Every Christmas, my friend and I drive up to Whistler to spend a day at the Scandinavian Spa. More than just relaxation, a day of hot tubs, eucalyptus steam rooms, saunas and arctic pools help to invigorate the body by detoxifying the body, promoting blood circulation and the relaxation of muscles.
Records of hydrotherapy date back to over 2000 years ago, during ancient Roman, Grecian and Egyptian civilizations when people would bathe themselves in water and essential oils1. Before anyone knew exactly how water helped the body, the benefits of using water to heal the body were evident.
Water affects our body in multiple ways and it’s most valuable property is it’s ability to transfer large amounts of heat. The effects of water can be broken down into two categories, its effect on circulation and effect on metabolism2. After a session of hydrotherapy, a person can either feel very relaxed, or stimulated and awake. It all depends on the duration of treatment as well as the ratio of time that is hot or cold. Regardless of temperature, short duration applications stimulate blood flow and metabolism whereas long cold applications slow circulation and metabolism.1 Long hot applications slow circulation but promote metabolism.1
We have all reached for that ice pack to help with a swollen knee, hand or ankle. Why is it that we reach for an ice pack rather than a heat pack when we’re injured? The key to using the ice pack is that it must be used as a long application, longer than 1 minute.1 The moment that the brain recognizes that an injury has occurred, red and white blood cells, and platelets rush to the area, creating swelling, in an effort to protect the body from further injury. This accumulation of cells can be beneficial by promoting healing and clearing of debris in an area but in excess can prevent movement and compress surrounding vasculature and nerves, creating a pain response.
By using the ice pack for the first 48 hours after an injury, blood flow and metabolism slow down.3 Cells already in the area stop releasing inflammatory cytokines that recruit even more cells to the area. If the first thing you apply on an injured area is a heat pack, swelling would get worse since heat would bring even more blood flow to the area. The blood vessels would expand or vasodilate, bringing a conglomerate of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets to the area.
The healing properties of hot and cold water go beyond that of decreasing swelling and promoting healing in injuries. A lesser known effect of hydrotherapy is the stimulation of the immune system.4 When you’re starting to feel those first signs of a cold or flu: the scratchy throat, congested nose, aching muscles and headache, hydrotherapy can help in two ways - by increasing the number of white blood cells and red blood cells and by stimulating the lymphatic system.5
Growing up, taking garlic pills, going to the steam room and taking cold showers afterwards were simply the norm. Alternating hot-cold applications or contrast hydrotherapy is best. In contrast hydrotherapy, the body, or parts of the body are immersed into warm (37-45°C) and then cold (10-15°C).5 By warming the body with a hot application and then applying a cold application, the temperature change that the body experiences is even greater than if only one was applied.1
Hydrotherapy also stimulates the immune system by promoting lymphatic circulation.5 An extension of our circulatory system, the lymphatic system is an often forgotten part of our body. Lymph or lymphatic fluid starts off as the fluid portion of blood and delivers oxygen, nutrients and hormones to tissues. Lymph then either re-enters blood circulation or the lymphatic system, carrying with it waste products. The coupling of lymph and blood circulation ensures that when the muscles that line our blood vessels contract, both blood and lymph move.4 As lymph circulates, lymph nodes filter the lymphatic fluid and white blood cells and macrophages help to swallow and eradicate foreign micro-organisms. The smooth flow of both blood and lymph are vital to a healthy immune system.
As hydrotherapy increases the blood pumped throughout the body, blood flow to all major organs is increased. People can expect a myriad of benefits such as a sharper mind, less muscle tension, improved detoxification by the liver, better digestion and nutrient absorption, smoother skin, and better heart health, among many others.2
An important contributor to heart health is the degree of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fats and cholesterol, which when inflamed, solidify to form plaques, creating hardened vessels. These hardened vessels lose their elasticity and contribute to heart disease. A mechanism for hydrotherapy’s cardioprotective properties has been proposed. By increasing blood circulation, shear stress is increased, leading to an increased production of nitric oxide (NO).5 Nitric oxide helps to relax vessel walls and promote more efficient pumping of blood.5 This decreases resistance in the blood, making it easier for the heart to do it’s job, helping in the prevention of heart disease.5 Contrast hydrotherapy, specifically, has been shown to alter endothelial function, which lines the inside of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels.5 Peripheral cramping was reduced, as well as improvements in blood pressure and blood flow.5
As your body’s built-in filter, your liver plays a central role in the process of detoxification. As we eat, breath and touch the world around us, toxins enter our body and bloodstream, eventually reaching our liver. In the liver, compounds are modified and transformed into products that can be excreted out of the body from our skin, kidneys, colon and lungs. Various factors can slow down the liver’s functioning including decreased blood flow, excess load and inadequate nutrient levels. Eating well provides the liver with all the nutrients it needs and avoiding environmental stresses decreases the liver’s load. By increasing blood flow to the liver, hydrotherapy ensures that excess hormones are metabolized, pesticides & food additives ingested with foods are removed and pharmaceutical products are processed.2
Excess toxins not metabolized by the liver become permanent occupants, hiding in our fat cells, bone marrow, brain, joints, tissues and muscles. Until we experience vague, indistinct symptoms, we are unknowing to their existence. By optimizing liver and kidney function, and ensuring that the digestive tract and skin pores are not obstructed, harmful, excess toxins can be effectively eliminated from the body. Hydrotherapy promotes blood circulation, ensuring that the emunctories or organs of elimination, are supplied with the nutrients they need to function optimally and that harmful waste products are also eliminated.
Hot and cold applications to the body do not only have a localized effect. Our circulatory system is a closed one, consisting of our heart and peripheral vessels (veins, arteries, and capillaries). When one area expands or constricts in response to a temperature change, the whole system reacts. This means that hot or cold applications can be used distal to the area that needs to be treated.1 It’s also important to consider the direction of blood flow.1 Blood moves towards heat and away from cold. For example, a heat pack on the feet or a cold pack over the neck can draw blood away from the head to help relieve congestive headaches.
Hydrotherapy can be easily incorporated as part of your regular routine to stay healthy. It is an easy, inexpensive, safe and an effective way of staving off winter colds and flus, detoxifying the body, promoting good heart health, decreasing muscle tension and repairing the body after sports and of course, relaxing after a long day.
Easy Hydrotherapy at Home:
(note: If you have a specific health condition, the following protocols may not be safe for you. If you have any concerns or questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Steam inhalations are easy to setup and great for coughs, respiratory tract congestion, sinus pain or infections, or a sore throat.
Suggested Essential Oils7
Cold Wet Socks2
A naturopath’s go to when the immune system needs some boosting - whether it be for a cold, flu or bronchitis. Helps with a better sleep. Also great for kids.