Looking out for No. 1

A reporter sees (and drinks) things he never thought he would at an international urine therapy conference.

Published June 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For a man on the 21st day of a urine-and-water fast, Tom Nichols seems awfully chipper. Nichols, a stocky, balding 45-year-old regular guy from Tennessee in a Coast Guard Academy windbreaker, is sitting in the restaurant adjoining a convention hall in a little German town, explaining in the smoothly reassuring tones of an airline pilot, which he is, that urine only tastes bad if you're not eating right.

"Once you do this, you have to take responsibility for what you put in your body," he says as I listen and pick at an asparagus salad. "If you're drinking a lot of coffee or alcohol, it can taste pretty bad, pretty strong." Otherwise, he says, smiling, "I've had worse beers."

His wife, Zhenya, a lithe, radiant ball of girlish energy from Siberia who is 37 but looks 10 years younger, adds that her biggest health problem is that her kidneys and bladder cannot keep up with her demand for urine.

"I don't make enough!" she gushes between slurps of vegetable soup. "I have to put some on my face and some on my hands. Then I need some to drink. And we like to save it up and take a bath in it. Sometimes my nose gets a little bit stuffy and I want to get some in my nose, or my mouth doesn't feel fresh or I have some plaque in my mouth and all you have to do is hold it in your mouth for a while."

I kept eating dinner throughout this discussion, though I did lay down my fork while Zhenya described the gruesome things that came out of her digestive tract during a month-long cleansing regimen of concentrated-urine enemas.

No one else at the table, though, batted an eyelash. This is because we were at the Second World Conference on Urine Therapy, held last month in Gersfeld, Germany. There, in a tiny resort two hours outside Frankfurt, the Nicholses and 250 other health enthusiasts -- several dozen with M.D. after their names -- from more than 40 countries spent four days debating, discussing and charting the future of one of the world's oldest but least respected healing arts.

Which is better for massages, the attendees wondered, fresh urine or the more potent 4-day-old pee? Does drinking it cure illnesses simply by killing germs or by activating immuno-sensor cells in the throat, or both? And when will the rest of the world get over its taboos and realize that each of us carries within our kidneys a customized apothecary stocked with the perfect blend of vitamins, enzymes, hormones and antibodies, all for free?

Not too soon, probably. The Western medical establishment still clings to the notion that urine is a waste product, albeit a sterile one, probably harmless in small doses but probably not in large ones, and that if the body really wanted the stuff that's in it, it wouldn't have excreted it in the first place.

But for the enlightened, urine is not merely a blend of water, urea, salt, ammonia and traces of hundreds of other organic and inorganic compounds. It is the Nectar of Life, an elixir and a balm that combines the all-purpose usefulness of baking soda with the mystique of holy water. Depending on whether it is drunk, snorted, injected or applied topically, it has been cited as a remedy for everything from AIDS to acne to varicose veins to vertigo. A squirt in the eye relieves glaucoma, drops in the ear can cure deafness, a urine douche banishes yeast infections.

"If you have any tumor or any trauma, it reduces pain," Jagdip Shah, a gynecologist from Bombay, said in the hallway outside the Amazon Hall (other rooms had been dubbed the Yangtze, the Mississippi and the Nile). "If you have ulcers, it helps in healing that wound. If you have constipation, dyspepsia, flatulence, then it relieves that also. If one is feeling weak, then by taking it one feels better."

No one knows how many tinkle drinkers there are, but the organizer of the conference, Coen van der Kroon, author of the book "The Golden Fountain," said their numbers are growing. The second conference attracted a far more multinational crowd than the first one in Goa, India, in 1996. The first conference drew 400 people, but most of them were from India, where urine therapy goes back millennia.

I was drawn to Gersfeld mostly by a reporter's natural need to investigate the seemingly implausible, partly out of a healthy curiosity about the human body (a couple of months before, I had tried to settle an argument by surveying all my friends on whether they washed their hands after defecating) and partly because there was something about urine therapy that seemed poetically right, as counterintuitive as it was.

The prevailing theory behind it -- and theories are all there are -- is that because your urine contains a snapshot of whatever is going on in your body, it is your own best personalized medicine. Traces of whatever is wrong with you get excreted in your urine, and when you reintroduce these compounds through the immune-system pathways of the gut and skin, the theory goes, they trigger the production of the antibodies your body needs to fight the illness. Kind of like self-vaccination.

Theories like this, of course, are tough to prove. Medical researchers have long used individual components of urine. The human-urine byproduct phenyl acetate is in the midst of a clinical trial to see if it attacks brain tumors. Trials are also under way with a controversial class of cancer drugs called antineoplastons, the original recipe for which required so much urine that their Houston inventor used to collect it in bulk from restaurant and jail urinals in Texas.

