Time to Come to our Senses!

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Hear the words ‘sensory integration’ and you tend to think of occupational therapists and child development. We refer to the five senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell) but go online and you discover it is a hotly-contested subject. Some scientists cite up to 33 senses! Why am I so interested? That’s because my recent Integrated Healing Retreat at Preidlhof in Italy made me realise just how much Covid has dulled everyone’s senses.

My stay at Preidlhof was profoundly restorative. It also reinforced my belief that we are more than the sum of our parts which the pandemic seemingly reduced everything to:  symptoms and daily statistics.  Preidlhof goes beyond medical diagnostics to treat the whole person.  I was curious to learn more as it is rare to find such a concentration of so many extraordinary and highly skilled healers.  I am sharing personal insights as there were some big surprises in store for me too!

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Preidlhof in South Tyrol, Italy

Our senses shape our self and community

The past two years have been dehumanising, separating people from the outside world and others.  In many cases I see in my own nutrition practice, people are disconnected also from themselves.

It is, however, our senses that unite us and provide meaning to the world around us, also our internal landscape.

Yes, Covid made us alert to our sense of taste and smell. However, with all the focus on symptoms, did people lose touch with what it is to be human and to be truly well?  Did we actually take leave of our senses?! 

It is a question I asked Patrizia Bortolin, Preidlhof’s award-winning Wellness Alchemist and leading Transformational Life Coach: 

“We are seeing a big disconnect in our guests. Our senses are the starting point to enjoying life more (Hedonic Wellbeing). They enhance self-discovery and start the inner journey towards improving awareness, self-healing, and the development of our potential.  They give us a better understanding of our mind’s limitations and our body’s intelligence… that sense of belonging and oneness,” says Patrizia Bortolin.

“Optimum health and wellbeing is more than about symptoms and diagnostics.  Now you see so much anxiety and fear. Many, many people fear their own minds…”  Patrizia continues.

Preidlhof’s gardens are infused with the scent of 50 lemon and olive trees, cypresses, and aromatic herbs from all over the world. Images © Laura La Monaca

Senses are the doorway to perception

Our senses help us understand and perceive the world around us. How we perceive things is shaped by integrating information across our senses, across time, and across space as we move between different environments and people. This ‘sensorial integration’ or processing enables us to make sense of the world… Also, it lays the foundation of everything we do as a human being: our social and motor skills, also our emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

“A multi-sensory learning experience with combinations of visual, auditory and other sensory functions exploits the natural connectivity of the brain. As each sense holds a proprietary memory location within the brain, the effective orchestration of multiple sensory inputs ensures a wider degree of neural stimulation.”

Wolfe (2001)

Sensory integration is essential for cognitive health, and mental and emotional wellbeing. 

At Preidlhof, sensorial integration plays a pivotal role in their ‘transformational wellness’ offering. Patrizia’s own Transformational Wellness sessions blend a whole variety of senses with coaching. Colours, sights and smells all play a part along with mindful eating and sensorial eating classes.     

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Sensory Analysis with Patrizia Bortolin ©Preidlhof

Your sense of smell can enhance cognition

My initial Psychoaromatherapy session with Patrizia was revealing. I had to say if I liked or disliked a particular smell. From the findings, Patrizia suggested that my ‘pause/go’ button was stuck, and this inhibited my ability ‘to let pain go’ while conflicting with a strong desire ‘to take my power back’.

In a sensory analysis called ‘The Wheel of Life’, I had to see if I could detect a smell and if so, describe it. Then, Patrizia compared my description to see if it fell within an approved framework of descriptors. It was a fascinating exercise as I learned more about how the weakening of the olfactory sense, our ability to smell, can be an early detector of ageing and Alzheimer’s. Of course, odours take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.  

I became more alert to my own sense of smell when I moved from London to Kent. What I had always dismissed as ‘my weakest sense’ started to improve immeasurably.  What’s more, I found myself seeking out new scents. Rediscovering your sense of smell is like reconnecting with an old friend. It unlocks memories and, during the worst of the lockdowns, when we couldn’t travel or see friends and family, I found solace tapping into those memory reserves.

Given our sense of smell’s frontline role in cognitive health, Patrizia encourages practice.  She also recommends building an ‘olfactory vocabulary’, verbal descriptors. This helps to establish neural pathways and new ways of thinking.

