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For centuries, bathing has played integral roles in a variety of cultures. Take it from Iceland, the world’s second-happiest nation. Last year, the New York Times called its warm communal pools “Iceland’s Water Cure.” Ancient Rome was known for its communal bath houses that fostered society. In Japan, the ritual of bathing is prized such that tubs are given prominence in the home (usually a separate room, not beside the toilet as it is here).

Along with improving hygiene—both public and private—baths have long been used for social connection and ritual purification, and they were believed to cure illnesses. These days, most of us equate our bath to a simple act of relaxation, but recent research confirms the benefits of bathing go beyond a scrumptious soak.

Beat the Heat

study at Loughborough University in the U.K. looked at how bathing affects blood sugar levels (as a measure of metabolic fitness) and calories burned. While the study included only fourteen men, it affirmed theories that the “passive heating” of bathing has similar benefits to those of aerobic exercise. Subjects spent an hour in an effort to raise their body temperature 1°C, either by cycling or soaking in a bath. Cycling burned more calories, but those who bathed still burned 140 calories, the equivalent of taking a thirty-minute walk. As for blood sugar, those who bathed had 10 percent lower (i.e., more controlled) blood sugar after eating than those who did not. Balanced blood sugar helps reduce the risks for heart attacks, strokes, eyesight loss, and artery or kidney disease.

Other recent research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology also showed that the passive heat from bathing may improve cardiovascular function by dilating blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure. This jibes with other studies showing that passive heat therapy (repeated hot tub or sauna use) in 40.5°C (104°F) water four to five times a week for one hour per session may also reduce chronic inflammation that can lead to IBS, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s—though researchers are still understanding exactly how.

Soak It In

When done well, bathing is also a means of caring for your skin, aka the human body’s largest organ. The skin is more of a “carrier” than a “barrier,” says registered nurse Rebecca Lee. Bathing provides an opportunity for your skin to absorb minerals, nutrients, and chemicals that could help your body function efficiently. Here’s how she recommends getting the most out of tub time.

01. Start with a clean slate.

No one wants to soak in bacteria, grime, or mildew, so use a gentle cleanser (or make your own natural cleaning product here) to remove discolorations and slick spots on your tub and tile. Rinse it well.

02. Run warm water.

Run water that’s warm but not hot. Hot water can interfere with the balance of natural oils, fats, and proteins in your skin. Don’t plan to stay in so long that your skin wrinkles. Skin produces less oil as you age, and soaking too long can dry it out. Your skin should be soft, not flaky, when you’re out of the bath.

03. Choose your ingredients.

Stick to natural additives. Chemicals, fragrances, preservatives, and dyes could cause harm down there. Lee recommends using baking soda, Epsom salt, sea or Himalayan salt, and essential oils, depending on what you want to get out of your bath.

  • Baking soda: Good for colds, the flu, sore throats, skin disorders, inflammation, digestion problems, and circulating the lactic acid built up during exercise that results in a burning sensation felt in the muscles. Lee notes, “Cancer cells and microbes thrive better in acidic environments, so it is important to keep the pH of the body balanced.” Add a 1/2 cup of baking soda in a tub of water at a comfortable temperature and soak for ten to twenty minutes twice a week.
  • Epsom salt: Soothe aches and pains, increase blood circulation, lower blood pressure, and improve nerve function by regulating electrolytes. Epsom salt is composed of magnesium and sulfur, two critical nutrients that relax muscles and eliminate or reduce muscle spasms. For a standard-size tub, pour the recommended amount on the package (1 or 2 cups) into running water that is very warm but not hot. Soak for the recommended length of time on the package (ten to twenty minutes), but check with your doctor about how often you should repeat this.
  • Sea or Himalayan Salt: Useful for regulating water throughout your body, promoting a healthy pH balance in your cells, efficiently absorbing food through your intestinal tract, and preventing muscle cramps. Run bathwater to a temperature that is no more than two degrees above your body temperature so that it can better absorb minerals from the dissolved salt. For relaxation, add a 1/4 cup of salt. For healing purposes, add 2 cups of salt. Soak for fifteen to twenty minutes.
  • Essential oils: These provide a form of external and internal therapy. Lavender and peppermint essential oils both soothe aches and pains. Lavender oil also lowers stress, relaxes the mind, and helps you to fall asleep. Peppermint oil decreases inflammation, regulates digestion, and reduces fatigue. The amount you use will vary depending on which essential oil you’re using. You may use up to five drops of lavender but only one to two drops of peppermint (too much of the aroma can be irritating to breathe). Add up to two tablespoons of a carrier oil—such as coconut, olive, grape-seed, or sesame—to dilute the essential oil for comfortable skin lubrication, absorption, and tolerance.

Finish Strong

When the time comes to end your bath ritual, stand up slowly to avoid getting lightheaded in case the bath raised your body temperature. You may want to rinse off with cool water before getting out. Drink a full glass of water before bed, as sweating in a warm bath can dehydrate you. Also, be warned: Baths make you sleepy. So it’s best to bathe before you plan to go to sleep.

Although there are minimal risks, check with your health care provider before taking on a bath ritual, especially if you are pregnant, diabetic, or have high blood pressure or any cardiac history, Lee says.

Modern science has, yet again, confirmed the positive effects of an ancient ritual. It’s a good time to count baths among other natural health remedies—charcoal, turmeric, and matcha—dating back thousands of years. While the busyness of modern life makes bathing seem like a luxury, here’s squeaky-clean proof you should set aside time for a good old-fashioned soak.

Image Credit: Belathée