In The Independent’s travel trends column, Trendwatch, we dig into the types of trip, modes of transport and top buzzwords to watch out for.
When I started out in travel, spa trends were almost exclusively sexy. Glowing skin, buffed limbs, coconut oil, 24-carat gold face masks… the word “gut” would have been as likely to appear in spa marketing materials as the word “crotch” or “armpit”.
Now, we’re more interested in what’s going on inside. Inside our intestines, to be more exact.
As proof, a few of the hotels that have launched “gut health retreats” over the past few months: Sussex’s Goodwood Hotel, Lefay Resort & Spa in Italy’s Lake Garda, Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland, Nalahdu Private Island in the Maldives, Devon’s Yeotown retreat and Scotland’s prestigious Gleneagles.
The hotly awaited summer opening Lanserhof Sylt – a medispa in Germany’s Frisian Islands, and sibling to the established Lanserhof Tegernsee – will devote a programme to the humble intestine; meanwhile, US spa of legend Canyon Ranch is offering 50-minute, $170 digestive wellness consultations to its well-heeled clients.
And that’s to say nothing of the dozens of individual gut health retreats popping up in glam locations from Somerset to Sydney. Over on Google, the search term “gut health” is at its highest popularity in two years – with 62 per cent more searches for it than in June 2020 and 49 per cent more searches than in June 2021.
Search instagram – where #guthealth has been hashtagged more than 4 million times – and mentions of gut flora, probiotics and “microbiomes” are almost as omnipresent as sunsets.
So why are we suddenly listening to our gut? For one, say experts, gastrointestinal health is inextricably linked to our mental wellbeing. This may sound logical when you stop and think about it – ever felt sluggish and down after a heavy, dairy-laden feast, or turbo-charged when on a fruit-and-veg kick? Though some of this year’s spa retreats draw on holistic practices, the connection between mind and bowel is no woo-woo invention, says consultant gastroenterologist Dr David Lloyd.
“There’s something called the gut-brain axis,” he explains. “Your gut’s got as many cells as your brain does and there’s quite a lot of communication between the two.”
Our intestines contain some 100 million nerve cells that are connected to our brains through the nervous system. Studies have shown that stress can inflame gastrointestinal issues, so it makes sense that easing the later could improve the former.
“For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to [IBS and other gastrointestinal] problems,” Dr Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, said last year. “But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around.”
Nutritionist Allison Tallman agrees that the mental health connection has boosted gut health’s presence in our lives. “There has been lots of new research around the gut since 2010. The main talking points around the gut are inflammatory foods, pre- and probiotics, and the third thing is the gut-brain axis – there’s constantly research being done on that.”
However, when non-medical gut health cheerleaders are brandishing instagram-friendly statements like, “the gut produces half the dopamine in your body”, it’s not as simple as that, warns Dr Lloyd.
Some people are also more sensitive to what’s happening in their gut than others, he adds – they can feel impacted mentally when experiencing, say, bloating or constipation, and that stress can in turn worsen their gut symptoms. But others simply aren’t as affected by what’s happening below the belt.
There are also links to the immune system – though Dr Lloyd is quick to point out this hasn’t been thoroughly explored. “Theoretically, changing the bacteria in your gut might improve your gut health and that might help your immune system.” What we do know is that there are links between the brain, gut and immune system – cue a host of retreats hoping to connect the dots.
The hot new buzzword of the moment – gut wise – is surely “microbiome”. As in Grand Resort Bad Ragaz’s promise to provide a “Laboratory analysis of your personal microbiome”, for example. Allison Tallman explains: “This is a complex network of all the bacteria that is in our gut – there are good and bad kinds, so it’s all about that balance of good versus bad.
“It’s why healthy eating is so important – a larger proportion of bad bacteria can make us feel icky inside and out, it can increase the risk of chronic diseases, depression and anxiety.”
You may also have heard about “gut flora” – just another word for the garden of microbes that lines our digestive tracts.
So, we want to balance our microbiome. We want a tidy little garden of gut flora. What are we likely to experience on one of these trending retreats? Some programes – such as Lefay’s and Grand Resort Bad Ragaz’s – are more medical, with blood tests and gut MOTs ahead of a diet and exercise plan, while others (usually at the cheaper end of the scale) start with fasting or a detox “reset”, with juices or broths building up to healthy veggie-rich meals.
Nearly all involve a one-to-one diet and nutrition consultation. Some wellness centres pair the diet aspect of a retreat with feelgood exercise, such as yoga sessions or hikes, while others throw in educational sessions on gut health to help inform your future choices.
While they agree that most of these will be beneficial, neither Dr Lloyd nor Ms Tallman feel that those on the healthy gut journey need to fast or “detox” in the process. “As a dietician I don’t necessarily believe in a detox,” says Allison. “Your organs have the ability to do that.”
However, says Dr Lloyd, something like a day or two of juices “is not going to have a negative effect unless you’re completely stripping out nutrients.”
Some retreats also tap into the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurveda, which pioneered a few of the principles gastroenterologists champion today – such as how your gut copes with fermenting foods, or how certain ingestible irritants can contribute to how you feel.
Overhauling your diet with a view to more fibre and hydration and fewer irritants is always a good thing, says Dr Lloyd, but he disputes that you can “reset” your gut with diet alone. (Well, there’s a medical way to do it – google “fecal transplant” – but it’s not pretty and only comes out for those who have series gastro issues). “It’s hard to know how much of this ‘reset’ will be a placebo effect,” he says. “People often feel better for it because of the wider wellness experience.”
“If it does encourage people to change their eating habits that’s great. But the idea that you can reset your gut in one long weekend – that’s a bit of a myth,” summarises Dr Lloyd.
Whether a gut retreat can do more than point you toward the broccoli or not, this is an undeniable (and growing) industry. According to an April 2021 McKinsey report, “More than a third of consumers around the world report that they ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ plan to increase spending on nutrition apps, diet programmes, juice cleanses, and subscription food services over the next year.”
And its connection to the growing topic of mental health means it’s only going to grow as a focus of wellbeing, predicts Allison Tallman. “Your gut is attached to who you are and how you function – it can help with your concentration, your mood, your ability,” she says. “What’s really driven this trend is research on mental health, and a reduction in the stigma around the mental health conversation.”
When it comes to which spa retreat to pick this year or next – many will (and should) consider going with their gut.