Developments in medical technology mean it's now possible to build a complete picture of your present and future health. Rosemary Behan checks into a Swiss spa to find out how
My stay at a Dh60,000 a week Swiss spa
Fruit juice, cereal, pasta, salad. Anya the dietician was at first unmoved by my description of my eating habits.
It’s when I start to tell her about my work-related food intake that her eyes widen. As the concept of a Middle Eastern hotel buffet or long session of corporate entertainment becomes clear to her, Anja’s demeanour takes on a look of shock and awe.
“Yes,” I say. “There’s starters, like sushi, soup, bread and butter. Then curries, rice, noodles, meat and fish. And desserts, cheese. The table is covered with food… sometimes the eating goes on for hours.”
It is day two of my five-day stay at Clinique La Prairie, and this is just one of several consultations that take place in the comfort of my second-floor bedroom, which has a balcony with a view of Lake Geneva. The key to the success of the place is basically this: you’re in a place where, while there may be some moments of discomfort, they are overwhelmingly outweighed by pure pleasantness.
So it is that on the afternoon I arrive, I’m collected from Geneva airport by an impeccable young driver in a slick Mercedes, who plays the most appropriately soft jazz as we skirt the Unesco-listed vineyards of Lavaux, before I’m deposited at the spa in the dainty lakeside suburb of Clarens.
After a gorgeous walk along the lake to nearby Montreaux and back on a Sunday afternoon, I’m visited in my room by a team of personable, caring staff, including another dietician who takes my dinner order.
Then there’s a quick swim in the pool – from where you can watch the sun setting behind the mountains – and an early dinner in the relaxed-but-refined restaurant beside the garden on the ground floor. The food I have chosen – a bouillabaisse followed by mapo tofu – is fresh, beautifully presented and zings with taste. All the food here is healthily prepared, and the intake of fat, carbs, dairy, alcohol and caffeine is deliberately limited.
The first proper day is the most uncomfortable, and starts at 7.30am with a series of blood tests. I hate these at any time, so it’s with horror that I’m told that the “detox” programme starts with the drawing of nine separate vials of blood. Yet because I am curious
and have always meant to get certain tests done, I make myself go through with it.
Hence the soft knock on the door on a Monday morning. A kindly pair of French-speaking nurses enter; a matron-like woman records my height, weight and blood pressure, before the male nurse gets on with the blood tests. I lie on the bed and listen, with eyes closed, to the TV. He’s good at his job and it’s over in a couple of minutes.
Down at breakfast, a distinguished-looking Chinese man is sitting at his table dressed in robe and slippers. We all have pre-designated spots; mine, conveniently, is on a banquette beside the window, with a view of the whole space. I’m offered tea or coffee, which I’m not supposed to have; I order an English breakfast tea with milk anyway, while I can. Guests – who according to the spa have an average net worth of US$30 million (Dh110.2m) each – can help themselves to the carefully edited selection of cereals, salads, breads, fruit and yogurt.
The restaurant is part of an ultra-modern spa building completed in 2005, but the complex was founded in 1931 by Paul Niehans, a Swiss doctor born in 1882 who was one of the original developers of cellular therapy – and who developed a procedure in which the human body is injected with animal cells. He became famous by treating patients including Pope Pius XII, King Ibn Saud and Charlie Chaplin (the Pope was said to have been brought back from the brink of death with an injection of extracts from a lamb foetus). To this day, one of the programmes offered at the clinic – “Revitalisation” – involves the ingestion of a powdered “elixir” derived from lambs’ livers.
Happily, as I’m told during my first consultation with my allocated clinician, Dr Mounir Ziadé, at the age of 40, I’m still “too young” for the revitalisation programme, which is also much more expensive.
Most people, Dr Ziadé says, are simply suffering from “modern life”, which includes eating the wrong foods (sometimes, he says, you might eat potato crisps because the body is lacking something else, such as iron or magnesium) and eating too quickly. He confirms that as someone looking to improve my diet and tone up, a five-day detox is recommended, to “clean me out” after a period of neglect. “The body has to do what is urgent and so takes less care of cleaning itself,” Dr Ziadé says. “It’s like a house and you don’t have time to clean it.”
Here, most of the “cleaning” has to do with food. Only herbal products are used as supplements and only natural ingredients are used in cooking. While not organic, they are a huge improvement on restaurant and takeaway foods, which are covered in hidden and usually poor-quality fat. Detoxers like me can choose from a varied menu that contains nothing fried or deep-fried, no butter, eggs, alcohol, bread, pasta, caffeine, chocolate or unnecessary sugar. Instead, there is lean meat and fish, vegetables and an awful lot of fruit.
While I wait for the results of the blood tests to come back, there are other tests that can be done, including the quick and painless Tanita test, in which you stand on an electronic machine while holding two handles and are “scanned” from top to bottom. This is done in the gym by Evelyne, a personal trainer. In my case, the results are a wake-up call. While by standard body mass index ratings, I’m within the “normal” range for height and weight, being tall, I hide body fat well and have too much of it, while not quite enough muscle. I need to work out more and look at my eating habits. The good news is that while I have too much fat in my middle section, most of it is subcutaneous rather than visceral. This means that there aren’t large amounts of dangerous, hard-to-get-rid-of fat around my organs, which even skinny people can have.
After a three-course lunch consisting of a smoothie, a light Thai green vegetable curry (no rice) and a fresh berry “soup” for dessert, there’s another self-guided walk by the lake and an afternoon in the spa: a swim in the pool followed by the steam room and a massage. Then there’s dinner – I decide to follow my fellow guest and wear slippers, which feels brilliantly decadent. Tonight, it’s tasty Schezuan chicken with a small portion of brown rice and green vegetables. It’s delicious, and it’s nice to go to bed not feeling bloated.
