Two downsides I’ve noticed since hitting 50 are that it’s harder to lose a mere pound, and easier to be upset and bloated by rich, processed foods. I've been reading about gut microbiota, a complex eco-system of bacteria in our intestines that has been linked to IBS, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, sleep and even healthy ageing.
Years ago, I tried the legendary Lanserhöf health clinic in Austria, where you chew meals 40 times and drink enemas while gazing at snow-capped mountains. It was harsh, but I left with a flat stomach, great skin and a headache from the caffeine withdrawal. Thankfully, these days you don’t have to travel far to reboot your intestines. Gut health has hit UK shores with a Lanserhöf in Surrey, high street shops stocking gut-friendly kefir and kombucha, and more gut friendly retreats at our spas.
I opt for Homefield Grange, a ‘boutique retreat’ in the Northamptonshire countryside, which has a Gut Feelings spa day (from £189) that includes food intolerance testing and vegan lunch. I add a Sunday Sleepover package (from £350) to fully relax and enjoy the classes and spa treatments on offer, too.
What’s on offer
Driving past pastoral paddocks of horses and llamas, I pull up outside a stone farmhouse and head through the gate to reception. I am welcomed by Homefield Grange’s founder Suzanne Peck, who has the well-tended and ageless look of one of her celebrity regulars (Carol Vordeman and Mel B to name but two) – a walking advert for her own vegan lifestyle.
Suzanne gives me a tour: there’s a small gym and studio on one side of the main courtyard and, on the other, a door to the farmhouse. Here you’ll find a large kitchen which hosts food demos, a dining room where you can help yourself to teas and crystalized water, and a panelled lounge with doors leading onto a garden with countryside views. Cosy up on the plush sofas and flick through glossy health books for inspiration.
Upstairs are the bedrooms with good quality mattresses to ensure a blissful sleep. Downstairs is the new Scandi-rustic spa. The space is serenely stylish in warm stone and wood, with natural light flooding through windows, and a spa garden. There’s a bubbly square infinity pool, a steam room, glass-fronted sauna, infra-red saunas and massage water beds in the dark relaxation room.
Food at Homefield Grange is super-healthy, mostly raw and sugar-free. There’s no alcohol or caffeine either. Decide when you arrive whether you want a juice fast or vegan – I go for the latter. Lunch is a delicious lentil and avocado salad followed by a raw food brownie made with Tree Harvest raw chocolate, and avocado and cashew cream. (The Juice Fasters were practically drooling over my plate.)
In the afternoon, have a Miso soup snack, then soup for dinner with fermented things to sprinkle on top and a bitter, earthy concoction to help you digest.
Hans Looser, the ebullient gourmet raw food chef gives a daily food demo. The talks contain lots of useful info as well as recipes (today’s is a delicious pine nut dip), so we take notebooks. Hans is passionate about every ingredient, carefully sourcing the very best and plucking the rest from the kitchen garden. We might not eat much, but what we do is pure and packed with nutrients.
A health test with BMI is offered to all retreat guests, so you can chart your progress. Judy Merrick, the resident naturopath, focuses on the positive and makes helpful suggestions. It was only when I got home that I read the slightly more brutally worded read-out about my 'degree of obesity'.
I was dubious about the food intolerance test. Judy is far from evangelical, saying it is more of a guide than a dictum, and that if I wish I can try cutting out the offending foods and see how I feel when I re-introduce them. The machine measures my resistance to each vial of foodstuff via electromagnetic conductivity – my Achilles foods are gluten, wheat, white wine, coffee, caffeine and peas. I am so overjoyed that I am not intolerant to red wine and cheese that I (almost) suspend my disbelief.
Many more treatments, tests and session are available including colon hydrotherapy, life blood analysis, wellness and lifestyle coaching and a nutritional consultation for around £99 each.
A Hammam Ritual is included in most packages. I was slathered in delicious smelling muds, black soap and oils from botanic skincare company Pevonia and hosed down on a warm granite slab. My skin felt soft and zingy after.
I also booked an Out of This World massage (£129, 80 minutes) delivered on a bed of warm sand infused with healing crystals. It begins with vibrating sound bowls placed along your spine and being massaged with crystal-filled poultices. Whatever your thoughts on crystal healing, it was a beautifully delivered treatment that made me feel blissfully calm.
The spa menu offers bathing and massage rituals, facials, wraps, scrubs, holistic therapies and a rasul.
The timetable is packed to make sure you don’t simply wander around dreaming of Big Macs. Besides the food demos, talks and films, you can try energising Nordic walking, morning and evening yoga and meditation classes, energetic Fit for Life workouts, or you can just grab a map from reception and wander through the countryside. Otherwise, chill out in the gorgeous spa.
The gut microbiome is a mind-blowing eco-system of trillions of bacteria and fungi that scientists are just beginning to explore. I don’t expect 24 hours – or even four days – at a retreat to transform my digestive system. I was, however, inspired by the some of the nutritional advice, the delicious healthy meals and the fact I survived one day without caffeine.
Three months on, I have a more mindful and aware attitude to what I eat. I have cut down on gluten (except for sourdough, which is fermented and delicious) and coffee (decent barista brew only: quality over quantity). I am increasingly vegan and add gut-friendly pro-biotics like kefir as often as possible. I have taken up weekly yoga classes as I feel my stress and gut health are intimately intertwined. The results have been notable: if I eat well and meditate, I have more energy, less bloating and a more settled gut.
In my view, a retreat is a great way to kickstart a new healthy lifestyle, and the luxurious homeliness of Homefield Grange makes you feel pampered rather than punished. My gut says let’s go back and do a proper juice fast: I might do well to listen.
My new favourite book or podcast:Gut, Giulia Enders bestseller about the gut-brain connection and how our digestive systems work. I now know a lot about poo!
My current go-to product:: As summer hits, I am more serious than ever about SPF and/or anti-ageing products. Caudalie's Suncare Duo set (£46) covers all bases -- the Vinoperfect Serum tackles sun spots that are already there, while the Anti-wrinkle Face Suncare is nourishing with serious sun protection all in one. Loving them both so far, but read my full review next month...