Time to Come to our Senses!

Sensory-Spa-Preidlhof-Italy

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!

‘A Well Mind’ by Dr Lisa Parkinson Roberts: Book Review

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Why are we taught how to care only for our body and not our mind?   That’s the question that is the driving force for Dr Lisa Parkinson Roberts’ new book, ‘A Well Mind’.  I have often asked the same question! As Lisa rightly observes: “while this is slowly-changing, it is “more in the context of ‘Better do crosswords and talk to people daily so we don’t get Alzheimer’s,’ or ‘Better see a doctor if I’m feeling depressed.” 

With all the discussion about mental health, as a society, we still remain focussed on treating the symptoms of disease. Little attention is given to cultivating a well mind. Good health is, however, about more than the absence of disease and that’s why I whole-heartedly recommend ‘A Well Mind’ to you dear Reader. As well as being informative and engaging, this book is refreshing to read.  Positively uplifting in fact. As Parkinson Roberts says, “You have more control over the wellbeing of your mind than you might currently believe.” This is a message that I am keen to share as it can make such a profound difference to one’s overall health and treatment outcome.

Imagine if in school we had lessons on cultivating a well mind.  Imagine being given tools to calm our nervous system, tools to ward off anxiety and depression, foods to nourish and heal our mind.  Imagine if we were taught that we are not our thoughts; rather, we are an audience who has the power to choose which thoughts to watch and nurture, and which thoughts to dismiss.  Imagine if we were taught how to rewrite the narrative in our head, and let go of what doesn’t serve us.” 

Lisa Parkinson Roberts PhD

Published by Exisle Publishing, ‘A Well Mind’ (RRP £12.99) is a comprehensive and holistic guide to improving your wellbeing by eating well and maintaining healthy routines. Dr Parkinson Roberts looks at why the health of one’s mind is just so important. She investigates nutrition, sleep, stress management and exercise to achieve optimal mental health and to help you to regain control of how you feel. She likens her journey to reduce inflammation in her body and mind to that of a person embarking on a weight-loss journey. 

The Author’s candour, her realism and compassion is striking. This is an author and academic who knows what she is talking about, not just from years of study and clinical practice (she has a PhD in Nutrition Science) but from deep and at times, most painful experience. Her personal journey makes the book all the more compelling to read and her passion and curiosity shine through.

Lisa Parkinson Roberts, Ph.D. Author of ‘A Well Mind’

Diagnosed with Bipolar at the age of fifteen, also depression and OCD, Dr Parkinson Roberts has struggled with mental health for most of her life. She now manages her mind by using “food as medicine”. Dr Parkinson Roberts found successful methods for coping and she shares these tools and her academic expertise with her readers. She learned an important lesson during her journey: “struggle can alchemize into growth, and we all struggle; the struggle just presents differently for each of us.” 

‘A Well Mind’: In Summary

Parkinson Roberts explores the Gut Brain Axis, the role of the microbiome, and explains how the diversity of our good bacteria and the foods we eat influence our mind and emotions. She highlights important nutrients, vitamins and minerals to consider for optimum mental, emotional and physical health.

Supported by the latest scientific research and case studies, the Author also explores Epigenics; the benefits of immersing in nature, mindfulness techniques; the importance of breathing properly, nourishing food and nurturing relationships; the value of community and the value in finding gratitude, purpose and meaning. Dr Parkinson Roberts is only the second person I know to reference Eudaimonic wellbeing in the context of contemporary wellness. One of my mentors, Patrizia Bortolin, the innovative Spa Director at Preidlhof and a leading Transformational Wellness Coach is the first. I must take Patrizia a copy of the book when I go to Italy!

Aside from the solid nutrition and lifestyle advice, I particularly like Dr Parkinson Roberts’ mind-changing or ‘shift’ exercises. These are very helpful – powerful too. I place a great deal of importance on mindset in my own nutrition work with clients. Our thoughts affect our gut health, our emotions, our behaviour, and vice-versa! Indeed, our overall health. Our thoughts and emotions can also manifest in physical symptoms. It was a ‘change of mind’ that helped me in my own past struggles with ulcerative colitis. One day, I changed my mind. I decided to be well… that I really was going to get better. That mental shift was profoundly life-changing.

The beauty of a well mind is that it alters the landscape surrounding us.  We can move from living in the past, and with it anxiety and regret, or from being caught up in the future, and with it uncertainty, to experiencing each day
mindfully and calmly.” 

