When the going gets tough, there is one place where the likes of Victoria Beckham and the Delevingne sisters head to recalibrate: the exclusive Lanserhof medi-spa retreat nestled in the Austrian Alps.
The club opened its London outpost in 2019 in partnership with (and opposite) The Arts Club in Mayfair, and with travel still off the cards to and from much of Europe for now, it recently launched its world-renowned Life Fasting programme. Weary Londoners can now detox at home if they can’t escape the city.
Inspired by the principles of Mayr medicine, which was developed by Austrian doctor FX Mayr over 100 years ago, the fasting concept is designed to reset the digestive system, rooted in the belief that a healthy gut is the key to optimum wellbeing. The fast, which can be undertaken for one, two or three weeks, is designed to give your digestive organs a break by simplifying your diet. When we say simplify, we mean it. Think yoghurt, crackers and broth - with the promise of renewed energy levels, better functioning digestion and even a cognitive boost upon completion. It all comes at a premium price tag, of course, a seven-day programme will set you back £5,000.
After falling into bad habits during lockdown, I opted in for the week-long fasting course, which has gained a cult following among the rich and famous. The programme kicks off with a consultation with Dr Ursula Levine, an FX Mayr doctor, trauma therapist and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. Dr Levine explains that the fast is as much about the way you eat as what you eat. I need to learn to eat mindfully. In practice, this means never using your phone or watching TV at meal times, and chewing the few solids in my meal plan at least 30 times “to optimise stomach acid levels and break down the fibres for better digestion and therefore absorption.”
“50 per cent of digestion happens in the mouth,” Dr Levine says. “It doesn’t matter if you eat nutritious food, you won’t get the full nutrients without breaking it down into liquid first.”
Think of it as a full-blown MOT for your body. The process kicks off with a series of tests, including a blood analysis to check for deficiencies, as well as things like liver function, a stool sample, to check how diverse your microbiome - or gut bacteria - currently is, an ECG test to check for heart rhythm irregularities and a body composition MRI scan. The blood test is done with Bioniq, a bespoke supplement company which then uses the results to create a personalised mix of the vitamins and minerals you need more of. For example, it turns out I, as I’m sure much of the rest of the British population, am severely deficient in vitamin D. The supplements, to be taken twice a day, come in granule form, which feels a bit like you’re swallowing a mouthful of tiny seeds. They are supposed to release micronutrients over a 12-hour period, thus covering you for the full 24-hours in a day. Though admittedly I found them less pleasant to swallow than traditional pills.
Prepare not to fail
Preparing properly ahead of the fast, by cutting down on alcohol and caffeine for example, is a crucial first step, and something I didn’t properly appreciate and later regretted when I tempted to go cold turkey on my usual non-negotiable two strong coffees a day. I was genuinely worried about functioning at work without coffee so Dr Levine told me I could still have an espresso with a twist of lemon.
In the week leading up to the fast and for the duration of it, I started my mornings with a luke warm glass of water (left out overnight) with a teaspoon of epsom salts added to it - these taste absolutely disgusting by the way, so again adding fresh lemon juice helps. Still, the epsom salts loosen the stools - and within two hours, I could feel them getting to work. Skipping your main evening meal, or just increasing your overnight fasting window, in the lead up to the fast can also help your body adjust to the pared back diet, Dr Levine says.
You are not supposed to feel hungry during the fast, Dr Levine tells me. Really? I think, as I’m presented with my day on a plate for the next seven days: fermented coconut yoghurt and crackers for breakfast, a lunch of vegetable broth and the same for dinner. When Anastasia, the lovely chef in the members lounge, hands over my first day’s food I’m sure I detect a flicker of sympathy when she sees my face. “Don’t worry, she assures me, everyone says how much energy they have after just a few days.” The idea is that the fast can be adjusted every two days by Dr Levine depending on how I’m getting on, and we do later decide to introduce a vegetable soup in the evenings for more sustenance. It’s beetroot and courgette but no salt or pepper. Warmer dishes are preferred for dinner, based on one of the Mayr principles to avoid raw foods in the evening, as they are believed to be more difficult to digest.
The club provides all of your meals and the idea is that you pop in once a day to pick up the food and have a treatment - more on those later. I was working during the fast so would go in at the end of the day collect my meals for the following day. I’m told to drink plenty of water throughout the day, but not between meals so as not to “dilute digestive enzymes,” and also handed some bitterz drops to take 15 minutes before meals, which do not taste overly pleasant either. These are supposed to stimulate the digestive enzymes in mouth. Dr Levine advises taking each spoon of broth with a mouthful of crackers to stimulate digestion and avoid snacking in between meals to give my gut a rest. If I’m hungry, I can have a cup of herbal tea or more vegetable broth (both using a spoon).
To make the fasting more bearable, and while you won’t have the picturesque backdrop of the Austrian alps to remedy initial fasting fatigue, the programme includes plenty of treatments which are supposed to aid the detoxification process (and presumably just make you feel better as you soldier on). This includes three IV infusions, containing a cocktail of amino acids and glutathione - a powerful antioxidant - spread across the course of the week, abdominal massage every other day to stimulate the digestive system, a seriously deep tissue full-body massage. a lymphatic drainage treatment to drain the lymph system, and a personal training session in the high-tech gym with head of fitness, Jason Reynolds. This does manage to distract me from the monotony of the meal plan, and particularly after the third IV drip I feel verging a superhuman, a rarity for a Tuesday evening.
I’m a staunch believer that food is to be enjoyed, and this week certainly took pretty much all of the joy out of meal times for me. However, I do get the point of giving your gut a break, particularly when I think of the worrying number of takeaways I have succumbed to over the past 18 months. Learning to connect with my food in a different way, stopping and actually thinking about how I’m digesting what I’m putting in my body is a healthier takeaway that I’ve picked up. I did notice a greater degree of clarity in my thinking after a week of fasting and, interestingly, felt more emotionally robust. The whites of my eyes were clearer, stomach less bloated, and felt ready to take on the summer of freedom. If I were to do it again I would take some holiday, a commute doesn’t lend itself well to this kind of detox, but of course the VBs and VIPs with cash to splash on this kind of programme don’t have to worry about those minor details.
The Life Fasting programme is not suitable for anyone suffering from eating disorders, psychiatric disease, acute Crohn’s disease, Colitis ulcerosa, Multiple Sclerosis or Thyreotoxicosis, insulin dependent diabetics, cancer patients (during IV chemotherapy) or pregnant women.