the austrian detox
I’m going to make an assumption that the average Esquire reader has a reasonable idea about the importance of diet and nutrition. He probably exercises but would do more if only he had the time. He has a general idea that he needs to eat more protein and less carbs in order to gain muscle and drop fat. He does his best to stick to fitness goals but leads a busy and stressful life, so food and exercise are both crammed in among his many other commitments. Overall, though, he thinks he is doing okay. His heart is good for his age and he can still run up a flight of stairs without wheezing.
But what if many of those assumptions were incorrect? What if a high protein diet is a big problem and that digestion is much a bigger issue? What if aspiring just to be fitter and stronger isn’t the answer? This is why a visit to the Viva Mayr clinic in Austria is as confronting as it is revelatory. The health spa, located by a beautiful lake in Altaussee and surrounded by picture-postcard mountains, challenges basic assumptions that men have about the foundations of good health.
Some history: Franz Xaver Mayr founded ‘The Cure’ as it is still known. The Austrian doctor, born in 1875, lived for an impressive 90 years, and he believed that digestion was at the heart of our wellbeing. He thought that proper nutrition and a balanced lifestyle could prevent or heal myriad illnesses through the cleansing, rebalancing and rejuvenation of our digestive systems. Today, The Cure has proved highly effective in treating ailments ranging from obesity to depression, diabetes to insomnia, inflammatory illnesses and allergies.
The process that everyone from businessmen and politicians to sports stars and celebrities undergoes centres on four principles: the first is destressing. This means restricting food intake to relieve strain on the digestive system. This is the hardest part and it’s a subject I’ll come back to. The nicer flipside is the enforced relaxation that comes with the territory. There is no Wi-Fi in the rooms and the use of phones is not allowed at meal times. This, along with the lack of energy that comes from fasting (at least in my case), means guests have little choice but to relax by the lake, breathing in fresh mountain air, lolling in the spa or sitting on balconies overlooking the stunning scenery while reading a book. So while the fasting is exhausting, once you settle into a rhythm, free of caffeine and alcohol, you sleep deeply, wake early and unwind to a much greater extent than on a conventional holiday. It’s an interesting journey of pain and pleasure, torment through hunger and moments of serenity from fasting.
The second principle is cleansing the organs, which is kick-started by drinking vile-tasting salt water (read: frequent bathroom trips), followed up by a couple of days strict fasting — or at least drastically downsizing your diet. This, frankly, isn’t pleasant but it does contribute to the forced relaxation.
Then there’s the healing principle of ‘chewing training’ whereby you train yourself to chew your food at least 30 times, eating a small, hard bread roll very slowly with every meal. Giving yourself time to eat gives your body time to digest, and also makes the tiny portions last longer.
The final principle is substitution. All manner of pills and powders are prescribed in the wake of a battery of tests. These are mainly minerals, trace elements and vitamins to assist the body’s recovery during the fasting process.
Guests then sign up for a range of treatments. There is a manual abdominal treatment to stimulate the digestive functions. An applied kinesiology test checks muscle response to different foodstuffs and can quickly diagnose intolerances. Kinesiology is an interesting topic. There is no hard scientific evidence to show that it works and it is regarded by many in the medical profession to be quackery. But, on the other hand, Viva Mayr is run by qualified medical professionals. And often, ‘research-based’ conventional medicine is the stuff that gets sponsored by corporations, who have little interest in paying money to prove something works if there is no profit return. It’s a big topic that can’t be done justice here; all I can say is that the doctor who tested me established that I had a weakness connected with the right side of my jaw — exactly where I have mercury fillings that he did not know about and could not have seen.
There are Kneipp treatments to improve and regulate your circulation, including hot scrubs and steams, electrolysis foot baths and saline air inhalation. Massages are also an important tool for releasing tension, unblocking energy lines and providing relief to existing injuries and weaknesses.
Finally, there are fitness tests, but these are more geared towards assessing metabolic function and stress levels. A spiroergometry appointment, which assesses cardiopulmonary performance, reveals that although I have stamina and fitness, my body produces lactic acid too quickly. That means, of course, that I’m flooding my system with acid, which hinders its ability to mop up free radicals. The solution is lots of very steady activity — very long walks, jogs or swims, with some quick burst thrown in to raise the heart rate, but not enough for lactic acid production to kick in. These long steady sessions will increase the threshold at which my body will resort to the anaerobic respiration that triggers lactic acid to be released.
Maintaining the body’s acidity is a big feature of the work at Viva Mayr. Much of this involves sticking to a 1:2 acidic/alkaline diet — avoiding acidic food and drink that ferments in the intestines, increasing acidity and causing gas. A few examples of alkaline foods are beets, spinach, cauliflower, almonds, chestnuts, tofu, bananas, apples, berries and whipped cream (but not cheese). Meanwhile, acidic foods include meat, fish, poultry, cheese and grains. This means ditching the lean meat and protein supplements that stress the digestive system and create too much acidity in the body. Doing so, the doctors tell me, helps reduce the risk of heart disease and autoimmune diseases later in life.
