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The Times: My top wellness advice

This piece was commissioned by The Times and outlines the top wellness advice I have learned visiting various spa’s, retreats and from interviewing health experts. The advice stuck because many of these tips are based on good evidence and for me, and I’m sure for many people, they work, helping me feel healthy and happy. Give some of them ago and see what works for you too…

the-times-suzanne-duckett-wellness-heath

As a veteran wellness writer, the editor of the Tatler Spa Guide and the editor of healthy lifestyle website thisistheantidote.com you could say it has been my life’s work to review, try, test and scrutinise just about every health and beauty programme going. With the global wellness industry worth a cool $3.7 trillion and, within that figure, wellness tourism worth $563billion (according to the Global Wellness Institute) there’s been a lot to cover: fastidious fasting, challenging colonics, fitness boot-camps at the crack of dawn, intense medical tests with injections, blood tests, bone scans and mammograms, strange ‘spiritualists’, chanting and a lot of facing my demons, emotional and physical.

It’s been an eye opener, that’s for sure, and I’ve heard my fair share of ‘baloney’ (don’t eat red vegetables, it’s nature’s way of saying ‘stop’; remove all cheese from your diet as it’s the equivalent of Copydex for the gut to digest. Puhlease!). But I’ve also learnt fantastic life-changing, preventative health tips and tricks – based on good evidence – that are do-able and affordable back in real life without a personal chef or yoga teacher to hand.

Some of these cause my husband and 10-year-old daughter to roll their eyes at my bonkersness (cold showers, burning ‘holy’ wood – Palo Santo – to cleanse and purify energy at home). Others, like daily Vedic meditation, chewing their food a LOT (‘you haven’t got teeth in your tummy is one of my most irritating nags!)’ they fully now embrace. Call me a maddo if you want (some of my friends do), but here are the things I do that are actually all about living as naturally as possible, to keep me feeling happy, healthy and young.

I do no-raw-after-4.

I got into fermented foods such as miso and tofu at East meets West Sha Wellness Clinic Spain. Here they combine macrobiotic nutrition with natural medicine and run macrobiotic cooking classes. Fermented foods are a source of beneficial bacteria, which have a number of gut health benefits. but not all miso contains probiotic bacteria, so you need to shop wisely. I use Clearspring Organic Japanese Brown Rice Miso Paste – unpasteurised, fermented Japanese soya paste, carefully made to a traditional recipe and aged in cedarwood kegs. I also learnt to absolutely interlace raw and cooked foods here and to live by the ‘no raw after 4 (pm)’ rule, especially the carrot sticks that used to be my go-to snack (not any more as they are very hard to digest).

I only detox in the spring

Spas around the world are jam-packed in January and February, and everyone you know is ‘on a detox’. However, experts in Chinese medicine, Ayurveda and naturopathy will tell you winter is not the natural time to cleanse. We’re still in hibernation mode and seasonal bounty root vegetables and meat are all shouting ‘Casserole!’ Spring is nature’s new year, so the best time for a health kick is April, with its abundance of naturally cleansing and enlivening seasonal produce like asparagus, lettuce and salad leaves, rocket, watercress, spinach and wild nettles. Sure you can OCADO this stuff any time of year but my Korean TCM doctor and acupuncturist tells me to avoid eating too much salad and cold things because the body has to waste valuable energy raising the temperature of the food to allow the digestive processes to work. Add on spring’s longer, lighter days, having more energy and finding motivation is easier too. It’s not rocket science really is it?

I do a 16-hour fast most days

Daily fasting is good for the gut, giving the digestive system time to ‘empty’, rest and reset. Every Austrian and German spa I have visited has been big on fasting – it’s in their genes. Viva Mayr, The Original FX Mayr Clinic; Park Hotel Igls Austria and Buchinger Wilhemi, Germany feed you doll-sized portions of things like alkalising bouillon broth, polenta, poached chicken, porridge, sheep’s yoghurt with buckwheat crackers. Fasting is all very well when all you’re required to do is shuffle around in a dressing gown, but back at home, in the real world, unsupervised, it’s not sensible or realistic. So I keep it real and adopt the 16:8, eating plan which is eating within an 8-hour time frame and fasting for the remaining 16 hours. There are no calorie restrictions, just eating healthily in your 8-hour time frame – great for weight management and giving the gut a good break. I eat early evening (7pm latest), and don’t have breakfast until late morning at around 11am. Thus, for a lot of the fast I am fast asleep.

