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The Healing Powers of Salts and Water - Thalassotherapy, Balneotherapy

Galina St George, Natural Therapist

"Thalassotherapy" is the term describing the use of salts for therapeutic purposes. Salts have been used to treat health ailments for thousands of years. Salts from various deposits vary enormously in their chemical structure. There are salts which are rich in magnesium, such as sea salt, salts from salt lakes. There are salts which have sodium chloride as the main constituent. Their therapeutic properties are vastly different. I will only attempt to describe the salts I am most familiar with - the magnesium-based salts (Dead Sea and Rapan) and Sodium chloride salts.

Dead Sea Salt

The therapeutic effects of bathing in the Dead Sea were well known even in times of antiquity. Ancient physician Galenus that this salt water was good for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, eczema, muscle aches, psoriasis, and also for relaxation, and healthy beautiful skin. King Solomon presented the Queen of Sheba with Dead Sea salts upon her visit to the Holy Land. Cleopatra, who was an ardent user of Dead Sea products, was given rights of ownership of the entire region by Mark Anthony after he had conquered it. The Roman historian Flavius noted. "The Dead Sea cannot be praised too highly. Travellers take this salt home because it heals the human body and is therefore used in many medicines.

Medical research has proved the beneficial effect from bathing in saline solutions of the Dead Sea. Its numerous minerals, very high concentration of salts in the water improve the skin condition, reduce tiredness, promote relaxation, reduce symptoms of psoriasis, eczema, acne, arthritis, rheumatism, etc.

The effect of Dead Sea salt on the skin are remarkable and most noticeable, since skin is the largest and most exposed organ of the body. The skin has the ability to absorb minerals from the waters into the blood stream, so the whole organism benefits from it. Bathing in salty waters increases metabolic rate and promotes immunity.

Recently, other salts have appeared on the market, all with their unique properties. One of the salts which has been exported by Medicina out of Russia is Rapan Salt.

Rapan Salt

Rapan Salt is very well-known in Russia, and is gaining popularity here. It is harvested from an ecologically clean Lake Ostrovnoye in Western Siberia, near Novosibirsk.

The original raw material, brine (or "rapah" in Russian) has a very large number of microelements diluted in the lake, with practically no harmful bacteria. Natural antiseptic properties of the water and mud represent a natural health enhancing complex.

The salt is collected in the most natural conditions. In autumn, October-November, when the temperature of the lake goes down, the surface of the lake becomes smaller, which means, that the concentration of salt in the lake rises. Natural crystallisation and sedimentation of naturally clean large salt crystals occurs. Immediately, Rapan salt is harvested in lots, with a selection of tests conducted for each lot.

Rapan salt is very similar in its structure and mineral content to the Dead Sea salt. On some parameters, e.g. anti-oxidant levels, it exceeds the Dead Sea products up to 5 times.

I has a large number of micro- and macro-elements, vitamins, hormones and other useful substances which are being utilised by the Siberian resorts for the treatment of a variety of conditions, such as skin disorders (psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, skin ulcers), disorders of the musculo-skeletal system (arthritis, rheumatism, muscle problems, spinal disorders), chronic disorders of the genito-urinary, digestive, nervous, endocrine systems, etc.

Rapan salt has a wet, hydrated appearance. This has its meaning and purpose. The water in the salt is called "crystallohydrate" which is the product of the binding of water by inorganic substances in the cold conditions of Siberia. The water in this 'bound' state plays a very important role as far as therapeutic properties of the salt are concerned, and here is why:

  • It acts as a moisturiser for skin cells
  • It stimulates skin cell growth and regeneration
  • It promotes regeneration of skin collagen
  • The water in the crystals is 'living' water, since it forms the basis of life of the peptides in the salt.
  • The therapeutic properties of peptides in Rapan result in pain relief, stimulation of antioxidant and adaptogenic regulatory systems, and general cell regeneration (anti-ageing properties).

Sodium Chloride salts

Sodium chloride salts have an action which is quite different to the magnesium-rich Siberian salt. It act on the body by forming a salt layer on the skin which stays there for several hours after a bath, acting as a stimulator of nerve endings, micro-circulatory processes in the skin, and, through reflex action, of the body systems responsible for processes of adaptation to non-typical external stimuli. The penetration of the salt electrolytes into the outer skin layers (epydermis) changes the environment of the skin. This is accompanied by changes in its reactivity and metabolism.

