Healing Diets student, Amy Hiller, wrote a superb article on Bathing for Mind and Body Wellness for one of her free assignments, which I have shared below. There is a free assignment for each lesson in the Healing Diets course, which is provided as a creative and skills building opportunity for students to produce something of value for their future practice and/or to further explore a topic related to the lesson content. Bathing has long been one of my favourite self care supportive therapies and it’s benefits are profound. Enjoy learning more through Amy’s wonderful article!
Often it is intuition that leads us to the bathtub in times of need. An inner knowing that the innate healing powers of warm water will draw out pain and suffering. Perhaps this is something we have carried over from our time in the womb where warm water surrounded and supported us for the first 9 months of our life. Perhaps we carry these instincts from our ancestors. Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that humans have a deep longing to be surrounded by water.
The act of bathing has been deeply intertwined with wellbeing of the mind, body and spirit since ancient times. The oldest bath ever discovered dates all the way back to 2500BC. The Great Bath as it is known was positioned on a sacred site in the Indus Valley in Pakistan.
For thousands of years civilisations have used ritualistic bathing to cleanse themselves of impurities for religious and spiritual purposes. Long before there was an understanding of how germs lead to disease, humans have instinctively known the power of immersing themselves in water.
Bathing plays a significant role in cultures across the world and many alternative medicine systems place great importance on bathing for purification and healing of the body and mind. Almost all major religions use water ceremonially. Rebirth, purification and fertility are often central to these rituals and water is often used to create connections between the physical and spiritual worlds.
In countries such as Japan, South Korea and Turkey, communal bathing is an integral part of society promoting both personal and communal well being. In many other parts of the world, bathing is purely a private and solitary affair.
Today, particularly in the west, bathing has become synonymous with de-stressing and winding down. Its a valuable opportunity for me-time. An excuse to slow down, be alone and become still. As the world around us becomes increasingly hyper-stimulating and the pace only ever seems to accelerate, bathing can provide a simple tool to effectively stop time and tap out.
As well as creating an almost instant feeling of relaxation, submerging the body in water can be an extremely powerful way to support so many aspects of our health. In recent times, a number of fascinating studies have shed light on just how beneficial bathing can be. Combining recent clinical evidence with ancient wisdom empowers us to live happier healthier lives through the simple act of taking a bath.
While there are many water-based therapies you can explore, this mini guide will focus on warm water bathing at home. The purpose is to provide you with insight into the many ways you can make use of the humble bath to enhance your own wellness. We will explore some of the many health benefits of bathing and you will be provided with practical advice, inspiration and information to help you take your bathing to the next level.
As mentioned, bathing is an intrinsic part of many medical systems, therapies, cultures and traditions and it would be impossible to explore every one of these in depth. Instead, this guide will look at some of the benefits, many of which have been tested in studies, with a focus on general wellbeing.
For specific health issues, it is important to seek personalised advice and treatment. This guide should not be used as a replacement to sound medical advice and is not deigned to be used to treat or diagnose specific health conditions. Bathing is not suitable for everyone, so seek advice where necessary.
In this guide we will explore how bathing can be beneficial for:
Heart health, sleep, depression, blood sugar, skin, detoxification, pain, loneliness, breathing and the immune system.
You will also find sections on:
Creating the perfect bath and safe bathing
A 2020 study* found that regular bathing was associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Researchers followed more than 30,000 participants in Japan for 20 years and found that those who regularly took warm water baths had a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who didn’t. They found that the more people bathed, the lower the risk.
The same team also identified a 26% reduction in stroke risk in daily bathers, when compared to those who took baths 0-2 times per week.
It’s not known exactly why this is the case although it may be due to the fact that warm baths help to dilate blood vessels. This leads to improved blood flow and can help to reduce blood pressure.
A bath in the evening can help you drift of more quickly and improve the quality of your sleep. Researchers in Japan found that people who took a bath 1-2 hours before going to bed fell asleep more quickly and moved around less during their first 3 hours of sleep, compared to participants who didn’t bathe.
Interestingly, the cause is largely to do with the way we cool down after a bath. Our body temperature naturally follows the body’s circadian rhythm and we cool right down in the evening before we sleep. Taking a warm bath heats us up and requires the body to actively cool down afterwards. This can enhance the natural cooling process that would usually occur, signalling to our body that it’s time to sleep. This sequence of heating up and then cooling off effectively tricks the body into thinking you’ve gone from daytime to night time, stimulating the pineal gland to release melatonin, the “sleep hormone”. For those who struggle to get to sleep, this process can help to regulate the circadian rhythm
Bathing has been found to induce chemical changes in the brain, with one study showing reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in those who spent 30 minutes in a spa bath. Bathing may also increase levels of serotonin, the brain chemical associated with feelings of happiness.
