What 9 Days of Fasting Does to Your Body And Brain
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most things do, in the soft, dying light of an epic Friday lunch, fuelled by boozy optimism and three-bottle bravado. “I heard about this place,” I say to the editor, “a health clinic in Germany, where you go without food for days on end. Weeks even. You know, Jesus and his jaunt to the desert. And Gandhi. A physical form of prayer. Brings you closer to God and all that.”
He raises an eyebrow and takes another glug of wine: “And what, may I ask, has increased spiritual awareness through physical deprivation got to do with you?”
Good point. But like a slack-bellied Bear Grylls, I’ve come prepared. “Well, you know me, your indolent, sybaritic, exercise-averse food editor who makes those Lotus Eaters look like the Temperance League on starvation Sunday.” He nods.
“And you know how I hate all that New Age bullshit about wellness; and those homeopathic quacks, and the bastard snake oil salesmen sugar-coating dodgy diets and miracle cures in a shiny glaze of quasi-scientific claptrap.” He nods again, and rolls his eyes.
“Well, throw in some Tibetan bloody bowls, a few leeches, plus tubes jammed up your arse, and what do you get?” By the look on his face, a mental image that puts him off his pudding. But still.
“And you know how I really love a wurst, and a roasted pork knuckle, and a stein or two of beer, and… hey, shall we get a sticky? Excuse me, is your Poire William chilled? Yup? Brilliant, we’ll have two large ones. Anyway, the expenses will be minute, too. No going to the bottom of the wine list or caviar binges. I just get bloody soup. And…” the editor holds up his hands. “OK. Fine. Fine. Anything to shut you up.”
So, a few weeks later, after reading widely (well, mainly Wikipedia) about the role of fasting in religion (Ramadan, Lent and Yom Kippur); avian migration (the hummingbird weighs a mere five grammes and uses two grammes of fat to travel non-stop more than 1,000 kilometres, which is useful to know next time I’m planning to soar from New York to Mexico City); and general health (there is a huge body of hard scientific evidence supporting the positive effect that fasting has upon the body), I step off the plane in Zürich. And I am scared. Very scared indeed.
I feel like a convict, sleepwalking towards my lethal injection. Nine days without proper food. I don’t think I’ve done nine minutes. My whole existence is built around what I throw down my throat. My pissed-up lunchtime bravado has long gone. About to commence the drive from Switzerland to Germany, that Martin Sheen line from Apocalypse Now keeps running through my head: “I was going to the worst place in the world. And I didn’t even know it.”
I take one last loving look at airport café food that would usually fill me with disgust. Over-boiled eggs, soggy sandwiches, flaccid chips all take on an impossibly romantic hue. Hell, I even lust after a Whopper. I sit in silence as we cross the border into South Germany, looking longingly at wurst hauses and bier halles, and wondering, for the tenth time that hour, what the hell I am doing here. I’ve never been big on moderation.
An hour later, we arrive at the Buchinger Wilhelmi clinic. It sits high up on the shore of Lake Constance, in the ridiculously pretty city of Überlingen. In the distance, the Alps frame the horizon. The clinic is clean, smart and discreet. And quiet. So quiet. Not so much talk as murmur. But where’s the security and CCTV, and the airport scanners, checking for illicit carbs? This is all so, well, civilised. And friendly. And tidy.
The clinic was founded by Dr Otto Buchinger, a medical officer in the German Imperial Navy who contracted severe rheumatic fever and had to retire at 40, and faced life in a wheelchair. But after a friend advised him to try a three-week cure, things changed. “I was weak and thin,” he wrote, “but I could move all my joints again.” His health improved, he became a convert, and expert, and opened his first fasting clinic in 1920 with his daughter Maria and son-in-law Helmut Wilhelmi. Buchinger Wilhelmi opened in 1952.
