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.

Research Studies Are Often Invalid

David H. Freedman's article, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science" recently published in The Atlantic calls into question the validity of scientific studies that doctors rely on to make important medical decisions.

Freedman highlights the work of meta-researcher Dr. John Ioannidis, one of the world's leading experts when it comes to the validity of medical research. Ioannidis believes that "as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed."

Even randomized trials, the scientific community's gold standard, can be wrong. Several problems are at play, including study design and duration, subject selection, measurements and analysis, and financial conflicts of interest.

But maybe even more importantly, the big questions that studies set out to answer in the first place could be the real issue. After all, research results that make media headlines are more likely to receive funding than those that confirm what other studies have already "proven" to be true.

What is the solution?

For doctors, understanding which studies have the potential to yield valid results and applicable information is essential.

For everyone else, Ioannidis suggests adjusting our expectations.


Toxic Ingredients Are Often Unlisted

Research studies done by government, academic and independent researchers reveal that before babies are even born, their bodies are contaminated with up to 358 different chemicals. They include flame retardants, pesticides, fragrances, insulating materials, industrial coolants and lubricants, perfluorocarbon used to make non-stick cookware, and bisphenyl A (BPA) used to make plastic and epoxy resins found in electronics, metal cans, and plastic food and beverage containers.

Many of these chemicals have been linked to cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, weakened immune systems, imbalances in thyroid and sex hormones, and even cancer. Last April, the President’s Cancer Panel, a joint effort by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, urged everyone to reduce their exposure to chemicals in foods, water, cigarette smoke, medicines, medical tests and household products.

But identifying dangerous chemicals can be difficult if not impossible. A study recently published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review analyzed 25 common household products and found toxic ingredients in every single sample. Cancer-causing compounds were also detected in nearly half of the products tested. Products included best selling brands of laundry detergent, dryer sheets, fabric softener, soap, shampoo, lotion, hand sanitizer, deodorant, dish detergent, all-purpose spray, household disinfectant and air fresheners (solids, sprays and oils).

Each product was placed in an enclosed glass container at room temperature and the surrounding air was analyzed for evaporated chemicals using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). All together, the 25 products released 421 chemicals, including 133 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals with known effects on the environment and/or human health. Of the 133 VOCs identified, 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US laws.

Researchers found that alone, each product emitted an average of 17 VOCs and at least one toxic or hazardous compound. Almost half the products (11 out of 25) contained carcinogens recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency. And emissions from products promoted as “green,” "organic," and "natural" did not significantly differ from other products.

Manufacturers of household products are not required to list all ingredients on the labels, nor are they required to disclose any ingredients regarded as "fragrance." (And a single "fragrance" can contain several hundred ingredients.) In the study, only one of the 133 VOCs (ethanol) was listed on a product label and only two were listed on any material safety data sheet, a widely used system for cataloging information about a chemical's risks, safety and effect on the environment.

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

Read this post for my top twelve recommendations.


Enviornmental Working Group. Pollution in People: Cord Blood Contaminants in Minority Newborns. 2009. Available online at:

Reuben SH et al for the President’s Cancer Panel. Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, 2008-2009 Annual Report. April 2010. Available online at:

Steinemann AC et al. Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 2010. DOI: 10.1016/j.eiar.2010.08.002

Tea Protects Cognitive Health and Bone Mineral Density

True tea – whether black, oolong, green or white – comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. White tea comes from young leaves that are steamed immediately after harvest. Green tea has undergone minimal fermentation. Oolong tea is partially fermented and black tea is fully fermented.

All varieties contain powerful antioxidants. One in particular, a catechin called epigallocatechin gallate-3 or EGCG, has been shown to fight cancer by inhibiting angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels to feed tumors) and inducing apoptosis (cancer cell death).  EGCG also reduces inflammation and activates enzymes in the liver that detoxify toxic compounds to facilitate their removal from the body. White and green teas contain the highest concentration of EGCG.

Studies have shown that regular consumption of black and oolong teas is associated with protection against cardiovascular disease. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlight two more health benefits: protection against cognitive decline in older adults and preservation of bone mineral density in older women.

A study in Singapore examined the relationship between tea consumption and cognitive decline in more than 2500 Chinese men and women 55 years of age and older. Researchers measured tea intake and scores on Mini-Mental State Examination tests over a two year period. They found that regular consumption of black and oolong teas was associated with lower risk of mental impairment and cognitive decline. No correlation was found between coffee intake and cognitive status.

In the other study, researchers in Australia followed 1500 women aged 70 to 85 years for five years to study bone mineral density (BMD). A cross-sectional analysis of more than 1000 participants compared tea intake with BMD. After 4 years, the tea drinkers had lost significantly less mineral density in hip bones compared to non-tea drinkers. Researchers concluded that drinking tea is associated with preservation of BMD in older women.


Tze-Pin Ng et al. Tea consumption and cognitive impairment and decline in older Chinese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(1):224-231, July 2008.

Devine A et al. Tea drinking is associated with benefits on bone density in older women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(4):1243-47, October 2007.