Lisa Parkinson Roberts, Ph.D

Dr Lisa Parkinson Roberts, I salute you!  ‘A Well Mind‘ is a keeper! I will enjoy recommending this book to my clients and revisiting it time and again.  Thank you!

Stay Positive: Dementia Study Shows Benefits

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Are you glass half full or half empty?  It might sound like a slightly odd question but it’s one that I ask my nutrition clients in their initial 90-minute nutrition consultation. Do you generally have a positive or negative outlook on life? The answer provides just one of a series of ‘compass readings’ which help guide me down the various vitamin, mineral and disease pathways on every client’s individual health road map.  Depending on the answer, I might ask other questions, such as ‘do you hoard or throw away?’, and ‘do you find yourself thinking about the past, or more about the present or the future?

These questions are helpful for the purpose of differential diagnosis: are you just feeling a bit down at the moment or are you suffering from depression? And, if it is depression, how severe is it, and might it be symptomatic also of another health condition?  Is it a symptom of mental health, or is it more of an emotional symptom, or is it a combination of both?

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Various emotional, physiological, mental, nutritional, environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to the rich fabric of your health, and YOU as an individual. That’s why it’s so important to consider symptoms within the context of the whole person, not in isolation. Nowadays, I see more and more people prescribed antidepressants for symptoms not even related to depression. And yet, antidepressants can disrupt gut health and studies show that the ‘Gut/Brain Axis’ is integral to preventing anxiety and depression. So the vicious circle starts, but this is where nutritional interventions can help.

A recent study found that persistently engaging in negative thinking patterns may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  The study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, found that people who exhibited higher repetitive negative thinking (RNT) patterns experienced more cognitive decline over a four-year period. They also experienced declines in memory (an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease), and they were more likely to have amyloid and tau deposits in their brain. 

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About the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Study 

For the Alzheimer’s Society-supported study, the research team from UCL, INSERM and McGill University studied 292 people over the age of 55 who were part of the PREVENT-AD cohort study, and a further 68 people from the IMAP+ cohort. Over the course of two years, the study participants responded to questions about how they typically think about negative experiences, focusing on repetitive negative thinking patterns like rumination about the past and worry about the future. The participants also completed measures of depression and anxiety symptoms. They assessed cognitive function, measuring memory, attention, spatial cognition, and language. Some (113) of the participants also underwent PET brain scans, measuring deposits of tau and amyloid; these two proteins cause the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, when they build up in the brain.

Positive Findings

The study found depression and anxiety were associated with subsequent cognitive decline but not with amyloid or tau deposition. Thus suggesting that chronic negative thinking could be the main reason why depression and anxiety contribute to Alzheimer’s disease risk. 

The researchers say RNT should now be further investigated as a potential risk factor for dementia. And that psychological tools, such as mindfulness or meditation, should be studied to see if these could reduce dementia risk.

“Depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age are already known to be risk factors for dementia. Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia.” Said Lead author Dr Natalie Marchant (UCL Psychiatry).

“Taken alongside other studies, which link depression and anxiety with dementia risk, we expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk of dementia. We do not think the evidence suggests that short-term setbacks would increase one’s risk of dementia.”

The researchers suggest that RNT may contribute to Alzheimer’s risk via its impact on indicators of stress such as high blood pressure. Other studies have found that physiological stress can contribute to amyloid and tau deposition.

“Taken alongside other studies, which link depression and anxiety with dementia risk, we expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk of dementia. We do not think the evidence suggests that short-term setbacks would increase one’s risk of dementia.” Says Dr Marchant.

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“Our thoughts can have a biological impact on our physical health, which might be positive or negative. Mental training practices such as meditation might help promoting positive while down-regulating negative-associated mental schemes.” Said co-author Dr Gael Chételat (INSERM and Université de Caen-Normandie)

“Looking after your mental health is important, and it should be a major public health priority, as it’s not only important for people’s health and well-being in the short term, but it could also impact your eventual risk of dementia.”  

The researchers hope to find out if reducing RNT, possibly through mindfulness training or targeted talk therapy, could in turn reduce the risk of dementia.

I wish the researchers every success in the next phase of their study. I’m so delighted that more research is going into adopting a more multi-therapeutic, holistic approach to treating and preventing Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Of course, we live in particularly testing timings with Covid, but the advice to stay positive is a good prescription for us all.

