Davinia Taylor: 'our health is in our hands'

Davinia Taylor (Dave Benett)
Davinia Taylor (Dave Benett)

Davinia Taylor — former Hollyoaks actress and Primrose Hill party girl turned bestselling author and supplement founder — is sitting in a wellness clinic in Chelsea, talking me through the lifestyle changes that helped to turn her from hedonist alcoholic to clean-living wellness guru: going teetotal, dawn ice baths and runs in Hyde Park and — the reason we’re here today — daily biohacking, a practice that involves making small changes to your lifestyle to ‘boost’ your biology for improved health.

“It’s like a line of cocaine,” Taylor, now 45 and a mother-of-four, tells me of the high she now chases: the health kick, after years spent battling alcoholism and overeating. The soap opera star was a regular in the tabloids back in the noughties, known for getting hammered with Kate Moss and Sadie Frost and famously buying Noel Gallagher‘s Supernova Heights house in 2005.

But like Moss and Frost and many of that notorious set, Taylor has cleaned up, hard. She is still an addict — always will be — but she’s switched her targets. Today, her million or so Instagram followers are treated to daily updates on her workouts, wellness practice (she’s tried everything from psychedelics to South American healing rituals, using frog sebum and facing "horrific" burns) as well as biohacking tips (some questionable, like not wearing sunglasses to get daylight into your eyeballs early in the morning and reset your body clock).

Her grid is also packed with updates on her own-brand supplement line, WillPowders, and her newish book, Hack Your Hormones, which offers advice on how to harness the endocrines that influence sleep, mood, eating habits and stress levels. This follows her hit 2021 book It’s Not A Diet, which sold 60,000 copies.

If it all sounds very Gwyneth Paltrow, Taylor is insistent that she is no Gwynnie (“I’m the antithesis of Gwyneth!... I’m a failed actor, for a start. And I definitely didn’t consciously uncouple from my ex,” she once said). Moreover, WillPowders is a far cry from the now $250m Goop empire — there’ll be no vagina-scented candles or wellness cruises, for a start: just supplements that Taylor claims boost “brain energy” and lead to fewer carb cravings. Her advice is science-led, but much of it is radical too.

Taylor poured hours into her new book. She dived deep into medical journals and interviewed the likes of genetic epidemiology expert, Professor Tim Spector. She is keen to divulge everything she's learned and rattles off medical -isms at the speed of light. I can hardly keep up: wellness really is like coke. But I feel fortunate to catch her: Taylor's visits to London are rare these days as she lives up in Lancashire with her family. She will, however, always makes time for her heroes when they pass through her old stomping ground.

Ben Greenfield and Davinia Taylor attend wellness event 'Crack The Code Of Immortality With HUM2N: A Master Class In Longevity' at HUM2N Chelsea (Dave Benett)
Ben Greenfield and Davinia Taylor attend wellness event 'Crack The Code Of Immortality With HUM2N: A Master Class In Longevity' at HUM2N Chelsea (Dave Benett)

One of them is Ben Greenfield, who stars alongside her in this week's episode of Brave New World. Sharing a panel with him at a quaint, dimly lit conference in the uber-advanced HUM2N clinic near Sloane Square, Taylor is in her element sharing tips on how to live longer while an enraptured audience of doctors and Ladies Who Lunch look on. Also in his element is Greenfield, a deeply religious man who sees biohacking as a saintly, almost messianic duty ("For your soul to be able to bless other people," he tells this paper's proprietor Evgeny Lebedev on the podcast, "you gotta make yourself strong, hard-to-kill, resilient, and with a well-functioning body and mind"). “My vision for health is for every homeless man to one day have a suppository up their butt and stem cell injections for their dick,” he tells Taylor.

That's all well and good, but how do we make those technologies accessible? Cryotherapy chambers, hyperbaric tanks, infrared light machines and IV drips aren't exactly known for being inexpensive. Taylor and Greenfield believe that the way we provide universal healthcare in the UK is outdated, and that we need to reform and modernise what we offer patients, and how. Innovations in the private sector are showing huge promise: our only hope to democratise these, Taylor says, is to embrace them.

There are certain types of medicine to which we turn up our noses, she claims: but that's largely because we do not understand them. We refuse to investigate how they might work, even if we know they do. Like acupuncture, which alleviated her trials during each of her four pregnancies. "The NHS doctors couldn't prescribe me that," Taylor says, "because it's ancient Chinese medicine. The best they could do was 'strongly encourage' me to do it," she adds, miming quotation marks with her fingers.

