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Water is our most ancient medicine. It’s a powerful healing ally for addressing disease and restoring health. Like our water-bejeweled planet, more than half of our bodies are composed of water. Living in a high desert region, I’m acutely aware of how even the smallest trickle of water can support a variety of life-forms. Without this vital element, our planet and our bodies can’t sustain life.
For millennia, water has been vital in treating disease and trauma. In the 19th and 20th centuries, physicians combined ancient therapies with modern scientific research. At his mountain sanitarium in Austria, Vincent Priessnitz championed the European rediscovery of water’s healing properties, while in the United States, John Harvey Kellogg was a major proponent of water cures. Kellogg kept meticulous records and conducted scientific research in his sanitarium; the data he gathered became the foundation for Rational Hydrotherapy (1901), still the definitive textbook on the subject today.
Hydrotherapy is the practice of externally applying hot and cold water to restore health. When most people hear “hydrotherapy,” they think of colonics or enemas. Both ancient and modern hydrotherapy practices, though, focus on the external use of water to catalyze a wide range of transformations in the body, including stimulating the immune system, modulating fever, reducing inflammation, and altering blood circulation in specific parts of the body.
Water has unique properties that make it an effective medicine: As ice melts, the liquid stores 80 calories of heat, and as water heats to steam, it stores another 540 calories. When steam cools, and condenses to liquid, it releases 540 calories, and when water freezes, it releases another 80 calories. This ability to store and release energy makes water an extraordinary conductor that transmits heat far better than air. Understanding how effectively water transmits heat explains why a hot air sauna doesn’t have the same effect on the body as a direct hot water application.
There are various ways to utilize the benefits of water for your health at home. Outlined below are four specific hydrotherapy protocols that can treat a wide range of conditions, with limited experience or equipment required.
Alternating Hot and Cold Applications
Hot and cold water have varying effects when applied to the body for different lengths of time. Up to five minutes of hot water exposure increases circulation. Beyond five minutes, heat causes stagnation (also called congestion), which generates pain. Cold applications up to one minute boost circulation, but greater than one minute depresses circulation.
Alternating hot and cold applications to a local area increases circulation and decreases congestion. This simple method reduces pain and swelling associated with acute injuries, ear infections, sinus infections, sprains, headaches, and other conditions. To optimize circulation, apply heat for a maximum of five minutes and cold for a maximum of one minute, always beginning with a hot application, and ending with a cold application. If using to treat an ear infection, use heat alone for up to 30 minutes.
Generally, the greater the contrast in temperature between the hot and cold applications, the stronger the effect of the treatment. For children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, however, moderate the temperature extremes.
- 2 towels
- Pan of hot water
- Pan of cold water, with ice cubes (if tolerated)
- Plastic sheet (or an old shower curtain), if needed to protect bedding
- Apply a hot application for 3 to 5 minutes. This can be a towel wrung out in hot water (as hot as you can comfortably stand it) or a wetted towel placed in a microwave for 3 to 4 minutes. If the towel is too hot, shake it back and forth for a few moments. Apply the towel to the affected area.
- Apply a cold application to the affected area for 1 minute. This can be a towel wrung out in cold tap water or ice water.
- Repeat this cycle at least 3 times.
Make sure the area is warm before applying a cold towel. If someone is severely chilled, or if the body temperature is below 98 degrees Fahrenheit, warm the body with a hot bath or shower before applying cold towels.
For small areas, a hot water bottle can substitute for a hot towel, and frozen peas in a plastic bag can be substituted for a cold towel.
Warming Socks Treatment
This simple but powerful treatment stimulates the production and activity of white blood cells and draws congestion away from the upper body. A wet socks treatment speeds resolution of an upper respiratory infection and reduces pain and congestion in the head area. If used when the very first symptoms begin, the treatment can even nullify a cold.
- Plastic dishpan, tub, or bowl large enough to soak your feet
- 1 pair cotton ankle-high socks
- 1 pair wool socks
- Soak your feet in water as hot as you can comfortably tolerate for 5 to 10 minutes. Add more hot water if necessary. Remove your feet and thoroughly dry them.
- Wet the cotton socks in cold tap water. Wring them out thoroughly; the socks should be damp, not dripping.
- Put on the damp cotton socks. Immediately cover with the dry wool socks.
Note: This treatment is most effective right before going to bed. In most cases, the socks will be dry by the morning.
Saltwater Lavage and Gargle
This treatment eliminates excess mucus from the nose and throat. Salt water soothes inflamed tissue and destroys bacteria and viruses. Because the salt solution is more concentrated than the salinity inside the bacteria and virus, the organisms literally explode.
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Begin gargling with salt water at the first sign of a sore throat. Repeat every two hours until the symptoms resolve. Use the nasal lavage technique when nasal congestion develops, or after exposure to irritating inhalants (e.g., dust, air pollution, mold).
- Tall glass or large cup
- Water, as warm as you can comfortably tolerate
- 1 to 2 teaspoons noniodized sea salt
- Fill a glass with warm water. Add sea salt, and stir until dissolved.
- To gargle, take a mouthful of salt water at a time. Some physicians recommend swallowing the salt water after gargling; however, don’t swallow the salt water if you have high blood pressure or diabetes.
- For a nasal lavage, pour salt water into your cupped hand. Gently inhale the salt water, and then gently blow the water from the nostrils. This is best done over a sink. At the end of the treatment, blow any excess water from your nose. You may notice increased nasal and sinus drainage after the treatment.
Note: Too much or too little salt, or cool water, may cause nasal tingling and discomfort. Adjust the water temperature or amount of salt if you experience nasal discomfort. These simple, yet powerful techniques can support you in addressing a wide variety of common ailments. Remember that hydrotherapy also has the potential to build even greater levels of health by boosting the immune system, improving circulation, and supporting detoxification.
Hot Foot Bath
Caution: Hot Water
Diabetics must be careful with hot applications to the feet. Most diabetics have reduced sensation in the feet, so they’re more likely to accidentally burn the skin. This also applies to anyone with compromised circulation in the extremities (e.g., Raynaud’s phenomenon). For diabetics and those with foot neuropathy, have someone else test the water, or apply a large fomentation (towels wrung out in very warm water) to the groin area.
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A hot foot bath can treat a wide variety of ailments, such as simple tension headaches, upper respiratory infections, and menstrual cramps.
- Plastic dishpan, tub, or bowl large enough to soak your feet
- Fill the pan with enough water to cover your ankles. Make the water as hot as you can comfortably stand.
- Soak your feet for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove your feet and dry thoroughly.
Note: For a more powerful treatment, alternate between hot- and cold-water baths, soaking your feet in hot water for 5 minutes, and then in cold water for 1 minute. If alternating water temperatures, end your foot bath with cold water.
Dr. Judith Boice is a naturopathic physician, acupuncturist, and the author of several best-selling books, which you can view online. She is currently an associate professor for the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and an assistant professor at the American College of Healthcare Sciences.