But there are no stern faces here, no rules, save the main doors are locked at 11pm. And no booze. You can even smoke, as long as you stick to the designated area. I’d rather imagined, a few weeks back, that this would be some magnificent gonzo adventure, where I’d play the freewheeling, iconoclastic journo, taking on the unsmiling German anti-pleasure police. A sort of posh Randle McMurphy, skipping over barbed wire fences to feast upon whole roast chickens while laughing in the face of joy-hating Nurse Ratchetts. I’d fight the system, show them that they may starve my body, but they can never break my soul.
How wrong I am. The staff here, at every level, make the Four Seasons look like Fawlty Towers. They exude warmth, charm, and a fundamental softness, a tranquillity that wafts through every part of this sprawling estate. My room is small but neat and comfortable, with a balcony and view over the lake and Alps. Plus there’s a desk, large leather reclining chair, decent bed and bathroom with large tub. Each morning, between seven and nine, I am to go for a blood pressure check and weigh-in with my nurse. Apart from that, you can do as little or as much as you want. If you’re fasting, everything is done for you. So, in the interests of a little journalistic contrast, I make fine use of my last day as a serious eater. And 20 minutes later, I’m sat behind a rubbish, greasy pizza the size of a wagon wheel. With a few foaming steins of beer to wash it down: may as well build up for the fast ahead. I waddle back and collapse into bed. This will be a blast.
Day two: weight 81.7kg
Digestive rest day. Which means veggie food (very good, for tucker sans fat) to slip gently into the fast. Snow is falling heavily and I wander down to see the nurse. My fellow guests are reassuringly varied: model-thin Parisians passing in a cloud of scent; large Germans in bathrobes; scrawny Brits in gym kit; smiling Italians in spa casual. And every variation of the above. All smile, munificently. I eat a bowl of fruit in silence, before meeting Dr Martine van Houten, who has been assigned to me. She’s the sort of doctor you would feign illnesses just to go and see, dry and funny and pragmatic. Her eyes gleam with good health.
“Fasting is not a diet,” she says, seemingly reading my mind. “Of course, you can use the technique of fasting to implement losing weight. But fasting is a way of opening up, of reaching a different physical state. Fasting is a mosaic of a lot of things. And the art of the fast is not in how long you can do it. For you, six days is perfect. But the art is as much in the re-feeding, the coming out of it, as it is in the fast itself.” The basic proposal for me is six days of fast; one day preparation; two days at the end, re-feeding.
We talk for a bit and she senses my cynicism. “I think you should approach this with an open mind. And try lots of the therapies. You never know, you might actually enjoy them,” she says. She puts me down for meditation, shiatsu, osteopathy, psychotherapy… and sound massage, with Tibetan bloody singing bowls.
“Why not put me down for the leech therapy, too?“ I say, only half in jest.
“You want to try that?” she asks. Dear God, no.
Before I leave, she makes one thing clear: “This is very much a medical clinic. There are some very ill people who come here with very specific needs. They often come back again and again, and we have scientifically proven results for the likes of arthritis and diabetes. Although a few people might use it to tick off their spa list, this is a clinic.”
She gives me a few tips. “Drink, drink, drink. At least 1.5 litres per day, more if you can. And move. Exercise. But do it in third gear. Give your body a chance. Slow down. Oh, and communicate. Let the nurses know how you feel. Don’t suffer in silence.”
She gives me magnesium to counter any excess uric acid, and alkaline pills that help battle the same thing, before I go off for a blood test, a lunch of mashed potatoes and vegetables, and a long walk past handsome baroque churches and chocolate box-pretty villages. Everywhere that I look, there are taverns with foaming beer and plump dumplings. Food, winking, leering and taunting. My head starts to ache. The prospect of nine more days, however comfortable, fills me with gloom. One last dinner: three potatoes, baked, with braised fennel. I chug about three litres of water and fall asleep, sad, hungry and hopeless. I can’t even be arsed to dream.
