Baths and bathing have been such a huge part of human health that there's a bathing tradition on every continent; Scandinavians take plunges in cool water after time in a sauna, while the Roman love for baths gave birth to huge bathing complexes with under-floor heating and a range of temperatures, some of which are still standing today. Nowadays, however, hot baths in one guise or another are largely prescribed for relaxation and getting a bit of time for yourself. But does taking baths also have medicinal qualities?
Too-warm baths are actually not particularly good for you; they put your body under what's called heat stress, where your body's internal temperature regulation is thrown and doesn't have enough opportunity to recalibrate (i.e. if you've got most of your skin submerged in scalding water and it can't cool down). Heat stress, according to Harvard Medical School, is actually a strain on the heart, so ideally you should take slightly cooler baths or frequently pour cold water on yourself while you broil. (It's why people with heart disorders should stay away from hot tubs and saunas.) Otherwise, baths' medicinal benefits are focused on two areas: psychological relaxation, and targeting specific conditions.
And here's a myth busted: hot baths can't help cure cancer. Heat is sometimes used as part of "hyperthermia" treatments to treat cancer, in combination with radiotherapy and chemotherapy; but hyperthermia uses highly specialized heat treatment, like heating up blood and re-injecting it or putting heated probes into tumours, rather than general immersion into water. Sorry, guys.
An important side note: If you're a sufferer of frequent UTIs, you might actually want to avoid baths. Excessive time spent in bathwater, particularly if it's got bubble bath or bath oils in it, has been linked to increased rates of UTIs, even in young girls, because the exposure to bacteria from your rectum can end up entering your urethra. Sad, but sometimes, no amount of health benefits is worth the pain.
If that's not you, then behold these six health benefits of taking baths.
1. Being Horizontal In Water Helps Your Mood
This is actually not the most amazing revelation, but it may surprise you to know that it's actually scientifically proven. In 2002 a University of Wolverhampton study found that a daily bath, usually at the end of the day, significantly improved the mood and optimism of the participants, which was attributed to a combination of bodily comfort, warmth, isolation, and body positioning.
It turns out that our bodies associate horizontal conditions with relaxation and vulnerability, particularly in the bath, which possibly mimics the warm, liquid conditions of the womb. One baby-bath manufacturer even makes baths that consciously feel like the womb, to calm any unhappy little ex-occupants. Some scholars think that this particular positioning gives us a sensation of security.
2. Baths Can Help Relieve Skin Conditions
If you suffer from psoriasis or another skin condition, you've likely been prescribed medicated or oiled baths as a method of moisturizing your skin, sloughing off dead cells, and attempting to remove potential causes of infection. And there's new research to suggest that a material that ideally shouldn't go anywhere near human skin might actually be a cure for inflammatory skin diseases in baths: bleach.
Researchers at Stanford found that baths in 0.005 percent bleach helped eczema sufferers both by killing the bacteria on the skin and by dampening the immune system's inflammation response, reducing pain and swelling. It's not recommended if you're not suffering from serious dermatitis of some kind, though. (Also, be really, really careful if you ever try this at home.)
3. Bath Heat Can Help With Muscle Pain
The real culprit behind the relief of muscle pain in your bath isn't actually your bath salts: depending on the type of bath you take, it's either heat or lactic acid. If you're taking a hot bath, it's suggested that the heat of the bath is providing the equivalent of a "hot pack" that increases the temperature of the aching muscles, blocking pain sensors and producing pain relief.
If you're an athlete, though, you're more likely to throw yourself into a cold bath, which lowers the levels of lactic acid in the bloodstream. The cold constricts blood vessels and drains lactic acid, which builds up in the body during intense exercise, out of the affected muscles. Once you get out, new blood, free of acid build-up, replaces it, and your recovery time significantly improves.
4. Hot Baths Before Bed Produce Better Sleep
A good night's sleep is associated with a host of health benefits, from immune system strength to better pain recovery, and a heated bath before bed is apparently a good way to ensure that you drift off to the Land of Nod without too much difficulty. It's a matter of temperature adjustment and hormones.
5. Steam Helps To Reduce Cold Symptoms
One of the warm bath's better qualities is as a treatment for symptoms is its function for winter cold-sufferers. We can't make the common cold vanish, but getting yourself submerged in hot water targets two different elements of cold-management: steam therapy and overall body temperature.
The inhalation of steam is an excellent remedy for cold-induced misery. It clears out the nasal passages while reducing inflammation, and a steamy bath is a great source of the stuff. And it's recommended that you keep yourself warm when you're suffering from a virus: a 2011 study showed that elevated body temperature actually helps certain elements of your immune system to function more efficiently, helping you fight off infections and general nasties. A warm bath makes your immune system work better.
6. Salt Water Baths Calm Arthritic Pain
If you're a sufferer of chronic pain related to arthritis, fibromyalgia, or muscular low back issues, this one may actually be a godsend: using average table salt in your next bath can really help to reduce the amount of pain you get in your joints. The discovery, made by scientists in 2012, shows that a saltwater bath takes a lot of the agony out of inflammation-based pain syndromes.
The reason? Salt reduces swelling in cells by dehydrating them, and acts as an inhibitor of the inflammation that causes such serious pain in sufferers. Interestingly, salt baths are one of the most ancient on the planet, beloved by the ancient Greeks and made into a full-blown industry in the 1700s in Europe. Clearly salt baths for pain relief have been a thing for thousands of years, but it's only now that we're understanding why.
Images: Mislav Marohnić/Flickr; Giphy