But a clinical trial of whole urine poses logistical problems. For one thing, what do you give the control group, Gatorade? For another, the very appeal of urine to a holistically minded therapist -- that it is never the same stream twice -- makes it inherently hard to study. "Science lives on the idea of repetition," Carmen Thomas, a German journalist, told the conference, "but urine cannot be repeated."

All of this added up to a conference that provided a flood of testimonial, anecdote and miscellaneous moments of weirdness -- a toilet stall temporarily outfitted with a cup dispenser, a guy snorting urine out of a little green pee pot while a room full of people took notes -- but was notably short on what skeptics would call science, with a few exceptions. A Korean microbiologist reported that pigs fed their own fermented, purified urine reached market size 10 days faster than pigs that drank only water, were more bacteria-resistant and yielded better, tastier meat. After three generations of urine-fed pigs, the percent that produced grade-A pork had risen to 75 percent, compared to only 10 percent for the same breed of pigs fed only on water.

A researcher from a teaching hospital in the Sudan presented a study of 30 patients with ascites -- an accumulation of serum in the abdominal cavity that causes distended stomachs -- that found that they responded slightly better to 150 ml of camel urine a day than to a standard medicine, the diuretic frusimide. And a Chinese pharmaceutical company reported that in a clinical study, its urine-derived cancer drug CDA-II cured 61 percent of patients, compared with a 30 percent cure rate for chemotherapy.

Up in my hotel room, I'd grown brave enough to begin my own research. Every morning, I rubbed a handful of urine into the right side of my face, looking to see if the skin was growing clearer and less prone to dryness and the occasional zit than the left side. With great force of will, and only after putting on the neat souvenir baseball cap I picked up (white, with slickly slanting purple capital letters: "I drink my own urine!") -- I peed in a cup and took a sip. It was a warm, salty, slightly viscous-feeling broth with notes of bitter vegetable. Not great -- worse than my worst beer, in fact, but only slightly gag-inducing. (Three weeks into both of these experiments, I have yet to see any results.)

I felt kind of weird, but it didn't seem like there was much to lose. John Wynhausen, a former chiropractor disbarred for practicing urine therapy, had said he had never heard of anyone who died from urine therapy, though he, like everyone else at the conference, does not recommended it for anyone on prescription drugs. His only mishap in eight years of experimentation came when he injected his dog with its own urine and the dog developed an abscess. "The vet asked what happened," Wynhausen said. "I said, 'Oh, the cat bit him.' I didn't need any more publicity."

Besides, I was heartened by the fact that everyone I spoke to said that their first reaction to the suggestion that they drink from their own Golden Fountain was one of disgust.

"When John told me there's something called urine therapy I was just appalled," Wynhausen's wife, Judith, said between lectures. "I was like, oh, yuck. I didn't even want to be in bed with him. But John kept getting healthier and healthier, and I kept getting colds, so I tried it. By the end of a week it didn't bother me any more and I was feeling euphoric."

Western doctors, it turns out, are particularly dubious about the immune-building argument. "The idea that there's some immune property in the urine is a little hard to understand, given that our gut is designed to break down all immunological substances," says James Dillard, M.D., a professor at Columbia University's medical school and author of "Alternative Medicine for Dummies" who also runs Oxford Health Plan's 3,000-provider alternative medicine program (he's also a chiropractor and an acupuncturist). "The idea that the kidneys would figure out what they need to get rid of but that we know better, that actually this is a therapeutic thing, that is extraordinarily arrogant."

Not all urine therapists see the stuff as a panacea. John Wynhausen, who lost his chiropractor's license in Nebraska after reporting in a newsletter that a patient had cured a year-old case of oral herpes after three days of gargling her urine, told the conference that while he still believed urine was a good overall tonic and an integral part of a balanced diet, it loses most of its curative powers unless it is injected, bypassing the immune system.

Wynhausen said that shooting 10 cc of urine into his muscle -- a technique pioneered by a German doctor, Johann Abele -- gives him season-long relief from the hay fever that has plagued him all his life. Hay fever, he explained, happens when the body overreacts to pollen and produces antibodies against it, and when these antibodies are excreted in the urine and then reintroduced via injection, they trigger the production of anti-antibodies that suppress the overreaction.

Dillard, when told of this theory, seemed intrigued and said he would love to see it clinically proven. Wynhausen said he doubted that would happen. "It would be easy to do a double-blind study on injection," he said. "The problem is that no institution would want to risk their credibility by doing it."

