Lily Earle, the daughter of beauty guru Liz Earle, has spent five miserable years living with chronic migraines and debilitating pain. In desperation, she headed to a fasting clinic in Germany in search of respite. But could eating nothing really be the answer? Here’s her deeply personal diary of her stay
“Absolutely not!” I laughed as my mother suggested I take a trip to a strange-sounding fasting clinic in Germany.
“It could help you though, my lovely,” she implored. “They’ve had a lot of success treating migraine and autoimmune conditions.”
Cue eye-roll. So have so many other things, none of which have helped me.
Over the next five months, my answer was a resounding “No!” every time my mother Liz Earle brought up Buchinger Wilhelmi, a medically supervised fasting clinic in Überlingen, Germany.
This all started because she had returned from 10 days there feeling invigorated and recharged. It had reignited her interest in fasting and its reported health benefits.
Since 2018 I had lived with debilitating pain, fatigue and a myriad of daily symptoms caused by a mix of possible autoimmune diseases that stumped nearly every specialist I’d seen. Hope was waning that anything could help. The worst of my health problems were daily migraine attacks, so bad that I would sometimes suddenly lose the ability stand or even the strength to hold a glass of water to my lips, as I lay in my dark bedroom for months on end. I’m “the most troubled case” my neurologist has ever seen, not an honour anyone wants. I’ve been hospitalised too many times to count or even remember and my condition has defied every statistic and treatment option out there.
Buchinger Wilhelmi claims unprecedented results for the treatment of migraine disease, with 94% of the migraine sufferers they treat with fasting reporting a reduction in the number or severity of their attacks.
However, the idea of fasting ran contrary to a key part of migraine management that had been drummed into me - eat regularly and try to keep your bloody sugar levels as even as possible. Don’t let them dip or spike, as this is a common trigger for a migraine attack. I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that a fast could help, even a medically monitored one. Having tried so much, I was totally jaded by anything that claimed it could restore my health.
Then in the autumn of 2022, after a change in my medication, I was plunged into unrelenting pain and darkness for two months straight. I gave in and said I would go to Buchinger Wilhelmi. I was so ill by this point I felt like I had nothing to lose.
There were also two other factors that changed my mind. I researched the clinic and saw that it was run by real doctors and nurses, with real research and case studies backing their claims. No chiropractors or “functional medics” who call themselves doctors. The nursing staff are on call 24 hours a day and there is a doctor supervising your fast. The team are upfront about the fact that starting the fast can trigger a serious migraine attack due to the initial drop in blood sugar levels. So I know what to prepare myself for and felt confident that I would be well looked after.
What’s more, I had recently completed a brain training program called The Lightning Process, which had really helped shift my mindset towards healing and I felt resilient enough to try yet another possible treatment.
Day 1: Arrival
For the flight, I download an episode of my mother’s podcast, in which she interviews Dr Françoise Wilhelmi de Toledo, head of research and medicine at Buchinger Wilhelmi. She explains how fasting benefits the body through a process called autophagy - the body breaks down and recycles old and damaged cells in the body, creating new and healthy stem cells in the process. This recycling of cells happens naturally in our bodies but fasting speeds up the autophagy process, and reduces inflammation in the body, which is known to be closely connected to migraine disease.
Can a fasting method, which is nearly 100 years old, help me where cutting edge neuroscience couldn’t? I remain dubious but can’t help holding onto a tiny ray of hope as I listen to Dr Françoise talk so confidently about the benefits of fasting.
On arrival, I’m greeted with panoramic views of Lake Constance and the Swiss Alps on the other side. It truly is beautiful here.
I unpack and head down for dinner, my last full meal for the next 10 days, a delicious, two course, vegetarian affair. All the food is seasonal and as much as possible is sourced from local, organic producers.
Roasted vegetables and goat's curd. Course 2 for dinner on arrival day before the fast started.
Day 2: Transition Day
This is where your body is prepared for fasting by cutting down to around 600 calories of simple, easy to digest food. Mine is made up of oats and vegetables.
Oats with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables (lunch on the transition day)
Every day there is a timetable of supplementary activities, gentle workouts, lectures, meditation classes and an afternoon walk through the forest.
My first stop today, and for every morning for the rest of my stay, is the nurses’ station where I have my vitals checked and blood taken.