Taylor claims scepticism around ancestral therapies goes hand in hand with an aversion to newer, cutting-edge techniques. She believes we need to embrace innovation and pivot our view of health to one that places the onus on the individual, more than on the NHS. Her panellists agree – and so do many others. Some will inevitably cry foul but Health Secretaries throughout the years have called on Britons to take more responsibility for their health; even before Covid. As people continue to face 6-month waiting lists along with mental health and obesity crises, it is clear the NHS cannot cope and is no longer a valeur sûre. We need to take more personal pride in our health – and invest in it more – to alleviate the burden on a service that is then better equipped to fulfil its purpose.

 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

Speaking on Brave New World, Taylor says: "There's so much doom and gloom around [health], [people saying] 'this is out of your control, that is out of your control' – it's bloody NOT out of your control. There are so many little hacks you can do just to make yourself feel mentally better." We can "hack into our mental health" so that we "wake up every morning going: 'Yeah. Good.'"

“We’re seeing one of the worst health crises we’ve ever experienced,” Dr Enayat, a clinician at HUM2N, tells me. People need to start taking responsibility for their health, he believes, rather than rely on overstretched doctors who prescribe blanket remedies. “We need innovation. And that costs money.”

Enayat sees the private sector as holding the keys to the future of public health. The good news is his clinic has partnered with King’s College London to develop tests for its biohacking technology, which Enayat says is entirely scalable. “The idea is to use technology to democratise what’s happening here,” he explains. The timeline? “About five years.”

Enayat says he wants his clinic to integrate new therapies into healthcare and — more widely — revise how the UK apprehends medicine and takes charge of its wellbeing. “Patients need a personal health program,” he says. “It’s not one size fits all.”

 (Davinia Taylor)
(Davinia Taylor)

So far, not too leftfield. Most of us would probably agree that our bodies and immune responses are all different. So what are Enayat’s more controversial ideas? First, he tells me that mental and physical health services should no longer be separated. “The gut’s responsible for more than 90% of your serotonin production,” says Enayat. In other words: a patient suffering from anxiety and depression should consider their diet as one of the key factors in their condition.

Anxiety and depression are often intertwined with addiction, which is a particular interest of Taylor’s. She never knew where her addictive personality came from, she says, until her second child was diagnosed with ADHD. “The school sent me this list of symptoms,” she says, “and as I was ticking them off, I realised: this is me.”

Taylor has tried all kinds of wellness tips and tricks over the years since realising she had an addictive personality. She’s not keen on veganism, feeding her kids Lancashire lamb once a week, and is candid about some of the more woo-woo practices that haven’t worked for her, pointing to the scars on her arm that were left by Kambo, a healing ritual used mainly in South America and named after the poisonous secretions of a giant monkey frog. “I ended up at a shaman’s house in Tottenham,” she says. “All it did was make me throw up all night. I did have glowing skin the morning after, though.”

Kambo only works, Taylor says, on people who have trauma to expunge from their body: “It felt like an exorcism.” But she has no trauma herself, “nothing repressed.” (A statement that leaves me wondering: is she trying to give Gabor Maté an aneurism?)

Davinia Taylor (Davinia Taylor)
Davinia Taylor (Davinia Taylor)

Psychedelic therapy was just as ineffective. Her body, she claims, is naturally low on GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid, the neurotransmitter that regulates sleep and anxiety). As for magic mushrooms, “all they did was make me more anxious,” she says.

Today, Taylor’s secret weapon is cold exposure, a popular therapy that’s become mainstream in recent years thanks to the likes of Wim Hof, Justin Bieber and Taylor’s hero Greenfield. “I teach my kids that if you’re in a bad mood, you can always start your day afresh,” she says, adding that cold exposure doesn’t have to be expensive.

“The water’s freezing in this country two thirds of the time,” she laughs. “And on the few months a year when it’s not, just go to the supermarket, buy some ice bags and empty them into the bath.” If you don’t have a bath at home, you can get a plastic tub for under £50.

Enayat jumps in and says it’s intriguing, how a conversation about health always ends up being a conversation about money. It was certainly a tony vibe at HUM2N, with tickets selling for upwards of £500 and the crowd a mix of well-spoken blondes in prairie dresses alongside Mind Valley CEO Vishen Lakiani, Made in Chelsea’s Alex Mytton and Dirtea founders Andrew and Simon Salter.

Taylor, a slim, honed, tanned mother-of-four and former party girl, fits right in. She runs downstairs to change out of her sports kit into a black silk skirt and high heels. You can take the girl out of Primrose Hill, but you can’t take Primrose Hill out of the girl.

Before leaving, I wriggle through the crowd and ask her one last question: what she’d tell her critics, or those who suggest cold therapy might cause hyperthermia (it can) and that exposing the eyes to UV radiation can cause cataract (also true).

Those risks, she says, are not those we should be worried about. “It’s more dangerous not to have ice baths than to have them.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good answer.

To hear Davinia Taylor and Ben Greenfield speaking to Evgeny Lebedev on the Standard’s Brave New World podcast visit here.