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Healing with Hydrotherapy

Water is an essential component of human health—we simply couldn’t live without it. Water transports nutrients throughout the body, flushes out toxins, lubricates joints, and nourishes every single cell.

Because of its unique physical properties, water can also be an effective natural treatment—a practice known as hydrotherapy—for issues including respiratory congestion, fever, and physical and psychological stress.

“Hydrotherapy speaks deeply to a part of us that is nurtured by water, and can have an incredibly calming effect,” says Gaia Mather, a naturopathic physician and assistant professor at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. “It’s also a powerful tool for healing.”

How Hydrotherapy Works

Broadly defined, hydrotherapy is the use of water in any of its forms—liquid, ice or steam—internally or externally. Hydrotherapy can be as simple as drinking more water or taking a hot bath to relax.

In a clinical setting, common hydrotherapy treatments use compresses and wraps to zero in on one of water’s most powerful properties: its ability to store and transport heat.

“In one treatment, we cover the body with hot towels from the collarbones to the hips,” Mather says. “Then we switch to a cold towel, but it’s only cold for a moment because the body immediately begins to heat it up.”

The initial heat causes blood vessels to expand, drawing blood to the body’s core. The cold towel then causes the blood vessels to constrict, pushing the blood out to the body’s periphery. As the body heats up the cold towel, it creates a secondary dilation, bringing blood back to the core.

“The alternating temperatures create a pumping action that gets the blood and lymph system moving and stimulates the immune system to help the body fight off infection and disease,” Mather explains.

Hydrotherapy at Home

Mather recommends a couple of easy ways to get the benefits of hydrotherapy at home.

Heating throat compress—for upper respiratory congestion, a stiff neck or a sore throat.

Run a cotton hand towel under warm water, wring it out thoroughly, and wrap it around your neck. Cover the warm cloth with a wool scarf and leave it on for about five minutes. Then, take a second handkerchief or tea towel and run it under cold water. Wring it out, take off the hot cloth and replace it with the cold one. Cover with the wool scarf and leave on for 20–30 minutes or up to a couple hours.

“The wool lets the water evaporate from the wet cloth, which is cooling, and then your body heats it up again, causing that alternating effect,” Mather says.

Warming socks—for congestion or fever.

Before you go to bed, soak your feet in a warm bath and then dry them. Soak a pair of cotton socks in cold water, wring them out thoroughly and put them on your warm feet. Then cover them with a pair of dry wool socks and leave them on overnight.

“It creates that pumping action throughout the night, pulling blood down toward the feet, which decongests areas higher in the body, like the chest and head,” says Mather. “It also creates some cooling throughout the night, helping you sleep better when you have a fever.”