Researchers at Freiburg University found that taking baths may even be more beneficial at treating depression than physical exercise. Forty five participants suffering with depression were split into two groups, with 1 group taking daily baths in 40°C water and the other doing aerobic exercise for 40-45 minutes twice a week. After 8 weeks it was found that those who took baths had more improvement in mood than those who exercised.
It’s thought that one reason may again be linked to the circadian rhythm, which when dysregulated can result in an array of health problems, including mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Body temperature usually peaks in the afternoon for most people, but for those with depression, this can happen much later, throwing off the circadian rhythm. For this reason, heating up the body with an afternoon bath could be particularly beneficial.
Researchers at Loughborough university studied a small group of sedentary overweight men who took 10 hot one hour baths over two weeks. Results showed that the baths reduced blood sugar, improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation. The men also burned an average of 140 calories per hour. While this protocol is not comparable to physical exercise and may be tricky to implement, it’s encouraging for those with physical limitations looking to improve type 2 diabetes or manage their weight.
Our skin can benefit greatly from taking baths. Aside from cleansing it, baths provide an opportunity for us to hydrate, soften and sooth our skin. Warm water helps to open our pores and when we add mineral salts, healing herbs and nourishing oils to our bath water, the skin is able to soak up the benefits while we just sit and relax.
While our liver and kidneys are our main detoxifying organs, our skin also plays a huge role in ridding the body of toxins. In fact, it is often referred to as our third liver for this very reason! When we bathe, we sweat out toxins from the body through our skin. Using epsom salts may enhance this process by stimulating the flow of the lymphatic system as well as drawing toxins out of the skin.
It will come as no surprise that warm water can provide a natural way to relieve aching muscles and joints. Immersing ourselves in warm water reduces the force of gravity that compresses our joints and has been found to be effective for those suffering from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis and lower back pain.
Interestingly, researchers have discovered that heat applied to the skin can also block pain receptors associated with internal organs. This is one of the reasons why baths can be so soothing for sufferers of period pain.
Epsom salts can enhance this effect and are often used to help relieve sore muscles and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after exercising. Just add two cups to a bath and soak for 10-30 minutes.
A fascinating study conducted at Yale university found that physical warmth can alleviate feelings of loneliness and make us feel more socially “warm”. Researchers found that the more lonely people felt, the more frequently they bathed and the hotter the water, suggesting that we instinctively turn to bathing in times of social isolation. They also found that feeling physical warmth alleviated feelings of loneliness and social rejection.
Taking a hot bath can help us to breathe more slowly and deeply. When we feel more relaxed, our breathing rate slows and deepens, allowing us to take in more air which oxygenates our blood. Breathing in the steam that rises up from your bath, especially if it is enhanced with essential oils, can open the airways, allowing you to breathe more easily.
Deep breathing, relaxation and improved circulation can all support the immune system. Studies have also indicated that a warm soak may improve immunity by increasing the body’s core temperature. Immunology researchers at Roswell park cancer institute found that bathing in warm water for 20-30 minutes increased production of white blood cells which improve the body’s ability to fight infection.
Adding essential oils to the bath, particularly ginger and eucalyptus can also support the immune system as they are easily absorbed by the skin and through inhalation.
Hopefully you’re now starting to see bath time in a new light and feeling inspired to climb into the tub. Here are some ideas of ways you can really elevate your experience.
If the lights in your bathroom don’t quite set the mood for a relaxing soak, candles are a wonderful option. Aim for natural scents and soy wax. Alternatively opt for convincing LED candles that you don’t need to remember to blow out. Fairy lights can also add a bit of magic, just keep them away from the water!
Changing the way a room smells can vastly alter the way it makes you feel. Incense, smudge sticks and essential oils all have the potential to transform your bathing experience.
If you prefer not to bathe in total silence, consider creating a bath time playlist or lining up a podcast in advance. This way you can avoid interacting with technology. Nature sounds, chanting and singing bowls can be particularly soothing.
spiritual bathing involves imparting intention into the water through prayer or ritual. It is deeply rooted in many faiths and is particularly significant in many traditional African religions. There are many ways to approach spiritual bathing which can be a beautiful and humbling act of self care. You may wish to bless your bathwater, take a few moments to show gratitude or recite affirmations that feel right for you. If this resonates, you may like to research spiritual bathing more deeply.
Keep a drink close by. You don’t want to drink too much before getting into the tub (for obvious reasons) but you may become thirsty from sweating.
Breathing deeply and with intention is perfectly suited to bathing. If you already practise meditation, see how you feel doing it in the bath. Alternatively, you could try simple breathing techniques to instill a sense of calm and help you become more mindful. 478 breathing is a simple yet powerful one to try. Breathe in to the count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7 and breathe out for a count of 8.
