updated 9/12/2006 6:01:21 PM ET 2006-09-12T22:01:21

In the lap of Italian luxury, Henri Chenot’s customized anti-aging programs send clients home renewed and energized. Gisela Williams checks in for a dose of his detoxifying treatments.

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Soon after relocating from New York City to Europe three years ago, I began to notice that not only do European women not get fat, they seem to age more gracefully than we Americans. While they have nothing against getting a few nips and tucks here and there, for the most part, European women keep their looks naturally through ingrained habits that focus more on preventive measures, lessening the urge for extreme and invasive surgeries. This winning formula of integrating internal and external care is also contingent upon the most classical aspects of a European lifestyle: Meals are supremely healthy, prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients and savored with good wine and conversation. Flawless complexions stay that way with skincare lines that frequently include nutritional supplements. And then there are the spa treatments: French and Italian beauties would rather fight cellulite over the years with creams and massage than sign up for liposuction later in life.

About a year ago, I starting hearing talk of Henri Chenot, an anti-aging and preventive medicine guru based in northern Italy. His method of maintaining beauty through health was attracting a diverse, high-profile crowd, from fashion designers to sports stars, all seeking his weeklong detoxification treatments. Although well-known today in Italy thanks to his weekly radio show, Chenot’s current headquarters opened quietly in the early ’80s at the Grand Hotel Palace in Merano, a charming spa town at the foot of the Italian Alps. Now, 20 years later, with the momentum of a flourishing practice and a string of successful health books behind him, Chenot has recently introduced an additional outpost, Espace Vitalité, a sleek modern spa in the L’Albereta hotel, less than an hour’s drive from Milan.

Chenot’s method is based on diagnosing, treating and reducing toxin levels in the body using “biontology,” a term he coined to describe his concept of health. “It’s the study of the evolution of life through time,” he explained to me. “It incorporates the ancient knowledge of Chinese medicine as well as the latest scientific technology and teaches people to understand and be able to test themselves for toxins.” According to his research, an excess of  toxins, the by-products of our body’s functions, can be the result of anything ranging from genetic disposition, stress or diet to environmental factors. He believes that to fight aging one must fight toxins, and to do so he prescribes an arsenal of signature treatments, medical tests, fresh air, exercise and a weeklong detox diet.

This spring, with three days to spare at the end of a trip to the nearby city of Bolzano, and after a month of too many rich meals, stressful traveling and deadlines, I decided to find out for myself the secret behind aging well — Italian style.

There is an Easter procession going on when I arrive in Merano. I drive by women and men in traditional Tyrolean dress riding horses through the main street to the beat of drums and blowing of horns. A minute later I pull into the arched driveway of the Grand Hotel Palace, which, like Merano itself, seems from another era. Two proudly uniformed doormen, briefly leaving their post in front of the imposing Belle Epoque building, quickly collect my bags and lead me to reception. The marble-columned lobby is bustling with a well-polished, silver-haired crowd here for a formal Easter luncheon taking place on the terrace. I briefly fantasize about having one last plate of pasta before submitting to my three days of detox but choose to avoid temptation and immediately take the elevator down to the spa instead.

Here I find yet another world: Therapists make their way quietly over Persian rugs to collect guests lounging comfortably in their robes on silk-upholstered chaises. At the spa’s reception desk, I receive a thick folder. Along with my schedule and information about Henri Chenot, there are 17 intimidating pages of health questions to respond to before my first checkup at 12:30. (Typically, this procedure is done in advance over the phone as part of a preliminary consultation, but I had signed up too late for this to happen.) A quick scan of the material reveals that, beyond my own status, the health history of my entire family going back to my grandparents is taken into consideration. There are also several pages of multiple-choice questions concerning my diet, physical activity and symptoms of “intoxication.” (From what I can understand, this is a way to measure my exposure to toxins.) These latter questions make me nervous. Is my urine cloudy with a strong odor? I think not. Do I feel a burning sensation or bloating after meals? Sometimes. Do I have a “furred” or sour tasting mouth? Absolutely not! Excessively cold hands or feet with sweating particularly in situations of stress? Um, that seems to be happening right now.

At 12:30 sharp, a technician finds me and brings me to a room with two computer stations. I sit down at one and she hooks me up to a sort of headset connected to the computer and has me hold onto a bar as my bare feet rest on a metal plate; I feel like a science experiment. I learn that this is a Mattech machine, invented by Chenot to analyze one’s state of health and toxin levels using a sequence of “bioenergetic measurements.” My job is to watch various nature scenes go by on the screen and relax for the next 10 minutes or so. I try my best, but my mind is racing. I have been stressed and not eating well lately, but I reassure myself that at 33 years old my toxin levels can’t be too awful. The technician returns and prints out a five-page report of graphs and numbers and tells me to bring it along when I meet later with Chenot.

There is time for lunch so I head to an opulent dining room on the first floor. A printed daily menu listing the starter along with a choice of two main courses sits next to a pitcher of lemon water on my assigned table. The set menu, designed to support the detoxification process that goes on here, provides ample vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber and has minimal amounts of carbohydrates, fat and processed sugars. After a fruit salad starter, the main course arrives under a silver dome, which my waiter lifts off with dramatic flourish. This is clearly no ordinary spa. Next I am off to rendezvous with Chenot’s attractive wife, Dominique, with whom he runs the spa. She gives me more information on the food that is served here, further explaining its purpose. Although each guest receives personal recommendations, the basic regime for all guests at the spa consists of a low-sugar, dairy-free, no alcohol, no red meat or processed food diet. “Food is the origin of toxins,” she says, adding that it’s what and how we eat that’s more important than counting calories. Chenot enters the room to join our conversation and takes a look at my chart. Communicating in a mix of English and French with Dominique translating, he suggests that I get a blood test. “Your intolerance and allergy readings are quite high,” he explains. “The blood test will tell me more accurately what you should watch out for.”

