Could a week at an extreme detox retreat really change my life?
Is it really possible to completely transform the way you live - losing weight, improving fitness, sorting emotional issues, kicking dependencies on everything from sugar to social media - in just a single week? Here, Suzanne Harrington checks into an intensive detox retreat to find out
When you hear the words 'detox retreat', you probably think carrot juice and soothing facials, maybe a nice massage and a salad (unless you are detoxing from drugs or alcohol, which is another thing entirely).
But what if the detox retreat is promising 'one week to change your life'? Is that a bit like a magazine cover promising sculpted abs in 20 minutes?
Yet I keep hearing about this place near Glastonbury in Somerset in England. Friends come back after a week, shiny-eyed and clear-skinned, raving about it. Saying how amazing it is. Like nothing they have done before.
Really? What's so special about fasting for five days? Or is there a bit more to it?
The retreat promises life coaching, massage, yoga, a therapeutic process called the Journey, daily in-depth workshops on nutrition, relationships, co-dependence, addiction, and grief, as well as weight loss, colonics, and breaking sugar addiction. Oh, and how to eat when you've stopped fasting, so that you don't drive straight to the nearest takeaway on your way home. In other words, a total reprogramming, from brain to soul to gut. Including a digital detox, if you want one.
Intrigued, I book in.
Friday evening arrival
The retreat, located in a series of idyllic stone cottages in rural Somerset, begins on a Friday evening.
Twenty-two clients gather in a big central space full of sofas and bean bags - mostly women but a couple of men - for initial introductions with the five women who run the retreat. The team stay on site, so they're always around if needed. They are warm and friendly and funny, and reassuringly professional. They glow with vitality; turns out some of them are way older than they look. Several of the clients are on return visits - some come annually.
I opt for an eco pod in the grounds - a small, cosy space perfect for one, overlooking a field of apple trees inhabited by a few friendly sheep, chickens and goats - because I am too misanthropic to share a cottage with people I don't know.
Especially if I'm hungry. I hide my emergency banana in my camper van, but am persuaded to surrender it in what can only be described as a banana amnesty. I feel a bit worried. The only consumables in my eco pod are a selection of Pukka herbal teas. It's been hours since that last packet of crisps on the motorway.
Day one - Saturday
The day starts at 8am in the communal room with an hour of guided meditation, on the sofa wrapped in blankets, which is very nice.
Then there is a talk by the nutritionist, who is also a master herbalist and naturopath and is horrifically well informed, about digestion, the benefits of fasting, which supplements to take, a word on psyllium husk (which we are encouraged to take during the next few days as it puffs up in the stomach to mimic feelings of fullness - allegedly), and how to use the Clysmatic. The what? Oh, and how to oil swish and body brush.
Nope, me neither.
We are given an avocado and pea protein smoothie, to ease us into the fast, and encouraged to drink lots of water and herbal teas. There is freshly made juice every three hours, which means our blood sugar doesn't crash. I feel quite tired and spaced out by lunchtime. And with a banging caffeine withdrawal headache. In fact, by the afternoon, I'm like a hybrid of the less joyous members of the Seven Dwarves - Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy. Time stretches, and despite the heavenly surroundings and my initial optimism, I feel a bit meh.
I have a one-to-one meeting with a member of the team to find out what I'd like to get from the week - everyone is here for different reasons, from needing a break from the world to dealing with bereavement and emotional upheaval to reprogramming behavioural patterns around food and drink, or relationships.
I want to break my chronic lifelong sugar addiction. Since I quit alcohol aged 38, my sugar intake has increased, making me fat and cravey. No matter how hard over the years I have tried, I cannot kick it. I'm hoping this week will be my sugar rehab.
That night, I have jerk-upright nightmares involving giant spiders and Donald Trump. I'm reassured that such nightmares are part of the detox process. As are the teenage spots that are popping up on my middle-aged face.
Day two - Sunday
I tackle the Clysmatic in the privacy of my designated bathroom. Basically, it's a DIY colonic, to aid the fasting and cleansing process.
I've had colonics before, administered in a quasi-medical setting by a professional in a white coat. No way am I doing that to myself. Except everyone else has already had a go, and says that it is fine, not a big deal, easy, gentle. So I do it, and it is. I feel a bewildered sense of achievement.
On a roll, I have a go at oil swishing - aka oil pulling, an Ayurvedic process which involves slooshing a mouthful of coconut or sesame oil inside your mouth for a few minutes, then rinsing with bicarbonate of soda. It's a great preventative for candida and thrush, is anti-bacterial and whitens your teeth. I finish my ablutions with dry body brushing, which is like grooming a horse in great upward strokes towards the heart, to stimulate lymphatic drainage (unlike the blood, the lymph system doesn't have its own pump).
The ethos at this retreat is very much about knowledge, education, and taking responsibility for your own physical health and emotional wellbeing, rather than passively receiving beauty treatments while sipping fruit tea. I thought I already knew a lot about nutrition, but this is next level; I am learning huge amounts about the body, how to nourish it, and how to properly look after it at a preventative level.
And then in the late afternoon I have a massive dip.
The retreat's FAQ page says, with some understatement, that, "It's not for the faint hearted because it can be quite tough at times". Sure enough, 48 hours after arrival, I want to go home. WTF am I doing here, my head rages.