I don’t sleep well – unfortunately, the kind of pillow I want isn’t available and I wish I had brought my own – so I start the next day with a forbidden black tea in my room. Before breakfast, I’m booked for “aerial yoga” in the gym with Evelyne and some guests from Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
Half-a-dozen parachute-like contraptions are hanging from the ceiling of a small mirrored, padded studio, and during the course of an hour, Evelyne takes us through a series of unusual moves, including hanging and swinging upside down. Rather than a feeling of weightlessness as expected, you are brought face-to-face with your weight. As someone who used to be fit and has gradually piled on excess fat, it’s another valuable experience.
At breakfast, I’m denied caffeine and given herbal “detox tea” instead, which I find hard to accept, preferring the range of fresh juices and smoothies. I’m feeling sluggish and head to the lobby cafe to order a (banned) latte. It’s delicious; though out of guilt I order a pot of “detox tea” to my room, before another knock at my bedroom door. This time, I’m administered daily doses of probiotics and a less-than-tasty shot of artichoke extract, which is said to help in the detox process.
After lunch, there’s another consultation with Dr Ziadé – some of the blood tests have come in. While most are good, my LDL (bad) cholesterol level is higher than the European average, and my iron levels are at the bottom end of the normal level. I confess to Dr Ziadé that I have been stuck at my desk for months and had neglected my diet and exercise routine; he advises me to cut out fried foods, do more exercise and drink more water, because high cholesterol levels can lead to the clogging of the arteries and possibly even a heart attack. Sobering words delivered in the most personable of ways.
I have often wondered if I have low iron stores because of being raised vegetarian, and Dr Ziadé agrees, saying that I may have lost the ability to absorb it properly – but he has plenty of straightforward advice on how to top it up through diet. He also explains how caffeine can lead to the elimination of iron from the bloodstream, and now that I know, the restrictions on caffeine make sense. The good news is that I’m not gluten- or lactose-intolerant, my liver and kidneys are working properly and all my other vitamin, mineral, trace element and blood count levels are “perfect”. There aren’t any inflammatory indicators that would suggest serious disease.
Dr Ziadé also conducts a heavy-metals test quickly and painlessly through the palm of my hand. I had worried somewhat about mercury poisoning from dentist’s fillings, which have been linked to cognitive failure and all sorts of other problems, but fortunately my levels in this and all other toxic substances are nothing to worry about. Like most people, I have “excess” levels of silver and aluminium, the latter usually coming from tinned food and cheap pots and pans, among other sources; the high level of silver is less clear, but may have been caused by wearing earrings and other jewellery in my teenage years. But because these levels aren’t dangerously high, I don’t need to worry, and in any case the artichoke extract is designed to help lift these substances from the system (vitamin C also helps). “Toxic metals are much harder to rid from the system than bad cholesterol,” Dr Ziadé adds, brightly.
The next two days follow the same pattern, with meals and supplements at their allocated times and the rest of the time filled in with spa activities, classes such as yogalates and walks by the lake, with its soft, clean air, beautiful sunsets and historic buildings, including at the far eastern end, the 11th-century Château de Chillon.
The food continues to be varied, light, wholesome and satisfying all at once – dishes such as open ravioli, chicken marinated in soy yogurt, steamed sea bream with soy and coriander, tandoori tempeh and pearl barley risotto with nettles – and it’s a delight to be served it day after day by the kind, waistcoated waiters. It’s nice to eat properly and not still feel hungry afterwards. Yet I’m concerned about my cholesterol, and while there’s probably no need for immediate panic, I wonder how long I have had it and how my long-term lifestyle will need to change.
The final day sees my last meeting with Dr Ziadé, who by now has a complete record of my test results, which he gives to me in English, printed and bound. The last tests to come back are those from a lab at Gene Predictis in nearby Lausanne. Unlike the earlier results, these offer a picture of my future health, based on the genetic profile revealed on a saliva swab. While it doesn’t tell me what diseases I may develop, when I will die or what of, what it does tell me is whether or not I have a genetic predisposition to certain conditions. I can thus use the information to make lifestyle choices, and fortunately, in my case, nothing too drastic is needed.
While I have learnt from the earlier tests that I’m not either gluten- or lactose-intolerant, my genes tell me that I have a very low risk of developing coeliac disease in future thanks to the absence of particular gene variants. On the other hand, I apparently have two copies of the LCT gene promoter, which makes me prone to developing lactose intolerance.
Most importantly, I don’t have an increased genetic risk of high cholesterol, which means controlling it through diet should be possible. And if in the future I was to need statins, I don’t have the genetic variants that would make me prone to adverse reactions. Less happily, I am less genetically able to metabolise folic acid, leaving me at high risk of developing a high level of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to cardiovascular problems. As well as getting this checked, I should increase my level of folate, found in beans, lentils and spinach.
Details such as these, which offer a glimpse into our medical future, are both tantalising and slightly frightening. Yet it’s only information about ourselves that was there but we didn’t quite know. Delivered by professionals in a holiday setting – when you still have time to do something about it and are provided with the blueprint for doing so, down to which foods offer the best sources of whatever you need – it’s about as palatable a journey into your own health as possible.
After a few days, though I haven’t lost any weight, I feel relaxed and light, having detoxed without breaking a sweat. When I leave, and it isn’t easy to do, I’m not long back in the real world before I start planning my return.