Hydrotherapy, or water therapy, has been used for a variety of health treatments for thousands of years. Even before the Egyptians, humans have been steaming, mineral spring soaking, and immersing in cold water to boost healing in the body and mind. Hydrotherapy has long been incorporated in naturopathic, Ayurvedic, and Taoist health practices—even our modern, allopathic medical system has been using it for pain reduction, muscle, and joint inflammation treatments, as well as surgery and nerve recovery.
Hot Water Immersion
Balneotherapy, or Hot Water Immersion, lowers our stress hormone cortisol, as well as ureic acid and lactic acid post-exercise. Mineral salts (either naturally occurring at hot springs, or Epsom salts in your tub at home) have the added benefits of supporting the release of unwanted chemistry from the skin while also soothing joints, back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Cautionary caveat: replace your electrolytes after soaking in hot mineral baths or springs, and get up from sitting carefully as lightheadedness is common.
Cold Water Immersion
Cold water immersion has a vast array of benefits, from raising metabolic rate by 350%, lowering Cortisol by 46%, raising noradrenaline by 530%, and raising dopamine by 250%. Pain and inflammation also decrease (as experienced in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia due to an increased production of opioid endorphins in the body). Research has shown that cold showers or cold immersion create a “positive systemic stress activation”, through which the high density of cold receptors on the skin sends an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses to the brain. This positive transient activation ignites the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal-Thyroid nervous and hormonal systems). This activation has immense stimulating effects on our immune system by promoting lymphatic drainage! Brief daily cold stress increases the production of T-Lymphocyte, also known as T-cells, a type of leukocyte (white blood cell), and Natural Killer cell, also known as NK cell, production and activation. Both are critical in our immune system. Research is proving the benefits of cold water immersion in antitumor immunity and nonlymphoid cancer survival rates.
How about Warm Water Therapy you ask? Sorry, not much happens. Head-out-of-water immersions in 20 C / 68 F water will cause metabolic rate to go up marginally. However, throw a few ice cube trays into the tepid bath and drop the temp to 14 C / 58 F and your metabolism will quadruple. Water immersion has benefits, but the greatest health measures are when it’s hot enough to sweat or cold enough to want to shiver in order to affect blood flow and its healing constituents!
There is a growing trend for cold immersion thanks to Wim Hof from the Netherlands. Wim researched water immersion practices from a variety of cultures and married them to breathwork from Vedic and Taoist origins. He leads workshops around the world in taking practitioners beyond their fear-based imaginings to reap the health benefits of hyperoxygenation (what happens when you hyperventilate) and prolonged cold water immersion.
How To Try Hydrotherapy
You don’t have to swim under the polar ice cap like Wim, but consider experimenting with ending your morning shower in cold water, which is called contrast hydrotherapy. You may notice its antidepressive release of beta-endorphins as it awakens you. Do your best to surrender to the sensation of the water on your skin, and know that the vasoconstriction of millions of tiny muscles around the capillaries of your circulatory system are exercising as they pump the blood quickly from your skins surface to your abdominal organs, raising your metabolism and circulating your blood, while actually lowering your blood pressure and giving your heart muscle a break. You can end your shower back to warm or hot water if you wish. The point is to move from hot water to cold. What you do after this is your choice.
As with anything new, approach this new practice with curiosity and always ask why. Please also be cautious if you’ve had heart issues in the past, as cold immersion can cause transient arrythmias in patients with heart problems.
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