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Monday, November 22, 2010

Health Benefits of Hydrotherapy and Saunas

One of the oldest and most natural treatments available, hydrotherapy dates back to ancient Roman and Greek traditions. The therapeutic application of water was popularized in the 1800’s by Sebastian Kneipp and remains an important tool in naturopathic medicine today.

The concept is basic: heat expands tissues and cold contracts them. When hot water is applied to the body, local blood vessels dilate and muscles relax. Increased circulation brings more oxygen, nutrients and immune cells to affected areas, promoting healing.

In contrast, cold applications constrict local blood vessels, reducing swelling and inflammation. While blood flow to the skin is decreased, blood flow to internal organs is increased, supporting normal body functions like digestion and detoxification. Cold temperatures also increase muscle tone and have a numbing effect on nerves, which can relieve pain.

Alternating between hot and cold applications gives the benefits of both and increases circulation throughout the body. In general, a 3-minute application of hot water is followed by a 30-second application of cold water, and the cycle is repeated at least 3 times.

I recently visited the Spa Castle in Flushing, New York, in the borough of Queens, and thought I had gone to hydrotherapy heaven.

How could applying hot and cold water be easier and more fun than immersing yourself in beautiful baths, pools and whirlpools? I was impressed by the wide range of options: 4 different temperatures of hot water and 2 different temperatures cold water, as well as underwater jets and cascades to stand beneath.

And on the weekends, they offer special “Event” baths that incorporate herbs (on Saturdays) and rose petals (on Sundays). It’s a pleasant combination of hydrotherapy, herbal medicine and aromatherapy.

I also love Spa Castle because they have a wide range of hot saunas of various temperatures lined with natural materials like mineral salts, yellow earth, jade (my favorite) and gold. There is also an infrared sauna and a cold sauna lined with ice crystals. I love the option of alternating between hot and cold temperatures in dry rooms as well as wet environments.

Traditional saunas heat through conduction at temperatures generally above 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Infrared saunas heat through infrared radiation and transfer a greater amount of energy, so they are more comfortable because they require lower temperatures, generally between 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

A slight increase in body temperature increases metabolism and the repair of damaged cells. It also helps resolve infections because bacteria and viruses are less likely to survive higher body temperatures (which is one reason why, when we are sick, fevers are beneficial). Saunas are also associated with improved energy and better sleep.

Traditional saunas and infrared saunas have been studied for their roles in treating disease. They have been found to improve conditions such as heart failure, chronic pulmonary hypertension, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and Sjögren syndrome.

Sauna therapy is something that I recommend as part of my detoxification program because it encourages the body to excrete toxins through the largest organ of elimination: the skin.

Here are my rules for enjoying the benefits of saunas and hydrotherapy:
  • If you are pregnant or in poor health, get permission from your doctor before you begin.
  •  If you have a weak constitution, avoid rapid cooling.
  •  Take caution not to become too hot. If at any time you feel dizzy, nauseous, or overheated, leave the environment, drink some water and rest until you feel well again.
  •  When using alternating hot and cold treatments, always start with hot and always end with cold.
  •  Never begin a treatment when feeling chilled.
  •  Take time to rest afterward.
  •  Drink plenty of water before, during and after hot treatments (unless you have kidney problems or have been directed otherwise by your doctor).
  •  After hot treatments, replace electrolytes by making a meal from foods that contain them.* Avoid Gatorade and other sports drinks because they usually contain sweeteners, artificial color and flavors.
* These foods are good sources of electrolytes:

Avocado, apricots, cantaloupe, papaya, figs, lima beans, parsnips, pumpkin, watermelon, raisins, kiwi, sardines, squash, broccoli, pinto beans, pomegranate, sweet potato, kidney beans, artichokes, prunes, peaches, steamed spinach, nectarine, mustard greens, blackberries, mushrooms, cherries, celery, asparagus, raspberries, apple, cauliflower, grapefruit, green beans, apples, bananas, carrots, potatoes, oranges and strawberries


American College of Cardiology 57th Annual Scientific Session, Chicago, March 29-April 1, 2008.  Yoshiyuki Ikeda, MD, department of cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic medicine, Kagoshima University, Kagoshima, Japan

Kihara T, et al.  Effects of repeated sauna treatment on ventricular arrhythmias in patients with chronic heart failure. Circulation Journal. 2004 Dec;68(12):1146-51.

Kihara T, et al. Repeated sauna treatment improves vascular endothelial and cardiac function in patients with chronic heart failure. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2002 Mar 6;39(5):754-9.

Masuda A. [A new treatment: thermal therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome.] Nippon Rinsho. 2007 Jun;65(6):1093-8.

Matsushita K, et al. Efficacy of Waon therapy for fibromyalgia. Internal Medicine. 2008;47(16):1473-6. Epub 2008 Aug 15.

Miyata M, et al. Beneficial effects of Waon therapy on patients with chronic heart failure: Results of a prospective multicenter study. Journal of Cardiology. 2008 Oct;52(2):79-85. Epub 2008 Aug 27.

Mussivand T, et al. Thermal therapy: a viable adjunct in the treatment of heart failure? Congestive Heart Failure. 2008 Jul-Aug;14(4):180-6.

Oosterveld FG, et al. Infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis : A pilot study showing good tolerance, short-term improvement of pain and stiffness, and a trend towards long-term beneficial effects. Clinical Rheumatology. 2009 Jan;28(1):29-34. Epub 2008 Aug 7.

Tei C, et al. Remarkable efficacy of thermal therapy for Sjögren syndrome. Journal of Cardiology. 2007 May;49(5):217-9.

Umehara M, et al. Repeated waon therapy improves pulmonary hypertension during exercise in patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Journal of Cardiology. 2008 Apr;51(2):106-13.

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