Day three: 81.4kg
The headache’s worse now, thudding, bouncing around my bonce. It’s snowing again. I drink a litre of water. See the nurse. Trudge back and stare out at the fat flakes coming down. At 11am, a carafe of Glauber’s salt, a laxative draft. It tastes bitter, washed down with fresh raspberry juice. And that’s it. I’m officially entering my fast. An hour later and those salts have passed through me like, well, a dose of salts.
Lunch arrives in my room, a small bowl of golden vegetable broth. It’s good but over in about eight sips. My headache is now near unbearable. Caffeine withdrawal, apparently, plus about 25 years of excess, all fighting to get out. The snow has stopped and I gaze out at all the neat little houses with their neat plumes of smoke coming from their neat chimneys, and imagine them sitting down at tidy tables to eat bread and meat and drink beer. Living like normal folk. A boat glides across the water. There’s probably a snack bar on that, too. With crisps and bratwurst with fresh mustard. I try to concentrate on the new Robert Harris. But all those lunches at The Ritz and in smoky Munich bars don’t help. I move on to Anthony Powell; A Dance to the Music of Time… the first three books. Too many parties and boys cooking plump sausages in their rooms.
A nurse comes in and for my afternoon rest straps me into a warm liver compress, a hot water bottle supposed to stimulate blood in the liver, and “give your vitality a strong boost”. It’s perfectly pleasant. Only five more hours until my next bowl of broth, now taken in the salon. Alone. I can’t face chit-chat at the best of times. By now, I’m feeling positively hermit-like.
I’m still obsessing about food. Or the lack of it. But the hunger isn’t overwhelming, rather receding by the hour. My evening broth is slurped in moments but already, the taste is cleaner, clearer. The headache still rages. I slump back to my room and slip into a deep, hot bath with Widmerpool and Duport. And a cup of apple peel tea. Good shit, that apple peel tea. I drink three cups, then some camomile. And fall asleep about 9 p.m., into a deep, dark sleep with violent, worrying dreams that I remember for a moment as I wake up, gasping for breath: death and chaos and a feeling of utter helplessness. Then they disappear. I wake up to pee at about 3 a.m., then plummet back into the vicious abyss.
Day four: 80kg
I feel a little better today. The headache’s still there but softer, more discreet. The sun is out once more and I swim in the lovely heated outdoor pool. I emerge, pink and steaming, like a fresh-boiled leg of ham. Then an hour of osteopathy where I’m poked and pushed and manoeuvred by Herr Lutz, a splendidly tranquil man who works magic, despite putting gloved hands deep into my mouth and pressing hard. I emerge floppy and happy, to a cup of herb tea. Next thing I know, I’ll have hot glasses stuck to my back.
Lunch is a glass of apple juice. But it’s only when I’ve finished that I realise I feel no hunger. At all. This is an utterly alien experience, my primary urge softened from roar to whisper. And all this stillness is infectious. Exercise. Reading. Thinking. Admittedly about what a Sichuan hot pot would taste like right now, but the interest is objective, intellectual even, rather than driven by my base needs.
I surrender to my liver compress and gaze out the window. My test results are fine, save for bad cholesterol which is a bit high. And booze, too. (Tell me something I don’t know.) The headache has now gone, and I actually look up and smile at my fellow guests. A walk along the lake and into town. I gaze into butchers and bakeries, but remain utterly unmoved, feeling as if I’m sitting behind glass, a voyeur without the perverted thrill. Where I expected raging lust for food, instead it’s as if all my appetites have been surgically removed. I’m not even tempted to stray. Carrot soup for dinner. Slurp it back, with gusto not glee. It’s there, I eat it, it tastes good. But my visceral connection with food, usually embraced way too lustily, has slipped away. More herb tea and off to bed with Anthony Powell.
