In her book “Fröhlich fasten” published at the end of 2018, bestselling German author Susanne Fröhlich talks about her experience fasting and how Buchinger fasting helped her to overcome her rheumatism and gain a new quality of life.
The book also includes interviews with fasting experts Dr. Françoise Wilhelmi de Toledo (Head of Research at Buchinger Wilhelmi clinic in Überlingen on Lake Constance) and Prof. Dr. Andreas Michalsen from Charité University Hospital in Berlin.
Here is an extract from the interview
“It is like a hybrid car that runs on petrol and suddenly switches to electricity”
Interview with Dr. Françoise Wilhelmi de Toledo, Head of Research at Buchinger Wilhelmi fasting clinic
How would you describe fasting?
Fasting is an ability that every creature on this planet possesses – whether human, animal or plant. If no food is available or if we voluntarily do without food, we can live off our stored reserves. That is why it was a matter of survival to eat a lot whenever food was available in abundance, and to build up these reserves.
This changeover from external food to stored food (fat reserves) is now called a metabolic switch. This is what makes fasting possible. It is accompanied by mental and spiritual changes and promotes many therapeutic effects. It also influences our behaviour by interrupting our routines, and often makes us more empathetic, peaceful and supportive. When we slowly start to eat healthy food again after fasting, stem cells are activated, triggering important regeneration and rejuvenation processes.
During Buchinger fasting, you are allowed a little soup and some juice, even a bit of honey. Why?
To prevent it being too much of a shock, we make sure that the transition is smooth: We gradually reduce the number of calories, and supplement fasting with soups, juices and a little honey, around 200 to 250 calories a day. This alleviates the symptoms of adjustment such as headaches, nausea or tiredness. It also prevents the breakdown of protein and modulates ketogenesis (the formation of ketone bodies during fasting occurs when glucose is no longer absorbed; this mobilises energy stored as fatty acids and partly transforms it into ketone bodies with the barbaric names of beta hydroxybutyrate, acetone and acetoacetate).
In our clinics, fasting involves voluntarily giving up food for a certain period of time and is perceived as a revitalising experience. We want our guests to enjoy fasting, even though many people find it a strange idea that fasting can be something pleasurable.
But why do we need to reduce ketogenesis? Isn’t that good for us?
It is something that occurs naturally, but it is not good for us if it takes place too quickly, as this can cause ketoacidosis, or a “ketogenic crisis”, as Russian doctors call it. This is more likely to happen during water fasting, for example, when no calories are consumed at all. We want to avoid that. Many people cannot cope well with a complete metabolic switch. It is better to change slowly into fasting mode and experience it as something harmonious. Periodic fasting (fasting for 3 to 20 days or more) should be repeated regularly in my opinion, say once a year. To do this, you need to find a good, well-established method. But first of all, you should try it out and then decide for yourself whether it was a good experience.
What does fasting do to your body?
It is as if the body is running on a completely new programme. The cells activate certain genes and deactivate others. It is like a hybrid car that runs on petrol and suddenly switches to electricity. The first thing that happens is that your blood sugar levels drop, which curbs insulin production. Glucagon levels rise and then the fasting process starts: fat is mobilised and broken down, the gastrointestinal tract is deactivated and cell cleansing and cell refuse collection are activated. The lipid metabolism is switched on, which means that the cells continue to be supplied with nutrients during fasting. And the fatty cells are nice and full, because reserves have been built up when there was enough food and are now ready to be used. Fat is pre-digested food that is passed into the blood and from there to the liver; part of it is converted into ketone bodies – as “super fuel”, above all for the brain – and so it goes on. The cells continue to be fed, but differently. From different sources. This takes the strain off them rather than putting strain on them.
You sometimes hear that the body is stressed out by fasting and kind of panics?
I think that people who say that are afraid of fasting. They often confuse fasting with starving. They are not aware that every creature is able to fast, if for no other reason than the changing seasons. The body does not get into a panic, it reacts to a signal to adapt. It is like when the bell rings at the end of the lesson and you know that school’s out, you’re free! Is that panicking? No, but you have to react and be prepared for the change. To do this, the body releases certain hormones, including some stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol. But that is useful stress. It only goes up at the beginning, then the body is infused with calm and serenity – as long as fasting is done the right way in the right environment.
