All photos courtesy of Buchinger Wilhelmi
Life in the Fast Lane
Can starving yourself for days at a time extend your years and make you smarter?
BY MARK ELLWOOD
It had been a stressful few years for 51-year-old Australian hotelier Rob Potter-Sanders. Converting a ramshackle masseria in Puglia, Italy, to a chic boutique hotel, he gained weight from eating poorly, struggled to sleep more than six hours each night, and was smoking more than ever. On the recommendation of a friend he booked 10 days at a spa near Lake Constance in Germany.
Although the idea may sound glamorous, this was no indulgent retreat; Buchinger Wilhelmi (buchinger-wilhelmi.com) puts the “spa” in “Spartan.” Since the 1950s, clients have flocked to the discreet, expensive clinic for one reason: to submit to a regimen devised by Dr. Otto Buchinger, a German military physician who championed the health benefits of responsible, medically supervised fasting.
The leafy, modern clinic with 150 rooms ranging from modest singles to spacious suites has promoted the benefits of calorie restriction since its inception, but a rash of recent studies is boosting the profile of the theory. Contemporary proponents suggest both intermittent and periodic fasting schedules maximize benefits. Buchinger Wilhelmi’s thesis is the latter, suggesting a reduction in calorie intake for several days, back to back, every few months.
At first, the idea didn’t appeal to Potter-Sanders. “Normally, I panic if I’m going to miss dinner and I eat within five minutes of waking up,” he says. “But fasting absolutely changed everything for me.”
The hotelier adhered strictly to the doctor’s 10-day program, built around an extended period when calorie intake is restricted to 250 or fewer per day. While the spa guests fast, they’re encouraged to join bracing walks in the nearby forests or swim in the pool (there are even cooking classes for the masochistic). Meanwhile, medical staff take daily readings of vital statistics and conduct treatments aimed at purging the body of toxins: Afternoons include daily liver compresses, for instance, swaddling the body with a hot water bottle to stimulate the organ’s self-cleansing. After he spent 10 days following this protocol, Potter-Sanders lost almost 15 pounds; he also saw his cholesterol and blood pressure return to normal.
On the side of intermittent fasting, the highest-profile proponent is California-based researcher Valter Longo, who authored the book The Longevity Diet. Longo prescribes a standard diet for 350 days a year. Three times a year he recommends his precise, five-day meal program to send the body into a fasting state. British TV producer and author Michael Mosley’s regimen is synonymous with this approach via his own best-selling book, The Fast Diet. There’s no definitive science as to whether periodic or intermittent fasting is more effective, though both seem to produce benefits. They have the same goal: Beyond simple weight loss, fasting increases what doctors call your “health span”—not only living longer but avoiding infirmity while you do.
Room with a view
Peter Bowes, a longtime BBC reporter in Los Angeles, has explored the fasting phenomenon in depth; he now hosts the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. The fundamental scientific underpinning for both regimens, he explains, centers on a naturally occurring hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), that’s produced by the liver. It’s crucial for healthy growth in childhood, but high levels of IGF-1 in adults are believed to significantly increase the risk of certain diseases, including colorectal and breast cancers. Per Bowes, studies have consistently shown that fasting diets reduce its levels in the body, which then remain lower than normal even when calorie restriction is eased and so increase your potential health span.
The body undergoes another beneficial process during fasting known as autophagy (you might call it the Captain America effect). Fasting forces the body to flush out defective cells, like white blood cells, and replace them with healthy new ones, much like the Super Soldier Serum that upgraded Captain America’s scrawny physique.
Indeed, in the weeks after fasting, Bowes swears he’s fitter and can lift heavier weights at the gym. Calorie-restricted diets force the body into a state known as ketosis. “This is when you burn fat in your body for energy, as opposed to glucose, because there’s no glucose left,” says Bowes. It impacts more than just weight loss—it sharpens cognition, too. “You experience this mental euphoria, whereby your brain seems to be working faster, and you’re more alert and responsive.”
This aspect of the practice drew neuroscientist Mark Mattson from Maryland’s National Institute on Aging to study fasting. His much-viewed TEDx Talk is titled “Why Fasting Bolsters Brainpower.” As he explains, ketones are much-welcome, chemical by-products of the process of ketosis in the body. “They optimize your metabolism in a way that protects against diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but they also stimulate cells to optimize their functionality.” (No wonder Peter Bowes feels like a Super Soldier.)
What’s more, ketones increase production of a specific protein: brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which has been shown to protect neurons against stress and promote the formation of new synapses—two effects that play a critical role in avoiding dementia.
Back in the 1950s, Dr. Buchinger was commonly considered a quack for his passionate belief that fasting could have life-changing impacts on your health. But he had firsthand evidence, successfully committing to calorie deprivation to help him walk after septicemia-related rheumatism left him wheelchair-bound. Certainly, Potter-Sanders would agree about the noticeable impact.
“My skin was amazing, and I didn’t know I had a little arthritis in my fingers—well, until it disappeared during my stay,” he marvels. The effects weren’t solely physical, either. “I have never been so calm, so happy, and so relaxed.” After his first 10-day stay, he returned for two more trips, and he’s planning a two-week stay this November. “You have so much energy when you do this, and I want to keep the energy. It changed my life.”
And probably lengthened it.