The other factor is the increase in body temperature due to the formation of a salt layer on the skin which prevents evaporation of water from the skin. With sodium chloride baths such a rise in temperature is more prminent than with the other bath salts (e.g.magnesium). The rise in skin temperature, in turn leads to dilation of capillaries in the skin, increase in circulation, increase in consumtion of oxygen by the skin, and an increase in glandular activity. The increase in the blood flow to the skin is followed by an increase in the volume of circulating blood (from the "blood depots"), increase in the blood flow to the heart which in turn stimulates cardiac activity. This allows to "exercise" the heart muscle.

It has been proved through scientific research that sodium chloride baths are better than other salt baths for increasing the tone of the veins and stimulating venous return. Such baths have been proved to decrease viscosity of the blood, micro-circulatory problems, increase in the capillary network. This leads to the increase in the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the skin and body organs and removal of carbon dioxide and metabolic waste. Research has also shown an increase in lipid metabolism and regulation of metabolic rate under the influence of sodium chloride baths. They help regulate the nervous system and its functions.

The main effects registered as a result of patients using sodium chloride baths in the clinics are:

  • Increased micro-circulation, and as a result, an increase in overall blood circulation;
  • Pain relief;
  • Reduced inflammation;
  • Increased metabolic activity;
  • Improvement in the functional activity and overall condition of tissues and organs.

The healing powers of water

The most widely used method of using salts for therapeutic effect is through what is called Balneotherapy - or water therapy. Balneotherapy involves the treatment of disease by bathing. It may involve hot or cold water, massage via moving water, relaxation or stimulation. Many mineral waters at spas are rich in articular minerals (silica, sulfur, selenium, radium) which can be absorbed via the skin. The term "balneotherapy" has gradually come to be applied to everything relating to spa treatment, including the drinking of waters and the use of hot baths and natural vapor baths, as well as of the various kinds of mud and sand used for hot applications. The principal constituents found in mineral waters are sodium, magnesium, calcium and iron, in combination with the acids to form chlorides, sulphates, sulphides and carbonates. Other substances occasionally present in sufficient quantity to exert a therapeutic influence are arsenic, lithium, potassium, manganese, bromine, iodine, &c. The chief gases in solution are oxygen, nitrogen, carbonic acid and hydrogen sulfide. Argon and helium occur in some of the "simple thermal" and "thermal sulfur waters."

There are few doctors who would deny the great value of special bathing and drinking cures in certain morbid conditions. In the employment of the various mineral waters, many of the spas adopt special means by which they increase or modify their influence, e.g. the so-called "aromatic" or "medicated" baths, in which substances are mixed to exert a special influence on the skin and peripheral nerves. Of these the "pine needle" bath has the greatest repute; it is made by adding a decoction of the needles or young shoots of firs and pines. Fir wood oil (a mixture of ethereal oils) or the tincture of an alcoholic extract acts equally well. The volatile ethereal constituents are sup-posed to penetrate the skin and to stimulate the cutaneous circulation and peripheral nerves, being eliminated later by the ordinary channels.

Similar effects follow the addition to the bath of aromatic herbs, such as chamomile, thyme, &c. For a full-sized bath 1.5 to 2 lbs of herbs are tied in a muslin bag and infused in a gallon of boiling water; the juices are then expressed and the infusion added to the bath. Astringent baths are prepared in a similar way from decoctions of oak bark, walnut leaves, &c. In many spas on the European continent baths are prepared from peat or mud mixed with hot mineral water. Mineral peat consists of decomposing vegetable soil that has been so long in the neighborhood of the medicinal spring that it has undergone peculiar and variable chemical changes. This is mixed with the hot mineral water until the bath has the desired consistency, the effect on the patient being in almost direct proportion to the density. These baths vary greatly in composition. Mud baths are chiefly prepared from muddy deposits found in the neighborhood of the springs, as at St Amand. They act like a large poultice applied to the surface of the body, and in addition to the influence of the temperature, they exert a considerable mechanical effect. The pulse is accelerated some 6 to 12 beats a minute, the respiration number rises, and the patient is thrown into a profuse perspiration. They have very great value in gouty and rheumatic conditions and in some of the special troubles of women.