The relative lack of conclusive proof does little to dim the faith of those who have experienced the wonders of urine firsthand, though. Dr. Gunter Gilch, a German anesthesiologist and naturopath who saw the light after urine-drinking cured him of a 15-year bout with intestinal candidosis, said that people had every right to be skeptical -- he himself found much of the conference laughably nebulous -- "but I saw effects with myself and I saw effects with my patients. By empirical standards, it works."

"People are always looking for a mechanism," Wynhausen said. "I'll stake my reputation -- well, I have no reputation -- but I think there's a mechanism."

The squeamish can take comfort in knowing that urine therapy has the weight of history behind it. Urine has served as medicine and sacrament for thousands of years, and not just in India, where an entire chapter of the Damar Tantra is devoted to drinking shivambu, the water of the god Shiva, and where Prime Minister Morarji Desai started each day with a steaming glass of his own decoction and lived, healthy and supple-skinned, to see 99.

Just about every country, uro-historians say, has its folk tradition of taking the piss. Sufis and Tibetan Buddhist healers use urine. Rural women in some Arab countries pee into the cookpot to keep their husbands faithful, Carmen Thomas said. And in Central Africa, Havelock Ellis wrote in his 1928 "Studies in the Psychology of Sex," "The female attendant in the king's bedchamber must urinate and wet his feet before he may safely rise in the morning."

The West has been slower to catch on. The Bible seems to have only one urine-positive reference, Jesus' declaration that, "He that believeth on me ... out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (John 7:38). But there are scattered references to it in old German and British medical books, and in World War II, doctors in the trenches short on medical supplies used urine as an antiseptic to dress wounds and speed healing.

In the United States, though, the stuff is generally viewed as the yellow peril. "The American people disappointed me a little," Carmen Thomas told a conference panel, "because they are generally so open and frank and they also have a lot of pornography in their country, but the disgust they feel at drinking urine is immense."

She speaks from personal experience. Her 1994 book, the title of which translates as "A Very Special Juice -- Urine," has sold more than a million copies -- making it, she said, the second-bestselling nonfiction book in postwar Germany. But though Macmillan Books bought the rights to the book and had it translated into English, it has, she said, refused to publish it. (A spokesman for Macmillan did not return a call seeking comment.)

Part of the problem, Thomas said, is that urine therapy isn't just radical medicine, it's also politically and economically revolutionary. Most alternative therapies simply take money out of the pockets of pharmaceutical giants and overpriced doctors and put it in the pockets of vitamin and supplement giants and overpriced healers. Urine therapy proposes nothing less than a total seizure of the means of production, the ultimate in do-it-yourself health care.

Urine enthusiasts also point out that breaking a taboo as strong as the one against ingesting one's own urine requires a level of unconditional self-acceptance that may be beyond most people's reach.

"The day that I drank my first glass of urine, I felt that I had done something horrible that I could not tell my friends about," Asmund Knutson, a Norwegian nutritionist and hypnotherapist, testified at the conference. "But I had a beautiful feeling inside: 'Aha. This is me.'" With that, he took a small glass of amber fluid off the lectern and chugged it to hearty applause.

Though there was no formal mention of golden showers or any other kind of erotic games at the conference, one attendee confided that asserting control over one's bodily functions can be sexually liberating, too. His wife's lifelong orgasmic dysfunction was cured after they intentionally exchanged fluids during oral sex. "A lot of women can't come because they're afraid they'll become incontinent at the moment of orgasm," he explained. "This helped her get over her fear and let her know it was OK."

One person's freedom, though, is another person's deviance. "I don't say this to be disrespectful," says Dr. Dillard, "but there are known psychological syndromes associated with urine drinking. It's really regressive -- the kind of thing a 1- or 2-year-old would contemplate."

On the last night of the professional program, the participants let down their hair and put on a multinational cultural show as joyously surreal as the rest of the conference had been straight-faced. Judith Wynhausen, a former schoolteacher, donned a Mother Goose outfit and baffled the crowd, only about half of whom were fluent in English, with the tale of Wee Willie Winky. A German couple sang a duet to the tune of "Frere Jacques" that translated as "Young carrots tempt me/Urine keeps me slim/Ding dang dong." The Indian delegation chanted "Go Shivambu!" A piano appeared, and an Italian doctor improvised a jazz number called "A Drop of Urine."

The next morning, the conference was open to the public, and as dozens of perfectly proper-looking Germans Sunday-strolled through the exhibits in the Amazon Hall, pilot Nichols surveyed the scene and pronounced it good. "When I came here," he said, "I thought there might be a bunch of freaks. But it turns out they're just folks who have found a different way of doing things."

By Andy Newman

Andy Newman is a metro reporter for the New York Times.

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