Balneology: It’s All About the Water


The science of studying the healing effects of bathing, drinking, steaming and inhaling natural mineral waters is known as balneology. In addition to promoting relaxation, science is discovering that soaking in hot springs has tangible health benefits.

Wherever there are geothermal springs, people have been soaking in them for as long as anyone can remember, and for just as long they have been attributing improved health and wellbeing to “taking the waters.”

A History of Healing

According to the Balneology Association of North America (BANA), balneology has its origins in ancient cultures—Egypt, Greece, Roman, Germany, Arabia, China and Japan, as well as in indigenous cultures. Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine,” was the first to reference healing with water in 500 B.C. and the Romans were famous for building bathhouses that brought together citizens for communal bathing. In the Americas, soaking in hot springs for health is considered part of the alternative medicine panoply, while medically supervised spas and weeklong “kurs” at hot springs spas are common throughout Europe and Japan.

Immersion as Therapy

The word “spa” is a Latin abbreviation for Salud Per Aqua, meaning “Health through Water.” Though hot springs resorts are known as spas where taking the waters is the primary activity, they are also where guests can enjoy the benefits of other wellness modalities, such as massage, reflexology, exercise and mud baths. According to Sebastian Kneipp, German forefather of the naturopathic movement, “Water contains healing; it is the simplest, cheapest and—if used correctly—the safest remedy.”

Geology and Geothermal Properties

A basic tenant of balneology is that the mineral content of a hot spring is influenced by the geology of the region in which it’s located. Each thermal resort is unique. Depending on what’s beneath the surface, a hot spring may have more or less of a particular mineral. For curious patrons, most resorts will provide a list of the dissolved solids found in their waters. Some common soluble minerals include calcium carbonate, iron compounds, sodium, silica, sulfur compounds, magnesium, potassium and lithium.

Mineral Medicine

Hot springs water has been touted to cure everything from kidney stones to male pattern baldness. While some claims may stretch credulity, researchers are discovering that soaking has significant benefits for a variety of diseases. Balneotherapy has been shown to be effective for relieving insomnia and pain symptoms associated with fibromyalgia and arthritis. Hydrotherapy can provide relief for skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema. Hot springs high in sulfur have been cited for the treatment of inflammatory diseases, as well as for promoting increased blood circulation. Lithium-rich hot springs are known to improve mood disorders including anxiety and depression.

Hot Springs at Home and on the Go

Like regular exercise or sound dietary practices, the greatest benefits of balneotherapy, especially for chronic ailments, come from frequent soaking. For those who live in the vicinity of a hot spring, consider soaking as part of a regular self-care routine. For those further away, geothermal resorts, which are located throughout the U.S., are an ideal choice for a wellness-focused travel destination.

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Categories: Health and Wellness