There are certain conditions in which mineral water treatment is distinctly contra-indicated. Advanced cardiac disease and cardiac cases with failure of compensation must preeminently be treated at home, not at a spa. Advanced arteriosclerosis, any form of serious organic visceral disease, advanced cirrhosis, pulmonary tuberculosis with a tendency to hemoptysis, much elevation of temperature or emaciation, are all entirely unsuited for this form of treatment. Serious organic nervous diseases, great nervous depression and old cases of paralysis are all contra-indicated. Any trouble, however suited in itself for spa treatment, must be considered inapplicable if complicated with pregnancy. In advising balneotherapeutic treatment in any case, all the conditions and habits of the patient, pecuniary, physical and psychological, must be considered, as the spa must be fitted to the patient, not the patient to the spa. Besides the particular disease, the idiosyncrasy of the patient must be considered, the same morbid condition in different people requiring very different treatment. Retarded convalescence is a condition often treated at the spas, although hygienic surroundings, both mental and physical, are usually all that is necessary to ensure complete recovery. After rheumatic fever, however, if the joints remain painful and the heart is dilated, the thermal gaseous saline water of Nauheim, augmented by Schott's resistance movements, will often appear to work wonders.

Chronic rheumatism, where there is much exudation round a joint or incipient stiffness of a joint, may be relieved by hot thermal treatment, especially when combined with various forms of massage and exercises. Simple thermal waters, hot sulfur springs and hot muriated waters are all successful in different cases. Chronic muscular rheumatism can also be benefited in a similar manner. Diseases of the nervous system are on the whole treated by these means with small success.

Mental diseases other than very mild cases of depression should be considered inapplicable. Neurasthenics are sometimes treated at chalybeate or thermal muriated saline spas; but such treatment is entirely secondary to the general management of the case. Neuralgic affections and the later stages of neuritis, especially when dependent on gout or rheumatism, are often relieved or cured. Abdominal venosity (abdominal plethora), a feature of obesity, glycosuria, &c., are extremely well fitted for this form of treatment. The alkaline sulphated waters, the bitter waters and the common salt waters can all be prescribed, and after a short course can be supplemented with various forms of active and passive exercises. Diseases of the respiratory organs are far more suited for climatic treatment than for treatment by baths. Anemia can usually be better or equally well treated at home, or by seaside residence or a sea voyage, though many physicians prescribe chloride of sodium waters, followed by a course of iron waters at some suitably situated spa. In the anaemia dependent on malarial infection, the muriated or alkaline sulphated waters at spas of considerable elevation and combined with iron and arsenic are often very beneficial. Gravel and stone, if of the uric acid variety, can be treated with the alkaline waters, but the case must be under constant observation lest the urine become too alkaline and a deposition of phosphates take place on the already formed uric acid stone. Gout is so variable both in cause and effect that much discrimination is required in its treatment. Where the patient is of "full habit," with portal stagnation, the sulphated alkaline or mild bitter waters are indicated, especially those of Carlsbad and Marienbad; but the use of these strong waters must be followed by a long rest under strict hygienic conditions. Where this is impossible, a milder course must be advised, as at Homburg, Kissingen, Harrogate, Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, &c. For very delicate patients, and where time is limited, the simple thermal waters are preferable. -

And in conclusion...

Water is nature's greatest and most effective solvent. It acts as a liquid suspension, carrying a variety of minerals and chemicals, depending on its source. When we immerse our bodies in a warm bath, our skin rapidly begins to absorb chemicals that are suspended in the water. These chemical components can make their way to our bloodstream in as little as 2 to 15 minutes. It will take a normally healthy person from half an hour to three hours to eliminate most of these chemicals through the expired breath and urine. In unhealthy or obese people, this process may take up to 10 hours... The premise of balneotherapy is built on this solvency. Just as we absorb the essential oils we intentionally add to the water, we absorb a variety of other chemicals and minerals suspended in our water. No two waters are exactly the same. Spring waters, often thought of as pure, actually contain a variety of minerals. It is the presence of these minerals, from the depths of the earth, that makes certain spring waters highly valued for their curative properties. The amazing virtues of water have been sung throughout the ages. Ancient myths featured countless sea nymphs, mermaids, and water goddesses. It's no wonder that most ancient gods and goddesses associated with water were believed to be sources of life, fertility, and fecundity. Water is our element. We most likely evolved from aquatic creatures -- and in any event, our first months of life were spent floating in an amniotic bath. In our dreams water symbolizes the ebb and flow of our emotions. We use water for cleansing, refreshing, and relaxing. Water is the basis for our body's evaporative cooling system. It flushes out toxic wastes, plumps up our cells, and lubricates our moving parts. Water is crucial to our survival. Without it we would literally dry up and blow away.This excerpt is from The Aromatherapy Companion by Victoria Edwards.