Steep in the history of thousands of years with a traditional bathing experience. This guide will walk you through a small fraction of the world’s bathing history and show you how to revive some of these ancient traditions for your own bath.
"Since architects began to raise buildings, they created nothing better than a bathhouse." - Keykavus Ziyari, 11th Century Iranian writer
Balneotherapy, or the use of bathing as a form of medicine, is enjoying a revival after falling into disrepute for decades. It’s finally now being recognized as credible and beneficial by many scientists, particularly those in rheumatology and dermatology, as well as by the burgeoning many seeking gentle and natural remedies before harsh, band-aid drug therapies.
Balneotherapy has been a long-standing tradition in countries the world over, and since time immemorial (until around the mid 20th century) was a common form of medical treatment and preventative medicine.
Balneotherapy in Ancient Times
Ancient Greeks considered bathing as medicinal, with Hippocrates prescribing natural spring water baths for treatment of illness. The ancient Egyptians, at least those who could afford to, luxuriated in soothing baths of potent essential oils and flowers. We have all heard of the most famous of baths, the Ancient Roman bath houses, or thermae, and they also utilized natural springs for healing, especially for soldiers returning wounded from battle. The ancient Romans recognized bathing as important for both the body and the relaxation and pleasure of the mind. They utilized what is now known as cryotherapy, or medicinal use of very cold water. Their thermae contained many pools of hot and warm water, but also cold pools that bathers could alternate with the hot baths. Gaining popularity today, cryotherapy is known to improve blood return and help break down cellular byproducts in the lymphatic system, among other benefits.
Since most modern bathers don’t have access to something so grand as a Roman bathing complex, you can recreate the benefits of hot and cold contrast in your own bathroom. Draw a bath with the hottest water you are comfortable with. Steep and enjoy! When you are finished, use your shower to rinse of using full-cold water. This is not only good for your circulation, but also has a beautifying effect on the skin and smooths the hair.
Balneotherapy in The Middle Ages
Although bath houses were prohibited in the region after the fall of the Roman Empire, the practice persisted throughout the world and cropped up in various forms in many regions of the former Empire. In the Causcaus, Turkey, and Persia, what has been described as a “cult of bathing” emerged. Writers and doctors from the period, including the writer Keykavus Ziyari, extolled the the medicinal benefits of the bath and many recommended bathing at a minimum two to three times per week. Many Medieval Azerbaijani medical texts survive that show that doctors from the time already understood a hot bath to dilate blood vessels and provide relief from sore muscles. They described a variety of herbs that could be added to the bath for various ailments, such as this prescription by Ibn Sina:
"Sitting in decoction of chaste tree seed is effective against pains and tumors in the uterus."
Balneotherapy began to reemerge in Italy during the Renaissance, and slowly spread into more of Western Europe. This wave of the practice saw the first attempts to analyze the mineral contents of water, to understand the reasons behind its healing properties.
Take a Medieval herbal bath:
Anise, sage, and thyme were all commonly used in the Middle Ages. Anise is known to be exfoliating, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and even anti-acne. Sage is anti fungal and relieves eczema and psoriasis, while thyme is anti-bacterial and promotes circulation. It can also relieve itching.
Draw a bath as hot as you are comfortable with. Use whole sprigs of sage and thyme, and entire stars of anise, for a photogenic float on top of your bath. Enjoy the medicinal benefits and the fragrant steam.
The Balneotherapy Revival of the 1900s
The 20th Century saw a massive revival in the popularity of balneotherapy in Europe and America, right on the heels of the Neoclassical movement in the visual arts. Sanatoriums were opened at a variety of natural springs and ocean locations, where the afflicted could go to what was commonly referred to as “taking the waters”. Many sanatoriums provided a live-in experience with a full regimen of healthy food, exercise, and early bedtimes in addition to patients’ balneotherapies. The facilities at Bath, In England, are among the most famous of this period. People flocked their for a cure for lead poisoning, which often caused paralysis and other horrible symptoms. What many people don’t know is that the bathing cure seemed to work very well - one analysis of records over a five year period at Bath show that 93% of lead poisoned patients improved dramatically or were fully cured after their treatments at Bath. This could be attributed to the fact that sweating, as in a hot bath, is an excellent way to expel metals from the body, as well as the high levels of minerals in the Bath water, that promote healing.
John Harvey Kellogg opened a sanitarium in Florida called Battle Creek in 1866. His was different in its attempt to discover the scientific basis of the medicinal properties of bathing and water, and recreate naturally occurring healing waters.
“Take the waters” in the ocean or sea:
Ocean water contains a remarkably similar composition to our own blood, including magnesium, sodium, calcium, sulfide, calcium, and potassium. Perhaps this is why bathing in the ocean feels so restorative and calming. Seawater is also antiseptic to cuts and abrasions, soothes inflammation, and unclogs pores.
Balneotherapy continues strong today in both traditional, cultural methods, and in our own bathtubs at home with the vast array of home-spa products available.
Modern Icelanders practice cryotherapy and heat therapy regularly in their amazing public swimming facilities, which contain a variety of “hot pots” ranging from lukewarm to broiling hot, and icy dunking pools that are allowed to be the temperature of the sub-arctic air. Cubans still use their folk remedy of juniper decocted in bath water for urinary and skin infection. Japanese Onsen, natural springs that have been used for balneotherapy for thousands of years, have received official parameters in order to guide health seekers to a “true” Onsen experience: the natural mineral spring must contain water above 25 degrees centigrade.
Science has a long way to go to understand why balneotherapy is so beneficial to mind, body, and spirit. However, it has proven that bathing dilates blood vessels, slows heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and relaxes the mind. Hydrotherapy is helpful to reduce swelling and inflammation, especially during acute stages after injury. Minerals in the water, such as magnesium, sulphur, and Co2 have been shown to be beneficial to the body. Similarly, adding plants and herbs to hot water and soaking allows their transdermal nutrients to better aid us in healing.
Perhaps, we should do like the ancients, and ascertain a bath’s healing ability by seeing for ourselves.
* Take care - Please consult with your doctor before testing out any new bathing therapies!