REMEMBER the days when all you’d want from a spa treatment was an hour in a fluffy white robe? Perhaps some whale music in the background and a hot stone or two thrown in for good measure? Relaxation was the name of the game – it was all about getting away from the stresses of daily life and getting some ‘me’ time.
Screw that. Who has time for ‘me’ any more? These days it’s all about maximum effect with minimum hours invested. Results, people, that’s what we want. Enter the era of the smart spa.
Want a treatment that will improve your chances of conceiving? One that acts like a virtual gastric band? Radial shockwave therapy or bone density physiotherapy? Craniosacral osteopathy? Modern spas no longer simply employ masseurs and facialists; many now have a range of osteopaths, naturopaths, herbalists, nutritionists, acupuncturists and physiotherapists on hand. Oh, and they’re not really spas now either. They’re ‘wellness’ centres.
This may still be a relatively new concept in Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the UK, but Europe has had a longer relationship with wellness. It was in Germany in the 19th century that the Nature Cure movement – which gave birth to naturopathy – was born, and it has grown into a multi-million euro luxury industry. Consider the sumptuous La Reserve hotel in Geneva, which lists ‘Better Ageing’ among its treatments, a programme that includes a medical check-up with a doctor and osteopath. At Fonteverde in Tuscany, meanwhile, visitors can partake of inhalation therapies and ‘biobalancing’. And carbonic baths are all the rage at the Parkhotel Richmond in Czechoslovakia.
“We lost our hydros where people used to go and take the water,” says Louise Westra, a naturopath who heads up the team at the Espa Life spa at Gleneagles, Perthshire. “but they’ve retained that to a degree in Europe.”
While Gleneagles leads the way in its smart approach to spas in the UK, others are on message too. Macdonald Hotels has introduced free health and wellbeing checks for members and guests. Champneys spa in Hertfordshire has a brand new tailored programme to improve chances of IVF success. The Lifehouse Spa and Hotel in Essex – as well as individual therapists in Scotland – provide virtual gastric band hypnotherapy. And Chewton Glen in the New Forest provides a three-day residential cleanse and detox programme in collaboration with Chelsea’s Balance Clinic.
“More and more people – perhaps it’s to do with the fact that they’re so time poor – don’t want to just feel relaxed during and after the treatment, they want there to be some lasting effect outwith their time in the spa. I also think smart spas are reflecting the more savvy customer. There is more desire for education: people want to know why their skin is breaking out or fatigue has set in, but often are not getting the answers they need within our mainstream healthcare system.”
Stress, she says, is the number one culprit. “And though stress in itself is not a negative thing, it’s when it gets to a point where there aren’t enough hours in the day or resources for a person to do everything that’s required of them, then they have the added strain of trying to maintain relationships ... everyone is trying to fit as much into their lives as possible.”
She quotes the US author and ‘medical psychic’ Caroline Myss who says we are all living the equivalent of two or three lifetimes in one. “Especially women,” she adds. “There comes a point when something has to give, and usually it’s something physiologically, mentally or emotionally within that person.”
This stress can manifest itself in various ways, from problems with fertility to IBS to insomnia to a difficult menopause. “Menopause per se shouldn’t exist,” she says. “If the body is functioning optimally and the adrenals are functioning optimally – they underpin the sex hormones and are also responsible for our stress response – we really should transition from our fertile years into our post-childbearing years without all these terrible hot sweats and memory lapses. Those symptoms are indicative of a person having had too much to deal with for a very long time.”
She has seen people who have chronic insomnia but, after one test (which includes a saliva sample to measure cortisol levels) and a tailored nutritional programme, a couple of weeks later they are sleeping normally for the first time in decades.
“This is the difference with the philosophy I come from and a doctor,” she explains. “The medical profession will get their tests back and say, ‘See, there’s nothing wrong.’ That’s missing a whole grey area of functional disturbance. And that’s where so many people are in terms of their health – they’re in the grey area between being at the optimal end of the spectrum and having a medical condition or disease.”
But let’s not kid ourselves. There is no magic cure to these increasingly stressed lives we’re all leading. “A lot of it is teaching people they need to be custodians of their own health,” says Westra. “If you have a job that is incredibly demanding and you also have a family you need additional reserves of energy for, you are going to have to build in some kind of structure to support yourself to survive those two or three lifetimes in one.”
She’s quick to point out that she works in conjunction with conventional medical professionals and insists spas could never take the place of a GP, but when they can’t provide an answer, the spa could be your next port of call.
“The kind of fatigue and lethargy doctors don’t have an answer for,” she says. “They’ve looked at your iron count, they’ve looked to see if you’ve had glandular fever... that’s our bread and butter. We are partnered with one of the world’s leading labs to potentially offer people answers to symptoms that may not be significant in medical terms or that are not responding to medical interventions – IBS, menstrual difficulties, insomnia, fertility issues.
“A person doesn’t have to feel they are actually physically or mentally or emotionally stressed to be physiologically stressed at cellular level.”
And the great news is, at the best smart spas, you can get wellness – and you still get the white fluffy robe.