Rebalancing my second brain on The Gut Makeover Retreat at Cugó Gran on Menorca

Caroline Sylger Jones reviews this wellness retreat for the gut on Menorca and happily enjoys abundant meals, a glorious day bed and intelligent advice from nutritionist Jeanette Hyde

I am languishing on a partially shaded stone terrace with long views out to a chalky blue sea after my third meal of the day. We’ve had a Thai coconut soup, an array of mind-blowingly tasty salads, perfectly barbecued prawns and a chia and passionfruit concoction for dessert, all impeccably prepared by a private chef and laid out on a white-clothed table graced with vases of flowers and freshly cut limes.
Who would have thought that many of us were here to lose weight? And yet after just five days of eating like this, I can feel my stomach tauter, my clothes looser. Result! Here is a diet of abundance rather than deprivation.
I’m in Menorca on The Gut Makeover Retreat, a new 3, 5 and 7 day wellbeing break that will run four times a year at the astonishingly lovely serviced villa Cugó Gran. The retreat’s run by BSc-trained British nutritional therapist Jeannette Hyde, a personable, highly knowledgeable former high-profile British journalist who is now on a mission to heal and restore our microbiomes.

Our what? I hear you ask. Our microbiome – the 1.5 kilos of bacteria that we carry around inside our guts. For haven’t you heard? Our gut is our body’s most under-rated organ, our ‘second brain’, the balance of which has been scientifically linked to our weight, our physical health, and our emotional and mental wellbeing from mood and cognition to energy and sleep. Many people are finding that looking after it can help get a handle on health issues that have been bugging them for years, from immunity problems, anxiety and bad skin to IBS. As Jeanette points out: ‘There’s no point getting all British about it – how we pooh is hugely important’.

Cugó Gran is certainly an awfully nice place to get to know all about the less finer things in life. A stylishly decorated, vanilla-stone house on a private 250-acre estate, it’s graced with rolling lawns, traditional dry stone walling, paved walkways lined with scarlet roses and fields of wild flowers reached through Minorcan’s traditional curvy wooden gates. I feel cosseted in my slate-grey and off-white room, which has a cute little tower at its top with far-reaching views and a huge bathroom stacked with Verveine toiletries by L’Occitane (I could have done with a bath, but that’s being picky, my room came with a shower).

Our week here is designed to kick start Jeanette’s four-week eating plan outlined in her book The Gut Makeover and help restore us to our optimum digestive health. To get things moving, so to speak, each day is arranged around three gut-friendly meals with five hour gaps between and a ‘fast’ overnight for 12 hours (very easy – it just means if you finish eating at 8pm, you do not eat again till 8am – a breeze).

‘Cugó Gran is an awfully nice place to get to know all about the less finer things in life’

Jeannette explains it’s the colour and fibre of food that helps rebalance and replenish the microbiome, so our meals here are a total antidote to what Jeannette calls ‘a Western beige diet’. We aim to eat over 30 varieties of different coloured vegetables, fresh herbs and some fruits during the week (but actually double that), together with best-quality protein (such as steak, white fish, eggs from their own hens, nuts and seeds), a mix of prebiotic foods (such as leeks and cold potatoes) and probiotic foods (such as fermented milk kefir and sauerkraut).

We avoid grains (which can agitate the gut lining in some people), dairy (as it can be difficult to digest) and all sugars, no snacks are allowed, and we’re encourage to chew everything well in the name of good digestion. Instead of caffeine and alcohol there’s kombucha, ginger tea and evening mocktails. I have a day-long headache at the start from green tea caffeine withdrawal, but generally I find it super-easy to eat like this, for everything tastes delicious, I never feel hungry, and I’m helped along by a minor addiction to the banana bread, it being the only thing slightly like cake on the menu.

Between meals there are one-to-one nutrition consultations with Jeannette (usually outside in a lovely nook and accompanied by birdsong), and short talks explaining health issues such as “impaired intestinal permeability’ (aka ‘leaky gut’, where the intestinal lining can develop larger gaps than needed, leading to inflammatory issues in the body from enraged skin to depression and autoimmune disorders). I experience divinely carried out massages by British therapist Kim Holland, who gives me a particularly mean face massage with Roselena face oils. For someone who is usually bored in a Pilates class, I’m also surprised to love the Pilates sessions, for Ireland-born teacher Bernadette Phillips is witty, down to earth and often an absolute scream (she also does a neat little face gym with us to ease out our facial wrinkles).

The eight others on the retreat during my week are an engaging, intelligent bunch of mainly working professionals, and there’s plenty of time to lounge on the muslin-clad day bed or around the pool (which I also brave a couple of swims in, despite it being ice-cold in late April). We go walking along different stretches of the Camí de Cavalls, Menorca’s ancient coastal path that encircles the island that’s dotted with traditional white coastal houses and other-worldly caves built into the rock by locals – and indulge in a couple of afternoons of retail therapy in the capital Mahon (I bring back some gorgeous Minorcan rugs, hand-made giant straw baskets and some excellent Mahon gin – a present for my mother, you understand),

By the end of the week, I’m so inspired by how I feel that I decide to continue the eating plan for the full four weeks.  As well as having lost weight, I feel mentally clearer, far less emotional, have got rid of an ongoing chest infection and sleep better on a regular basis than I have in months. So much so, that a few months on and I’m still eating according to the plan, which doesn’t feel like a hassle at all.

You don’t have to go on this retreat to do The Gut Makeover – but it’s an investment that could quite likely lead to a gloriously long-term solution for your health.

This piece was first published in The Times.