There’s perhaps no better elixir than soaking in warm water after a long day. Many of us can attest to the relaxing benefits of unwinding with a hot bath, but did you know it can also help improve your health?
Most ancient cultures have long believed in the healing effects of water. Similar to mindfulness, the Japanese practice of engaging in public baths known as “sento” is used as a way of cleansing both the body and the mind. While we don’t have public baths in the States, we may be able to get the benefits in the privacy of our own homes. In fact, in a modern Japanese home, this is known as “furo.”
That’s right, your own bathtub may be key to literally washing your pain away.
Hot water is healing with passive heating
The therapeutic ritual of bathing culture in Japan involves more than just cleansing yourself of physical dirt. From “onsens,” or natural hot springs, to sentos (public baths) and furos (private baths), soaking in these healing waters are a way of purifying from the day-to-day spiritual grime.
“Your skin releases endorphins in response to the soothing warm water the same way that endorphins are released when you feel the sun on your skin,” says Dr. Bobby Buka, a dermatologist based in New York. He explains that submerging ourselves in hot water can be both therapeutic and reinvigorating because blood flow increases to the skin.
A warm bath can also improve breathing. The temperature of the water and pressure on your chest increases your lung capacity and oxygen intake. A growing body of research has shown that passive heating, like spending time in a sauna, can also reduce the risk of having a heart attack, improve blood sugar control, and even help lower your blood pressure.
In one eye opening study published earlier this year, researchers collected data from 14 participants and found that soaking in an hourlong hot bath burned as many calories (around 140) as a 30-minute walk. This is because the warm water makes your heart beat faster, giving it a healthy work out. They also found positive anti-inflammatory and blood sugar responses which can protect against illness and infection.
Let’s not forget about the best benefit: pain reduction
Bathing in a sento is a unique cultural and communal experience in Japan. They claim that the hot water from their natural springs can improve blood circulation, calm the nervous system, and help relieve intense pain. While hot spring water isn’t readily available in the States, science shows that we can obtain similar benefits by soaking in a hot tub or visiting a sauna.
“Stress causes the muscles of the body to contract,” says Dr. Mark Khorsandi, a migraine surgeon in Houston, Texas. “A hot bath can relieve those symptoms and keep the muscles loose.” Stretching and moving in the water also provides a low-impact workout for discomfort in muscles, joints, and bones.
This has been true for Alaina Leary, 24, who regularly takes hot baths to help manage chronic pain from living with Ehlers-Danlos, a disorder that affects the connective tissues. When she was first diagnosed at the age of 9 in 2002, she recalls feeling extremely breakable. “I was slower than other kids. I had trouble running [and] walking one foot at a time.”
After working with different physical and occupational therapists, she began using warm baths during pain flare-ups. In the evenings, she would set aside time to ease into the tub and let her muscles relax.
Many people who have chronic illnesses report feelings of depression and despair. Khorsandi says hot baths can provide physical comfort and contentment, and can ease the blues that are associated with chronic pain.
Improve mindfulness with an Epsom salt bath
Immersion in a sento has restorative and emotionally curative qualities that help remove impurities from the mind, body, and spirit. For Carie Sherman, 41, taking regular hot baths has helped alleviate discomfort from an autoimmune disorder. “I got sick after I had my first baby, and for about a year after I had her, I was experiencing quite a bit of chronic pain and fatigue,” she says.
She remembers feeling pins and needles in her hands when she initially found out about her illness back in 2012. “I went through a period of depression after getting diagnosed, not knowing if I was ever going to feel better.”
Through trial and error, she discovered that doing gentle yoga and soaking in weekly baths lessened the constant aches in her joints and muscles. After filling the tub with Epsom salt, she set her phone nearby and listened to guided meditations. Soaking in dissolved Epsom salt can help with muscle soreness and stress, allowing for even greater relaxation.
She now uses her time in the warm water for practicing mindfulness. “One of the things I learned from having an autoimmune disorder is that there is no cure. And not only is there no cure, you're really kind of on your own in terms of what's going to make your body feel better,” she says.
Paying closer attention to the sensations in her body has helped Sherman feel more present, in spite of her illness. Now, several years after being diagnosed, she’s noticed significant changes in both her physical and emotional well-being. Restorative bathing like onsen, sento, and furo involves transforming both the mind and soul to have deeper, more meaningful experiences.
“The meditations have taught me that using water is a way of washing off your day and releasing energy.”
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.