To book an online Cambridge Brain Sciences Health Assessment and an in-depth nutrition consultation with Charlotte Fraser, contact: enquiries@naturopathic-nutrition.com.

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A Remedy for New Year Resolutions

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How is your New Year Resolution going? Reportedly, most people give up on their new resolution as soon as the 12th January but if you are one of them, don’t lose heart. Most likely, your heart was never in it!

New Year Resolutions – along with the countless ‘New Year New You’ diets peddled by the media in January – are often built on a false premise. They are a social construct and a lot of people just feel compelled to make a New Year Resolution because they think they ‘should’ or ‘ought to’. After all, isn’t everyone else doing it?

Now, in my experience, anything you feel you ought to do, or should do, is really a red rag to the bull and doomed to fail. Whatever your mind might try and persuade itself, the rebel heart soon kicks in. Worse still, you are more likely to go to the other extreme – either immediately before or after the New Year Resolution – as a compensatory ‘reward’ for the ‘sacrifice’ made.

The trouble with so many New Year Resolutions is that they tend to have a self-denial aspect to them and, to me, there’s something inauthentic in that. Instead of thinking in terms of what ‘to give up’, I prefer to reframe this and ask, what is it that you would really LOVE to achieve? What do you honestly desire ? What do you want to do MORE of in life? For the simple fact is, that if we enjoy or are passionate about something, we are far more motivated and likely to succeed in our endeavours.

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Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, and if you really want to make a positive change, there is absolutely no point always doing the same thing, or going about it in the same way.

However, who says we have to start a resolution at New Year? There’s really no better time to start than today.

One of my personal definitions of good health is really about living or being in the here and now. You can’t change the past and I always think there is little point worrying about the future; after all the future is determined by what you do now. Today. This minute.

I know someone who used to smoke 30-40 cigarettes a day. After years of trying to give up, endless nagging from loved ones, and countless broken resolutions, one day he just stopped. He now hasn’t smoked for over 20 years. I asked him recently how he managed to finally stop. He replied “OH NO! Don’t ever say I have stopped! I just say to myself that I don’t want to smoke a cigarette today“. For him, the idea of ‘completely giving up’ in the forever after sense, had always made it too challenging and depressing to stop. The difference is that he takes every day as it comes but now makes the personal choice not to smoke.

So if you really want to make a positive change, it doesn’t have to be a massive step. That can be really intimidating and often impractical in the context of everyday life. The best thing is to keep it simple. Just take small steps and build up from there. Take each day as it comes. Before you know it, the weeks turn into weeks, months, then years, and you can get a great sense of achievement along the way.

I often allude to the ‘butterfly effect’ with my clients: the almost imperceptible and smallest flutter of a butterfly’s delicate wings exert tremendous force and energy. This can also be likened to the ripple effect of a small pebble thrown into a large lake.

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So perhaps today, you might just want to try doing something new, even for the first time. Just one small thing, and see how you feel, where your journey takes you. There is no pressure but it could be the start of an exciting adventure. The important thing is to try new things and to be open to new experiences as this mindset can really benefit the whole body – your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. With the right nutritional support you can also build your focus, energy and resilience, to support you on your way.

Here are just some suggestions as to small steps that you can yield surprisingly big results.

Small things that can make a big difference to health:

  • Swap your daily can of Diet Coke for water. Put the money saved at the end of the month towards a new outfit or an evening out.
  • Ditch the bathroom scales and visualise yourself in your favourite outfit in eight weeks time. Keep on visualising. ‘Weigh’ yourself more by how you clothes fit and feel.
  • Get outside and into nature more.
  • Aim for 12,000 steps a day – get moving more! If you walk just 5,000 steps a day, don’t worry, just start off by adding another 2,000 steps a day. Then see how you feel!
  • Switch off Facebook and Instagram and call or meet up with a close friend instead.
  • Variety really is key when it comes to promoting good health. Why not try out some vegetables, pulses and spices this week that you may not have tried before? Why stick to the same old repertoire?! Incorporate more variety and colour into what you eat every day. Then invite your friends round to share and enjoy the experience!
  • Slow down. Really chew and savour your food. Your digestion will really thank you for this. Chewing properly yields surprising results and it doesn’t cost a thing.

Give it a go but most importantly… have fun!