I aim to chew my food 30 times

The fasting experts are all champions of chewing too, because healthy digestion and nutrient absorption begins in the mosh. In fact Dr Domenig, Head Physician Original FX Mayr Clinic, recommends chewing each mouthful of food 30 times, yes 30, more if it’s particularly chewy, like steak. Chewing until it is almost liquefied produces more saliva which contains digestive enzymes which help to break down food more efficiently and make food easier to digest.(Kamalaya, Koh Samui Thailand is also a favourite for a more exotic health kick – think antioxidant-rich green power juices and spicy green mango and prawn salad. But giving your belly a break, eating nothing but mung beans is all very well when you’re lounging about under a palm tree).

I’ve swapped toast for Stone Age paleo nut loaf

Toast with melted butter is one of life’s pleasures, but I can get very addicted to it. Literally. The fascinating Wheat Belly book by cardiologist and author Dr William Davis explains that wheat and closely related grains trigger hunger, often to extreme degrees, because they contain gliadin-derived peptides which increase appetite – in the same way that opiates such as morphine bind to the opiate receptors of the brain. Susceptibility to this effect varies but can be responsible for massive increases in appetite in some. I’m one of those, so was thrilled to find former Michelin star-chef-turned-paleo chef/fitness guru and hunk of health, Thomas Rode at the Kurhotel Skodsborg (http://skodsborg.dk/) spa hotel near Copenhagen and his wonderful Stone Age paleo loaf on the menu. It’s basically made from loads of mixed nuts, egg white and clarified butter, is super-healthy and super-tasty with everything from hummus to honey. You can’t compare it directly to sourdough, but it’s a great alternative/dipping vehicle for everything from hummus to honey during the week.

I dry body brush every day

The posh term for this is lymphatic drainage and you can get it at every spa – but don’t bother. Why waste time that could be spent having your muscles pummelled by an expert with something you can do just as easily at home. All you need is a £6.50 Boots Botanics Detox Brush and a minute or so before your shower to brush it on dry skin in an upwards direction towards your heart. It’s good for detoxification, skin exfoliation, increased lymphatic flow and increased energy. Its action also stimulates nerve endings close to the skin, leaving you feeling very awake and tingling alive.

I’m building an infra-red sauna in my loft

Yes, you read it right. An infra-red sauna uses light to create heat, which heats your body directly, as opposed to a traditional sauna where heat warms the air which, in turn, warms your body. Sweating is a great way to relax tense or tired muscles, but it’s also supposed to boost the body’s natural detox process and help the body to rid itself of pollution, good for city dwellers like me. I hear the argument all the time that the body can detox itself, and yes it can when it’s not constantly having to deal with an accumulation of toxic metals and chemicals etc. – we need to help it out. An increase in circulation and sweating can also aid in detoxification: a systematic review in 2012 found that toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury are found in the sweat of people who are exposed to these harmful metals. But why an infra-red sauna? Apparently, they are effective at lower, more bearable temperatures than a regular sauna. “As infrared heat penetrates more deeply than warmed air, users develop a more vigorous sweat at a lower temperature than they would in traditional saunas,” says Dr. Richard Beever, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of British Columbia. While there’s not a ton of published research looking specifically at infrared saunas, Beever has published a review of all the existing studies he could turn up on the subject. He says there’s evidence to support the use of infrared saunas for high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and chronic pain. In general, though, saunas are said to cause reactions similar to those generated by moderate exercise, such as vigorous sweating, raising heart rate and increasing endorphins (happy hormones). In a case report, they also found that mercury levels normalised with repeated sauna treatments. But they had me at happy hormones.

I have an icy cold shower every morning 

I have experienced the wonders of the Scotch hose (blasted from a distance with a fireman’s hose, basically) in many a spa in Austria, Germany, Italy, the Nordic countries as well as ashram-type retreats in India. The rush of the cold jets on the body is supposed to be brilliant for boosting the immune system and improving circulation, slowing ageing and fighting depression and can be recreated in your own bathroom with a cold shower. Which I do every morning and am so used to it I don’t even swear loudly anymore. You can try this at night too. A doctor at a medical thermal spa, Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland told me that a cool shower after a hot bath at night helps you to sleep as body temperature plays an important part in regulating our circadian rhythms, which tell the body when to feel sleepy.  Back to saunas again, they are also most beneficial when alternating hot and cold. I became addicted to the practice of sauna and cold plunge when touring round Austrian spas ten years ago. Then, this year, I went extreme at the Kurhotel Skodsborg Copenhagen in Denmark, immersing my entire body into the freezing Baltic Sea after a half-hour stint sweating in a sauna. It was the most exhilarating, energising thing I have ever done – I was on an absolute natural high! The hot followed by cold contrast is said to increase the heart rate, adrenaline and endorphins helping relieve stress and depression, aiding better sleep. It improves blood flow, pulling the blood back to your main organs, reinforcing your body’s natural defences and helping muscles recover faster so is popular with many people from athletes to sports fans and those wanting a feel-good, glow-inducing health and beauty boost.

