Balneotherapy: Healing with Water

For thousands of years humans have been seeking solace in the waters of a hot bath; from the 9th century BCE where the Celts built the first shrine on the site of what became known to the Romans as Bath, England, and the 1st century CE founding of the city of Masada on the shores of the Dead Sea, to the ancient Greeks and Romans where every city had a large public bath facility all the way into the modern era with Franklin Delano Roosevelt bathing in the naturally occurring 88 degree waters at Warm Springs, GA. The historic record is full of examples of humans “taking the waters” to cure what ails.

Stemming from the greek balneae meaning bath, Balneotherapy is the belief that hot waters packed with naturally occurring minerals can impart medicinal benefits.

There are many reasons soaking in warm water works; it delivers relief to stiff muscles and frozen joints by stimulating blood flow, it gives the body a respite from the pull of gravity which can compress joints and cause pain and soreness, it can also decrease swelling and inflammation and increase circulation.

Spring waters, often thought of as pure, actually contain a variety of minerals including magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium and iodine. It is the presence of these minerals, from the depths of the earth that make certain spring waters highly valued for their curative properties. We try to replicate the hot springs in our own homes by adding specialty salts to our baths. This is why the Dead Sea salt has been so popular. It is high in many minerals and it is believed these minerals have healing properties when absorbed by the skin in a hot bath.

According to researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom soaking in salted waters rich in magnesium such as Epsom Salts and Dead Sea Salt can boost levels by as much as 35 percent. Magnesium is important for bone and heart health and data collected by the National Academy of Sciences shows most Americans don’t get enough in their diet.

Proponents of modern Balneotherpy believe it can contribute to healing a host of medical conditions. The science is not quite there and so the jury is still out on the actual curative effects of a hot mineral salt bath. What we do know is that an occasional 20 minute soak in either a naturally occurring hot springs bath or a Dead Sea Salt or Epsom Salt bath with essential oils can go a long way to relaxing sore muscles and calming a busy mind….which is, of course, a kind of healing all it’s own.

A Brief History of the Bath

Although the Romans may not have invented the bath, they raised bathing to a high art. Roman citizens lingered for hours in communal hot baths, where they socialized, conducted courtship, and even sealed business deals. They built lavish baths wherever they found natural hot springs. The remains of Roman baths are still evident throughout Europe, the Mideast, and North Africa.

The Roman reverence for bathing has survived in Turkey, where patrons still visit public baths to be soaped, steamed, and scrubbed clean by attendants. Meanwhile, a highly ritualized bathing culture has evolved in Japan as well. Whole towns exist as destination resorts around Japanese natural hot springs. The harried Japanese make annual visits to these springs, and in between find time for frequent visits to the “Sento” — the local communal hot-tub house. Japanese homes are for the most part poorly heated, and the family bath becomes an important source of warmth in winter.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, bathing fell out of favor in Europe. For the next few centuries the practice was considered suspect and unhealthy, immersion a frightening and distasteful experience. Washing was an unpleasant and infrequent necessity, to be carried out quickly and furtively, with a basin of cold water.

– excerpt is from the Aromatherapy Companion

Water Therapy

Water therapy as practiced today was introduced in Austria in the 19th century by the Reverend Father Sebastian Kneipp. Father Kneipp believed in the healing properties of water and prescribed treatments that included drinking mineral waters, soaking in hot springs, taking cold showers, and walking barefoot in the early-morning dew. Healing spas that subscribed to Father Kneipp’s philosophy sprang up all over Europe, and “taking the waters” became a popular social pastime for the rich and privileged.

Today health spas abound throughout the United States, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Modern spas have evolved beyond mere mineral-water treatments to offer many other complementary therapies as well as physical fitness, relaxation training, and nutritional counseling. Aromatherapy has been universally adopted as a valuable synergistic component of most spa therapies.

You can create your own spa experience with just a few essential oils and a tub of hot water. An aromatherapy bath is the ultimate luxury. Experiment with 3 to 5 drops of several different, complementary oils, adjusting the total amount to suit your individual taste. You can add the oils directly to the bath or, for added luxury, disperse them in a cup of milk first. Essential oils combine well with all other bath additives. Add Epsom salts, sea salts, and algae to mineralize the water and increase buoyancy. Add oatmeal or honey to soothe and nourish the skin. Add bicarbonate of soda to “soften” the water. Add fresh or dried herbs and flower petals for their aesthetic and therapeutic qualities.

– from The Aromatherapy Companion by Victoria Edwards

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