All Waters Are Not Created Equal

Healing Remedies of the Sea

By Monica Tuma Brown

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2002.

Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Most of us take water for granted. It’s in our oceans, rivers, lakes and swimming pools. It falls from the sky and flows from our faucets. We swim, bathe, wash and soak in it. When we need it, or want it, we have it. Our supply of water is not the problem today, (more than 70 percent of the Earth is covered by it) the problem is the purity of the water.

All water is not the same. There are differences equating to different healing properties and, as you can imagine, its uses in hydrotherapy vary greatly.

Easy as A, B, Sea

In a very general sense of the word, “hydrotherapy” is the therapeutic use of water, including showers, packs, saunas, etc. Water can be used in various forms, such as steam or ice, and it can be used at variant temperatures, such as hot in a partial immersion bath or cold in a compress. Simply put, water is not only the most abundant source of natural healing available, it is also the most variable.

But why is this liquid the best resource for the body’s rejuvenation? Because nearly 70 percent of our body is comprised of it. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the most profuse form of water on Earth: seawater. Life began in the sea, and in a sense, so did we. Seawater is remarkably similar to many fluids in our bodies. In fact, the amniotic fluid of the womb, which protects and bathes the forming fetus, has near identical properties to seawater. Minerals, salts and vitamins are readily found in seawater and play an important role in our bodily functions and health. For instance, minerals are necessary for the acid/alkaline balance of the body and skin, and for proper functioning of the nervous system. When used in spa therapies, seawater is like taking your vitamins and minerals externally.

It’s little wonder Europeans champion the benefits of the therapeutic use of seawater and sea-derived products, also known as thalassotherapy. Since the late 1800s, thalassotherapy centers have flourished, most notably in France. Objectives of this treatment include detoxification, relaxation, tonification, remineralization, energy balancing and pH balancing. Thalassotherapy spas generally offer a range of beauty, physiotherapy, diet and relaxation programs, and may include effusions, physical therapies, seaside exercise programs, salt water pools, sea muds, sea salts, inhalations, underwater massage, sun baths, walking pools, solariums, spray showers or bubbling baths.

Therapeutically, European spa programs using seawater treatments have even proven beneficial in the treatment of depression, rheumatism, gastroenteritis, weight reduction, menopause and physical rehabilitation. The most famous study of the effects of seawater was performed by French physician Rene Quinton. Credited with the modern European revival and application of thalassotherapy, Quinton is noted for his presentation in 1900 at the 13th annual Congress of Medicine in Paris where he noted “all living organisms are in fact a marine aquarium.” He also stated that seawater should be used to heal.

In an infamous experiment, Quinton bled a dog until it was white, removing the red corpuscles and serum. Then, he injected it with seawater. The hemoglobin the dog had lost was restored and it was soon running around and vigorous again. He also found that its kidney cells worked 60 times better than normal. With this simple experiment, Quinton proved seawater and blood plasma are remarkably similar in composition.

Besides seawater, seaweed — a concentrate of seawater — is also beneficial. Seaweeds are used in health and beauty preparations primarily because they contain all of the minerals required by man (more minerals than any other plant or food). In fact, 32 elements are known to occur in seaweed, including calcium, potassium, silicon, magnesium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine and bromine, and 7 percent-38 percent of its dry weight is comprised solely of minerals.

Because there are many different types of seaweed and they each have particular benefits, let’s take a look at each to determine which better serves the variety of hydrotherapy techniques.

Browns: There are approximately 30 major brown seaweeds. These are predominately antibacterial, cleansing and regenerative, as well as good for edema, hypertension and gynecological diseases. Specific browns include laminaria sinclarii (kelp), saccharine (sugar wruck), digitate (sea tangle) and fucus (bladder wruck). Fucus is perhaps the best known brown algae. It is a rock weed and, as in all seaweeds, is known for its high content of minerals. Laminaria is a kelp, a particular seaweed that is coarse and attaches itself to stones. Laminaria and fucus are both rich sources of iodine.

Greens (sea grapes): Of the approximately 12 major greens, most are used for their firming qualities, as well as stomach disease and hemorrhoids. Greens include ulva lactuca linnaeues (sea lettuce) and enteromorpha prolifera (green laver).

White: Rich in calcium and magnesium, white algae is a perfect choice for the client who is iodine sensitive.

Reds: There are 36 major red seaweeds. These are predominately hydrating and nourishing, and are used for respiratory ailments, hypertension and as vermicides. Reds include gigartina exaoperata (Turkish towel), ahnfeltia plicata (bushy Ahnfelts seaweed) and chondrus crispus (Irish moss).

Most seaweeds used in spa therapies are larger marine algae belonging chiefly to the reds and browns, and in lesser proportions to certain greens and blue-green algaes. They are common in many parts of the world, but reach maximal size along rocky coasts in temperate regions.