I have a stand-up desk

Personal trainers, physios and yoga teachers at spas and retreats worldwide have been warning guests about the risks of our sedentary lifestyles for the last decade or so – and they’re right. All this sitting around has been linked with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and even depression and can pretty much undo all the good things you do do (even daily exercise before or after work cannot counteract sitting down for hours). It was after interviewing Alexander Montgomery, consultant spinal orthopaedic surgeon at St Bart’s and the Royal London Hospital that I went and bought a stand-sit desk  ‘We are simply not designed to sit for hours a day, in fact current thinking is that we should aim to get up every 45 minutes and spend 4 hours a day standing or moving around’ says Montgomery. “The most important factor is the ability to change positions, either by using the facility of a stand-up desk, by standing up, or walking around” says Alexander Montgomery, consultant spinal orthopaedic surgeon at St Bart’s and the Royal London Hospital. ‘Add in computers and devices and the mechanical stress is increased,’ he says. “Poor posture – our tendency to lean forward at our desks or devices, creating neck tension and putting pressure on the joints at the back of the spine, or jamming phones between head and neck – simply accelerates the natural ageing process”. The Royal Navy, Ministry of Defence, US Air Force, Dyson and the ATP World Tennis Pros have invested in more mobile working, but the secret is to combine sitting and standing and build up gradually.

I do Vedic meditation for 46 minutes every day

I’ve tried many forms of meditation in my time, this is the one that has made a real difference. Twice a day I simply sit in a comfy position in what I call ‘airplane mode’ – phone off, life on pause, and repeat a mantra (simply a word that helps ‘charm’ the mind, giving it something to latch on to) for 20 mins, then 3 mins with no mantra to ‘surface’. Sometimes I zone out, other times I can’t get my internal running commentary to shut-up. But it’s not a badge of honour or something else to ‘nail’ or be good at and neither is it an exercise in thinking of nothing, so drop that expectation immediately. It’s simply some much-needed time out. I do the first one just after I wake up to sharpen my mind for the day, then around 5/6pm to release the stress of the day and give me a pep-up for my evening. On the tube, in my car, hotel foyers all are prime meditating spots, no funky positions, no joss sticks needed, people around don’t bat an eyelid.

The science on the effects of meditation for our physical as well as our mental health simply cannot be poo-pooed. Regular meditators have decreased stress hormones and oxidative stress and a recent study [click here] shows a reduced inflammatory response in long-term meditators vs a matched control group. I trained with The London Meditation Centre, a superbly practical course teaching meditation for people with busy lives as did my husband. Next up is my daughter whose doing her course in April. More info here: Londonmeditationcentre.com

I go for golden lattes

I know they’re ‘in’, but I’ve been drinking the healthistas’ latest frothy friend for years, having been introduced to it at the Ananda Spa in the Himalayas, India. Made from turmeric, an important spice in Ayurvedic medicine (also trending), and usually coconut milk, turmeric is packed full of antioxidants and gives a natural boost without the spike of a regular coffee. It produces a compound known as curcumin, which has a variety of medicinal properties from settling upset stomachs and reducing bloating, to relieving muscle and joint pain. There’s also evidence of it helping to lower blood glucose levels and reversing insulin resistance, delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes and even promoting repair to stem cells in the brain, increasing overall memory function and helping protect against the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.  A study showed a 2000% increase in bioavailability and absorption of curcumin with the addition of a grinding of black pepper; even just a little pinch —1/20th of a teaspoon—can significantly boost levels. I buy the Golden Grind brand, pre-blended with black pepper. More at: Goldengrind.com.au

I go ‘earthing’

Don’t be surprised if you see me in my garden pacing around on the grass in bare feet. If I’ve been on the computer a lot, I spend a few minutes earthing – walking barefoot on a natural surface. My favourite earthing spots are warm sand and dewy morning grass. It’s said to harmonise our electromagnetic energy, allowing it to vibrate at the same frequency as the earth’s surface. And it’s also said that walking barefoot on grass reduces anxiety, increases the level of endorphins or ‘feel-good hormones’, eases pain and chronic inflammation and promotes restful sleep. There are other more scientific-based evidence of the brain body connection benefits of connecting more naturally to the earth. Cushioned or ‘padded’ shoes dramatically reduce the sensory feedback from the feet to the brain during walking and running which can lead to over-striding and increase the risk of injury such as runner’s knee, shin splints, pelvic and lower back pain, clumsy, unskilful movement. I wear Vivo Barefoot Tracker Boots when walking my dogs as they have thin, puncture-resistant soles to allow the 200,000 nerves in my foot to provide my brain with sensory feedback and allow my feet to move more naturally. More at vivobarefoot.com