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Olive Sauna at Preidlhof

The healing power of touch

Our sense of touch plays a primary role in our development and physical and mental well-being. Studies show the importance of physical contact in early development, communication, personal relationships, and fighting disease.

“Who do you want to kill?” asked Stefano Battaglia with a wry smile when we first meet at Preidlhof.  Stefano, aka “The Shaman” had noticed that my right hand was pulling an imaginary trigger.  Stefano is a healer famous in the wellness world for his work in grief and trauma healing.   His signature ‘Glowing Flow’ sessions combine unique trauma touch skills, together with various bodywork techniques and dialogue.    

It transpired that the ‘pause/go’ block that Patrizia had raised was also playing out in a tug of war in my right arm. I had slipped down the cellar stairs four months earlier, carrying some old curtains. At the time, my mind was racing at short notice of another Covid school closure.  Ever since, my arm had been in constant pain, fizzing as though live with an electric current .  It’s hard to describe what happened but Stefano deftly and ever so gently ‘defused’ the arm.  It was like cutting a wire.  The relief was immense and the results extraordinary. All achieved through touch and dialogue.

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Master Therapist, Stefano Battaglia

At the end of my session with Stefano, I experienced this incredible lightness. In fact, it felt like Stefano had removed a giant rock strapped to my chest and shoulders, and had hurled it across the Ortler Mountains.   The benefits weren’t just physical; vivid flashbacks to a distressing time four years ago also dissolved behind distant peaks.

The session with Martin Kirchler was also integral to my healing.  Martin’s a holistic practitioner and expert in TCM and Ancient Medicines. He applied various soothing touch techniques on my arm for over 80 minutes.

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Martin Kirchler ©wisthaler.com

Martin explained that my parasympathetic nervous system had gone hyper as a result of the fall. “It’s like with the springs in a mattress… they recoil to cushion you from the initial blow, to protect you, but then they get stuck in a push-pull rebound.” 

A multi-sensory experience

Other highlights of my stay included a heart-warming session with Shiatsu Master Andrea Martinelli; forest bathing with ‘Lady of the Woods’, Irmgard Moosmair; and a yoga nidra session with Psychologist Norma Jean.  The yoga nidra reinforced the nights I slept under the stars on the bed made up for me on the loggia outside my room.

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My view on waking up

I loved waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery and hypnotic sounds of Val Venosta. As for the new Gourmet Healing Menu, that was fabulous and a delight in every sense!

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Preidlhof’s retreats stimulate guests physically, energetically, spiritually, psychologically, socially, and emotionally.  They integrate ancient and contemporary healing treatments, sensorial experiences, special classes, nature immersion, medical analysis and smart technology, with the latest neurological and psychology research. All this, combined with the natural, high energy of the location, enables guests to discover a new, higher frequency in their everyday life.    

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Importantly…

Stefano likes to emphasise the importance of play.  One of the big problems, he says, is that “We all take ourselves far too seriously.  This makes us stiff.  Were not meant to become rigid, we are basically here to evolve, preferably experiencing joy.”

How true is this?! Play is important for enhancing our sensory integration and that is why it is so essential in childhood development. In growing up, did we perhaps lose something precious on the way?

“Those enforced touch-deprived days perhaps made us understand the power of touch more.” Says Patrizia. “The tangible warmth emanating from a compassionate person… The power of a forbidden spontaneous handshake… The healing effect of an authentic therapist’s touch with no mask. The sacred rituality in a covert hug or the energy of an adventurous secret couple’s dance…”

I hugely benefited from my escape to Preidlhof. Now I encourage everyone to reinvigorate and cultivate those senses… for they can open up a whole new world!

For more information, visit Healing Holidays and Queen of Retreats.

Huge gratitude and special thanks to Klaus and Monika Ladurner; Patrizia Bortolin (you are amazing); Stefano Battaglia; Martin Kirchler; Dr. Alexander Angerer; Andrea Martinelli; Irmgard Moosmair; Norma Jean; Carmine Signorile (my brilliant Wellness Concierge); and all the Spa Team at Preidlhof. Also to James Leigh at Healing Holidays for all your brilliant travel advice!

Is Your Gut Microbiome Driving your Desire for Nature?

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I often allude to the microbiome, the colony of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses in our gut, as our internal rainforest.  This analogy resonates more as we recognise the importance of ensuring plant diversity in the natural world to safeguard the future wellbeing of our planet.  

