Health and Healing in Hveragerði

The NLFÍ Rehabilitation and Health Clinic in Hveragerði, South Iceland, has been treating patients for over sixty years. Zoë Robert and photographer Áslaug Snorradóttir visited the clinic this past autumn to find out more about their approach to healing.

Cucumbers and tomatoes hang ready to be harvested from the vines in the greenhouse. Meadowsweet, lady’s mantle, wild thyme, mint and basil are spread out on tables in the drying room. The sweet smell of the herbs wafts through the air.

The greenhouse, a garden, tea herb drying rooms and chicken pen—which all lie by the river Varmá—are run by NLFÍ (Náttúrulækningafélag Íslands, or the Nature Health Association of Iceland) at the Rehabilitation and Health Clinic in the hot spring town of Hveragerði, a 30-minute drive east of Reykjavík. The food produced there is served at NLFÍ’s restaurant.

Seeing the Whole

Located on a 19-hectare (48-acre) plot of land bordering the Varmá river, the clinic offers specialized rehabilitation programs aimed at enhancing physical and mental wellbeing with patients staying for three to six weeks at a time. “Instead of driving your car to a building somewhere in town for an appointment, we’re taking a holistic approach here by combining nature, food, relaxation and improving mindfulness. We’re teaching people to be responsible for their own health,” says Ingi Þór Jónsson, marketing manager at NLFÍ.

Founded in 1955 by medical doctor Jónas Kristjánsson— considered revolutionary for his ideas about healthcare and nutrition—NLFÍ accepts up to 2,000 patients per year. Three treatment lines are offered—for obesity, chronic pain and stress—and six rehabilitation programs for heart, cardiovascular and lungs, mental health, arthritis, cancer, joint replacements and ageing.

According to Ingi Þór, the clinic’s holistic approach is the key to everything it does, with the health issues of individuals examined in the context of their mental, physical and social situation. A patient might come in after a hip replacement, for example. Then, in the first interview, it might come out that the person has actually also been suffering from depression for a long time, he explains, iterating: “Our multi-disciplinary team looks into the whole.” Treatment is focused on exercise, a healthy and balanced diet, relaxation and rest, with education and professional counseling being an important aspect of treatment, the cost of which is subsidized by the Icelandic state for patients with a doctor’s referral.

Each patient receives an individual program from 8 am to 4 pm each weekday with relaxation, free time and walking on the weekends. Individual programs include activities like art therapy, aquatic aerobics and yoga with various lectures on topics like mindfulness, sleeping disorders, nutrition, stress, heart-health and humor. Around 100 people work at the clinic, including nurses, physiotherapists and psychologists.

Treatments include physiotherapy, massage, acupuncture, herbal baths and mud baths using local clay. “We source the clay from the hot springs in nearby Reykjadalur. People have been using it for a long time. In the 1950s, people would just sit in the mud outside. It’s good for arthritis, for example. We collect several tons per year and offer clay baths once a day.

You lie in the clay, which is warmed to 38-40°C [100-104°F]. It’s very relaxing,” Ingi Þór describes. Proper nutrition is also a focus at the clinic, with locally-produced food, including from the onsite greenhouse. “We grow our own organic vegetables and the herbs used in our tea blends. We try to source as much of our food as we can locally—we serve vegetarian and fish options—and also produce our own heat and energy.”

Escaping Routine

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of young people among the clinic’s patients, Ingi Þór says. “They come to prevent themselves getting sick. The idea of helping people before they actually get sick has become more widespread,” he explains; adding that NLFÍ emphasizes the learning of preventive measures in order to avoid various possible illnesses, such as burnout and other stress-related conditions. “We get a lot of people who are burnt out, including a lot of health professionals,” he explains.

Forty-five-year-old flight attendant Heiðrún Hauksdóttir says her stay at the clinic gave her an opportunity to reevaluate her life after suffering from a life-threatening breast infection and then later burnout. “It took me several weeks to relax and I had already been on sick leave for several months before that so it wasn’t even like I was working full time and then going straight to the clinic. One day I went for a mud bath and then straight to the relaxation class. I fell asleep, which is not the aim of the class, but afterwards I realized that that was the first time I had experienced deep relaxation in many years.”

Heiðrún is critical of what she describes as the Icelandic mentality of trying to do it all. “In Iceland we always talk about being duglegur [‘efficient’; ‘hardworking’]. We make heroes out of people who do too much; we actually encourage them to do and work way too much. This is classically Icelandic.”

Other reasons for treatment include sleeping and eating disorders, support being sober, preparation for an operation to strengthen the body and rehabilitation afterwards. Patients with burnout are also common, especially among the younger patients.

Tapping into Tourism

Situated in a geothermal area, the clinic makes good use of hot water. The on-site Kjarnalundur Spa has several hot tubs, a Jacuzzi, sauna and kneipp therapy (cold and hot baths in which patients alternately immerse themselves).

While guests must have a doctor’s referral to get subsidized care, the clinic also offers up to 50 of its 176 beds to those who don’t. Ingi Þór however emphasizes that NLFÍ is not a spa resort.

“Some people think this is a spa hotel but we’re actually a medical clinic which also offers service to those who want to come on their own [without a doctor’s referral].” The clinic is increasingly looking at also catering to the needs of foreign visitors and will soon offer packages for clients from the United States, in cooperation with travel company Nordic Wellness. “They are people who want to change their lifestyle, are around 40 years of age and have money. They get an introduction to Iceland, too, so it’s like killing two birds with one stone,” Ingi Þór says.

Arnar Felix Einarsson at Nordic Wellness says the packages will include yoga, mindfulness, hiking, nutritious food and an opportunity to see Iceland. “Guests will experience the country but also get to relax and focus on their health.” The partnership aims to tap into the growing health tourism industry and make use of the low season at the clinic. “Wellness tourism is growing by ten to thirty percent per year globally, on top of the already existing increase in tourism. We want to take advantage of the infrastructure at the clinic in Hveragerði and introduce this to a bigger market, especially to people coming from countries where a fast lifestyle and a lot of stress is the norm. Winter is the peak season for Icelanders at the health clinic but during the summer there are available places so we would like to make use of this period, which makes sense financially, too.” Ingi Þór is optimistic about the collaboration. “The dream is to have health tourism here. With our water, clay, vegetables and sixty-year history we think we are in a great position to do so.”

An extended version of this article was published in the November-December 2016 issue of Iceland Review magazine.

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