I don’t know what it was about turning 35. but as soon as the clock chimed midnight on that fateful day, my body became middle aged. Or that is how it felt anyway. Issues that I previously thought were far off on my foreseeable horizon seemed to rush forward and ambush me as a group. Cellulite. Weight gain. More cellulite. Low energy. Inability to stay fit. Inability to want to stay fit. More weight gain. Was I eating more than I had? Or was it just that my body had given up counteracting my biscuit addiction? It was impossible to know. All that was apparent was that my body wasn’t in Kansas anymore – my body was in Oz. And weird unexplainable things were happening. After a year of total denial, followed by my waging war against nature (through an intense exercise regime that left me slimmer but frankly exhausted), I gave up entirely and bemoaned my fate. Luckily, the universe heard my wails and a solution arrived in the shape of an invitation to spend a week at Viva Mayr – a luxe detox resort in Altaussee, Austria’s stunning mountainous lake region in the Alps.
Enter Viva Mayr
A household name in Austria, Viva Mayr is an established and reputable brand in the alternative health industry. People flock from far and wide to spend a few days, or a few weeks, under the watchful gaze and orders of the specially trained physicians and experts. They claim to be experts in digestive health and general wellness and, from the experience I had there, I would say this claim is true.
I arrived exhausted… not from my journey, but from my life. When you are living life at a hundred miles an hour, it’s all too easy to do a bit of a Roadrunner and keep running at full throttle, ignoring the warning signs, until suddenly you run out of steam, look down, and realise you have run clean off the solid road into thin air – and there is nowhere to go but down.
This was me. My body was running on empty. Years of pushing myself to fit three days worth of life into 24 hours – never feeling tired (or perhaps never allowing myself to feel tired), and never slowing down. Finally it took its toll. I felt like I had been flattened by a steamroller.
I slept on the plane over to Austria. I slept in the departure lounge waiting for my connecting flight to Salzburg. I slept on the one-hour flight to Salzburg and I slept in the two-hour car journey to Altaussee. On arrival at Viva Mayr, I gasped and awed at the stunning snow-topped mountains and picture-perfect lake, devoured a delicious lunch of local fresh fish, mashed potato and grilled vegetables and then retired to my room for the afternoon. I slept some more – ready for the start of my intensive detox programme the following morning.
The ‘healthy energy’ trick
If I had known that was to be my last full meal for seven days, I may have taken a bit more time over it. However, I had no idea what was in store for me at Viva Mayr. Did I enjoy my week? Yes. Definitely. Were there moments when I wanted to sneak off into the quaint countryside village and find myself a steak and a coffee, or even just a bit of bread and cheese? For sure.
I would be lying if I said there were not moments of despair… when the week seemed like it would never end and like I wouldn’t be able to make it through. But the supportive, understanding staff assured us all on day three (when the going really gets tough) as we slopped around in our spa robes and slippers with vacant eyes, like characters from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, that this was completely normal. Day three, they said, was the point where many first-time visitors would start saying they couldn’t do it anymore – that they missed home, missed food and that they felt worse than when they had arrived.
However, this, according to the staff, is at the heart of the Viva Mayr process – to break your metabolism down to the point where you have no negative energy left in your body (from caffeine, sugar and general bad nutrition), so they can start building you back up again with healthy energy.
And they were right. By day five we were all running around the lake like we had just been given the gift of legs. We were also hiking up hills, swimming laps in the heated indoor saltwater pool, and the early-morning fitness class was suddenly full. Whereas just two days before we had been plotting about how on the last day, after our final consultations, we would bunk off and head to the closest tavern, now we were discussing how we could continue the Viva Mayr programme and way of eating back home in our real lives. The fog had cleared and we felt great – all of us, bar none.
Two months on and I am still feeling the positive effects of the Viva Mayr detox. My energy levels are still good. I understand what foods are good and bad for me and am avoiding the ones that weigh my system and bring my energy down. I eat less refined sugar, drink more water between meals (and not with) and try to be conscientious about chewing my food properly. The Viva Mayr programme is intensive and comprehensive, attending to everything from mental stress and old physical injuries, to overworked organs and digestive issues. It would be impossible to recreate the environment at home (complete with daily nasal inhalations, salt baths, massages, mineral drinks and abdominal massages). However, there are many key pointers that any of us can introduce into our daily lives to make a start towards better digestion and, therefore, better overall health.
1. Chew your food
How many times do you chew each mouthful? Probably less than the 40 advised by Viva Mayr. When you start this challenge, it seems almost impossible to chew anything that many times. In fact, often the food in your mouth has completely deteriorated before you hit the 40th chew and there is nothing left of it. This process is of utmost importance, according to the Viva Mayr philosophy. Dr Sepp Fegerl – the young-looking, Colgate-ad-worthy doctor who looked after some of us during our stay and whose vitality was a testament to the success of the programme – drummed into us the importance of chewing, saying, “Once the food leaves our mouths, we have no conscious control over how well it is digested. The only time we have control is when it is in our mouths. So we must take this opportunity and chew it properly.”
