Approaching 50, Bridget Robinson checked in for a 10-day fast at a clinic to overhaul her health and, it turned out, her life
It's fair to say I haven't always been at one with my gut.
As a premature baby, I'd spent years taking antibiotics. In my erratic childhood, my single mother struggled with alcohol and drug dependency. I was always hungry. As a successful executive, I'd worked on gut instinct for years but ignored my insides for just as long.
I rewarded myself with food. Almost every meeting revolved around breakfast, lunch, supper or coffee... I was a carb addict. Working long hours, exercise tends to become a promise to yourself that you don't always keep. But several years ago, I tried to turn things around, reversing my Type 2 diabetes with a combination of counselling, diet and exercise.
Then, at 47, I lost my mum, aged 65, to a downward spiral of ill health that had started with an underactive thyroid and progressed to high blood pressure, heart disease, a quadruple bypass, Type 2 and Type 1 diabetes, and finally cancer. The sledgehammer of grief came with a dawning realisation that this could also be my future. I was scared.
So I approached my 50th birthday with the mindset "How am I going to get to 65?" I wanted to be sure my health was optimised, that I knew what I was up against, and that I could take a preventive approach.I'd heard of an amazing place called Buchinger Wilhelmi in Germany, from which friends had returned, having slept well, feeling fabulous with a real glow about them.
I assumed it was somewhere I could never afford to go. I never considered channelling some of the money I was spending on family holidays each year into ensuring I'd be around for even more of them.
I spent weeks psyching myself up for being away on my own, for addressing my fears, for not being able to eat the food I wanted. I arrived a size 18, feeling nervous and exhausted.
I was shown around the clinic, which looked more like a five-star hotel. As someone who travels a lot for work, I immediately felt at home. My room overlooked Lake Constance and was surrounded by trees. Only birdsong broke the tranquillity of my terrace.
Calm prevailed throughout. There were no guests on phones, no staff pacing or rushing around. It felt like a safe house. I was given an iPad and a day-by-day explanation of how I would feel and the procedures involved over 10 days. I learnt about the benefits of enemas (more of which later), salts, body brushing, liver packs, Kneipp therapy (hot and cold water treatment), fasting and refuelling. Knowing what to expect made me feel comforted.
Over the first 24 hours, I had blood tests and check-ups. My cholesterol was high, showing triglycerides at 221 when they should have been less than 150. My liver gamma and glucose levels were high, my vitamin D levels low - common in overweight, menopausal women - and my blood pressure was 170/100 (high). I wasn't exactly a living time bomb, but my health certainly wasn't great. However, all could be improved.
Fasting, I was told, could help. I could apparently survive for 10 days without food, but I wasn't convinced. Didn't these people know I was married to an incredible chef?
And so the challenge began - with a choice of potatoes, rice or fruit, I chose rice, to help remove excess water from the body. So it would be rice with apple sauce for breakfast on day one, rice with vegetables for lunch, rice with tomato sauce for supper, and just two bowls of (admittedly delicious) broth a day thereafter. The flavours changed every day, but the all-important sprinkle of fresh herbs was a constant. My taste buds and sense of smell improved every day... and then there were those enemas. (The only thing I saw after day three were those herbs, as my body began to purify itself and the fasting gave me a lightness of mind as well as gut.)
The routine was broken by a "welcome party" (mocktails, of course) at which returning guests were suspiciously evangelical. One woman (80 going on 65) had been checking in for more than 20 years. This, along with the day's clinical approach to my health, felt hugely reassuring.As the week progressed, each day was similar to the last... but I discovered there is comfort in a life short on surprises. I woke at 6.30am each day feeling more energetic than on the last. I was weighed, had tests, had my blood pressure checked and a quick chat, followed by a delicious apple tea back in my room. Then it was off to the gym for a walk on the treadmill (every day I walked further and at a steeper gradient) and some weight training. I dreamt of having toned arms rather than bat wings!
Then it was back to my room for an enema, a shower and an hour's rest with a liver pack and a hot water bottle. After my bowl of broth, I would head off on a group walk - graded A, B or C according to the group's ability. I chose B - a 6.5km walk up and down hills, through forest and across wintry meadows, at a steady pace. Sometimes I chatted with other guests, sometimes I stayed silent - immersed in nature, inhaling the snowy air as it tingled in my nostrils, overwhelmed by its power. Every day the walk was different and the scenery was Christmas-card perfect. As the week progressed, I saw more, felt more: my senses seemed to be getting their strength back, as was I.
Back at the clinic, I filled my days with healing therapies: first, osteopathy (I would fly to Germany just for a treatment with Mrs Kehrer - my back and muscles felt amazing after just two sessions); then colon hydrotherapy, hot stone massages, podiatry, reflexology, cranial therapy, manicures, pedicures, a redemptive Sisley facial and intermittent blow-drys (well, a girl wants to look as good as she feels).
Every night, the next day's planner arrived in my room and a hot water bottle was placed in my bed. I slept without waking for at least six hours, sometimes as many as eight (the last time I had slept that well was as a teenager). It was bliss - and although I missed the activity of eating, I never actually felt hungry.
I found the head space exhilarating. As my body repaired itself, I meditated, imagining my cells fixing themselves. I ignored the TV in my room and listened to classical music instead, attended talks (on everything from laughter therapy to mental health), took cold showers (to stimulate the immune system, boost circulation and help with weight loss - as well as perking me up as much as caffeine) and tried body brushing (to exfoliate the skin and aid detoxifications). I read five books, I pondered, I cried. A lot. And as the fog slowly lifted, I began to see clearly.
I realised that my lifelong plan to retire at 50 wasn't going to happen - I couldn't afford it. But that was OK. I would focus on doing what I love, and my first goal would be not to set unrealistic goals. As more layers of fog lifted, I achieved still greater clarity. I could suddenly see through things that were present in my life: deceit, manipulation, lack of integrity. These were all things I'd eradicated from my career, but which I'd allowed to creep into my home life.
I realised that, if I wanted to achieve real happiness, I was in the wrong relationship. I began to build coping mechanisms. I would incorporate regular fasting, moderation and thinking time into my life. I set new, realistic goals. I vowed to make time for myself. I resolved to begin putting in, rather than taking out. I realised I didn't want to be a menopausal, unhealthy being with brain fog. It was as if I'd spent the past 30 years dumbed-down by 21st-century living. I wanted, quite bluntly, to walk to my grave rather than be carried there.
And here's another upside: my blood pressure is now 126/88, I have shed 6kg in two weeks and lost 6cm from my hips, 5cm from each leg, and 10cm from my waist! My liver gamma levels and triglycerides are now in the normal range. My arms... well, let's just say I'm still working on those - but every week they look a little better.
Soon after returning from Buchinger Wilhelmi, I celebrated my birthday. Friends said I looked fabulous - the only downside being that the dress I'd bought for my party swamped my new frame. It was a small price to pay for reaching 50 but feeling 40. At Buchinger, you stop rushing, you stop ageing. Instead you start to be a better, wiser version of yourself. For me, that meant a new job, a new house and a new life - the end of my marriage but a new relationship... with myself.
Buchinger Wilhelmi offers 10-day fasting programmes from NZ$4300 per person. The price includes two consultations with a doctor, daily nurse check-ups, food/drink, fasting provisions and daily activities. Fasting programmes up to 28 days and non-fasting stays are also available.