For decades, Pierre Pallardy has massaged the stomachs of France's rich and famous, claiming to cure all the body's ills. As his methods come to Britain, Jerome Burne meets him

"Is not good," declares France's "well-being king", staring critically at my middle-aged stomach balancing uncertainly on the waistband of my boxer shorts. "This is OK," he pronounces, waving a hand around the area of my chest and shoulders in what feels like a sop to my vanity, "but here," he says, returning his clear gaze to my midriff, "is not good."

He might well be referring to my lack of muscle tone and an abdominal region that tends more to wine box than a six-pack, but what Pierre Pallardy - healer to the stars in France but as yet unknown in the UK - is seeing is a deeper malady. And I'm not the only one with a wonky abdomen. In fact, Pallardy has built his entire career on them. Treatment requires a combination of techniques, the most striking of which is a highly individualised form of massage, or a method that might be described as gut osteopathy.

It's rather fearsome, involving a vigorous squeezing, kneading and pinching of the abdomen. But an older generation of celebrities, including Picasso and Mick Jagger, long ago discovered the benefits of the regime. The massage, which you can learn to do yourself - "When it hurts you know you are working on the right spot" - is combined with some basic rules of healthy living, set out in his half dozen or so best-selling books, one of which has just been published in the UK. It is a combination, he claims, that can rapidly cure all sorts of maladies not normally associated with the guts, ranging from general lethargy and insomnia to stomach upsets and aching joints.

The central idea makes sense. According to Pallardy, modern medicine has forgotten the guts, except as an area to dose up with antacids or powerful anti-inflammatories - or, when all else fails, to cut out. "This is crazy," he says. "It is in the guts we gather our nutrients. It is here that we make most of our immune chemicals. It is so complex it has been called the second brain. If your guts are not well, you are not well."

This is why, he says, he is able to treat so many problems just by concentrating on the abdomen. He offers a simple and fairly familiar health regime that anyone can try at home. Avoid the usual dietary suspects, take your time over your meals and chew food slowly: "Saliva is the best medicine in the world."

Personally, I felt pretty healthy, but I wasn't entirely relaxed as I stood in front of Pallardy. He is a stocky figure in his 70s, but looks a decade younger, with a visage that's more boxer than healer; he's a dead ringer for Gene Hackman. I had been waiting outside the treatment room in the chic French resort of the Isle de Ré, off the west coast, when the previous client emerged. She looked close to tears. "That's one of the most painful things I've had done to me," she croaked, as the rest of us waiting pressed her for details.

My own session wasn't such an ordeal. There were tips on breathing exercises, an observation that my metabolism was fast, so I might be short of certain vitamins and minerals, and there was a warning to eat more slowly. The feared massage was firm but not uncomfortable, with only a couple of twinges. I didn't get away entirely scot-free, however; unless I sorted out certain still rather mysterious imbalances in my stomach, I could look forward to a chronic disorder 10 or 15 years down the line. What had he seen that I wasn't even aware of?

I'd certainly fared better in my introductory session than two French school inspectors, a husband and wife, who had arrived a week earlier. "Pierre was very strong with us when we started," declared the wife as they were about to leave. "'You have read my books,' he said, 'but here you are having coffee and orange juice. Why?' When he did the massage, he was not gentle." Now, however, they couldn't be more full of praise. "The food was wonderful," says the husband. "We both have so much more energy. When I came I had a pot belly, now it is gone." His wife was equally enthusiastic: "My neck and back have been painful ever since a car accident some years ago. Now they are so much better. Also, I am sleeping well for the first time for years."

There is no shortage of people with similar stories. But it's not just advice on healthy abdominal practices that has led to regular appearances in the pages of Paris Match. His own brand of unshakeable conviction plus an ability to deliver brutal truths with cheerful affection have played a big part. He discovered that he had "healing hands" in his 20s, when he would often massage friends and acquaintances - one was Picasso, who later tried to hire him as his personal masseuse. Another fan was the mafia boss who offered Pallardy £1m to work exclusively for him. He refused both. In the 1970s he treated the billionaire obsessive-compulsive recluse Howard Hughes. "I had to step into disinfectant before I could go into his room. I was able to stabilise him but then the Mormons who were looking after him kicked me out." At one time, he says, he nearly married Audrey Hepburn.

All those years of patients hanging on his every word have allowed him to hone his advice until it has an oracular quality: "People need meat; a vegetarian must have meat once a month. It would take 30 to 40 acupuncture treatments to achieve what I can do in one session. Beer is the most dangerous liquid for the stomach. It ferments very fast, so drink it very slowly."

But what makes him more than a natural healer blessed with an unshakeable self-confidence is that the various elements of his system all chime with a system of natural checks and balances in your body that is usually ignored when you go to your GP for chronic conditions. It centres on acid-alkaline balance - something all medical students learn about and then promptly forget because it doesn't conform to the drug-based nature of most western medicine.

According to Pallardy, our bodies function best if they are slightly alkaline, but modern life - not least a junk food diet - tends to shift us in the acidic direction, and it is this that is the basis of many those chronic conditions such as tiredness, poor sleep, backache and allergies. It's this imbalance, Pallardy says, that he could see when he peered at my stomach. One of the effects is to make parts of the gut tender, which is why his massage has such a fearsome reputation.

"Just as the tensed muscle is painful when you massage it, so is the gut painful when it is too acidic," he explains. Much of his dietary advice, at least for those starting, is aimed at cutting out acidic foods such as coffee and orange juice. "Once you have the balance right, you can eat whatever you like." He's had a public debate in the pages of Paris Match over the harm he says is caused by coffee. Many readers objected, but he is unrepentant.

"Too much acid doesn't just affect the guts; it is the whole system - the muscles, for instance, begin to get stiff," he says. "I have treated many athletes and ballet dancers. When you take coffee and the other things that make the system too acidic out of their diet, you see their muscles loosen up."

But it's not just food that can shift your system in the acid direction; breathing too fast and too shallowly, as we do when we are anxious or distressed, can have the same effect. This is because carbon dioxide is also alkaline and losing too much of it over a long time allows acid levels to creep up - hence Pallardy's emphasis on a simple breathing exercises.

A French paper dubbed him the "pope of health". Would he call himself a guru? "Absolutely not. A guru wants to mould you, to make you do things his way. I am a therapist - a guide. With my method you become more powerful, more knowledgeable. No therapist knows what you need better than you do."

But soon he issues another pronouncement: "It is best to treat a husband and wife together. If only one is treated, that one will be 10 to 15 years younger and that will cause conflict."

How to have a happy abdomen

Pierre Pallardy's five steps to health:

* Practise abdominal breathing

Breathe deep into your abdomen rather than from your chest to give the right balance between the "brain" in your gut and the one in your head. Eat regularly and slowly to allow saliva to do its work.

* Choose your foods carefully

Most fresh foods are good.

* Practise abdominal meditation

The abdomen is an organ intimately linked with the upper brain; start thinking with and about your abdomen.

* Take plenty of exercise

All exercise is good, and Pallardy recommends specific ones good for gut, heart and brain. Do exercises that encourage a connection between the brain in your head and the one in your gut; for this you need strong stomach muslces and a supple back.

* Massage your abdomen

Do this every day, pinching and kneading it.

'Gut Instinct: What Your Stomach is Trying to Tell You', by Pierre Pallardy (Rodale, £12.99 paperback)