Scientific studies show that we can boost our good gut bacteria by eating as diverse a diet as possible, and in consuming as many different plants especially.  The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the gut microbiome. Conversely, a loss in species diversity is a common finding in several disease states.

Though invisible to the naked eye, our good bacteria play an important role in maintaining our overall physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.  The gut and the brain are in constant communication and dynamic exchange determines metabolism, immune system function and appetite. 

Our thirst for nature and the great outdoors became especially pronounced during lockdown.  It isn’t just humans however who crave a change of scene and fresh air… our gut bacteria also relish diversity and new company!

The journal Science of The Total Environment recently published a new theory called “the Lovebug Effect.” This theory suggests that our gut microbiome may actually be driving our increased desire for nature holidays and woodland walks.

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The Lovebug Effect

The Lovebug Effect theorises that gut-brain communication drives our nature-seeking behaviour. When our gut microbes are starved of contact with their country cousins (environmental microbiota), they hijack the neural pathways between the brain and gut to make us venture outdoors to find them. Microbes intercept the gut-brain ‘switchboard’ by activating the vagus nerve and sympathetic neurons through the release of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and GABA.    

Certainly, being in nature can have a very tangible feel-good, stress-relieving effect. There have been numerous scientific studies also linking gut microbiome imbalances to increased depression and anxiety. However, what else might be fuelling our need for nature?

Why does our gut microbiome love the great outdoors?

When we immerse in nature, we surround ourselves with environmental microbiota. Nature is teeming with trillions of microbes: this provides our gut microbiome with endless choice when it comes to selecting which microbes to propagate. 

Fresh air offers a microbial diversity that avoids the build-up of harmful microbes. Exposure to soil microbes may boost the immune system.  Just a single teaspoon of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria.

The role of the environment in the make-up of the gut microbiota has yet to be fully understood. Studies have shown children (ages 1 to 5) from rural communities have a more diverse gut microbiota compared to children from Western populations. Early-life exposure to microbe-rich environments may be beneficial for human health by increasing the gut bacterial species pool. Studies have also shown that individuals who grow up in city environments have a less diverse gut microbiome. And that City-dwellers are more prone to inflammatory disorders and allergies. Urbanisation can lead to increased sanitation and antibiotic use, separation from the outdoors, and land management practices that reduce soil microbial biodiversity.

‘Baths in the Forest’ for full nature-immersion

Preidlhof in South Tyrol, has made Forest Bathing a central component of their Integrated Health and Transformational Wellness programmes. They also offer microbiome testing to assess the state of your gut bacteria, and champion mindful and sensorial eating.

The ancient Shinrin-Yoku (literally “Bath in the Forest”) came to the fore in the 1980s. Japan made Forest Bathing part of a national health programme to tackle stress-related disorders. Studies showed that conscious contact with the forest brought benefits to body and mind. It bolstered the immune system, reducing stress and blood pressure levels.

Preidlhof’s Forest Bathing takes place on Monte Tramontana, a dense area, rich in biodiversity, with woods, streams and small lakes.  Leading the sessions is Irmgard Mossmair, a 73-year-old official mountain guide. She found her source of healing in the wisdom of plants, trees and in the regenerating power of forests.  Irmgard has studied aromatherapy and natural remedies through herbs and Chinese medicine. 

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Forest bathing at Preidlhof in South Tyrol Image © Nicola Cipriani

Forest Bathing facilitates complete immersion in the woods, lights, scents, aromas, textures and pulsations of the earth. Sensory interaction with the forest helps to increase our frequency, and promote mental calm and awareness.

“Slowly, they open up to their surroundings and find themselves immersed in another world, in contact with nature and its secrets. The scents of the trees, the earth, the flight of birds and insects, the sound of the wind, the sunlight on the trees, the different shades of green… All these elements can facilitate a profound transformation.”  

Patrizia Bortolin Spa Director and Transformational Health Coach – Preidlhof

We can so easily take our access to nature for granted. What’s more, we increasingly inhabit a virtual and digital universe which provides a further disruptor. However, what Covid 19 has reminded us is that we are still all very much part of the natural world.  And our microbiome will act as a constant biological prompt to reconnect with us our ancient roots.  

For further recommendations on how to boost your gut bacteria through natural food sources, click here.

Contact Charlotte Fraser today to book a Nutrition Consultation.