That evening there is little of my usual diet to watch out for. Dinner is a nondairy, puree of garlic soup and delicious vegetable strudel. Although the soup had a real bite, I could easily get used to these meals. I’m also served a glass of magnesium hydroxide that the nutritionist, while making her rounds through the dining room to check in with guests, tells me is only for the first evening and will “clean me out.” (Guests who stay the week can expect to drink it two to three times.) It’s an unexpected combination — this rigorously detoxifying menu being served in sumptuous surroundings. No wonder the dining room is filled with such a stylish crowd.

After a liquid breakfast of two fresh juices (carrot and apple) and a bitter tea, things get fun. By 9:30 I am in the spa for a signature water-and-mud-therapy treatment that, according to Chenot, is key to the detoxifying process. It starts with a relaxing half-hour in a high-tech hydrotherapy tub sprinkled with concentrated herbal oils that smell strongly of eucalyptus. Next, a rich mud infused with the same herbal oils is softly painted all over my body before I am wrapped in foil, tucked in and warmed under a blanket. My skin tingles and heats up as I lie there drifting in and out of sleep. Once the mud has had a chance to pull more toxins from my body, I am roused back to reality and led to a large shower where my body is literally hosed down with cold water. Fortunately, an incredibly relaxing facial is next in this head-to-toe cleansing process. It involves a lot of face massage and stimulating potions. I learn from my gentle technician that, not surprisingly, all of the spa’s products are created by Chenot and contain only the highest grade of natural ingredients.

After lunch, there is more spa time, including a massage with a cheerful male therapist, an Italian who speaks only about three phrases of English. No need for words; the massage is one of the best in recent memory. I’m a bit surprised, though, when halfway through the session he brings out two glass suction cups wired into yet another Chenot invention — a “drainer-jet” — whose purpose is to establish rhythm in the body, clean the blood and lymph and invigorate the system overall. He places the cups on my left lower back as he works the right side with his hands. With strong spiral movements, the equipment pulls hard at my skin and muscles, creating a sensation that is part pleasure, part pain. I feel certain that this is working more deeply than massage ever could.

I float to my next appointment — a 30-minute bioenergetic medical treatment. A calm and friendly therapist greets me in the waiting room and brings me to her office where I am weighed and instructed to lie down on a table. Here I am told that, having viewed the results of my Mattech test, she’ll be focusing on my kidneys, lower intestine and nervous system. “Your body is pretty stressed out,” she says, adding that she will also be testing my body composition — in other words, my fat, muscle and fluid mass. All of this is done with two pencil-sized wands that are connected to a machine by thin wires and designed to act much as acupuncture needles, though noninvasive and allegedly more effective. The therapist spends a lot of time on my feet in a sort of high-tech reflexology session; sometimes it’s painful, other times I don’t feel a thing. At the end of the treatment, she seconds Chenot’s suggestion that I get a blood test. “You won’t get the results for another two weeks, but we’ll call you with a report,” she promises. For the next two hours I read, relax and steam in an attempt to distract myself from my growling stomach.

Although the third day of a detox is typically difficult, I just feel a bit tired. I repeat yesterday morning’s regimen: a liquid breakfast followed by the signature water-and-mud-therapy treatment. Then I have my final meeting with Chenot. As at our first meeting, Dominique sits next to me to translate. They each look at least 10 years younger than they are; something here must be working right. Chenot looks over both my Mattech and body mass tests and gets serious. These tests are one of the most important elements of his technique, a window for diagnosing systemic weaknesses before they manifest physically.

“Your muscle mass is very low compared to your fat mass and your metabolism is slow. Your small intestine and descending colon are not working as well as they should,” he says. “You are too young for this.” He continues, “Maybe we need to focus on your thyroid to work on your metabolism. Maybe it has something to do with a high intolerance to something in your diet. We can tell you exactly what to avoid when the blood test results are in.” I am also told that I am not including enough fish protein in my diet and that whenever possible I should exercise outdoors in fresh air rather than in a gym. I sit across from him feeling chastised and thinking that for someone who had no discernable health problems, this is pretty bad. He reads my mind: “You may feel OK now, but I can tell you that if things don’t change, in 10 years when you are 43, you will have problems with your posture and more fat deposits. In 15 years the toxins in your colon and intestines can become a real problem and could develop into a disease. Here we are concerned with anti-aging, and anti-aging is prevention. I give people who come to me the information and diet that they need. Those who follow the program get very good results.” I don’t doubt him in the least. Although I wish I had the time to complete the full week, after only three days I am feeling healthier than I have in months.

While working at my desk one day, there is a phone call from the Grand Hotel Palace. “May I pass you through to Henri Chenot?” asks a woman on the other end of the line. A few seconds later we are connected, using our same mixture of English and French. The results of my blood test are in and have confirmed that I have a strong intolerance to both dairy and eggs. “Avoid milk and eggs as much as possible,” he advises. “And try not to eat any cheese for the next six months. After that you can occasionally have some goat cheese.” I mention that I have always had some trouble with dairy and that after my three days at his clinic I had already made the switch to rice milk with good results. I laughingly complain about the cheese restriction, but he makes me feel better by reminding me that I can still have an occasional glass of red wine. In practice, I find that’s plenty of compensation for feeling so good.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC


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