Medical Meccas: It's What You Don't Eat

Hippocrates prescribed it for all kinds of diseases. Moses and Jesus did it to get closer to God. Fasting has been practiced for thousands of years. Now modern medicine is beginning to appreciate its healing powers. Buchinger, on Germany's Lake Constance, and a handful of other clinics around the world, are beginning to offer fasting as one of many physical therapies, and medical tourists are flocking to take advantage.

By fasting, doctors at Buchinger mean a minimalist diet of 300 calories per day--veggie broths and juices--for two weeks to several months, accompanied by blood tests, purges and other treatments. Director Françoise Wilhelmi di Toledo says many hard-to-treat conditions, from arthritis to allergies and various skin disorders, benefit from the metabolic switch that takes place when the body starts living off its own reserves. Of the 2,000 guests who come to fast each year (half from southern Europe, America and the Middle East), about one third arrive with serious ailments--the rest come to lose weight or cut stress.

Fasting has lately gotten a boost from medical research. Clinical studies in Scandinavia have shown that fasting is an effective treatment for rheumatism--especially if followed by a vegetarian diet. In one study, pain and swelling came down by a third in a week and stayed that way for a year. Other studies have shown success in lowering blood pressure and treating chronic pain like migraine or arthritis. Neurobiologists at Göttingen University have shown that when patients fast, stress hormones levels go down and serotonin levels rise (which may explain the "fasting high" many patients report). "The more we look into it, fasting seems to work like a reset button for the body's own self-regulating mechanisms," says Andreas Michalsen, deputy director of the Institute for Integrative Medicine at Essen University.

Fasting remains controversial, in part because it refers to a gamut of regimens. And critics say that the effects rarely last unless patients change their diets. Still, the successes are encouraging. As research increasingly focuses on the link between disease and lifestyle factors such as nutrition and stress, Wilhelmi is convinced that fasting will emerge as a mainstream therapy. Hippocrates would be proud.