I'm a Health Editor who sceptically said yes to my first retreat - and these 5 health tips I learnt from a nutritionist were truly game-changing

They're obvious, but absolutely worth giving a go.

Senior Health Editor Ally Head on a mountain hike learning some health tips
(Image credit: Ally Head)

Despite being the Senior Health Editor here at Marie Claire UK, I have a confession for you. Before last month, I'd never been on a wellness retreat. If you'd asked me why, I'd have shrugged it off and claimed to be too busy. But truth be told, despite my many years in the fitness industry, I found the idea of them a little intimidating. Three to five entire days of breathwork, hardcore workouts, self-reflection and ice baths might sound like heaven to some, but for me, always came across more like enforced fun. That said, I shouldn't have been so narrow-minded - as the five health tips I learnt from a nutritionist while attending my first one last month have been in a word, game-changing.

Heading to the Pyrenees in Spain with supplement brand ARTAH, I gave in to three days of mountain hiking, meditation, journaling, breathwork and more and, ever the cliche, learnt a lot about myself in the process. But the biggest learnings came from my one-to-one consultation with nutritionist, naturopath and founder of ARTAH Rhian Stephenson, a well-respected industry pro and expert in her own right.

During our consultation, we covered everything - from how much I exercise, to what I eat day to day, to how often I drink alcohol and caffeine. Not as scary as it sounds, I promise, but rather a refreshing way to discuss my dietary and lifestyle choices with someone in the know.

The five major learnings from our one-to-one are below. And I can attest - these tips have actually been useful back in the real world, confirming them as lifestyle tweaks that hold strong outside of the blissful bubble of the retreat. Keen to see what I took away? Keep scrolling - and don't miss our guides to the best self care ideas, wellness tips, and productivity hacks, while you're here.

5 health tips I learnt on my first retreat that have been game-changing now I'm home

1. Fresh air is a form of medicine

This one's super obvious, but as someone who lives in central London, I all too often forget the importance of both nature and fresh air on my health. While I try to get out for a run at least four times a week, I'll be the first to admit that some days, when I've been really busy at work, I don't see daylight until my 6 pm walk, which is particularly problematic in the winter when there is no sunlight at that time.

As Stephenson puts it, "Living in a major city like London means that we've become disconnected from nature, which can have a real impact on our wellbeing." She adds that numerous studies have shown that nature has a profound effect on mental health, promoting a greater sense of calm, restoration, and relaxation. Reflecting during the trip, I realised that when I'm relaxed, I can achieve my day-to-day tasks and to-do's a lot more efficiently, not to mention enjoy life more along the way - a surefire win, win, in my opinion.

"Not just that, but nature-related activities can even impact our microbiome and support immunity," the expert goes on. Bottom line: making an effort to proactively engage with nature, whether it be first thing in the morning, during your lunch break, or after work, can impact both your physical and mental health and is well worth doing.

2. Slowing down is essential for your overall health

Louder for the ones at the back. Because again, I'll admit that deep down I probably didn't want to go on a retreat in the first place because I didn't want to slow down.

It's interesting to reflect on exactly why this is. As a Health Editor, I preach about just how important rest and recuperation are for both injury prevention and our overall wellbeing day in, day out. But often, when you're back to back at work, it's easy to forget this. 

"We've come a long way in our understanding of how important nutrition and exercise are to our overall health, but while there's an acknowledgement that stress is bad for us, it's often the last aspect of our routine that we address," shares Stephenson.

So why is slowing down and addressing our stress levels so important? "Slowing down isn't just about getting headspace, it's essential for our physiology," the expert explains. "If you spend a disproportionate amount of time in our "fight or flight" response, stress response creates a hormonal cascade including changes in blood pressure, blood sugar, energy production, cognitive function and blood flow." Of course, if you're exposed to the fight or flight state for a prolonged period of time, it can impact everything from immunity, to your gut microbiome, to your hormone balance and blood sugar levels, she goes on. "Taking time to truly rest is essential," she concludes. 

3. Your period is a vital sign and can tell you a lot about your wellbeing

So many women are still taught that their periods are simply a reproductive event, but the connection between your menstrual health and overall health is integral, stresses the nutritionist. "I consider it to be our sixth vital sign," she shares. And she's not alone - the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a report in 2006 and then again in 2015 recognising the menstrual cycle as a vital sign.

As a woman with PCOS who's been getting to grips with her cycle for the last year and a bit now, it was really reassuring to get to chat with an expert so in the know about how nutrition and lifestyle can impact our cycles. "Regardless of whether or not you want to have children, the state of your menstrual cycle affects everything from your day-to-day energy and wellbeing, to chronic disease risk and metabolic health," Stephenson explains. 

Again, key takeaway: it's really important to be in tune with and supportive of menstrual health. "I always recommend a fertility-focused multi-supplement that focuses on hormonal, metabolic and ovulatory health, even if you're unsure of whether or not children are in your future," the nutritionist and naturopath concludes.

4. Plants are the simplest way to boost your gut health

I like to think I eat a lot of plants, opting for savoury breakfasts and crudité snacks. That said, I haven't experimented or rotated the plants I consume in quite some time, something which the ARTAH retreat reminded me is absolutely key for overall wellbeing and gut health. 

"A plant-forward diet is not only transformational to our health, but it's delicious," shares Stephenson. One thing I was most surprised by, despite eating largely vegetables on our three day retreat, was how satiated and full I felt, with no urge to snack and no craving for anything super sweet. "This is because most adults in the UK don't get enough fibre - only about 18g out of a recommended intake of 30g," the nutritionist highlights. 

Try this: "Increasing plant intake is vital for gut health, immunity, satiety and metabolic health. But it's not just about that - plants are packed full of phytonutrients, aka the nutrients found in plants like polyphenols, which are beneficial to every aspect of health," she explains. Why? Well, because eating a diet rich in phytonutrients will support skin, mood, energy, libido, fertility, circulation, metabolism, physical performance, recovery and more. I'm sold. 

5. Longevity should be the end goal

This was my main takeaway from the retreat, if I'm being honest. Stephenson and I spoke candidly about how we've been conditioned to think about our health in terms of seasonal, short-term goals - "think a post-holiday detox, summer body, or back-to-school cleanse," she highlights. But we're both in agreement about one thing - there are a few things wrong with this picture. 

"Firstly, it tends to perpetuate the sole focus on body composition, which can be both emotionally and physically damaging," the expert highlights. "Secondly, it ignores the fact that our health and wellbeing are the most important investment we can make, and to truly benefit, we need to be consistent." 

Instead of focusing on short-term goals, the retreat helped me to look at the bigger picture of my long term health and wellbeing. Stephenson's a fan of supplementing NAD+ for exactly this reason. "It's central to many of the cellular processes associated with age-related decline," she stresses. Did you know? "By the time we’re 40, NAD+ levels have dropped by 50% and continue to halve every 20 years. In addition to normal loss of NAD+ with age, lifestyle factors like diet, stress, sleep, lack of exercise, and environmental toxins can also contribute to its decline. As this happens, we can experience a reduction in physical and mental energy, slower recovery, metabolic dysfunction, and accelerated ageing," she goes on.

By improving NAD+ levels with a targeted supplement, like Enhanced NAD+ Complex, we can improve energy production, restore our capacity for cellular repair, reduce inflammation and help support a healthy metabolism. "In practice, this translates to more energy, better sleep, less pain, improved metabolic control and more," she shares. I'm a sceptical Editor, and while I haven't tried it for long enough to confirm the above is true, I am giving supplementing NAD a go and will report back. Watch this space.

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Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.