Next, a briefing with Dr Siegler who explains the protocol for the next nine days. Previously she was a resident of Internal Medicine at a big hospital in Germany. I find the former jobs of the medical staff here reassuring, as they confirm the clinic really means it when they say that it is medically supervised fasting.
I will be following their standard 10 day fasting programme: one day transitioning into the fast (today), six days fasting, then three refeeding days.
My protocol has been adapted for migraine disease treatment. My fasting days will consist of:
8am: A small pot of honey, oat slime (yes that is the direct German translation - it is like thick, oat flavoured water), coconut yoghurt
1pm: Vegetable broth
4pm: Courgette compote
6pm: Vegetable broth
7pm: Coconut yoghurt
Plus electrolytes capsules taken three times a day and as much water and herbal tea as I like.
There is also one last thing: the clear out. Most patients take a laxative at the start of the fast so that the digestive system can rest for as long as possible. However, this can trigger a migraine attack or make the initial one worse. So instead I am prescribed an enema every morning for the next 3 days.
Afterwards I head to a meditation session. I allow it to take my mind away from my constant worries about food and pain. Taking time out to engage with your own spirituality and emotions is encouraged during fasting. My doctor explained that when we fast our emotional walls tend to come down, allowing us to process things we might have been trying to ignore. They have a psychology team on site to help support patients.
At dinner, I find camaraderie among my other diners. A seasoned faster gives me an excellent piece of advice: “Remember you are not denying yourself food, you are delaying it. It is a mental game and how you view the fast is really important.” This “delay not deny” advice becomes mantra throughout my stay.
Day 3: Starting the fast
Despite feeling hungry, I’m sleeping so well here. I have a timetable of therapies lined up that are known to help with migraine and ease tension in the body. My first one is Myoreflex Therapy, which uses a series of pressure points across the body to induce muscle relaxation. After the session my body feels so at ease.
Afterwards I return to my room for my first ever enema. Thankfully it is a very small tube covered in Vaseline – I’ll spare you the details but safe to say it wasn’t that unpleasant and my nurse, Anna, has the most excellent bedside manner - talking me through the whole process and making sure I was relaxed and comfortable.
I rest until 1pm when I head up to the salon, reserved for those who are on fasting days. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the lake and mountains, cosy chairs, soft lighting and walls lined with books make it a welcoming space. There are two vegetable broths on offer each day, along with fresh herbs and lemon juice to add for flavour.
I can feel a migraine attack coming, so armed with my medication from home I go straight to my bed. The team are amazing at looking after and reassuring me for the rest of the day.
I ask to have my evening broth in my room, along with the yogurt and hunker down.
It’s 11.30pm but I can’t sleep because of the migraine attack. It is a really bad one. I speak to my husband - a little bit of home brings me comfort - and listen to Stephen Fry’s melodic tones reading Harry Potter until I drift off to sleep, just like I used to as a child.
Day 3 - Fasting
I wake up feeling sick, hot and sweaty, the migraine attack still in full swing. My breakfast of oat slime and yogurt doesn’t stay down.
Breakfast on a fasting day (featured here during a migraine attack) - Oat Slime (direct German translation!)
This morning I’m booked in for Cranial Sacral Therapy - a complementary therapy that I have a lot at home and have found it especially helpful for soothing the nausea bought on by migraine attacks. The therapist works gently and I leave the appointment feeling so much more comfortable that I’m able to go back to my room and sleep.
I spend the rest of my day in my room, eating the broths in bed. I’m not feeling well or sociable enough to go over to the salon. I start to feel emotional and teary, as my doctor warned would happen. I find myself reflecting on the last six years of struggling with my health. I’m so proud of myself but acknowledge that I’m bruised from this period of my life.
I use the brain training to keep me feeling positive and safe in the knowledge that this attack will end. I will feel OK again - maybe by the end of my stay I’ll feel more than OK.
Day 4 - Fasting
I wake feeling sick again so the nurse tests my blood sugar. It’s too low, probably because I struggled to keep down sustenance yesterday. I’m given honey to help, along with anti-nausea medication. I see Dr Siegler and share how emotional I’m feeling. The intensity of the emotions have taken me by surprise. She gently reminds me that this is totally normal. My body is fasting and resting so this gives my mind the opportunity to feel the emotions it needs to process. Alongside six years of chronic illness, I have lost five pregnancies in the last two years. It is, she says, a lot for anyone to go through. I’m comforted by her belief that my time here will be beneficial for both my body and mind. I walk back to my room with renewed determination to complete the fast. However biting at its heels is the most intense homesickness I’ve had during my adult life, a deep longing to be back home.
