find it — I had to get away. But where do you go to recover from life? Friends were consulted, inquiries made, and the internet trawled for a break that did not involve skiing, a beach, or padding around some health farm in a terry-cloth robe. What I needed was more than just rest or distraction: there was something profoundly wrong with my life and I needed to fix it.
One name kept coming up: the Buchinger Clinic in Baden-Württemberg in Germany. This, friends assured me, was the Rolls-Royce of spas, a long-established medical centre on the shores of Lake Constance, about an hour from Zurich by car. Instead of relaxation, a light diet menu and wine with dinner, what was on offer at the Buchinger was a medically supervised fast lasting at least two, and preferably three, weeks. What really sold me was the way the website went into great detail about the medical benefits of fasting with scarcely any mention of weight loss. So I booked myself in for two weeks, and then hung on for dear life until the day of departure arrived.
The Buchinger is a complex of low-built modern villas looking west over the lake towards Switzerland. With its manicured lawns sloping down to the lakeside, it looks what it is: a place of silence and refuge, a modern version of the Swiss sanatorium Thomas Mann describes in The Magic Mountain. Like the main character in that novel, I knew within an hour of arrival that I’d found a place to withdraw from the confusions and responsibilities of the world.
Twelve doctors and at least twice as many nurses are in daily attendance for no more than 140 guests at one time. Most are from Germany and France, with a few English and more and more Russians. Everyone is there to recover — from (among other ailments) stress, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and rheumatism. Dozens of therapists offer every conceivable treatment from physiotherapy, cranium massage and acupuncture to counselling and meditation.
A stay at the Buchinger begins with a consultation with the doctor who will look after you during your stay. Dr Van Houten listened to my story with attention, and then suggested I see a physiotherapist about my neck and a psychologist for the depression I had yet to acknowledge. She also recommended the long walks that take place every afternoon and that I would otherwise certainly have avoided. Discovering this beautiful part of Germany became one of the great pleasures of my time there.
On your first day, a bland diet of rice and vegetables prepares the body for the coming fast. For the next nine days I would drink mineral water, herbal teas and (twice a day) a bowl of light soup. On the doctor’s orders I also had a glass of carrot juice at 11am, and half a cup of apple sauce with a dollop of honey around 2pm. That meant my daily intake hovered between 250 and 300 calories. Fasting is not dangerous, as long as it is done under medical supervision. At the Buchinger a nurse is on call 24 hours a day.
And here is the astonishing thing. As anyone who has completed the fast will tell you, it couldn’t be easier. Not for a moment did I feel real hunger. What I missed at first was the habit of eating, the absence of the mealtime ritual — and even that passed in a few days.
You do tend to feel cold, and many people complain of sleeplessness, but these discomforts are easily shaken off, because within a few days you realise that the benefits of fasting far outweigh the effort you put into it. After all, Christians have been fasting during Lent, and Muslims during Ramadan, for centuries. The body doesn’t need the huge amounts we all eat and drink to function normally and stay healthy — as long as the fast does not extend beyond the Biblical span of 40 days.
While fasting at the Buchinger, there is nothing to distract you: no work or bills to disturb the profound calm you settle into. You read, sleep, and look forward to guilty pleasures like the hot water bottle the nurse places over your liver before you settle in for an afternoon nap.
By the fourth day, I felt calmer and lighter. My cough and cold were gone, my breathing was deeper and I was thinking more clearly. The pain in my neck and shoulders lessened, and after a couple of sessions of integrative massage, the pain went away completely and hasn’t come back.
At the end of the first week, serotonin seemed to flood my brain, leaving me rinsed with a sense of wellbeing. An example of how I felt myself changing day by day may seem a small thing to you, but it stunned me: normally my handwriting is the illegible scrawl you’d expect of someone with a pen in his hand who is doing at least two things at once. Suddenly I noticed it had completely changed. I was writing in an even, steady, elegant script.
This is worth stressing. When I arrived at the Buchinger, my mind was like a carousel, whirling so fast that everything in it had become a blur. Fasting slowed it down, enabling me to see the outlines of thoughts and feelings that were moving too quickly to examine before. For the first time in months, I saw things clearly.
My two-week fast was one of the most transforming experiences of my life. On the ninth day, when it was time to begin the long, slow process of breaking the fast, I felt an overwhelming rush of sadness. Had it been possible, I’d have continued for another week.
I am convinced that fasting has a place in medicine alongside other therapies. The research seems to back me up: the U.S. National Institute on Ageing recently claimed that “intermittent” fasting helps weight loss, boosts longevity and combats dementia. The effects of my fast have lasted the month since my return, at any rate.
Though the Buchinger is no more expensive than a good hotel, it is not cheap. I received a discount as a journalist, but it was not contingent on my writing about my experience there. Too many health articles are puff pieces; but this one comes from the heart.
By Richard Dorment
buchinger.com; 0049 7551 8070

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