As beauty products, seaweeds are predominantly used for their revitalizing and moisture restoring action on the dermis and epidermis. When used in wraps and baths, they relax, detoxify, remineralize and balance the body. They also increase circulation, stimulate the flow of toxins and wastes in certain areas, remineralize the body, tonify tissue and are highly relaxing.

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral

Mineral waters are formed under the earth’s crust, originating from underground streams and rivers which hold 20 to 30 times more water than the rivers and streams we see above ground.

Essentially, there are three types of springs: natural, artesian and thermal. Any spring that rises naturally to the earth’s surface is a natural spring. Artesian springs are bored springs, lightly mineralized, and surface within a few degrees of air temperature. Thermal springs are hotter. They can range from 60 degrees to well above boiling point. How do they get so hot? The earth heats the water. For every 50–100 feet of depth, the temperature rises one degree. Thermal springs are also heavily mineralized and are found near primitive rocks and volcanic regions.

We classify and use mineral waters in spa therapies based upon their mineral content. This may or may not include chloride waters, hydrocarbonate waters, carbonate waters, sulfate waters, ferriferous waters, arsenous waters, waters containing iodine, sulfurous waters, waters containing radon, radiferous waters and waters containing carbon dioxide or mineral springs charged with carbon dioxide.

In order to be classified as mineral water, the water must have dissolved solids of at least 500 ppm (parts per million). However, the classifications in no way tell the whole story. Mineral waters are a complex, inorganic body. The taste, odor and physical characteristics of a mineral water are determined by the mineral ingredients the water absorbs from the underground rock formations.

Springs are often identifiable by their odor and/or residue. The pungent smell of a sulphur spring is likened to the smell of rotten eggs. Carbonate springs often leave a chalky residue at their surface. Iron-bearing waters leave an orange slime, and chloride waters leave a salty silt.

The waters also have a life force of their own. Mineral water is essentially a living medium because the minerals are in a constant state of ionic attraction and/or repulsion, creating and undoing various combinations of minerals constantly. It has even been suggested that it is the ions, not the dissociated mineral elements, that are responsible for the action of mineral waters in traditional spa therapies.

Some of the reasons mineral springs were used in the past have been proven medically-beneficial today. For instance, saline springs, usually found near shale or sandstone, were once bottled medicines because they stimulated the appetite. Today, we know they are high in chlorides and do help promote appetite. Ferruginous springs were used to energize the bather as the iron would enrich the blood. Sulphurous waters were once used by people suffering from skin diseases. Today, we know they are beneficial for liver detoxification.

A traditional mineral springs cure is and was a prescription of baths, immersions, drinking and inhalation, usually lasting four weeks. During this time, many individuals experience a bathing reaction that generally occurs on about the ninth day after 4–8 thermal baths have been taken. At this time, one might experience a loss of appetite, difficulty resting, sometimes a rise in body temperature and a melancholy disposition. (It’s also interesting to note that the so-called bathing reaction occurs only in mineral water baths, not from freshwater bathing. In Europe, the mineral water spas are classified and prescribed per condition due to the unique action of the springs upon the body.) But never fear. As in most natural therapies, this is simply the rain before the rainbow. A transformation almost always takes place by the end of the cure, whereby the general condition of an individual greatly improves. Sublime rest, a sense of well-being and invigoration are often the long-lasting result. In fact, German studies have revealed that treatment at medicinal springs results in a decrease of loss of work or absenteeism due to illness by 35 percent during the two years following treatment.

As far as internal hydrotherapy, drinking mineral waters of lower mineral content actually helps draw sodium and nitrates from the body, while drinking highly mineralized water can alter the pH of the body and blood. Also, it’s known that sitting in a mineral spring for 15 minutes burns the same number of calories as jogging more than half a mile. When you consider what various mineral waters can do, it’s no wonder water is one of life’s necessities and pleasures and has been used for many years in spa therapies.

Good for a Body

Besides specific seawater or mineral water spa therapies, what else does water do for us? Water is life-giving, providing the catalyst for most of the body’s metabolic processes. It rids the system of wastes, lubricates the intestines and joints, is essential to digestion, and transports oxygen and nutrients through the blood and lymphatic system. It’s the body’s air conditioning, helps overcome constipation, stimulates the liver and kidneys, and purifies cells.

Our bodies are composed of at least 50 percent water, 20 percent proteins, 5 percent minerals and less than 1 percent vitamins. All except the minerals evaporate (from dust to dust as the saying goes). Water is the most abundant cellular component, comprising approximately 70 percent of our weight. If you remove all that water, you’ll be left with some large organic molecules, some small inorganic molecules and a few minerals. Water and minerals comprise the greater part of our bodies, just as they do the earth.

Minerals are cellular building blocks and must be ingested daily. Vitamins and enzymes are minerals’ co-workers, helping to get the job done. Water transports minerals throughout the body. Minerals are responsible for many functions in our bodies such as nerve physiology and keeping our immune system ready to do battle. A bottle of mineral water is an easily assimilable source of minerals, when used properly.

