food / travel

The Siberian Fasting Cleanse For Body And Mind

Geneva native Marie-Laure Canosa says an eight-day fast at a world-renowned Russian treatment center was transformational. Many researchers seem to agree, as withholding food can heal the body of chronic diseases.

Ready for eight days of this?
Ready for eight days of this?
Marie-Pierre Genecand

GENEVA — Geneva native Marie-Laure Canosa has always taken food seriously by using only quality ingredients in both her private and professional cooking. But in September 2013, she came across a documentary on fasting in a Siberian sanatorium, and the enthusiast of Russia felt compelled to visit the idyllic place near Lake Baikal and undergo the therapy. It included eight days of strict fasting, drinking only water.

The process is supervised by doctors with daily consultations, and personal care (massages and mud baths) is provided every day along with assistance to the eventual return to eating.

The mother of three says last year's experience during the Easter holidays profoundly changed her. "I'm never tired anymore, and I feel stronger, more relaxed." It was a detox that went well beyond the physical.

An interesting past

Canosa's background is uncommon. After graduating in international relations and in physical education teaching, in 1995 she became a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), completing missions in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Albania and Jerusalem. When she returned, she began a new life: marrying, having children and opening a creperie, El Progresso, where everything is fair trade. She buys organic ham from a local producer and fera, a species of fish, from around Lake Geneva. Everything she sells is natural and additives-free.

She takes the same approach to food at home. "I think we pass on many notions of respect and solidarity to our children through what we feed them," she says. Her husband, a mobility and environment specialist, works in Bern. He supports her as much as possible in her daily life, but juggling the management of El Progresso and raising the children can be difficult.

"For 10 years, my whole life revolved around food," she says. "What I cooked for my children and what I offered my customers. Cooking had become more than an activity. It was my identity."

By 2013, the children were older, and she decided to pass on her creperie to her faithful coworker. That was in September. By chance, that's when she stumbled upon the fasting documentary: It was an eye-opener, and she was sure that's what she wanted to do.

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Lake Baikal in Goryachinsk — Photo: Andrey Rinchino

Not a weight loss tool

Produced in 2011 by Sylvain Gilman and Thierry de Lestrade, Fasting, A New Therapy? shows how clinics in Russia, Germany, Switzerland and the United States treat chronic illnesses such as asthma, hypertension and obesity through fasts that can last as many as 12 to 14 days.

Even in the case of cancer, the film notes, fasting is recommended before the start of chemotherapy to improve the treatment's effectiveness. Canosa recalls a part that particularly struck her: "The Russian doctor who founded this therapy 40 years ago discovered the power of fasting when he noticed that one of his patients, a schizophrenic, almost ceased displaying any crises when his wish not to be fed was respected. In a situation of self-feeding, the body and mind adjust and repair themselves on their own," she says.

Before she went to the resort spa in Goryachinsk to regenerate, Canosa, who is in her forties, often woke up tired. "I immediately loved what the place gave off, and the idea of leaving the house for 15 days, alone, with no husband or children, wasn't a bad prospect either," says Canosa, who also happens to speak fluent Russian. The trip represented a chance not only to clean her body but also to stimulate her mind.

"I also liked the subversive aspect of this therapy, which doesn't serve any commercial interest," she adds. "In the Western world, we over-consume food and drugs. The solution offered in Goryachinsk is quite the opposite, and relies on slowing down."

It's accessible too. Canosa says she paid 800 euros for the program, and of course purchased a plane ticket to get there. "It's much cheaper than some luxury clinics that offer unaffordable therapies," she notes.

A healthy relationship with food

For admittance to the program, Canosa was required to send the facility a medical certificate showing she was in good health. Once there, a doctor conducted another exam to be sure she wasn't suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

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Entrance to the Goryachinsk spa resort — Photo: Andrey Rinchino

"Before going to Goryachinsk, I weighed between 58 and 59 kilos (127-130 pounds)," says Canosa, who stands at 1.7 meters (5'6"). "While I was fasting, I went down to 52 (114 pounds), and now, I weigh around 56 kilos (123 pounds). For me, it's not a question of weight but of my relationship to food. After a fast, you don't feel obliged to eat when the others eat or what the others eat. You're more connected to your needs and you don't make social concessions anymore. Your body thanks you!"

That's especially true because the transitional fasting starts even before the real fasting. It's impossible to stop eating from one day to another without risking a serious and painful acidosis crises, a reaction in the body meant to compensate for the lack of glucose. During this dietary change, acidity in the blood increases and sometimes leads to nausea, headaches and cramps. It's possible to reduce these symptoms by tapering food consumption long before the total interruption.

"A month and a half before my departure for Russia, I cut out alcohol and meat," Canosa recalls. "Ten days before, I did the same for dairy products. Then, I stopped drinking coffee — that was the hardest! — and four days before, I cut out cereal, fruits and vegetables." The gradual restriction of food is the reason she says she suffered no pain or hunger during the fast.

But what she did feel was great fatigue. "If I felt like sleeping, I slept, and I went to the hydrotherapy care and mud baths later," she says. "In Goryachinsk, everything is designed for us to follow our natural rhythms and for our bodies to reassert themselves. I feel like I got rid of a several-year-old tiredness."

Canosa says the place was magical: the Tartar massages, mud baths, the walks on the frozen Lake Baikal and, finally, the return to food with delicious homemade kefir, a fermented milk drink. She describes the experience as transformational.

"It's exactly that, I've changed," she says. "I've started consuming every type of food again and I'm not fasting anymore, but, since my return from Russia, I wake up every morning in great form and I've decided to follow a mediation training because I think the idea of individual responsibility that's at work when you fast is close to that of going through mediation to resolve conflicts."

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