Why am I putting myself through this. I hate everyone and everything and am so hungry I'm almost licking the food emojis on my phone.
The goats peacefully grazing outside my window are starting to look tasty (I'm vegan). People are sailing around beatifically, and I want to punch them. I hate being on my own in the eco pod, but cannot bear the thought of company. The idea of four more days of this feels like infinity. I draw on all my mental resources, but my overriding urge is to run away.
So I speak to one of the team and tell her I am struggling (the team complete this fasting process together once a year, while not supporting clients, so know exactly what it feels like).
She assures me that these feelings will pass, and gives me some supplements. Trust the process, she says. I realise that this is probably the darkest hour, and resolve to tough it out.
Day three - Monday
I appear to be over the hump. I wake up energised, and go for a glorious country walk alone, through fields and bridle paths, all the way to the top of the mystical Glastonbury Tor, built on ley lines. My senses are zinging. I feel like an extra from The Sound of Music.
Everyone gathers daily for juice and supplements at 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, 6pm and for a watery potassium broth at 8pm. The juice is yummy, and affords light social interaction.
The group has started to bond, so that my initial feelings of hunger-induced suspicion and hostility have softened towards solidarity. People are loosening up, and cracking jokes.
Also, because the team are aware that we are all spaced out and detoxing from coffee, sugar, carbs, processed food etc, the daily programme is perfectly curated, and clearly written on a white board in the main room so that we don't forget what we are doing, where we are going, or indeed who we are.
There are individual sessions of life coaching, addiction, relationship issues (whether you're single or coupled), therapeutic journey work, and massage allocated to each of us, as well as the group talks and workshops, and very gentle restorative yoga each afternoon.
Nothing is obligatory, but there is plenty in which to participate, if you want to. There's also a swimming pool, and an outdoor hot tub. There are even one-to-one astrology sessions, of which I am sceptical, but which turn out to be insightful to the point of uncanny.
Everyone is incredibly vague by now. Looking back at my notes from an excellent talk on how to master your mind and free yourself from the tyranny of internal programming,
I can't read my own handwriting. It literally trails off the page. There is lots of lying around reading, and being quiet, which away from life's busyness, feels like an enormous luxury. Although I'd murder a sandwich.
In the afternoon, the emotional work begins, starting with something called the Journey massage, which I expected to be what it sounds like - a nice relaxing passive massage, all silence and soothing oils. Instead, it involves the physical release of old emotional stuff, so I find myself in the bizarre situation of lying face down on a massage table sobbing into the face hole. This is most unexpected, but afterwards I feel oddly marvellous.
Day four - Tuesday
I'm getting the hang of this now.
Every day has the same rhythm - meditation, juice, country walk through apple orchards and fields of sheep, juice, late morning talk from the nutritionist, juice, massage, juice, workshop or one-to-one followed by yoga, juice, watching a film together, potassium broth, bed.
My desire for a sandwich, or indeed a goat, have subsided. My body has changed gear, and my sense of smell has gone into overdrive. It all feels floaty and benign and very far from the outside world.
Day five - Wednesday
Everyone is excited because today sees the reintroduction of actual food. We are given an avocado smoothie in the morning, and later that day, a carrot stick, a cucumber stick, an apple slice, an avocado slice, and three blueberries. Never has so little felt like so much.
We are encouraged to eat in silence, so that we remain fully conscious of our senses. Now that our taste buds, minds and guts have been reset, the simple flavours taste fantastic.
Later, I have another massage - this time abdominal - followed by a long one-to-one talking session with one of the core team to complete the Journey work.
The idea is to unearth underlying issues which manifest in unhelpful patterns, like my inability to stop shoving sugar-based items in my face. In conjunction with the physical clear-out, it aims to draw a line under old stuff that no longer serves. Fingers crossed, readers.
Day six - Thursday
After a final DIY colonic, which by now I've becoming a tiny bit blasé about, everyone gathers to sit at a long dining table, with flowers and linen and silverware, and are served what the team call a raw food feast. It is.
Again, we are encouraged to eat slowly, mindfully, quietly. The textures, colours and flavours - and five days of juice - make it one of the most memorable meals I have ever had.
There's a trip in the afternoon to nearby Glastonbury town, home of druids and crystal shops and well worth a visit at any time, to the wholefood supermarket, where we can pick up supplies to take home.
And on the last evening, the team have organised something called Vital Detox's Got Talent, which is hilarious, inclusive, and a perfect note on which to end. (I recite a limerick I've written about the Clysmatic).
Friday morning departure
After a small, perfect breakfast involving nut porridge and berry compote, there are hugs, goodie bags, and a group photo. I drive away, immeasurably proud of myself, 10 kilos lighter, and no longer a sugar slave.
And in awe of the visionary, pioneering approach this place offers, like nothing I have experienced before. Not for the faint hearted, but such is the word of mouth power of this place that it doesn't even need to advertise. I can see why.
Two months later...
Reader, it worked.
I remain joyfully sugar-free, and everything tastes great, like when you give up smoking. My sugar thing has been successfully smashed - I am finally free of it. (Although obviously I went straight back on caffeine, because a life of herbal tea is just too grim to contemplate).
For more information, visit vitaldetox.com