Taking the Waters

Hydrotherapy for Detoxification and More
Maybe you thought you were just relaxing in the tub before bed, taking a cool shower on a hot day, or enjoying an invigorating romp in the surf.


But you were actually practicing the ancient art of hydrotherapy.

People have been “taking the waters” for millennia. The city of Rome had almost a thousand public baths. In Italy, France, Germany, England, and other countries, health spas were built around mineral springs and other bodies of water. In Japan, communal bath houses have been in use since 1266. Here in the United States, hot springs became popular health resorts.

Hot and Cold

A nineteenth century Bavarian priest, Father Sebastian Kneipp became famous for his approach to hydrotherapy. When diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, then a usually fatal disease, he read a book about curing illness with water. Inspired, he bathed three times per week in the cold Danube River, and his health improved. Kneipp’s therapy, which is still practiced in Germany and the US, involved bathing in and drinking cold water, rising early and going to bed early, and walking barefoot in wet grass.

Cold water can be stimulating, but warm and hot water baths, showers, and footbaths have an important place in hydrotherapy, too. Hot water relaxes the body, causing blood vessels to dilate and stimulating the removal of waste from body tissues. Alternating between hot and cold water stimulates circulation, improves elimination, and decreases inflammation.

Just Add and Stir

In addition to swimming, wading, or simply lounging in fresh or salt water, take a tip from Briarcliff, New York, herbalist Bonnie Rogers, president of the Northeast Herbal Association: “I love using oatstraw in a footbath for relaxing.” Simply brew a strong tea by adding 2 tablespoons oatstraw tea to 2 cups boiling water. Let the tea steep for 10 minutes, then strain and add to comfortably hot water in a dishpan. Soak your feet for 15 to 20 minutes and enjoy the benefits.

Dead Sea bath salts, sea salt, kosher salt, and Epsom salt add minerals to the bathing experience and enhance hydrotherapy’s benefits. Add up to 1 cup per footbath.

“When there is inflammation or any sprain,” says Rogers, “alternating between hot and cold water works wonderfully. Soak the feet for three minutes in hot water, then one minute in ice water.” Switch back and forth several times. Yarrow is a useful tea for this purpose.”

Marge Clark, author of the book Essential Oils and Aromatics, reminds bathers that, because essential oils don’t dissolve in water, you can disperse them by diluting 8 to 10 drops of essential oil in a spoon of vegetable oil, honey, whole milk, cream, unscented liquid castile soap, or unscented shower gel.

“If you are trying to lull yourself to sleep,” she says, “try true lavender, Lavendula angustifolia. If it doesn’t specifically say that on the label, it might be a stimulating, not relaxing variety. And adding too much lavender to a bath can have a stimulating, rather than relaxing effect. More is not better! Other relaxing oils include Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), and sweet marjoram (Origanum majoranum). Be sure to double check the species name to be sure you’re using the right oil.”

For aches, pains, and sore muscles, she recommends eucalyptus essential oil in a blend of 2 drops lavender, 2 drops eucalyptus, and a drop of rosemary. “This blend also helps ease the aches and pains of a cold or the flu,” Clark says. Or look for readymade bath blends that contain these essential oils.

Autumn Detox

Seasonal detox is important because it recognizes key stress times when we need to lighten our consumption and external demands. Integrative physician Elson M. Haas, MD, recommends a 3-day cleanse in late October to early November. (Always check with your healthcare provider before undertaking a cleanse.) Here are some additional tips.

1. Chew well (20 to 30 times per mouthful).
2. Relax a few minutes before and after each meal.
3. Eat in a comfortable sitting position.
4. Choose lightly steamed fresh vegetables (broccoli, butternut squash, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, onions, potatoes, and spinach) with just a pinch of sea salt and cayenne.
5. Drink only herbal teas after dinner.
6. Support colon detoxification with fiber (psyllium, for example).

Spa Treatments

Today’s spas and health resorts offer a variety of hydrotherapy treatments:

  • steam baths
  • soaking in warm water with Dead Sea salts, Epsom salts, mineral mud, moor mud (also called Balneo peat or therapy peat), or aromatherapy oils
  • seaweed wraps
  • cold wet-flannel sheet wraps
  • hot and/or cold water compresses