Many illnesses can be traced to mineral imbalances in the body (either an abundance or a deficiency). And mineral water or seawater spa treatments are a good source of increasing or decreasing minerals in the body.

Needless to say, water is our most important nutrient. Without it, we would die within half a day in a hot climate, and in cold climate we would probably die within seven days. We can survive much longer without food (as long as 40 days).

Aging is a process of dehydration. At birth, a baby is 70 percent to 80 percent water, while at an elderly death we are generally only about 50 percent water. Losing 5 percent of your body weight in water can lead to dehydration (which is easily possible during vigorous exercise lasting more than two hours).

So, how much water do we really need to drink each day? At least 8–10 glasses. People tend to worry more about replacing fluids in hot weather, when in truth, enormous amounts of water are exhaled during cold weather. Why? When air enters the respiratory pathways, it becomes 100 percent saturated with water that then leaves the body with each exhalation. And don’t worry about drinking too much water. Consider the benefits of internal hydrotherapy: if a quart of water is drunk in a short period of time (within an hour or two) four-fifths will be eliminated in the next two hours. Though the urine will be less concentrated, it will contain a larger amount of wastes.


Now let’s look at the physical properties of a bath. Here, the hydrostatic pressure of water actually pushes against the body, literally helping “take the load off” our feet and legs as water stored in our lower extremities and the contents of our lymphatic vessels and blood vessels is pushed back to the heart and lungs. The dynamic results of bathing, such as the effects of bubbles, jets, underwater massage and lymph drainage, remove the laminaria protective layer of the skin, enabling better penetration of product. Hydromassages stimulate the production of histamines in the body and of course are also relaxing.

Most baths are recommended at 20-minute durations, but detox and weight reduction baths can last several hours with varying sequences of hot and cold. For every 2.8-degree rise in temperature of a bath, you increase your metabolism two-fold.

The effect of buoyancy reduces the weight of our body below the neck by approximately 85 percent. This is the reason we feel so much lighter in water and also why water exercises are excellent for rehabilitation, general conditioning, limited mobility and the overweight.

When bathing in a mineral spring or using seawater, minerals have been shown to actually penetrate the skin and deep tissues. As you already know, the various minerals have different indications and functions within our body. In European spas, doctors prescribe specific minerals found at each spring.

Other additions to the bath, such as seaweed, offer tremendous benefits. The mineral salt composition of seaweed is 3 percent–6 percent (while the Dead Sea salts have a much higher concentration of salts — approximately 27 percent–32 percent). As such, marine baths will improve circulation, remineralize the system, hydrate the skin, tone the body, relax the psyche, and promote good health and a restful night’s sleep.

Skin Deep

Water possesses great curative powers through its ability to stimulate the nerve receptors in the skin, which act as transmitter organs. To understand and appreciate hydrotherapy, you need to understand the function of our skin. Our skin is an organ, just as important as our heart, liver and lungs. It is the keyboard of hydrotherapy as it is directly or indirectly connected to the functions of all other parts of the body. Did you know that if our skin fails to function for just a few hours, all of our internal organs break down — the nervous system becomes paralyzed and the kidneys, liver and heart poisoned? That’s why in severe scalding or third-degree burns where two-thirds of the skin is destroyed, death follows shortly. Remember “Goldfinger”? The actress playing James Bond’s on-screen girlfriend was painted gold and subsequently died because her skin “suffocated.”

The skin is an elastic and sensitive organ due to the presence of a network of elastic fibers and nerve fibers in its deeper parts. A patch of skin the size of a quarter contains one yard of blood vessels, four yards of nerves, 25 nerve ends, 100 sweat glands and more than 3 million cells. Great numbers of tiny glands are present and their openings on the surface are called pores. But more important than any of these are the fine blood vessels and nerves which are so numerous that it is impossible to pass the finest needle point into the skin without causing pain and bleeding. It is through these that the application of water can affect the entire system most profoundly.

Skin functions as a protective membrane for all the deeper tissues and organs beneath it. It is also a sense organ that becomes either excited or relaxed in cold or warm water and passes this information deeper into the body. This is why water temperatures are so important in hydrotherapy. If the purpose of a spa treatment is to absorb minerals and extracts, then you need to be sure the temperature of the bath is 98-100 degrees for maximum therapy. If the water is hot, you perspire, you eliminate; if it’s too cold, the skin and blood vessels constrict. Everything we normally excrete or metabolize can be increased or decreased by the application of water to the skin at varying temperatures.

Healing by water can mean contact and use of water either internally or externally. Internally, we are hydrating, cleansing, lubricating and satiating. Externally, we are affected by the response and messaging between our skin and a tub or spray of water.

Most everyone would benefit from the relaxation components hydrotherapy offers. However, the real purpose is to increase circulation — when you increase circulation you increase elimination. Unfortunately, in the United States improper elimination is the cause of many of our health problems. Hopefully, the addition of hydrotherapies to day spas and spa programs can assist in ridding the harmful chemicals from our nation’s populace.