A HIGHLAND GP behind a new "menopause retreat" near Loch Ness said current approaches to medicine are failing patients with chronic illness and unexplained symptoms.

Dr Katharine Jones, from Drumnadrochit, said the NHS is beset by "enormous frustration" from patients and doctors unable to deal effectively with conditions rooted in lifestyle, psychological trauma and complex social factors.

She has now founded Wild-Ness Retreats, an initiative which aims to give doctors a grounding in lifestyle medicine after finding that the techniques - which are geared to "empowering" patients - transformed her own outlook.

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She said: "The consultations which before I would have found the most draining - where I would have looked at someone with medically unexplained pain and felt panic that I didn't know what to do to help - now I have a strategy and a structure to hand over the reins of control to them, and patients have grabbed it in a way that I just did not anticipate."

Dr Jones, a former associate medical director for NHS Highland, returned to general practice as a locum four years ago and qualified as a lifestyle medicine practitioner last year.

HeraldScotland: Dr Katharine Jones began studying lifestyle medicine following her own experience with brain fog during the menopauseDr Katharine Jones began studying lifestyle medicine following her own experience with brain fog during the menopause (Image: Peter Jolly)

She has been using the approach on an "ad hoc" basis with patients the Alness GP practice where she is based.

The technique is based on evaluating "six pillars" - physical activity, nutrition, sleep, relationships, connectedness, and use of addictive substances - and encouraging patients to set specific and achievable goals, described by Dr Jones as "small changes for a big health gain".

Practitioners use "motivational interviewing" to coach patients to make a change. In some cases, Dr Jones also uses a therapeutic approach known as the 'River of Life' which enables patients to see how traumatic events in their life have intersected with medical symptoms.

The key is to help build patients confidence and work with them, non-judgmentally.

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"The idea is that you're trying to get people to increase their sense of agency in their own life - to shift the responsibility and control from the health service to the person," said Dr Jones.

"When the NHS was set up in the 1940s, it was mainly infections and injuries. People came to the NHS to be 'fixed'.

"But that fixing role doesn't work when the vast majority of conditions are caused by lifestyle factors or adverse social circumstances or psychological trauma.

"The patient comes in with the same expectation of getting fixed, and the doctor wants to fix them because that's how we've been trained, but it doesn't work, so then what happens is you get enormous frustration in the system."


The first three-day retreat for clinicians and charities - bringing together various experts - will be held a Bearnock Lodge, near Loch Ness, from March 29-31. One-day sessions, costing from £99, are also available.

Separately, a three-day "educational" menopause retreat for patients will run at the venue from March 24, costing £499 to £599 per person.

"There's no blood tests, there's no prescriptions, or diagnoses," said Dr Jones.

"It's an educational retreat built around the principles of lifestyle medicine."

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One of the key interventions will be giving attendees the opportunity to go open water swimming followed by sessions in a mobile sauna, created from a converted horsebox.

It follows research showing that cycles of heat therapy and cold exposure can trigger surges in dopamine - a feelgood hormone - and help to rewire the brain.

"It's about getting this optimal release of neuro-transmissions," said Dr Jones, whose own experience with the menopause left her suffering brain fog and struggling to learn new things until she took part in study trialling new techniques in neuroplasticity - stimulating the brain to reconfigure after a traumatic injury.

"I had three sessions over a period of a few months and it made a massive difference," said Dr Jones.


HeraldScotland: A horsebox sauna (above) and open water swimming (top)A horsebox sauna (above) and open water swimming (top) (Image: @north.westphotography)

Research using PET scans shows that perimenopausal women experience significant changes in the chemistry of the brain.

Dr Jones said: "The connectivity reduces, the metabolism reduces. The menopause has been a huge vacuum of research and knowledge for years.

"A lot of people, including myself as a GP, don't realise. When I was getting these problems with my brain, I thought there was something really wrong with me like early senile dementia.

"Then I realised I had probably missed it in lots of patients.

"I didn't understand that the menopause is a neuroendocrine transition - not just an endocrine transition - so the brain is impacted as much as the ovaries.

"And cold water swimming has this impact on wellbeing in terms of the neurotransmitters so I think it's really interesting, when you look at who's taking up cold water swimming, it's hordes of perimenopausal women.

"I don't think that's a coincidence."