Day five: 80.2kg
I actually leap out of bed today—and not because I’m running late. Into a 6am meditation class. As ever, I get it wrong; fold my knees under me before realising I cannot sit for one minute like, this, let alone one hour. I also need a pee. When you’re drinking five litres of water a day, you spend more time peeing than eating. Anyway, utter silence, save the cacophony of empty tummies — clicks, growls, roars. The cynic inside me sneers, but soon, he is ushered out, to be replaced by a genuine sense of wellbeing. Oh Christ, I actually said wellbeing. What’s going on?
My first enema, while not pleasant, is hardly Last Tango in Paris. A nurse, a litre of warm water, a lubed-up tube and well, you can guess the rest. Gravity does its job three minutes later. After that, as I sit, gazing out over the ever-changing lake, the sun breaks through the clouds and I suddenly feel a surge of pure bliss through my veins. I burst into tears, for no reason at all, suddenly ecstatic to simply be alive. Curiouser and curiouser. More amazing still, I go for a run in the gym. The sense of inner calm is pervasive and all encompassing, the strain and worries of the outside world stripped away. The luxury of doing absolutely bugger all. Of course, this place is hardly cheap. But no more expensive than any five-star hotel. A wondrous hike in the hills (still no chat; come on, I’m English), a bowl of pumpkin broth and to bed with Chicago architects and serial killers in Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City.
Day six: 79.8kg
I dream in 4K. I feel alive, strong, happy, clean. Like a fella in a RightGuard advert. I want to splash cold water on my face, in slow motion, before leaping onto my bike and slicing through the rush hour traffic for a big, manly board meeting. Then I remember I’m naked. And not usually given to these fitness driven flights of fantasy. I try to remember what hunger felt like. It’s like meeting an old school friend in the street after 10 years or so, and wondering what the hell you ever saw in him. Food, the very centre of my life, has become as emotive as a glass bottle of mineral water. I only drink the juice and sip the soup as something to pass the time, and break up the day.
Then two things happen. First, the taste of honey, which arrives with my morning tea. Instead of stirring in the half teaspoon, I lick it off. My taste buds recoil, then roar their delight. Whoa, baby, this shit is strong. Suddenly, desire comes back into sharp focus, and a craving crawls up from my gut. It’s like coming out of black and white and into Technicolor. My own Yellow Brick Road. But the moment, visceral, intense, almost erotic, quickly passes. Just like the moment, an hour or so later, when I walk past the cinema from which the scent of warm popcorn drifts out. Suddenly, I’m whisked back to the Chippenham ABC cinema of my youth, with the cold damp loos and sticky carpets and tattered, creaky chairs. It’s like a bullet train to my past, so evocative is that scent.
As usual that night, we queue up like supplicants at the altar, awaiting our body and blood, a pellucid tomato broth, sweet and softly spoken. Then to bed with Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography. I feel my clarity of mind will suit the brilliant clarity of his prose but, like his beloved butterflies, it flits from my grasp and I fall asleep. No dreams tonight.
Day seven: 78.6kg
Before I know it, the end is drawing near. The daily schedule has become smooth, and comfortably worn. Nurse, swim, juice, rest, walk (through deep snow and trees that crackle with ice), run, soup, bed. Today’s enema seems as normal as brushing my teeth — well, with a little more anal penetration, but you get my drift. Soon, the experts say, I’ll “grieve for the simplicity of life on autopilot”. And this really is luxury, doing nothing, having to speak to no one, cleaned not just in body, but in mind: mens sana in corpore sana. It’s blissfully selfish, though undoubtedly inspiring. I speak to guests who come year after year, with chronic arthritis and Type 2 diabetes and all manner of other ailments. I’m no scientist but these people are all successful, rational people who passionately vouch for the gentle effectiveness of this treatment. Non-invasive, no drug regimes, just sitting back, chilling and not eating for a while. Like a physical MoT, a reboot, a spring clean. It’s not about starvation, rather a time to slow down, look around, wake up and smell the herbal tea. My final fasting dinner is celery soup with dill, two things I’d usually cross a continent, on my bare knees, to avoid.