Day 5: Fasting
The migraine attack is over and I wake up feeling well, refreshed and able to cope with my fluctuating emotions and hunger pangs. The hunger has almost subsided. So many times I’ve heard fasters say that after a while they don’t miss food or feel hungry and I didn't understand how that could be true - but it is! Over the next few days, I take time to enjoy the facilities, going for gentle swims and stretching classes all overlooking the stunning scenery. This is just what I need after being in bed so long and it is nice to be back among the community of the clinic, after spending long periods of time in my room. I’m back to eating my broths in the salon, where I meet a couple of other women from London. Talking with them about familiar places does wonders for my home sicknesses.
Days 6 & 7: End of fasting and start of refeeding
It is my last day fasting and I have my final appointment with Dr Siegler. We talk about how I’m feeling and she remarks on how much brighter I look. What has astounded me is the shift in the brain fog that has been so debilitating for such a long time. It feels extraordinary, like a part of me that has been asleep for years has woken up.
Tonight I get to break my fast! So instead of returning to the salon for broth I go back to the dining room. As I sit down, I’m given a certificate and as my small plate of fennel, carrots with olive oil is served, they light a candle next to my plate in celebration of completing the fast.
Steamed Carrots and Fennel with Olive oil (dinner and first food for breaking the fast)
Refeeding is just as important as the fast itself, with a focus on slowly incorporating organic, high quality vegetables back into your diet for the last three days of your stay. They gradually increase the amount of food, and therefore number of calories, each day to give your body time to start happily digesting again.
Days 8 & 9: Refeeding
Over the next couple of days, I continue the refeeding program. I’m finding eating again exhausting. I’m reassured by the team that this is normal as your body adjusts, as around 30 percent of our daily energy is used on digesting food, which I haven’t needed to do over the last six days of fasting. I also have the strength to venture outside the clinic for the first time. They emphasise the importance of being amid nature and each day there is an afternoon walk through the forest. Unfortunately for me each walk is at least two hours long. I haven’t done a two hour walk for several years, let alone on a near empty stomach. I sadly opt out. Instead I walk down the hill to the lake and spend a glorious afternoon enjoying the sun and paddling while dancing to my favourite playlist. I’m feeling good and enjoying myself - not something I expected to experience.
Day 10: Going home
I spend the morning researching easy recipes that follow the clinic’s refeeding advice - my wonderful husband is making sure I have food ready to go to help my transition back home. I return to a cheesy broccoli soup. In a week I can introduce fish and, in another week, meat. I take the soup slowly - eating is still hard work. It takes a while to build my calorie intake back up to my normal level.
A couple of months later
Several months on, there have been lasting changes. My brain fog, which has dogged me for so long, has cleared. I have more energy and my migraine attacks are becoming less frequent, shorter and easier to bounce back from. I am able to do more between attacks, my life is slowly growing again after years of shrinking. I need to use less medication and I have brighter eyes and colour in my cheeks again - I keep doing double-takes in the mirror!. Also,while it wasn’t the reason I went, my extremely painful gut symptoms have all gone and still no sign of them months later. A huge, unexpected bonus!
After years of treatment trial and error, my stay at Buchinger Wilhelmi played an important role in these leaps forward. It seems to have worked, alongside a mix of therapies, to put me firmly on the path towards rebuilding my health. Prescription cannabis, The Lightning Process, an intensive course of hyperbaric oxygen therapy have all been turbo-charged by my time fasting. They all came together at the right time and have vastly improved my quality of life.
My doctor explained to me that for long term health issues, especially migraine and autoimmune diseases, a longer or multiple fasts are usually needed. I would happily go back to fast again, even enduring the initial migraine attacks again because of the improvement I’ve experienced.
The cost of a 10-day stay at Buchinger Wilhelmi starts around £3,000 depending on your programme. With the level of care I experienced and the quality of the facilities, I would have expected it to be a lot more expensive.
So would I recommend it as a migraine treatment to others? Yes, but the attacks I had at start of the programme were awful so you need to be prepared. That said, you will be looked after brilliantly and there could be a whole host of benefits awaiting you on the other side of your fast.