I never go to a gym

You couldn’t pay me to go on a treadmill or to a gym no matter how fancy – it’s so unnatural: I am more of a wild mover and functional exerciser. Spending time at a wonderful retreat in Scotland WildFitness taught me that we are naturally designed for a more instinctive style of movement than the robotic and frankly boring-as-hell gym – running, lifting, climbing, crawling, martial arts parkour in the park are all good. www.wildfitness.com I also love training with Dan Roberts in Richmond Park (we have had many a stare from walkers when Dan has had me in a neck lock doing ju-jitsu, the Japanese martial art and a method of close combat!). He is a more spiritual personal trainer who embraces a mindful, athletic and natural philosophy, essential if we want exercise to fire up mind, body and soul. www.danrobertsgroup.com I do a lot of yoga too, matching classes to my mood. Flow classes if I am feeling jumpy to help get me into a moving meditation-type vibe; yin deep stretching with passive poses to counterbalance a push-push-push week; chanting and spiritual classes for group therapy.

I filter my tap water

Every health and spa expert I have ever spoken to tells me to drink lots of purified water, and even the government now recommend 6-8 glasses per day. Although tap water in the UK is generally safe and highly regulated, there are still things we should be aware of and I’d rather be over-cautious given me and my family drink so much of the stuff. For instance, fluoride is still a source of debate, but according to nutritionist Amelia Freer, ‘as long as levels of fluoride are less than 1.5mg/litre it doesn’t pose a risk to health’. Erring on the side of caution, I have invested in a Quooker tap – an activated carbon water filter tap at home to remove contaminants and impurities from my London tap water. I also use a charcoal stick in my office, the Japanese have been doing it for centuries. The carbon is renowned to absorb chlorine, certain pesticides and organic pollutants and improves taste.

I swallow milk thistle capsules before and after drinking alcohol

While it’s easier to be excessive with things, especially booze, many of us finding it easier to drink too much or nothing at all, I prefer to live by the little and often rule! Nutritionist Jackie McCusker at London’s exclusive Medical health club and spa Grace Belgravia gave me this tip to support the liver when I’m having a glass or two: “swallow milk thistle supplements before and after drinking. Look for a good quality milk supplement (e.g. Viridian Organic milk thistle) in either a capsule or tincture form containing 200- 400mg of silymarin (the active ingredient)’ McCukser recommends. “If it is 200mg take before drinking and again before going to bed. If it is 400mg dosage its best taken once before drinking alcohol”. But what you drink matters too. My current party tipple of choice is clear tequila, distilled from 100% blue agave fruit as it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as other booze and has no grain. It also has a naturally sweet flavour, eliminating the need for sugary mixers (which is where calories and carbs really add up) and fewer congeners (fermentation products) than other spirits, making hangovers less hellish. Moderation though people, moderation.

I wake up with a dawn simulator

I used to be a grumpy zombie in the morning until I wrote a feature on how to wake up in a good mood and discovered dawn simulators – i.e. alarm clocks that wake you up with light not sound (though many have sound like birdsong, obvs, built-in). I got a Lumie alarm clock that gradually increases light so that I wake up more naturally and gradually.  Light cues the body to reduce the production of sleep hormones (such as melatonin) and gradually increase the levels of those that help you get up and go (e.g. cortisol), setting a healthy sleep/wake cycle. This much gentler and kind start to the day sets me up nicely for my morning meditation…

I sleep on a silk pillowcase

Hypoallergenic and naturally dust-mite resistant. Many fabrics are produced from chemically intensive crops that require pesticides, herbicides and other chemical treatments before making it to our bed – a silk pillowcase is another way of reducing chemical exposure and, unlike wicking cotton, it doesn’t’ suck up my (organic) serum/night cream.

I always book spa treatments through the spa manager

Spa treatments aren’t cheap, so it’s wise to make sure you’re getting the most talented therapist. How? I grill the spa manager and ask which therapist is most qualified in therapeutic massage, who are the specialists and who has the most return clients. Some therapists are simply better than others so I wish they had a tier structure in spas like they do in hair salons, with pricing dependent on the training and experience levels of each one.

I turn up to spa treatments an hour early

Call me tight but I like to get my money’s worth if I am about to drop £80-£100 on a spa treatment. This means I can sit in the sauna, steam room etc. to get my muscles and mind softened and starting to relax before I hit the massage table. I also give myself a 15-minute relax time afterwards so mind and body can process the benefits too. This adds about 30% to the benefits your treatment will bring you, as well as offering more value for money.