Day eight: 77.8kg
Breaking the fast. I feel like I’m losing a friend. “Every fool can fast,” said George Bernard Shaw, “but only a wise man knows how to break a fast”—not his most elegant epithet, but the break is as important as the fast, they say. After a blissful hour of shiatsu, I swim my lengths and return to find a bowl of warm apple purée, sprinkled with cinnamon. It fills my mouth, silken and seductive. Saliva rushes in, my jaw pauses, momentarily shocked. The strange sensation of mastication, my solo sojourn rudely interrupted by solid food. Not the heavenly choirs I expected to sing in my mouth, but interesting. Something new. I’m still not hungry. I eat it because it’s there.
My last rest, then an apple, sliced and chewed slowly. The crisp crunch of the apple, that explosion of sweetness. I chew as if testing some exotic new species. I only manage half, hunger not so much blunted as broken. There’s soup for dinner plus a certificate and a celebratory candle. I’ve made it. And I’m sad. I eat mechanically, with pleasure but not joy.
Day nine: 77.2kg
I’m out, and back in the world of the chewing. Breakfast of porridge with apple, grapes and cinnamon. And two prunes. Again, the flavours are generous and clean, yet I eat it as if in a bubble. And get bored, leaving half of it.
Lunch is good. Chicory salad, with a sharp dressing, splendidly bitter. Then buttery mashed potato with spinach; can’t eat it all but it’s good to have the butter back. Is this it, I wonder? Do I return home a teetotal vegan with a penchant for shiatsu? Will I ever love greed again? God, I’ll be a bore. Still, I don’t half feel sprightly—thinner, happier, less pissed off.
I have one final talk with Dr Eva Lischka, the head of the clinic. “I fast twice a year, for seven to 10 days,” she says. “And have done so for 34 years. The psychological effects are huge. If you’re a little stressed, or little things make you angry, you do the fast. And it’s like switching on a light.” She smiles. “You are now motivated to deal with the problems.”
The weight loss part of the fast now seems trite, as Dr Lischka continues, “I think one of the biggest benefits is psychological, the improving of the mood. People who have lost children, partners, have low energy, all manner of diseases... they come to us, and take away one of the few things they have left… food.
“But after four days here—fasting, seeing psychotherapists, having treatments and exercising and everything else—they are totally changed,“ she says. “It’s not only the fast but the exercise routine, the relaxation. Prevention is the most important medicine.”
I get up to go. “Remember, man has been fasting for a long time,” says Dr Lischka. “Ancient man had to go out to look for food. And often, for many days there was nothing, save those internal reserves. He needed a clear head to hunt on an empty stomach, otherwise he wouldn’t survive.”
My last treatment is Tibetan bowl sound therapy. Really. I lie down in a darkened room, and have metal bowls set atop me. Despite looking like the percussion section of a Buddhist band, any vestige of stress rides the waves of sound away. I have never felt happier, more content. And less of a twat.
Day 10: 77.2kg
I’m off. Leaving the stillness and calm behind. I’ll miss the lake and the steaming pool, the silence and the time to sit and stare. “After fasting, your body can be compared to an empty house,” I was told by Raimund Wilhelmi, one of the third generation of family to run the clinic. He’s charming and funny, miles removed from a spewer of dogmatic dogma. “The old carpets and wallpaper have been removed. And now have to be improved with new ones. Only then will you be able to live in this house more healthily and more comfortably.” I float back to the airport, glide through and onto the plane. Where I eat a piece of salami. It tastes dumb, coarse and over seasoned. Well, it is British Airways, but still. I gulp back more water.
A few days later and the greed is back. Of course, I slip back into old ways as the days go by. I can’t say I’m a new man, either. But I’m now going to spinning classes. Trying to eat and drink a little less. Slowing things down. It was a brief glimpse into another existence: quieter, more civilised, slower and unselfish. I went there in jest. And left in love.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.