Baths offer a perfect environment to gently stretch since warm water stimulates blood flow, loosening up stiff joints. Allowing the natural buoyancy to support you, bath time can be a perfect opportunity to bring ease to gentle seated movements.
Adding salts to your bath can have a number of benefits. Soaking in mineral rich natural salts can help draw out impurities from the skin, soothe aching muscles and may offer an opportunity to absorb magnesium, a vital nutrient important for bone and heart health, in which many people are deficient. An added benefit is that it can also help to soften hard water, making for a silky smooth soak!
There are so many nourishing ingredients you can add to your bath, with each one bringing its unique healing properties. Take the time to explore and research the many bath-friendly essential oils, herbs and other plants available to you. Understand that many will have powerful properties, so go slow, work with one new ingredient at a time and do your research.
Finally, make the most of those precious moments after your bath. The Japanese term “Yu-agari” translates to “after bath” and in Japanese bathing culture, this precious moment is not to be missed. Embrace your post-bath feelings of calm and serenity in whatever way feels best for you.
As you begin to approach your bath times from a new angle and perhaps with a little excitement, it’s important to keep in mind a few things to ensure you maintain an ocean of calm in the tub!
While there isn’t an ideal temperature for everyone, aim for somewhere between around 90° F and 105° F (32° C – 40° C). If your bath is too hot, you could become lightheaded and may be unsteady getting out. Water that is too hot may also damage and dry out your skin. Bath thermometers can be handy for preparing the perfect soak.
Baths make you sweat, so it’s important to make sure you’re well hydrated before getting in. Be sure to drink water after your bath too.
Bathing presents a number of slip hazards. Dehydration, sleepiness or simply being over-relaxed does not mix well with wet surfaces. On top of that, bath oils can make both your bath and the skin on your feet extremely slippery. Take extra care, especially when oils are involved.
While these can create an extremely calming mood, you won’t be so relaxed if you nod off and start a fire. If you think there’s any chance of you drifting off, opt for an LED candle or waft your incense around the room and then put it out.
Ventilation is extremely important. If your bathroom becomes too steamy you may find it difficult to breathe properly. Equally, if you decide to have something burning throughout your bath time, you’ll need to ensure you have fresh airflow.
Take care using new ingredients in the bath. It’s wise to test things out on a small patch of skin to see how you react. Just because something is natural does not mean you will respond well to it. It’s recommended to do a test before soaking your entire body in something for the first time. Seek professional advice if you have doubts about a product.
There are so many amazing natural ingredients that you can add to your bath. Many of them are inexpensive and multifunctional. Many commercial bathing products are full of synthetic ingredients which are not truly safe for you to sit and soak in. Take a look in your kitchen cupboards and do your research. You’ll be surprised how many beauty products you might find in there!
Bathing is flowers is possibly one of the most luxurious acts of self-care, but aim for organic or naturally grown flowers as you don’t want to be soaking your skin in pesticides.
Once you have found the best essential oils for you, it’s important to add them to your bath safely. Essential oils will not mix with your bath water if you add them directly. They will sit on the surface of the water and then transfer directly onto the surface of your skin. Depending on the oil and the part of your body it settles on, this can be very uncomfortable! The easiest way to avoid this is by mixing your chosen essential oils with a tablespoon of carrier oil such as olive, jojoba or sweet almond oil.
Bathing is amazing! But it is not suitable for everyone at all times. If bathing is new to you and you have a specific health condition, it’s always worth double checking with a health professional before filling the tub.
T. Ukai et al, 2020 Habitual tub bathing and risks of incident coronary heart disease and stroke
K Kanda, Y Tochihara, T Ohnaka 1998 – Bathing before sleep in the young and in the elderly
Toda et al., 2006 Change in salivary physiological stress markers by spa bathing
Marzsziti et al., 2007 – Thermal balneotherapy induces changes of the platelet serotonin transporter in healthy subjects
Naumann et al., 2017 – Effects of hyperthermic baths on depression, sleep and heart rate variability in patients with depressive disorder
BLOOD SUGAR AND WEIGHT MANAGEMENT:
Hoekstra et al., Acute and chronic effects of hot water immersion on inflammation and metabolism in sedentary, overweight adults
E. Sears, K.Kerr, R Bray 2012, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Sweat: A Systematic Review
B King, 2006
J.A. Bargh, Idit Shalev, 2011 – The Substitutability of Physical and Social Warmth in Daily Life
T. A. Mace et al., – Differentiation of CD8+ T cells into effector cells is enhanced by physiological range hyperthermia
A Peterfalvi et al., 2019 – Much More Than a Pleasant Scent: A Review on Essential Oils Supporting the Immune System