According to Dr Fegerl, when you chew, the glands in your mouth send messages to your stomach telling it what food is on the way and which digestive enzymes it will need to break the food down appropriately. The glands also send messages to your brain informing it of what you are eating… so your brain recognises when it is full more quickly. Additionally, the smaller the food is when it hits the stomach, the better it will be digested. This all makes sense to the logical mind and, indeed, chewing your food well does seem to make a difference. Try it.
2. Eat less
It is unbelievable how little you can eat in a day and still feel fine. We get so used to eating far more than we actually physically need – purely out of what Dr Fegerl would call “food lust”.
A typical daily menu for me consisted of the following: for breakfast, two rice cakes, a small boiled egg and a tiny ramekin of some sort of paste (sesame seed, or red pepper, or pumpkin) and a couple of teaspoons of linseed oil (which is surprisingly delicious).
For lunch, the same portion sizes again – I may perhaps swap the egg for a piece of smoked fish or hard cheese (the fish being slightly larger than a matchbox, the cheese being slightly smaller) and perhaps two corn crackers instead of the rice cakes.
At 5pm, I had two mugs of clear vegetable broth, with either two rice cakes, two corn crackers or some small, thin sticks of soft gluten-free, yeast-free soya bread. And that was it until breakfast at 7am.
While I spent the entire week ‘lusting’ over thoughts of pizza, curry and the dream-like cream cakes I had seen at the airport, I actually wasn’t ever very hungry. This limited food intake is unsustainable and could only be tolerated because of the specially formulated mineral salt drinks we were given throughout the day, which satisfy the body’s mineral and nutrient needs and therefore quench the appetite. However, it was interesting to see how little food we actually need.
One visitor I met, a British man in his 60s, went for an entire week just on mineral salt drinks and herbal teas alone while swimming in the lake every day as part of his training to swim from Britain to France. Dr Fegerl says, “Most of us overeat because we stop listening to the little voices inside of us telling us that we have had enough. It needs contemplation and a change in diet to find our way back to healthy ‘bodytalk’. Sometimes insatiable hunger is also based on a deficit of elements a person is not absorbing properly, or is not getting through the diet.”
3. Don’t drink when you eat
At Viva Mayr there are strictly no drinks with meals. You can drink as much as you like between meals, leaving a space of 30 minutes before or after a meal, and you are actively encouraged to drink buckets of water and herbal teas at all times of day, starting off with warm water first thing in the morning. But with meals, drinking is not just frowned upon, it is forbidden. This is because, says Dr Fegerl, the fluid will water down your digestive juices, making them less effective. Also, if you are drinking juice, or soft drinks, or alcohol, or anything other than water, the digestive system will be distracted with processing the harmful elements in the fluid out of your system, thereby paying less attention to digesting your food.
4. Rest more
One of the first things Dr Fegerl questioned me on was my downtime. He asked me to write down my schedule of a typical day in my life. Although what I wrote seemed normal, just the process of writing it all down highlighted to me how ridiculous it was. Late night Spinneys visits, five or six hours’ sleep on an average night, non-stop action from waking up until sleeping... “Where is your rest time?” he asked me. At Viva Mayr Altaussee, rest time was scheduled and protected. Despite the fact that we had full programmes of treatments, therapies and consultations, we also had long stretches of free time where we could relax in our rooms (although lying down during the day was discouraged) or chill out in the expansive facilities, or outdoors. Electronics were discouraged, reading encouraged. All around the centre, there are little pockets of calm – cosy corners with blankets, comfy seating areas with views of the mountains. The centre is filled with an atmosphere of calm, which is a perfect antidote to the normal buzzy chaos of our everyday lives.
5. Eat right for you
Each visitor to Viva Mayr undergoes a food intolerance test based on muscle testing. This process involves you lying on a bed with one leg raised and bent at the knee while your doctor tips very small amounts of different powders on your tongue and, after each powder, pushes against your foot. You have to try to hold your leg steady against his pressure. From the strength your muscles have, the doctor can tell whether the powder he tipped on your tongue is good for your body or not. Interestingly, many of the foods that came up as being bad for my body are foods that I either didn’t like as a child (for example, tomatoes and egg whites), or subconsciously am wary of as an adult (such as bread, potatoes and red meat). Although I was dubious about the muscle testing, the fact that very specific things came up, which I already knew were bad for me, convinced me.
Also, while I haven’t stuck rigidly to the diet since leaving Viva Mayr, I definitely notice a difference when I do veer off track and eat something Dr Fegerl advised me against. While it may not be possible to rush out tomorrow and get a food tolerance test done Viva Mayr-style, I would say the take-home from this is that we should listen to our bodies more and trust our instincts. We know the foods that make us want to curl up on the sofa and the ones that make us feel light yet satisfied.
It’s simply a matter of respecting our bodies and knowing that the impact of eating food that our body doesn’t tolerate well is far greater than a bloated stomach.