This also means not eating very much at all — a small breakfast and lunch and virtually nothing beyond a clear vegetable broth for dinner. And it becomes quickly clear that the entire Viva Mayr philosophy boils down to another four points that go far beyond informing simply what you eat — instead diving deep into how you eat. If followed, these four principles amount to a complete change of lifestyle rather than a temporary detox or quick-fix diet — and one that will have a profound impact on your health and performance forever.
The first rule is the correct chewing I mentioned earlier. Medical director Dr Sepp B Fegerl says that from a scientific perspective there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, he says, the saliva informs your digestive system about what food is about to come, and what enzymes and processes are necessary to efficiently digest it. Secondly, pulverising your food before swallowing gives intestines the opportunity for maximum nutrient absorption. This is probably the single most important change you can make to your lifestyle today.
The second rule is: don’t eat and drink at the same time. At mealtimes, we want our digestive enzymes to work their hardest. Drinking dilutes those enzymes and makes the digestive process far less efficient. Leave a 30-minute window before eating and a one-hour window afterwards to maximise the performance of your digestive system.
The third rule is referred to as “no raw after 4pm”. Raw food requires a lot of energy to digest, and after processing food all day your digestive system is at its least effective in the late afternoon. In The Viva Mayr Diet book, Dr Harald Stossier, who set up the original Mayr Clinic, explains why this is a problem. “When we eat raw food after 4pm, it will ferment in our intestines, because our bodies cannot effectively digest raw food after that time of day. This creates alcohol, acids and gasses and it irritates the membrane of the gut and creates holes.” These holes allow bacteria, acids, toxins and food particles to enter our bloodstream, where they must be dealt with by the immune system. If the immune system gets too burdened, these toxins will begin circulating around our bloodstream leading to a dangerous condition called auto-intoxification.”
The fourth and final rule can be summed up by the old maxim: “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”. “We don’t have the same digestive capacity for 24 hours,” Dr Stossier says. “Just as our bodies and minds tire towards the evening, so does our digestive system. In the morning we can digest basically anything at all. This is the time to eat a lot and to eat raw foods, which are more difficult to digest.” The Viva Mayr doctors explain that dinner should be something very light, eaten early, preferably by 6pm.
Following these four rules alone will have a dramatic impact on your health. “We live in the time of consuming,” Dr Fegerl says. “But we are not built for this. Even if your intelligence says ‘no’ to eating something, 90 percent of the time we will eat it anyway. At Viva Mayr, we allow people to go through the detox process and let them experience the benefit of it. Overall, it takes one to two months to complete the regeneration of the gut, but a little change in habits can have a huge effect.”
You can see why someone who is overweight or suffers from a range of health problems would be prepared to undertake this schedule. But what if you are basically healthy, or think you are? My answer would be that it is good to practise self-control now and again. The first few days were rough, though this was offset by a shared camaraderie among fellow guests about the various states of mind that we were going through. And some of these new friends, who’d initially struggled, extended their stay to reap the benefits that come once the body has adjusted to the new regime. It was as if we’d conquered something mentally as well physically.
I would like to have followed suit and stayed longer, had time allowed, but I obeyed the doctor’s suggestion to continue the programme for another three weeks, even though I’d been dreaming of my first meal and glass of wine from the second I left. Instead I spent a dry week in Budapest, which was not only easy but also enjoyable, sticking to the meal plan accompanied by the raft of pills and potions I’d been given, followed by more of the same back in Dubai. Inevitably the alcohol and caffeine crept back in, but I’d still proved I could do it, and I now chew far more slowly, and don’t drink when I eat or snack between meals.
Most importantly, I’m much more aware of how I can boost my digestion and of the impact that it has on my health. And here’s the thing: I didn’t lose any muscle mass, despite the fasting. In fact I gained a couple of kilos, which I think was because my body had chance to properly rest and recuperate.
It seems the body knows what it needs to do if it is just given the time and space. This probably explains why some world class athletes now subscribe to the method, building a trip to Viva Mayr into their yearly schedules. They, like the rest of us, have sometimes to slow down and allow the body to heal itself — whether that means losing weight, gaining it or just recalibrating the system.
But the biggest lesson is that we need to live in harmony with ourselves. Many of us live hectic lives, which we try to offset by glugging down green juices or protein shakes and squeezing in an exercise class when possible. But studies have shown that the people who live the longest around the world are the ones who eat fresh, varied and small amounts of food. They are the ones who don’t have too much stress in their lives but are active into old age. They don’t exercise excessively but are physically active in varied ways throughout their lives. They are the ones who live in communities where they receive love and support. And in almost all cases, the ones who survive to extreme old age never set out with the goal of living a long life. That was just a happy by-product of living well and doing so with a light touch.
Double rooms start at Dhs730 per night. Price includes individually devised cuisine. All teas and the daily programme are included. Additional treatments are charged separately. For a list of activities see vivamayr.com.