Mind over matter wellness
A new white paper reveals the incredible importance of mental health to our overall well-being
By Vivienne O’Keeffe
A few weeks ago, as I was about to begin a talk on mental wellness, a gentleman in the audience came up and asked me if I would be discussing mental illness. His question caught me off guard because I’d recently had the pleasure and honour of working with an esteemed international group to produce and launch a comprehensive white paper entitled Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons. Its release prompted many people to ask me a similar question: what has mental wellness got to do with the spa industry?
To me the answer is everything, and many studies highlighted in our publication support my belief.
Mental wellness – its role in the spa industry
As I told the gentleman, mental health covers a broad spectrum, with illness at one end and true well-being on the other. As the global spa market moves towards its expected growth of 6% by 2020, this article, and the focus of an increasing number of therapies today, deal with the significant shift in today’s industry towards the emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects of the wellness journey – both for spa clients and employees.
The GWI’s white paper came about after a flurry of interest in the many mental wellness issues raised at its Global Wellness Summit in Kitzbuhel, Austria in 2016 – interest which also helped spur the GWI to establish a corollary body called the Mental Wellness Initiative (which co-signs the white paper along with the GWI).
Part 1 of Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons presents scientific evidence for many existing avenues towards mental wellness in society as a whole, drawing on both western and eastern traditions. Part 2 is directed at the wellness industry, and discusses treatments and proposals for the mental wellness of both guests and employees.
At 122 pages and covering a range of topics from neuroplasticity, nutrition, sleep, the environment, exercise, spirituality, ethics and more, Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons is obviously far too long for me to do any justice to in this article. But in our two years of research and discussion, working individually and at its launch in Italy, I think we amassed an impressive quantity of studies and insights related to mental wellness.
I would encourage you to get a copy of Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons. It’s free at https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/initiatives/mental-wellness-initiative/
My personal contribution is mostly in Part 2, which deals with the spa and wellness industry. Some highlights from that section include:
Reduced anxiety and depression in post-cancer women
Side effects of breast cancer treatment often include depression, weight gain and fatigue. A French study of a two-week multi-modality spa program for post-cancerous women found effective reductions in these afflictions.
Measurable results for wellness tourism
The paper cites the work of researcher Marc Cohen, who examined the results of a one-week retreat experience that included educational, therapeutic, and leisure activities as well as organic, plant-rich diets. Besides finding statistically significant improvements in abdominal girth (2.7 cm), weight (1.6 kg), and blood pressure, the study recorded measurable improvements in psychological factors.
Why hot springs work
We all know a good soak in hot water feels great, and now we know why. Researchers in Japan measured levels of heat shock proteins (HSPs) experienced by regular onsen (hot springs) users. HSPs belong to a family of proteins produced in response to stressful conditions, and are known to repair proteins designed to protect the body from stress damage. One, HSP70, has a particularly important immune-enhancing function. The study found that onsen bathing for 10-20 minutes at 40-42º C and keeping warm for 15 minutes afterwards resulted in a significant increase in HSP70. Not surprisingly, the bathers reported reductions in tiredness, muscular pain and unsettling emotional confusion, and general improvements both mental and physical.
Saunas found to help prevent dementia
Along with improvements to physical health and mortality, researchers in Finland found that moderate to high frequency of sauna bathing in men aged 42-60 reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
World leaders have begun recognizing the promotion of mental health and well-being – and the prevention and treatment of substance abuse – as priorities within the global development agenda. Declares the World Health Organisation’s website, for example: “WHO’s work to improve the mental health of individuals and society at large includes the promotion of mental well-being, the prevention of mental disorders, the protection of human rights and the care of people affected by mental disorders.”
We in the industry obviously have a vested interest in maintaining employee well-being, but have tended to over-concentrate on physical rather than mental fitness. Students at massage schools, for instance, are often told their careers will be short because of the immense wear and tear on their bodies, but there’s little discussion of their mental health and its impact on their and their clients’ well-being – probably because the stigma of the past still clouds our perceptions. And yet as easily demonstrated from studies, stress and tension actually change the body’s microbiomes (the collection of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes and viruses that makeup specific areas, such as the gut), reducing their immune defences.
“As evidence grows for the physical and mental health benefits of spa and wellness programs,” we say in our summary, “the white paper calls for renewed attention by the spa and corporate health and wellness industry to appropriate standards for practice and policy pertaining to mental wellness of both the client and the employees of wellness centres and spas.… Workplace well-being requires an integrated holistic approach covering physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs (both in preventive and interventive ways). When employees feel supported by their employers, they can better support guests to embrace similar wellness practices.”
Care for your microbiome?
Probably the most exciting finding for me, discussed in Part 1 of our publication, is our dawning awareness of the importance of the body’s microbiome. In terms of our overall well-being, this newfound understanding will be a massive game-changer.
Excerpting and summarizing from an original collection of articles published in Nature, our white paper says: “It is becoming increasingly evident that bidirectional signalling exists between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain, often involving the gut microbiota. This relationship… involves various afferent and efferent pathways such as the vagus nerve and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal pathway to regulate aspects of homeostasis such as satiety and hunger, and inflammation. Disruption of the gut-brain axis has been shown to be involved in the pathogenesis of a diverse range of diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome… The microbiome-gut-brain axis is emerging as a key pathway for modulating behaviour.”
In other words, scientists now understand that gut bacteria have a direct and powerful physical effect on the brain. So-called dysregulation of the gut microbiota (microbiome) composition has been identified in a number of psychiatric disorders, including depression. On the brighter side, so-called psychobiotic bacteria – ones that have a beneficial effect upon behaviour and mood – are being investigated for potential therapeutic interventions.
So, while it turns out that living a clean, simple, peaceful life (everything we in the spa industry have been advocating all along) is a great start towards health, happiness and longevity, it is only a start. The more science advances, the more wellness therapies will be validated, and created, to address the critical mind-body connection. What could be more exciting?
Published as “Mind over Matter” in Spa Canada January/February 2019
Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA, European-trained therapist and spa development consultant, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc. Active professionally in the spa industry from 1986, she specializes in turning wellness concepts into new spa developments and excels at creating authentic guest experiences within a sustainable, successful framework of quality operations. Vivienne also develops product lines, treatment plans and training programs. She is a member of ISPA, International Management Consultants Inc. and Spa Industry Association of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Achievement Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012).