During fasting, the cells are in a protected state. Instead of growing and multiplying, as they do when they get lots of animal protein and sugar, they switch to repair mode. They get rid of old or damaged cell components or entire cells devour themselves (so-called “autophagy”). I offer a comparison in my book “Therapeutic Fasting: The Buchinger Amplius Method”: Let’s assume you often go to the market to buy groceries. At some point you have so many provisions at home that you can live off them for a few days. The body has provisions like these, only they are not in the fridge or on the shelf, but have been converted into fat in your body.
It is often said that you lose muscle mass during fasting?
In my opinion, that is a myth propagated by the industries that sell protein drinks and is still being perpetuated. It is true that a small amount of protein is used up during fasting, but the main sources of fuel are fat and ketones. A little bit of protein is converted into glucose – the brain adapts to fat and ketone combustion more slowly than most of the body’s cells. That is because fat cannot be converted into glucose and protein is limited. This activation of protein is wrongly equated with a “loss of muscle”. That has never been scientifically proven! On the contrary: We refuted it in a study we carried out on 15 men who fasted for 10 days. Most of them increased their muscle performance.
Muscles are not the only source of protein in the body, by the way. Where else does protein come from? Partly from cells and refuse in the cells, for example, from hypertrophied protein structures like intercellular substances or from the liver. The walls of the bowels recede slightly. This used protein can be partly recuperated, or recycled.
Before technologies were invented that made it possible to preserve food, there were regularly times when humans and animals had nothing or very little to eat. In this respect, we have a perfectly adapted system: “Humans are better equipped for fasting than for abundance.” However, fasting can exacerbate a problem in already emaciated, older people – so-called sarcopenia, an age-related loss of muscle fibre. Otherwise, muscle cells are like fat cells. They can empty and replenish themselves. If they lose some muscle protein during fasting, the muscle cells replenish themselves afterwards as soon as they get amino acids from food.
At the end of 2016, we carried out a study on this subject together with the National Centre for Scientific Research in Strasbourg and are currently working on publishing it. It clearly shows that three months after fasting, muscle performance has increased in people who were healthy. The myth of muscle loss is a false conclusion that is being spread and – I hope – will soon be debunked.
Who comes to fast in your clinic? What kind of people are they?
First of all, it’s a very international clientele from all countries, cultural backgrounds and age groups. They are mainly educated people – people who know that they have to react when they notice that their weight, eating habits or lifestyle are getting out of hand. Most have a BMI between 25 and 30. Of course we also get very obese patients, but no more than five to ten percent. Our clinics have more than 70 years of clinical experience and our guests and patients appreciate that.
The spirit of our founder, Dr. Otto Buchinger, can still be felt here: When you asked what fasting is, I first described the metabolic processes involved. But basically, fasting has three dimensions: a physical or medical, a communal and a spiritual dimension. Otto Buchinger was a very spiritual person, mystical even, because he stood above dogmas. He was an avowed Christian, based his life on real values, but at the same time he had humour and was self-deprecating. He talked about the “dietetics of the soul”, or inner hygiene. He saw fasting as a period in which the soul realises which of its needs are unfulfilled, where it thirsts or hungers for spiritual nourishment, for love, affection, recognition, joy and friends. We notice all this less in our everyday life, because we are easily distracted.
Food itself is a great joy. If you take it away from someone, you have to make pleasure accessible on another level. Spiritual pleasures are often missing in our day-to-day life, because we think we don’t have the time: to paint, read, listen to music, write a diary or simply ask ourselves how we feel. Or to get up at six o’clock to go outside and enjoy the energy of the morning. In our packed, everyday lives, we are less open to this sensibility, also for the small things like flowers, insects, the singing of birds in the morning. If you allow yourself to slip into this other world rather than fighting against it, it is a very fulfilling experience.
Fasting is also a chance to take stock of your life, and sense how you want things to continue. What am I doing right? Where can I develop my potential? Where am I stuck in toxic rituals because I’m afraid to get out of my comfort zone? Fasting is simply time for contemplation and inspiration.
Otto Buchinger was an internist, a good observer and an inspiring teacher. The traditional Buchinger Wilhelmi programme cultivates a transfer of knowledge. How do I guide someone so that they experience fasting as something beautiful, while becoming less aggressive and more sensitive and intuitive? Fasting is a true instrument of peace. Great advocates of non-violence like Gandhi used fasting, not as a hunger strike, but as an opportunity for spiritual regeneration. Gandhi said, “What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.” Whenever he fasted, he retreated into the inner world and replenished his energy.
We have inherited these three dimensions. Even though the physical and medical dimension plays a strong role in our clinics, there is a special spirit – in the calmness, rituals and structure. People here are cared for, treated, touched. Many others watch over them to ensure their well-being – both physical and emotional.